Official Report: Tuesday 15 March 2022
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Speaker has been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Paul Rankin has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the Lagan Valley constituency
— Members, quiet, please — to fill the vacancy that resulted from the resignation of Edwin Poots. Mr Rankin signed the undertaking and Roll of Membership yesterday afternoon in my presence and that of the Clerk to the Assembly, and he entered his designation.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The first item in the Order Paper is the consideration of business not concluded on Monday 14 March. All business yesterday was concluded, so we will move on.
That the Adoption and Children Bill [NIA 37/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Swann: I take great pleasure from moving the Final Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. Born out of the Adopting the Future draft strategy in 2006, the Bill has been long-awaited by all those who are involved in the adoption process and children's social care. Indeed, the fact that Michael McGimpsey was the first Minister to try to secure these changes is indicative of just how long the wait has been. On behalf of the adoption agencies, the fostering service providers, the health and social care trusts, the voluntary organisations and the young people and their families that have contributed their expertise and experience throughout the development process, I am proud to have been able to bring forward the Bill during my tenure as Health Minister. By way of the Bill, children in Northern Ireland, who are some of the most vulnerable children in the UK, can now enjoy the same rights as those who live in the other parts.
I agree with the comments made by the Chair of the Health Committee during Further Consideration Stage. This is among the most important pieces of legislation that will be passed by the House in this mandate. Make no mistake: the changes that will be made by the Bill will change lives, including the lives of adopted children and their families who provide them with loving homes, children on the edge of care and children in care. It will mean that adoptive families can enjoy additional support, strengthen and widen support for families in need, enable some children to leave care sooner and ensure that greater support is in place for care leavers and for longer.
At recent stages of the Bill, we have focused on amendments, as is the nature of the legislative process. When dealing with those technical matters, however, it can be all too easy to lose sight of the broader benefits of the Bill. With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will take this opportunity to briefly highlight some of the major changes that will be brought about by the Bill, to remind us all of what the Bill is really about.
The Bill will place the welfare of the child at the heart of adoption decision-making, and that is by way of measures such as the welfare checklist. Children and young people will be given a voice, and their thoughts and feelings will be given greater weight. They will be empowered to be more involved in the decisions that affect them. The Bill will reduce uncertainty and delay in the adoption process by requiring courts and adoption agencies to adhere to the "no delay" principle and will require courts to draw up a timetable for proceedings. As a result, we should expect to see unnecessary delay removed and the time frame for adoption potentially reduced.
The Bill will introduce a framework for adoption support, and that includes financial support and access to counselling, advice and information. Birth families and adoptive families will be able to request an assessment of need for adoption support at any time, either before or after an adoption order has been made, and, in keeping with the will of the House, trusts will also be under a duty to provide adoption support services, which will have been assessed as needed, to certain specified categories of persons.
Placement orders will replace freeing orders, which have been widely criticised, partly because, once made, parental responsibility for the child transfers completely from the child's parents to the adoption agency. What will that mean in practical terms? It means that parents will share parental responsibility for their child with the adoption agency until the final adoption order is made. It will also mean that prospective adopters will share parental responsibility when a child is placed with them, and that is an important departure from current arrangements. It is intended to be fair to parents, minimise the risk of a contested court hearing and, crucially, provide greater certainty for children and prospective adopters.
The Bill will provide a new framework for contact, requiring courts to consider arrangements for contact and enabling courts to make orders specifying the arrangements for contact. In keeping with the centrality of the child aims of the Bill, children will be empowered to make or influence decisions about contact, and that includes being able to apply to the court to seek, vary or revoke previously agreed contact/no contact arrangements.
All adopted people should have the right to find out about their family history and background when the time is right for them. The adoption contact register enables adopted adults and their natural parents and relatives to register their willingness for contact. Under the Bill, it will be possible for adopted adults to indicate who they want to and do not want to have contact with and for relatives to indicate whether they want to have contact with the adopted person.
The Bill will introduce a new framework allowing for adoption agencies to provide intermediary services that may lead to sharing of information and facilitating contact. The intermediary agency will have an important role to play in providing specialist support and advice to all parties throughout the process. The Bill will strengthen safeguards for children being brought into or out of Northern Ireland through an inter-country adoption by way of additional restrictions and tougher penalties. The Bill enables my Department to establish a designated list of countries outside the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man that have sufficiently robust adoption procedures and safeguards in place to enable adoptions in that country to be legally recognised in Northern Ireland. Having a designated list will act as a further safeguard for children being brought into this country from overseas.
I am confident that the Bill will build greater confidence in the adoption system as a whole, through better and more streamlined processes, the offer of additional support and access to an independent review mechanism in order to facilitate the review of decisions relating to suitability to adoption. It is my belief that, by improving confidence in our adoption systems, we will encourage more people to come forward as potential adoptive parents. That can only be good for the children in Northern Ireland for whom adoption is considered the best way forward.
The Bill will improve outcomes for children and families in need, children in care and children leaving care. The Bill will give social workers more flexibility to provide financial support to children and families in need. Disabled children and their parents will be able to benefit from a residential short break without the child having to become looked-after. We will enhance current care planning arrangements for looked-after children by placing care planning on a statutory basis. Trusts will not only be required to prepare a care plan for the child within a timescale set by the court but regulations will specify what the plan must contain and duties to keep the plan under regular review will apply.
The Bill will introduce a set of corporate parenting principles, which will capture in one place very clear expectations of trusts when looking after children in care. That includes promoting high aspirations for them, delivering safety and stability for them and preparing them for adult and independent living; ensuring that they receive the same opportunities and life chances that any good parent would seek for their own child. Under the Bill, looked-after children will be supported to raise issues or make complaints about the services that they receive and have their views responded to appropriately. Statutory independent advocacy services will be available to support each child through that process.
While fostering panels currently exist, the Bill will enable my Department to make regulations setting out the functions of fostering panels and how they should operate. Individuals who disagree with a decision made about whether they should be approved or continue to be approved to foster will be able to ask for an independent review of the decision. That is similar to the independent review mechanism that is being introduced for adoption decisions.
The Bill will enhance the support that is provided to care leavers as they move into independent living or further and higher education. It will place the Going the Extra Mile (GEM) scheme on a statutory basis and will extend support to care leavers in education or training to the age of 25. Trusts will be required to publish information on the services that they offer for care leavers to ensure that they and those who are acting on their behalf are fully aware of what is available to them in service items.
Of particular significance, the Bill will introduce a special guardianship order, which will offer a new option for permanence for children and young people where adoption is not possible or considered unsuitable. The order will enable them to be brought up in a secure and stable home until they are 18. Unlike adoption, when a special guardianship order is in place, the legal ties between a child and their family will not be severed. Importantly, we have applied the learning from England and Wales and have created additional safeguards and strengthened support arrangements.
Members will be aware that a number of amendments have been made to the Bill since its introduction. The amendments came about following Health Committee scrutiny, and I thank the Committee members and the stakeholders who responded to the call for evidence. The time frame for scrutiny of the Bill was greatly compressed, and the efficient and diligent work of the Committee, as evidenced in its comprehensive final report, was pivotal in getting the Bill to this stage, and I thank the Committee members for their contributions.
I will very briefly remind Members of the amendments that were made to the Bill, which, in my view, most definitely strengthen it and should lead to improved outcomes for children and families in Northern Ireland as a result. We have further broadened the definition of harm in the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, more explicitly linking it to the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, thus potentially offering greater protections to children and young people who are living with domestic abuse.
Following comments from the Committee and stakeholders, we have created an automatic right for those who are involved in special guardianship applications or arrangements to receive an assessment of need and support where a trust has determined, by way of its assessment, that support is required.
Access to information was one of the key themes that emerged from the work of the truth recovery design panel, which was appointed to work with victims and survivors of mother-and-baby institutions, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in Northern Ireland.
Amendments have been made to the Bill in recognition of that, allowing the Department to make new regulations concerning the disclosure of information and enabling the birth relatives of adopted persons to benefit from a wider range of intermediary services in order to obtain information and make contact if both parties agree. I take this moment to thank the victims and survivors of mother-and-baby institutions for their engagement on that sensitive and important aspect of the Bill.
Further amendments were made following Committee scrutiny, including strengthening the duties of trusts in relation to looked-after children. When the Bill is passed, trusts will have to promote, support and facilitate their learning and development and their achievement. We have put it beyond doubt that advocacy services provided to looked-after children must be independent. The House will be given the opportunity to engage in debate on a greater number of statutory rules developed by the Department and can be confident that it will receive triennial reports on the operation of the Children Order. The House will also be fully sighted on how the Bill's implementation is progressing, again, by way of reports from the Department that it will continue to receive until all the provisions in Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill are commenced and fully reported on.
I made a number of commitments during the Bill's passage that are not explicitly linked to its provisions. They include a commitment to explore whether there is scope under the 1993 Hague convention and/or domestic legislation to establish a special arrangement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with the aim of streamlining or harmonising current practice and/or procedure. That relates to the adoption of children between the two jurisdictions and will, of course, require the full cooperation of the Irish Government.
I firmly believe — I hope that you will agree — that, as a result of the scrutiny that the Bill has received during its passage in the Assembly, we now have an improved and more robust overarching legislative framework within which we can start to make the changes needed to improve the lives of children and young people in care and in adoption.
While reaching Final Stage is a significant milestone that we deservedly celebrate today, I do not have to remind Members that it is not the end of the matter. There are numerous sets of regulations to be made, supported by detailed guidance, in order to give operational effect to many aspects of the Bill. All those are just as vital as the primary legislation itself, and planning is already under way to ensure a smooth and effective implementation process. We plan to consult widely on any regulations and guidance, continuing the constructive engagement that we had with stakeholders throughout the process of bringing the Bill to its Final Stage.
On that note, I thank everyone who had a part in getting the Bill to this stage. My thanks to the Committee is already on record, and I repeat my thanks to the Chair, members and staff for their work on the Committee report. I also wish to recognise the input of the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) in the preparation of the legislation. Its support and advice throughout have been invaluable and greatly appreciated by my Department. Finally, while they are far too modest to say so themselves, the Bill's Final Stage would not be happening were it not for the sheer persistence and dedication of my officials — Julie Stephenson and Liz Marsh were two of the main ones — who were very ably led by Eilís McDaniel. Also key to the legislation over a number of years was Frances Nicholson, who is due to retire from the Department after a lifetime of dedication and service. Frances extended her retirement date to see this legislation through and to work on the sealing of records as well. I thank the entire team for the support that it has given to me, the Committee and the children who will benefit from the Bill. Some 16 years after the process started, I am delighted to say that I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Is mór an onóir domh bheith anseo inniu ar son an Choiste Sláinte. It is an honour to be here today on behalf of the Health Committee at the Final Stage of this hugely important Bill, as the Minister outlined. I begin by thanking the Minister of Health for introducing the Bill. As he stated, it is long overdue and will make a massive difference to the people impacted by it.
I also thank the departmental officials for their support in bringing the legislation forward and for their detailed briefings to the Committee over the past number of months. I echo the Minister's words about Eilís McDaniel and her team. I thank them for their diligence, their availability to the Committee and their clear level of commitment to getting the Bill drafted and completed.
As I said at other stages of consideration of the Bill, this hugely significant legislation has the potential to provide real benefits to some of the most vulnerable in our community. The Committee welcomes the Bill and its aims and believes that it can have a real impact and provide support and help to children and young people. The Committee welcomes the fact that the Bill will align adoption law with the relevant provisions of the Children Order to ensure that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration in decisions relating to adoption.
We also welcome the fact that the Bill will provide a new right for adopted children and adoptive parents to request an assessment of their needs for adoption support services and, following a Committee amendment, that it will now place a duty on adoption authorities to provide services that have been identified as being needed. The Bill makes significant changes to the Children Order that will improve outcomes for children and young people, including the duty to safeguard, promote, facilitate and support the child's learning, development and achievement in relation to education and training. The Bill will also extend from 24 to 25 the age limit for support provided to care leavers who are still engaged in education and training; allow specified care leavers aged between 21 and 25 to pursue a new course of education or training; and place the Going the Extra Mile scheme on a statutory footing to enable care leavers to continue to live with their foster parents up to the age of 21.
During the Committee's consideration of evidence, it met young people who are engaged with Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC). I am delighted to see some of those young people in the Public Gallery. Hello to Naomi, Martha and Jack, and to their mentors Lee and Nicola. I am also delighted that we are joined today by Mack — all age nine of him. He is up there hiding behind the television, but I can assure Members that he is not missing a single thing. He is here to make sure that we do it right. I was hugely impressed by those young people. Earlier, I referred to children and young people being vulnerable. However, it is not that they are vulnerable in themselves; the circumstances and challenges that have been placed before them have put them into vulnerable positions. That is why we have such a duty to work with them and for them, and to deliver for them. I am delighted that they are here today.
During our discussion with those young people, they outlined the importance of their being involved in decisions about their lives. They stated that they wanted options and to feel empowered to make their own decisions. One of the key statements by young people during that engagement was, "If we have options, we have a voice". That is crucial, and, by providing options, the Bill gives a voice to those young people. I pay tribute to them and to the work of organisations such as VOYPIC that give a voice to children and young people in care. I hope that they will continue to engage, be involved and be heard when the regulations to implement the Bill are brought forward in the next mandate. Since we last met, the young activists of VOYPIC have developed a guidance document for how meetings with children and young people should be arranged and conducted. I hope that the 12 principles that those young activists have indicated and enshrined will become standard practice for professionals who engage with young people in the future.
The Committee places on record its thanks to the organisations that provided written and oral evidence on the Bill. I thank the adoptive parents and foster parents, along with Adoption UK and the Fostering Network, who met members to discuss the Bill and the issues that they face. I encourage the Department to engage with the experts in this area. The experts are the children and young people who are in care, or who have gone through care, and the adoptive and foster parents who are experts through experience. The Committee has always said that co-design and co-production are the best processes for ensuring that services and support are directed to those who need them, and we encourage the Department to ensure that co-design and co-production are key elements in the implementation of the legislation.
I thank Committee members for their consideration of the Bill. The Committee tabled a number of amendments at Consideration Stage to strengthen it. I thank members for their engagement. It is noteworthy that we had consensus through the Bill's progression. We had hugely diligent work from all members. We met multiple times in the evenings as well as during the day in order to ensure that we were shaping the Bill in a way that would bear maximum impact when it arrived at this point.
I thank the Committee team and the Bill Clerk for their support throughout the process of what was quite a complex Bill. We all felt a huge sense of responsibility to get the Bill right and to make it as good as we could in what was a hugely pressurised time, given all the other legislation that we were considering. I thank the Committee Clerk for that. No stone was left unturned, however, on this or any of the other Bills, in our doing everything that we could to shape and scrutinise it. As Chair of the Committee, I therefore commend the Bill to the Assembly. I look forward to seeing the real impacts and benefits that it will have for children and young people over the coming years.
I will now make a very few brief comments as Sinn Féin spokesperson. I firmly believe that this is one of the most important and rewarding pieces of work in which I have been involved in the Assembly, largely because it impacts on young people who, as I mentioned, are placed in particularly challenging circumstances by the way in which society has operated. We owe this to them.
Throughout the Bill's progress, the quality and level of engagement that we had from the experts with experience were a huge plus. You can see that that process worked really well in that what it brought has been included in the Bill. That process is a really good model of engagement, and it demonstrates the worth of continuing and of having quality engagement.
I welcome the Minister's commitments to and the work that has been done throughout the Bill's passage on North/South issues. Departmental officials and the Minister have committed to seeing how we can ensure that we maximise the benefits of having people here who could offer kinship or foster placements and who are acting in the child's best interests, which we sought to put at the centre of all our work on the Bill.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, I thank everyone who took part, particularly all the young people who are in the Public Gallery today. I am delighted to see you here to see the conclusion of your work and to see that your voice matters, that you have options and that you are exercising those options by being here and helping us to shape and deliver the Bill on your behalf.
As we have seen several times, particularly over the last number of weeks, given the timetabling, the Bill is an example of the Assembly at its very best. It is an example of the Assembly's identifying something that needs to be legislated for, going out to engage with the people who have the information to shape the legislation and coming back here to deliver that legislation on behalf of the people who are outside these walls. It is a perfect example of the way in which the Assembly should and could operate. I look forward to seeing much more of that in the future and to our being much more effective in that way.
Mrs Cameron: Today is a momentous day for our Assembly in bringing the Adoption and Children Bill to Final Stage. It is a long-awaited Bill. I sincerely believe that, after 35 years, it will bring about a much-needed overhaul and reform of our adoption system. The need is all too clear for a more fit for purpose, responsive and child-focused adoption process in Northern Ireland. It is of the utmost importance that we reform our systems and bring them into the 21st century.
The Bill makes amendments to the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 in order to improve outcomes for looked-after children and young people who have left care. A new, clear and more robust system will ensure better and fairer outcomes for children, young people, prospective parents and social care staff, who do immense work in supporting those in the system. At each stage in the legislative process, the welfare of the child has been at the heart of every Member's comments.
I thank the Minister of Health, Robin Swann, who, in his role, has guided this extensive piece of legislation through the Assembly. As Deputy Chair of the Health Committee, I record my thanks to the Chair, Colm Gildernew, and to the Committee members for all their work.
I also recognise the fantastic contribution of organisations such as VOYPIC — it is great to see you here today — during the scrutiny process. Those organisations gave oral and written evidence, and the formal and informal sessions that we had with them were incredibly useful.
I also thank the Committee Clerk, Keith McBride, and the entire team at the Health Committee for their work. They have been under incredible pressure, particularly in the past couple of years, so we thank them for that good work. Also, of course, we thank the Bill Office team and the Health officials, who have put in an incredible amount of work over many years in order to see the legislation come to fruition. There has been significant development of the Bill and supportive amendments have been made to it. Those are welcome, and we see the value in them.
Now the real work begins to ensure that the Bill is fully implemented. I support the Bill at Final Stage.
Mr McGrath: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, not least because it is at its Final Stage and shows this place at its very best. When we come together, work hard together and put in the hard work at the Committee Stage together, we can deliver change that helps people in their lives. Surely the purpose of this place is to do all that we can to try to help and assist people. That was not a small task with the Bill, as Members have said. Sometimes, Bills go through here with one or two clauses. There were 160 clauses in the Bill as introduced, never mind the number of schedules. Just reading it was a mammoth task, never mind trying to assess what it would do and the changes that we wanted to make to it.
Our thanks go to all those who helped and assisted, from Keith and the Committee team to the Committee members, the departmental staff, and the organisations that came in and spoke to us. When all of us adults, who are being paid, get round the table and do our work, we can achieve things. However, setting that aside, I will always remember the session that we had with the young people, because their voice is the most important. They have the real-life experience and are able to tell us exactly what the problems were. We were able to interpret that, make amends and work with the Department to deliver real change that will help other young people. The young people from VOYPIC who participated in the process can be really proud that their work will help people in the future. You are helping other young people, who, because of your contribution, may not face problems that they otherwise would have faced. That is an absolutely fantastic achievement, and we really appreciate the contribution that you have made to the Bill.
Unfortunately, news has come to light today about a children's mental health charity that did not meet the needs of children and young people and significant failings that took place there. The needs of our children and young people must be paramount in all that we do. Children who need a forever home carry with them a range of needs that are complex and varying. Their needs and care are paramount. The legislation that we are passing today at its Final Stage will do just that; it will help and assist. The legislation, which all quarters of the House have helped to deliver, should be fit to meet the needs of the 21st century and our ever-evolving society.
One has only to look at the tragic displacement of millions from Ukraine, including many children. There will, undoubtedly, be many children who are not travelling with their parents and, as a result of the conflict, will find themselves looking for a home. People across the world are willing to open their homes to those who are in need and to help families that have been ripped apart. The plight of those people speaks to the very core of the legislation and the spirit in which it was drafted.
It is my hope that, as a result of the legislation, more families from across the North will consider adopting children. That includes families who had not considered adoption until they heard about the passage of the legislation and the additional help and support that there will be for people who enter that process. Although adopting one child will not change the world, for that child, it will change their world forever. That is something that we have to try to support and assist.
The SDLP will support the Bill. We look forward to seeing its outworking in the lives of children and families right across the North.
Mr Chambers: This is a significant and important Bill. It will make good law that has the current and future welfare of adopted children at its core. It will improve the outcomes for looked-after children and young people, including young people who have left care. It will also cater for the needs, be those financial or for support, of adopters. We must never forget the selfless part that adopters play in providing a child with a stable family setting. The legislation will greatly improve the quality of life for many people for years to come. I welcome the provision in the Bill to make access to information that little bit easier for adopted adults.
I am delighted to see the Bill reach this point. Today will be seen as a good day for those who adopt and, most importantly, for children in care and children who have been adopted. It has taken 16 years, but it has finally arrived. I commend the Minister for his leadership and his determination to finally deliver the legislation. I also place on record my appreciation to his staff, who have worked so diligently to create the legislation. As Mr McGrath said, the House has demonstrated, through the Bill, what we can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland when we all work closely together. This may be one of the Bills on which it is easier for us all to take a collegiate approach, but I would like to see the day when we can all work together to deal with the harder and more difficult pieces of draft legislation that come through the House.
Ms Bradshaw: The very first meeting that I had in my constituency office upon being appointed to the Health Committee here at Stormont was with Adoption UK. That organisation wanted to impress upon me the need for urgent reform and for the updating of the existing provisions relating to adoption law here in Northern Ireland. It was then already two years since the Children and Families Act, and nearly another six years have passed since. However, today, let us look at this in a positive light. We will now have legislation that, perhaps, advances us even beyond neighbouring jurisdictions. It is an exciting day. Listening to the Health Minister and the Chair of the Health Committee read out some of the benefits of the provisions in the Adoption and Children Bill filled my heart with joy. I am sure that other Members in the Chamber, people in the Public Gallery and people watching felt the same.
In addition to Adoption UK, many other organisations have been so instrumental in shaping the Bill, notably but not exclusively Barnardo’s, the NSPCC, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), Family Routes, Family Care Adoption Services, the Fostering Network, the British Association of Social Workers, Action for Children, Home for Good and, of course, VOYPIC. The young people from VOYPIC engaged with us so eloquently and powerfully. They had such an impact on us in our endeavour to ensure that the legislation will be fit for purpose and meet the needs of young people. I sincerely thank them all for their endeavours and their support to us on the Health Committee. I also thank the individuals who came to us privately to recount their experiences, some of which were painful and quite distressing to hear. They did so with the purpose of ensuring that others coming after them will see a different process and different regulations in place to support them in their journey.
The Minister and his officials in the Department of Health also need much praise for producing such a comprehensive Bill. As others have noted, it made its passage with very few amendments, such was its comprehensive nature and the thorough work that went into introducing it at First Stage.
As the Chair has noted, Committee members, with support from the Clerk and Committee staff, worked well together. We worked extremely hard on the Bill. We wanted an outcome that would result in a much more efficient system that will change lives for ever.
From the outset, I have been concerned that the Bill was incomplete, given the lack of certainty around records, and the Minister spoke about that today. Again, I commend the member of the Health Committee Alan Chambers for introducing a private Member's Bill on the preservation of the documents of historical institutions. We are working through that in the Chamber, and it would have been great had we been able to get those provisions through the Adoption and Children Bill. As I told members of Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice in a meeting not long ago, they played a role in shaping what we have before us today, because none of us wants to see anything even close to what they experienced in those mother-and-children's homes repeated, so I warmly welcome the private Member's Bill.
I was also disappointed that the amendment about removing the defence of reasonable chastisement was ruled outside of scope. Again, we will be able to make progress on that issue in the Assembly. My colleague Naomi Long, in her capacity as Justice Minister, is working with her officials on potentially including it in a miscellaneous provisions Bill at the start of the next mandate. The children's sector, in particular, will get behind and warmly support that.
A very human penalty is being paid for such outdated provisions on adoption and support for children still being in place. We now have an improved Bill, and it is time to get on with delivering it and making life better for countless children and their families across Northern Ireland.
Ms Brogan: I am delighted to speak on the Final Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. It is long-awaited legislation and has secured widespread support, so it is great that it has reached Final Stage. The Bill will reform the legal framework governing the delivery of adoption, making it more child-centred and more consistent with international human rights. It aims to improve outcomes for children, parents and carers and includes the introduction of special guardianship. It enhances services available to children, parents and carers in the hope of improving the outcomes for children in care.
It is lengthy and complex legislation, and I commend and thank all those who worked so hard to deliver it, including agencies such NICCY, VOYPIC, the Human Rights Commission, Barnardo’s, the NSPCC and many others. Crucially, the development of the Bill also included input from children, young people and their parents. It is really important that the voices of young people are not only heard but heeded. I am glad that they have been able to shape the legislation with their views and opinions.
I conclude by thanking the Minister and his team of officials for their work in bringing the legislation together, the Committee, the Chair, Colm Gildernew, and the Clerk and Committee team. A lot of work has gone into this long-awaited legislation. It is complex, so I appreciate all of the efforts to put it in place.
Mr Swann: I am grateful to Members not only for their contribution today but for their unwavering support for the Bill throughout its passage. The legislation will be all the more effective in practice because of their contributions and those of the many children and young people, adoptive parents and foster carers who provided valuable insight into their experiences and needs during the development of the Bill. I commend officials and social workers in the Health and Social Care Board, the five health and social care trusts and the many voluntary organisations that support children's social care and adoption in Northern Ireland for their input to the legislation over many years and for the superb work that they do every day, often in challenging circumstances, to improve the lives of vulnerable children and young people.
I will comment briefly on some of the contributions from Members. I thank the Chair for his stewardship of the Committee and for his support for a Bill that was introduced with, as Mr McGrath indicated, 160 clauses and five schedules. Managing and delivering on that was a significant piece of work. I also thank him for his contribution and acknowledge the role played by the young people and their carers with whom the Committee engaged.
As I said, the Bill has been 16 years in development. Many people were engaged with who, I am sure, felt let down when that engagement did not produce the desired outcome, but I am thankful that we are where we are today with the Bill's Final Stage. As Mr McGrath and the Deputy Chair, Pam Cameron, indicated, the Bill shows the best of this place. We have been able to progress the legislation by working together — not only the Department and the Health Committee but all parties — on all the issues.
The Adoption and Children Bill, the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill and the now Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 are all major pieces of legislation that have been brought through the House recently in a spirit of collaboration and support. It has been a pleasure to work with the members of the Health Committee on the Bill and on other legislation, because they have kept party politics out of health issues, as we promised that we would and committed to doing when we came back in this mandate. That is why we have been able to achieve such significant legislation. I only hope that that continues not only over the next weeks and months but well into the next mandate.
Mr McGrath raised issues about incoming children, owing to the situation in Ukraine. Although not directly related to the crisis in Ukraine, last week, my Department launched an appeal for foster carers and supported lodging hosts to provide a safe home for refugee children who arrive in Northern Ireland without a parent or guardian. That work has therefore already been done. It is expected that the majority of children who are displaced from Ukraine and seeking refuge will be with a parent or carer and will therefore not be considered to be an unaccompanied minor in need of transfer into the care of a health and social care trust, but support mechanisms are being put in place by the Home Office, supported by all Departments.
Mr Chambers acknowledged that today is a good day and gave his thanks to the staff involved. Ms Bradshaw mentioned his contribution to bringing forward subsequent legislation on the preservation of documents, which had been outside the scope of the Bill. That will be equally important, but, as Ms Bradshaw also indicated, that Bill came out of the engagement process on this Bill as being something that was necessary. I thank Mr Chambers for taking on that work.
Ms Bradshaw said that listening to Colm and me filled her "heart with joy". I am not sure how often any politician in this place has been able to use that sentence. I thank Ms Bradshaw for her comment, because it sums up the working relationship between the Health Committee and officials to get the Bill to the place that it should be, which is that where the legislation will give support to the children and young people and their carers and prospective adoptive parents across Northern Ireland who need it.
As I mentioned, in many ways, the work to give effect to the Bill has only just begun. It will now be for my Department to set out in secondary legislation and guidance the operational detail of the changes that we agree today. There will be an extensive public consultation on that detail, and Members and stakeholders, including the children and young people, will continue to play a vital role by sharing their views, experiences and expertise throughout that important next phase.
It is 35 years since the previous major reform of Northern Ireland adoption law took place. During that time, Northern Ireland society has thankfully changed, adapted, developed and evolved in many ways, but the fundamental needs of children and young people remain unchanged.
Their need for care and protection remains. I conclude by reflecting on the well-known proverb that "it takes a village to raise a child", which means that, in addition to a safe and loving home, a child needs support from and positive interaction with an entire community — an extended family of friends, carers, teachers and many others — in order to thrive in life. The passage of this Bill marks an important step towards ensuring that some of the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland will receive the care and protection to which they have a fundamental right. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Adoption and Children Bill [NIA 37/17-22] do now pass.
That the Private Tenancies Bill [NIA 32/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. Glaoim ar an Aire leis an díospóireacht a oscailt.
Ms Hargey: When I came into post, I knew that reform was urgently needed to improve protections in the private rented sector. Regulation of the sector has barely changed, but more and more families live in it, including more and more children and vulnerable people. For many people and families, it is not a choice; they have no option.
The improvements secured through this Bill have been a long time coming and will enhance conditions for tenants living in the sector. It seems incredible that some of them have only arrived in 2022. Things such as electrical checks and carbon monoxide detectors are decades overdue. I have been clear that this Bill is the first step. There is a lot more to be done in the reform of the private rented sector, and we have a lot to get on with. The changes in the Bill will improve safety, security and standards in the private rented sector and will assist tenants who struggle to afford their rent. Everyone should have a safe home. We will finally have electrical safety standards and fire and carbon monoxide detectors in private rentals. I have laid the foundations for energy-efficiency improvements that will reduce fuel poverty and assist us in meeting our climate change targets.
I thank Ciara Ferguson for working with my team in the Department on her amendment on notices to quit.
I have always said that the current notice to quit periods are too short. The Bill will increase the notice to quit periods once regulations regarding exceptions have been made.
I reiterate that the Bill is just the beginning of private rented sector reform. The Department will now begin the next phase of work on the regulations.
I acknowledge and express my thanks for the contributions of the many stakeholders who have been involved with the Bill, including those in the housing sector and organisations such as Housing Rights. I thank Members who have engaged in the debate wholeheartedly over the past eight months. I also thank the Chair, Deputy Chair and all those on the Communities Committee for their dedication and support in progressing the Bill to this stage. I thank the team in my Department, the Assembly staff team, the Office of the Legislative Counsel and the various other legal teams who have worked on the Bill, enabling it to get to this stage.
I hope that all parties can give the Bill their full support. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): Since it was established in 2020, the Committee for Communities has taken a keen interest in all housing matters, and, on behalf of the Committee, I welcome the Bill's Final Stage.
We have been debating the Bill in the context of a private rented sector that now accounts for over 17% of housing stock in Northern Ireland and that is also home to a considerable number of vulnerable households. The Committee remained focused throughout in seeking to find a balance between protecting tenants and over-regulation, which could drive landlords from the sector, thus further compounding housing problems.
The Bill has had a somewhat rocky path over the past couple of weeks, but we have reached the last stage. We know that it will not solve all housing problems. Some issues need to be dealt with over a longer timescale, and the Committee recognises that this is a first phase of reform, with the second to follow in the new mandate.
I welcome the fact that the Bill will offer tenants better protection and make the duties of landlords and tenants clearer. The Bill will bring welcome changes: a requirement for all private tenants to receive written notice of details of the tenancy and a receipt for all payments in cash made by the tenant in respect of the tenancy — an issue that the Committee was pleased that the Minister took forward at its request; improved notice to quit periods that landlords must give tenants in a prescribed format; a requirement to consult on methods of rent payments — another issue that was brought to the fore by the Committee; a restriction on rent increases; a limit on deposits; an obligation on private landlords, for the first time, to provide and keep in proper working order smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and to carry out periodical electrical safety checks; and new powers for councils to introduce and enforce minimum energy efficiency standards in private rented homes. Again, I thank the Minister for taking forward the amendments that we requested, because the Bill is stronger as a result.
I welcome the Final Stage of the Bill and put on record the Committee's thanks to the officials and the Minister for their assistance in the scrutiny of it. I offer a final word of thanks to the Bill Office, the Business Office and the Committee team, all of whom have played a role in assisting the Committee with the Bill.
Ms Ferguson: I, too, am delighted to welcome the Final Stage of the Private Tenancies Bill, which, as the Minister has reiterated over the past two years, is a first stage of reform.
We all agree that the Bill is much-needed legislation to strengthen the rights and protections of those living in the private rented sector. That sector now accounts for over 17% of the housing stock in the North, housing a vast number of people with a range of specific needs and requirements.
The legislation is vital and provides crucial protections to private renters. It will ensure that homes in the private rented sector are safe, warmer and more efficient. It will protect renters from being charged more than one month's rent for a deposit, something that currently creates an inequality of access to the sector. It also prevents renters from facing multiple rent increases in any one year.
It will also prove essential in extending the notice period that renters are entitled to receive from landlords.
I thank the departmental officials for working with Committee members, including me, to ensure that those entitlements and notices to quit are strengthened and improved and that they will ultimately reinforce a safety net to protect people from eviction. That is critical. The Bill does all that and more. The Bill is incredibly welcome due to the reforms that it introduces, which will enhance the security and sustainability of our renters.
I thank the Minister for Communities and all members of the Committee for Communities for their continuous work on strengthening and protecting this vital legislation. I thank Housing Rights, Renters' Voice and the other groups and housing professionals who informed the debate throughout the legislative process. They fed in the views and voices of those with lived experience and, throughout the process, emphasised the imperative need for this housing sector to provide the long-awaited reforms required. We all have a collective duty to follow the legislation with the next phase of work and to support people across society not only in finding homes but in keeping those homes.
We must continue to work collectively to deliver more housing, tackle poor standards, prioritise homeless prevention and deliver housing as a stand-alone outcome in the Programme for Government. I finish by again welcoming the significant progress that has been made to strengthen protections and safeguard our private renters.
Mr Durkan: I welcome the fact that we have reached the Final Stage of the Private Tenancies Bill after what have been, to say the least, a few arduous and uncertain weeks politically. That is, however, nothing compared with the arduousness and uncertainty that so many people living in the private sector have experienced over the past few years.
To date, protections in the private rented sector in Northern Ireland have been severely lacking. No specific legislation has been in place to protect private renters, many of whom — probably most of whom — have been pushed into the sector because of a dearth of social housing stock. The bulk of those tenants are young families. Many of those are lone parent families, who have been the most adversely impacted by the pandemic and whose financial outlook will undoubtedly be even more precarious given the cost-of-living crisis that is engulfing our communities.
The provisions set out in the Bill, from improved electrical safety to notice to quit enhancements, will prove crucial for renters in the time ahead. As others said, this much-needed legislation marks the first step in a robust framework of measures to strengthen tenancies by improving the safety, security and quality of the private rented sector. It is, essentially, the long-overdue safety net that will improve the often precarious nature of private tenancies. The past couple of years have highlighted the importance of secure, stable housing and the central role that that plays in all our lives. It is the foundation on which people and their families build their lives. The need to have somewhere safe and secure to call home is felt even more keenly in the current climate.
This is a good, solid piece of work that will act as a springboard for further essential reforms, including strengthening policy around security of tenure and grounds for eviction. We really must ensure that we swiftly take those next steps to protect people. We need to do that. I very much welcome the inclusion of the clause, from Further Consideration Stage, that compels work to be done on rent control. Although Mr Carroll is undoubtedly aggrieved by what happened at Further Consideration Stage to his amendment, which was well intentioned but perhaps a wee bit ill-informed, he deserves credit for that provision being in the Bill. I hope that I am back in the next mandate to work with him and others to ensure that that meaningful work is done. I also hope that the Minister's efforts to lift the freeze on local housing allowance rates come to fruition to provide an added layer of protection for low-income households that rent privately as they navigate the cost-of-living crisis.
I thank departmental and Committee officials and pay tribute to all the agencies in the housing sector that helped to push and progress this vital legislation, particularly Housing Rights.
It could not have been achieved without their contribution, assistance and continued patience. I look forward to those further legislative steps in the next mandate to make the reforms to the private rented sector in the North as comprehensive and effective as they need to be.
Ms Armstrong: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I confirm that we will support the Private Tenancies Bill passing its Final Stage in the House and moving to Royal Assent. The intention of the Bill is to assist, as far as possible, in making the private rented sector a safer and more secure option for those who require or wish to be housed in the sector.
The private rented sector provides a flexible tenure choice for many tenants, particularly young professionals. However, as the Committee considered the Bill, it remained mindful that the sector provides housing for a significant number of vulnerable households and that many third-sector bodies and, indeed, constituency offices and MLAs had been contacted by people who were concerned about private tenancies. They have played a pivotal role in providing support and advice to vulnerable tenants in the sector. The Bill finds a balance between protecting tenants and the potential for over-regulation, which could drive landlords from the sector, thus compounding housing problems.
As we all know, there are not enough social homes to meet the demands of all renters. Therefore, as we know, many choose or have no option but to rent from a private landlord. In protecting private renters, a balance has to be struck to ensure that we do not drive private landlords away from the sector. During the progress of the Bill, the amendments made have managed to achieve that objective.
The Minister has confirmed that it is her intention — I hope that it will be the intention of the next Minister for Communities — to deal with the issue of rent caps. That work will need consultation and careful consideration if it, too, is to achieve the balance between protecting renters and potential over-regulation of the private rented sector. Today, we have legislation that limits the amount of deposit that can be charged and how often rents can be charged. It provides fair notice to quit periods for tenants and landlords, and it confirms who has responsibility for electrics, fire alarms and carbon monoxide monitors. Schedule 2 provides the Department with the power to make regulations that will make it obligatory for domestic private rented properties in Northern Ireland to have a minimum energy performance certificate (EPC) rating.
The legislation will not have passed without some difficulty. It was difficult to work on the Bill when the Minister and her Department undertook consultation in the middle of Committee Stage. While I do not disagree with the outcome, the approach taken to the Bill was far from satisfactory. Committees are supposed to scrutinise and support a Minister and their Department. The Committee for Communities was not treated with respect during the process. Taking the Bill to Second Stage before consultation was complete was a mistake. I expect that, had it not been the end of the mandate, with time running out, the Minister would have completed all consultation before bringing such important legislation to the House. Yesterday, we considered the review by the Committee on Procedures of private Members' Bills; perhaps it is time that we also considered how Bills are brought though the House by Ministers and Departments. Perhaps it is time to ensure that all Bills have gone through full consultation before they are introduced. I am sure that the Minister would agree that, while the outcome of the Bill is progressive and will help private tenants, the process was made more difficult by the late consultation.
Today, the Private Tenancies Bill will pass Final Stage. Many people played their part in the process, including Renters' Voice, Housing Rights, the Chartered Institute of Housing, PropertyPal, the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI), the Landlords Association, the Housing Executive, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, Electrical Safety First and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, all of which provided valuable evidence to support the Bill. I thank the Minister and her officials, the Committee Clerks, RaISe and all who managed to get the Bill to completion before the end of the mandate.
Mr Carroll: Reading the Bill at its Final Stage, there is not much in it that I would oppose; indeed, as I said at Second Stage, there is stuff in the Bill that I generally welcome and believe to be positive. However, on the whole, the Bill is absolutely a missed opportunity for those who are in private rented accommodation. The message that is being sent to the hundreds of thousands of private renters is this: "Do not look to the Minister. Do not look to the Executive if you are looking to get a cut and a freeze in rents". My amendment was not just well intentioned; it was well supported by those who are in private rented accommodation.
Many rules went out the window during COVID, but one thing that remains now and throughout is that landlords have the ability to operate with impunity when it comes to setting rents for private renters. In the last two years, during COVID, we saw legislation that limited people's ability to leave their house, implementing effective curfews and restrictions on people's ability to move. However, when it came to cutting and freezing rents in an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, we heard cries of horror from the House. They were louder from some of the landlords who are represented on the opposite Benches.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for giving way. Rent control was debated extensively in Committee, and we were told again and again by officials that it could not be done through the Bill. They explained to us why it could not be done. As well as the horror with which his amendment was received in the House, will the Member acknowledge the opposition in the sector from Housing Rights, which is an expert organisation in the field, and Renters' Voice to the unintended consequences that his amendment, if carried, would have had?
Mr Carroll: I know that Housing Rights raised some issues with it. I am not aware whether Renters' Voice did, but I am happy to be corrected. However, the point stands: parties in the House voted to reduce rents and then did a U-turn. It was laughable and embarrassing stuff.
The message that has been sent out is that there are no restrictions on landlords' ability to continue to make profit and to squeeze private renters at a time of unprecedented crisis. It is not good enough to say or to imply that the issue will be dealt with at some stage down the line when we may not even have a Communities Minister, an Executive or an Assembly to speak of. People need the help now, and they needed it many years ago. The Bill has failed to protect those people from being hit by extortionate rents, and I do not use that word lightly.
We needed to put housing before private profit, but the Bill has failed to do that. It is disappointing in that regard.
Ms Hargey: I thank everybody who spoke not just today but throughout the lifetime of the Bill since it was first introduced in the Assembly last year.
I will pick up on the point about the consultation. We had a completely shortened mandate. A lot of work has been done between the Department and the Committee to get through a lot of legislation in that shortened mandate. If I had left the consultation to be completed before introducing the Bill, we would not be standing here today with it because, clearly, we would not have had the time to progress it. I had to introduce the Bill when I did last year to ensure that we would get it through before the end of the mandate, and, thankfully, we are doing that. That has because of the work of officials within my Department and with the Committee.
I have consistently demonstrated my determination to ensure that all rents are fair and that tenants are protected in their homes. I have been a housing campaigner for most of my adult life. I work with people in private rented accommodation, in social housing and the homeless. I do that not just as a Minister or an MLA but as a housing activist and campaigner and as a community activist and campaigner. That is something that I will continue to do because it is part of who I am as a person.
I also clearly articulated the risks of an ill-conceived amendment that would, in effect, have meant that the protections that are secured in the Bill would be lost. I have clear legal advice that the amendment would have killed the Bill. That concern was rightly articulated by housing campaigners who have been fighting for additional protections for years.
I am glad that I, as Minister in a shortened mandate, have been able to bring forward those protections for people in the private rented sector. I ensured that the concerns of the housing sector and the legal advice were heard in the Chamber, and, ultimately, that protections for people and families were brought forward.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Private Tenancies Bill [NIA 32/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Minister is unwell today and is self-isolating. She informed the Speaker's Office of that and will participate remotely. I invite her to come on-screen. It is good to see you, Minister; I wish you well.
That the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill [NIA 29/17-22] do now pass.
Mrs Long: I am delighted to present the Final Stage of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill to the Assembly.
I appreciate that my challenging legislative programme in this mandate, with a record five substantive Bills over its final two years, placed considerable demands on the Justice Committee and the Assembly. I am incredibly grateful for the cooperation of both in bringing the Bill, the last of the five, to its conclusion today.
Whilst it is the last, it is by no means the least in its importance or reach. The provisions of the Bill, which Members debated extensively over recent months, are well known. I do not intend to rehearse them today as I realise that time in the Chamber is at a premium at this point in the mandate. However, collectively they make an important contribution to tackling sexual and domestic violence and abuse. They also contribute positively to the Executive's wider agenda of creating safer communities and protecting women and girls, as, unfortunately, it remains the case that most victims of sexual offences tend to be female.
I thank the Committee for its support and commitment in completing the scrutiny of the provisions in the Bill. Committee members, past and present, are to be commended for the commitment and diligence that they brought to that task. The Bill has benefited greatly from their input at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage, not least the inclusion of a cyber-flashing provision that was championed by the Committee, and which I would not have been able to take forward as Minister given the current lack of an Executive. I place on record my gratitude to the current and previous Chairs, Deputy Chairs, members and staff of the Committee for the energy that they brought to their legislative scrutiny responsibilities throughout the mandate. I am very grateful for the careful and meticulous manner in which they discharged those heavy responsibilities in what was a very compressed time frame.
Taken as a package, the five Bills represent a step change in how we protect and support those who are subject to serious domestic and sexual abuse as they pass through the justice system, recognising that pursuing justice in such cases can itself be traumatising. That was identified by Sir John Gillen in his review of serious sexual offences. Hopefully, the measures introduced via this Bill and other Bills, and via procedural changes, will help to provide the reassurance that victims need to have the confidence to come forward and report offences.
I give a special word of thanks for the expertise of the staff in the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) and the Departmental Solicitor's Office (DSO) who have worked so closely with me and my officials to bring the Bill to this point.
I also pay tribute to my departmental officials for their dedication and commitment to delivering what has been a challenging legislative programme, including some fairly complex legislative fixes. They have not only progressed the Bill itself but worked tirelessly with other justice sector partners, community and voluntary organisations and victims themselves, both to inform the Bill and to prepare for the introduction of the new laws, so that they will have the intended impact. As Minister, I am enormously indebted to my departmental officials. If I may break with convention, I give special thanks to Brian Grzymek for his role in delivering the Bill. I hope that, as he retires, it will be a fitting full stop to his DOJ legacy.
Last but by no means least, to the victims who I met, who responded to consultations and who engaged with the Department, and to the organisations who represent them so ably: thank you for helping to shape the legislation. You courageously shared with us the often harrowing and distressing experiences that you endured as victims. In doing so, I hope that you have enabled us to shape the provisions in ways that will improve the experience of the justice system for future victims and offer them additional protection.
Since I took up the role of Justice Minister, my priorities have been twofold: to protect the most vulnerable people in our community, and to demonstrate to an increasingly sceptical public the value of the institutions in delivering better outcomes for our community. The five substantive pieces of legislation that I have advanced with the assistance of the Executive and the House, including this Bill, are a demonstration that both of those priorities are possible.
Today is a good day for the Assembly. It is a day when we underline the true value of devolved Government, a day when we demonstrably give priority to the safety and well-being of the weak and vulnerable in our community, and a day when we unambiguously signal that we stand together to stop sexual offending and to protect trafficked victims. On days like this, I am proud to be an MLA and the Minister of Justice. The challenge to us all is to build on such days to ensure the continuance of effective devolved Government in Northern Ireland, so that those whom we represent see and feel the benefit of the work that we do.
I am heartened on occasions such as this, when we can set aside political differences and work for the greater good. It is my hope that we can move forward in this place committed to building on that collaborative approach, recognising that it is our duty to do so and that it is our best means of protecting the most vulnerable people in our society.
Mr Storey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I also wish the Minister well and trust that she has a speedy recovery so that she will be able to get on the doors; but maybe not that speedy — maybe just back in train in time for the election. In all good humour, we wish the Minister well. We are disappointed that she is not able to be with us in the Chamber.
On behalf of the Committee for Justice, I welcome the Final Stage of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill. This is a day that some of us thought we might not see. When I took over as Chair from my colleague and friend Mr Paul Givan, I remember having a meeting with the Minister to discuss a possible way forward with the Bill. I am glad that our collective efforts have brought us to this point. As I will do throughout my comments, I place on record my appreciation for what has been achieved to bring us to this point.
The Bill underwent extensive and detailed scrutiny and debate. The Committee Stage and the lengthy debates at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage resulted in a large number of amendments being made to the Bill and the addition of a range of new provisions that have improved and strengthened the legislation to provide protections for some of the most vulnerable — the victims of sexual abuse, child exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery. That is most welcome.
As the Minister outlined, Part 1 of the Bill introduces the new offences of upskirting and downblousing. The Committee was concerned that, as originally drafted, the scope of the offences was framed too narrowly, with a requirement to prove that the perpetrator had acted with the intent of looking at the image for the purposes of sexual gratification or using it to humiliate, alarm or distress the victim. Committee members were also not convinced that the offences would satisfactorily address scenarios in which they were committed, or it was claimed that they were committed, for the reasons of banter or group bonding.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
To address its concerns, the Committee tabled amendments to provide for a separate and stand-alone reckless element to be included in the upskirting or downblousing offences to cover situations in which a person is reckless as to whether the victim is humiliated, alarmed or distressed. The Committee welcomes the support of the Minister and the Assembly for those amendments They provide a more robust approach to those offences and should better protect victims from that unwanted behaviour, which should not be tolerated in any shape or form.
Part 1 also implements a review of the law carried out by the Department of Justice on child sexual exploitation and sexual offences against children. While the Committee welcomes the changes to the legislative framework, which will strengthen the arrangements and go some way to improving the response to the unacceptable reality of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland, it is important to acknowledge that there is much more work to be done in that area. I have no doubt that the next Justice Committee and Justice Minister will return to that.
The protections provided in the Bill have been enhanced by new provisions that were brought forward by the Minister to extend abuse of trust to include certain activities in sports or faith settings. I do not intend to rehearse all of the background to the Committee's position on that provision. It suffices to say that Committee members shared the disappointment and concern of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, the NSPCC, Barnardo's and other organisations that provided evidence that the provision does not provide more extensive protection or cover children in a wider range of settings. Committee members remain to be convinced that the abuse of trust provision is comprehensive and expansive enough to provide the protection to which all children and young people are entitled from adults in positions of trust.
Given those genuine concerns, the need for a robust, regular and ongoing review mechanism to provide for a review of the evidence of risk of harm was of even greater importance. The Committee welcomed the Assembly's support for its amendment to the legislation to provide for that. The Committee also welcomed the firm commitment by the Minister, during the debate at Further Consideration Stage, that the Department will carry out an urgent review of the sectors involving tuition and uniformed and non-uniformed youth activities to determine whether there is evidence of a risk of harm that would warrant a legislative intervention, and that will start during this mandate and proceed as quickly as possible. That immediate review and the requirement for ongoing reviews will enable appropriate action to be taken quickly, if necessary, and they provide some reassurance.
The Committee also appreciated the support for the inclusion in the Bill of its amendment that places a duty on the Department to provide and review, in due course, guidance, training and data collection on Part 1 of the Bill. The Committee believes that those are key components needed for the effective implementation of Part 1, in particular the new offences being created. The need for a clear understanding and effective implementation of the new offences by the criminal justice agencies will assist in obtaining successful prosecutions. That is vital, because, otherwise, it will be impossible to build victims' confidence in the system to encourage them to come forward, report offences and engage and participate in the criminal justice process.
I turn now to Part 2 of the Bill. The Committee welcomes the process to implement the recommendations of the Sir John Gillen review of serious sexual offences, which these provisions represent. Recognising that that is only a small part of the work required to implement the review findings in full, the Committee will be recommending to the next Justice Committee that it should continue to monitor the Department's progress on taking forward the plan to deliver all the recommendations, particularly the work on the issues of consent and the other issues that will require legislation.
The Committee's amendments to the Bill considerably improve and enhance the support and protection provided to victims of trafficking and exploitation. The amendments became part of the Bill following Assembly support. The victims of such heinous crimes as trafficking and modern slavery deserve our full support and protection, and it is an awful indictment of any society that, in the 21st century, we are still having to deal with that awful scourge.
The need for additional statutory support for victims while in the national referral mechanism (NRM) process, following receipt of a positive conclusive decision, was raised with the Committee in the evidence received on the Bill, as was the lack of progress made on the provision of slavery and trafficking risk orders (STROs) to assist in preventing modern slavery and trafficking-related crime. Those orders have been operational in England and Wales since 2015, and Scotland has equivalent orders in place. Given the widespread support for them and the examples of their beneficial use in England and Wales, the Committee is of the view that they should be introduced in Northern Ireland without any further delay. There is now a duty on the Department of Justice to bring forward protective measures, such as STROs, for victims of slavery and trafficking by 2024. The Committee was also pleased to see that, last week, the Department launched a consultation that will inform the development of STROs. The additional support that will now be provided to victims of trafficking and modern slavery following support for the Committee's amendments and the amendment that the Minister tabled at Further Consideration Stage is also a very positive outcome.
The statutory defence for victims and survivors of human trafficking aims to ensure that a victim of trafficking is not punished for unlawful acts committed as a consequence of trafficking. Its extension to include class A drugs will update the position to reflect a more recent type of criminal exploitation of trafficked victims that has emerged.
Among key stakeholders and organisations that support victims of trafficking and modern slavery, the frustration with this Part of the Bill was that the Department had not taken the opportunity to provide more meaningful support and protection. Through the provisions added, the Committee has taken the opportunity to build on the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act 2015, which my esteemed colleague and friend Lord Morrow had the foresight and tenacity to bring through the Assembly to ensure that Northern Ireland had some of the most progressive legislation for dealing with human trafficking and exploitation and providing support to victims. I am very pleased that the Committee has had the chance to build on that Act through this Bill. The Department's development of a longer-term strategy for dealing with human trafficking and modern slavery will provide further opportunities to improve support to victims and to tackle and prevent what is the most despicable of crimes.
I turn now to the other new provisions included in the Bill. The Committee was particularly pleased to gain the Assembly's support for its amendment that creates a new offence of cyber-flashing. Given the legislation that has already been in place for a number of years in Scotland and the UK Government's commitment to legislate for it in England and Wales in the near future, the Committee considered that it would be an opportune time to provide for a similar offence in Northern Ireland and to ensure that this jurisdiction is not left behind. The support of the Minister in that regard and the collaborative approach to reach an agreed framework for the offence was much appreciated.
The new offence will send a clear message to perpetrators that such behaviour is wrong and potentially harmful. It will assist the police and the Public Prosecution Service in obtaining prosecutions and, hopefully, provide reassurance to victims that this type of crime is being taken seriously by legislators. Importantly, it will provide a positive foundation for education and prevention initiatives. That is an example of the Committee and the Assembly recognising emerging threats and unacceptable behaviours from changing technology and moving quickly to ensure that legislation is up to date in order to be able to meet such challenges.
The Committee also welcomes the clarification and certainty on the common-law position that has been provided by the new provision that sets out that a person cannot lawfully consent to their serious harm for the purposes of sexual gratification where serious harm within the definition in the text of the provision occurs. The perpetrator will not be able to raise the claim that the victim consented to the harm being inflicted. The need to clarify and strengthen the legal framework with regard to that issue and in relation to the new offence of non-fatal strangulation or asphyxiation that the Minister brought forward, and which was included in the Bill at Consideration Stage, was highlighted to the Committee during the Committee Stage of the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill. It was not possible to address the issue at that time. However, the Minister initiated a review of the position, which has resulted in the much-needed changes being made in this Bill. I congratulate the Minister on doing that at this stage rather than waiting for the new mandate.
The new provision to widen the scope of the offences of disclosure of private photographs or films with intent to cause distress to include the threat to disclose is also very welcome. The threat to disclose is frequently made through online means and has led, in some cases, to tragic consequences for victims, particularly young people. Therefore, closing that loophole as soon as possible is a necessity.
The aim of the Justice Committee throughout this process has been to ensure that the best possible protection and support is provided, through this legislation, for children and young people, for victims of sexual offences and for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. I am very proud of the work that the Committee has undertaken in relation to the Bill, in what was a relatively short timescale due to the end of the mandate this month. The Committee did not just scrutinise the provisions of the Bill in a full and thorough manner but actively looked at the current legislative provision and identified opportunities to improve it and deal with emerging types of offending behaviour. That was not without its challenges, and, again, I thank the current and previous members of the Committee for their commitment and diligence in carrying out the scrutiny of the legislation. I thank past and present Committee members for their contributions to that work over the past two years.
The Committee has undertaken an impressive workload, particularly in relation to the Bills, which, in my view, have contributed to the development of the improvement of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. I also place on record again the Committee's appreciation for all the organisations and stakeholders who contributed to our scrutiny process by taking the time to provide written and oral evidence during the Bill's Committee Stage. In particular, I want to thank the victim of the voyeurism offence who shared their personal experiences and whose contribution was invaluable in highlighting the need for the new voyeurism offences to be comprehensive and operational.
I also thank the organisations that worked tirelessly to support and protect children and young people and victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. Without those organisations, the lives of victims would be much bleaker. I welcome to the Public Gallery two staff members of Christian Action Research and Education (CARE NI), Lauren and Rebecca, and thank them for all the work that they have done, not only in the Northern Ireland legislative process but the process in the House of Commons.
I also acknowledge and thank the Minister and her officials. I concur with her comments about the departmental officials who briefed the Committee on a number of occasions. I add my best wishes to Brian Grzymek, who will retire, and thank him for his patience and endurance when he came repeatedly to the Committee over a period.
I thank our Assembly staff. In particular, I thank — it may not be the convention, but I am not one who is known for always adhering to convention — the Bill Clerk, Stephanie Mallon, who is also in the Chamber today. She worked tirelessly to advise and assist the Committee in bringing forward amendments. I know that I speak on behalf of the Committee when I say that, without her work and that of officials in this Building, we would not have the Bill that we have today. I say, to them all, thank you very much.
I want to conclude with a few comments speaking as a Member of the House and a member of the Democratic Unionist Party. There are many issues with the process of being in a five-party mandatory coalition and challenges in working with the structures that we, unfortunately, have to work with, not being a normal democracy like that in many other jurisdictions across the world. However, the Bill is an example of what can be done when we keep our focus on the reason why we are here, and that is surely to improve the lives of — we use this phrase, and I trust that it will never become just a trite phrase — the most vulnerable in our society. We have seen in the last number of days what can happen when someone acts with vileness and evil intent. We have seen all too clearly the horror of what is going on in the land of Ukraine. However, we need not close our eyes to what is happening on our streets in Northern Ireland and to the vile and hideous crime of human trafficking. I trust that, as a result of the House's collective effort, there will now be, in the criminal justice toolbox, the proper and appropriate means whereby those who are engaged in that most vile of crimes will be brought to book and will be made answerable to the courts for what they have done and that the Bill will provide for additional support, help and assistance to the victims of such crimes.
Ms Ennis: The Assembly has passed many key pieces of legislation during this term and will continue to do so until the moment at which it is dissolved in a few days' time. I am proud to be associated with the positive and progressive work of the Assembly in recent times but am prouder still of the legislation that we have passed that is designed to protect women and girls and minority groups from sexual violence and exploitation.
As I said during the Consideration Stage of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill, the criminal justice system often represents failure: a failure to tackle crimes; a failure to tackle perpetrators; a failure to protect the best interests of victims at court; a failure that means that an abuser is all too often favoured over a victim; and a failure that often represents trauma and humiliation for a victim.
I am proud, however, that, over the last 24 months, the Assembly has taken a stand to reverse that trend and to build a criminal justice system that protects women and girls and aims to find and punish perpetrators. The Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act, the Protection from Stalking Bill, the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Act and the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill are all major pieces of legislation that show our commitment to tackling gender-based violence as well as trafficking and exploitation.
The Bill will implement key Gillen review recommendations, such as the exclusion of the public from all serious sexual offences hearings. Why is that important?
I believe that that measure will increase the confidence of victims to report their experiences to the police and know not only that their case will be taken seriously but that they will be protected against indignity, humiliation and additional distress throughout their journey through the justice system.
Through the Bill, we have created new offences of upskirting and downblousing and made cyber-flashing a criminal offence. The Bill includes amendments to modern slavery provisions in the NI Human Trafficking Act to extend support to victims of slavery, servitude and forced compulsory labour, and it includes an increase in the scope of the existing offences relating to the abuse of positions of trust of a child to include faith and sport settings. The Bill includes the abolition of the so-called rough sex defence and the creation of a new offence of non-fatal strangulation. Sadly, at least three women have been killed in the North by men who claim that the women had consented to the violence. Let me make it clear: there is absolutely no excuse or justification for strangling or beating a woman to death during sex. Despite the fact that legal precedent has been set that victims' consent to sexual gratification is not a defence, that defence continues to be raised. Victims are not to blame; their abusers are to blame. Victim blaming and victim shaming are unacceptable, and I am pleased that the Bill includes a provision that will explicitly prohibit that defence.
In closing, I take the opportunity, as did the Chair, to thank my fellow Committee members, past and present, for their hard work on the Bill. I also thank the NGOs, the departmental staff, the Committee Clerks and staff from the Bill Office, particularly Stephanie Mallon, for their invaluable assistance in helping us to shape and scrutinise the Bill. I thank the Minister for her dogged determination to get this important legislation through in this mandate. Crucially, I thank the people — the victims and survivors — who bravely shared their sometimes harrowing lived experience with the Justice Committee in the hope that we would produce good legislation that would protect others from sexual violence and exploitation. Today marks an important milestone in the battle against sexual offending and human trafficking. The Bill puts the interests and welfare of victims front and centre. I look forward to seeing the Bill being fully enacted.
Ms S Bradley: Before I begin, I wish the Minister well. I believe that our Committee representative Doug Beattie from the UUP is also unwell, so I wish him well too. I welcome the representatives from CARE NI to the Public Gallery.
On behalf of the SDLP I welcome the Final Stage of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill. I commend the work of the Assembly Clerks, the departmental officials — those whom we meet and the many who work behind the scenes whom we do not meet — the Bill Office, fellow Committee members and the Minister. The Chair rightly put on record his best wishes to Brian for his retirement. I count myself among those who leaned on Brian heavily and, perhaps, tested his patience at times, but it was always in good nature. He was a very important person to whom to relay thoughts. We genuinely appreciated that. Rightly, members have singled out Stephanie Mallon, whom I thank repeatedly in the House. We are not far past International Women's Day, and, if ever there was an empowering woman in the House, it is Stephanie. She gives validity to people airing ideas in a safe space and being able to tease out issues. I commend Stephanie and her style of work.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms S Bradley: Thank you.
At Final Stage, I particularly welcome the provisions on upskirting, downblousing and the sending of unwanted sexual images. We have heard from stakeholders about how those really invasive crimes have caused significant psychological and emotional harm to victims. It is, therefore, welcome that those offences are treated in a way that clearly underlines the severity of the crimes, which cause fundamental harm to the victims' sense of personal autonomy and safety. I record my sincere thanks to the stakeholders who advocated so passionately on behalf of the victims whose needs are at the heart of the Bill. I trust that the people who bared their souls to us and told us of their experience will see how, in doing so, their story has been heard and has affected the shape of the Bill.
It is worth stressing that the hope is that the measures serve to deter such behaviour in the first place. We hope that the offences are never committed, but, just by having the Bill in place, we are looking to deter people from engaging in such offences. The new legislation undoubtedly sends a message that such behaviour is criminal, that it cannot be dismissed as banter or a joke and that it simply will not be tolerated.
Let us be absolutely clear about the issue of sexual images: obtaining images of another person's private parts without consent is never OK. When the Bill is enacted, that behaviour could be considered criminal. I want that clear message to leave the House today. That is what we are achieving by adding those conditions to the Bill.
I sincerely, genuinely hope that the Bill's existence will, in itself, serve as a powerful catalyst for behavioural correction in society. Society at large needs to know, as a matter of urgency, that those engaging in such behaviours now have no place in which to hide: the "I was only joking" defence is no longer there; the banter defence has gone.
Everyone who has worked on the Bill will no doubt agree that an important piece of child protection legislation has been built in. It will add a further layer of protection for children who may be targeted by adults who, for example, may intend to groom them by pretending online to be children themselves. The provision is essential in the context of the soaring online child sexual abuse cases recorded by the police in Northern Ireland; in fact, figures obtained by the NSPCC show an 80% increase in cases over the past three years — and those are the reported cases. The police have indicated to us that they really do not know the scale of the problem. It has been reported that, during the pandemic, that online activity has become one of the largest problems in our society. The Bill goes some way to speaking to that.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for giving way. Will she join me in thanking the officers who, in trying to protect some of the most vulnerable, have to sit through pictures of very harrowing scenes? Does she agree that we owe them a debt of gratitude?
Ms S Bradley: I do indeed. I thank the Member for the intervention. The Chair and Committee members met the cybercrime unit. At times, it is, I believe, a harrowing job, but it is critical. The value of the Bill will depend heavily on how well resourced those officers are. It is absolutely correct to thank them, and I thank the Member for doing so.
The Bill also makes it a legislative requirement that victims of human trafficking be guaranteed up to 12 months' support and more if they should need it. That support can include access to healthcare, housing and legal and financial assistance. In particular, I welcome the provision that the support can exceed 12 months, as that vulnerable group will often have complex needs to which there can be no quick fix. The provisions are particularly timely in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, as the Chair correctly pointed out. Watching the harrowing images from Ukraine, we can all see just how vulnerable those people have become so quickly. Almost overnight, people have gone from what appears to have been a normal day-to-day lifestyle to being thrown into the depths of the most vulnerable position that a person can be in.
Mr Newton: I thank the Member for giving way. She is absolutely right about how despicable a crime human trafficking is and about the attempt, via the Bill, to address it. We were faced last night with equally harrowing reports in the media of the police investigating the local trafficking of children who are being taken to local hotels and other spots for sexual gratification. People are using and abusing those children by feeding them drugs and alcohol. Does the Member agree that human trafficking does not just involve bringing victims to Northern Ireland and that we need to be aware that human trafficking exists in our society?
Ms S Bradley: I thank the Member for his worthy intervention. That is true: the notion that trafficking is only about people coming to us is a myth that has to be completely busted. Exploitative people know that those young people perhaps come from vulnerable backgrounds, so they target them. It is happening on our doorstep. We all need to be alert to that, and we need to put in place legislation that speaks directly to it. We have gone a significant way towards doing that. Every person has a part to play. It is not just to the legislators or the police: any person who suspects anything of that nature has a moral duty to step forward and make it known. I genuinely thank the Member for that intervention, and I appreciate the context in which it was made. There are people who constantly measure the weaknesses in society and then exploit people when they hit a vulnerable point. I have no doubt that that is exactly what they will do to Ukrainian families, as people try desperately to find some type of home or stability for themselves and their children. I have no doubt that people are waiting to find what they can make good of that situation. We all have a duty, whether it is in this place or outside it, to play our part in preventing that.
As I said, the Bill is particularly timely in relation to the Ukrainian crisis. Traffickers offer false promises to people, such as employment, security and help, including help with reuniting victims, which could become a problem that we all need to get ahead of by keeping communication channels open. They try to exploit people because they know that they are vulnerable. That is the key point. The Bill, from the first page to the last, includes efforts to reach vulnerable people of many ages and in different situations. We really need to remain mindful, through the Bill and the others connected to it, of all the vulnerable people who will, sadly, have to seek shelter.
The Bill is important legislation. I know that that is a phrase that is used in the House often. Most Bills tend to have an important objective behind them, but I truly believe that the weight of this Bill in changing the outcome for and the lives of many people should never be undervalued. It is designed to safeguard some of the most vulnerable people. That is why we particularly welcome its Final Stage today. People are due a right to safety and to protection from abuse. We in the SDLP have a long list of items that we would have loved to see in the Bill and that, sadly, did not make it, but today is not the day for that discussion. Today is a day for sending out the message that comes from the Bill. It starts here and now. To the people who are out to exploit society, I say that the Bill means that we are moving closer to you. We all have a part to play in sending out that message.
I will close by thanking all the victims who came on board by speaking to not just the Committee but the other organisations that helped shape the Bill. It is their experiences, sadly, that have brought us here. It is their lived experiences that made us realise that there was a need to take action in the first place. I hope that they feel empowered by seeing that the decision that they took to engage has led to something worthwhile. I also hope that they take real comfort in knowing that they have done something to lay a path to safeguard the potential victims coming behind them.
Mr Blair: I am pleased to be able to speak on behalf of Alliance in support of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill at its Final Stage. I concur with the many comments made by Members about victims and the work that has to be done across the justice family and beyond on their behalf.
The Bill represents the last of five substantive pieces of legislation that the Minister wished to see pass through the House over the past two years. I commend the Minister of Justice for delivering on an ambitious legislative programme to reform our justice system and introduce greater protections to vulnerable people in our communities. The Bill, along with the others, will make a significant difference to those who suffer abuse and exploitation. The provisions of the Bill were debated extensively at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage, and I do not intend to repeat any of the points that were made then. The Bill addresses a number of issues relating to the experiences of victims in the justice system, including the exclusion of the public at all serious sexual offence court hearings.
As a member of the Policing Board, I am all too familiar with the devastating scale of sexual violence against women in Northern Ireland and of the research that indicates that the vast majority of victims do not report the perpetrators to the police. By prioritising the safety and well-being of victims who enter the justice system, abolishing shame or fear of blame and closing gaps in the law that offenders try to exploit, I hope that today we can mark the beginning of the end of unreported sexual offending and send a strong signal that we stand to protect victims and the vulnerable in our community.
Mr Weir: I join with others in welcoming the legislation. I also wish the Minister a swift and full recovery, particularly ahead of the election. I suspect that today we got a little flavour of the canvassing material that she will be using: we got a few lines of that without having to move to East Belfast. I sincerely wish her a full recovery.
I join with other Members in thanking all of those who have contributed to the Bill reaching this point. As a member of the Committee since June of last year, I particularly thank the Committee staff, who have been so diligent in helping us to bring the legislation to this point. Also, I thank those who contributed by making submissions to the Committee. I join with others in welcoming the representatives of CARE NI, who have been vigilant, particularly on the issues of human trafficking.
This is a good day, but it is also a critical day for all those who have been victims. Whether they are victims of sexual violence, of exploitation, of abuse of trust, of trafficking or, indeed, a combination of all of those things, today is their day and represents vital progress.
I do not want to reiterate a lot of what has been said, but I will touch on two points, starting with the issue of trafficking. Uppermost in our minds in recent weeks has been the vulnerability of innocent people who are suffering at the hands of evil. Often, those people are having to cross jurisdictions to seek sanctuary. We have seen that with Ukraine in particular, and that should focus our minds on the issue of human trafficking. As Sinéad Bradley and Robin Newton said, human trafficking is not a faraway problem in a distant land that has nothing to do with us. Very sadly, it is at the heart of our community. Whether it is through the exploitation of children or of migrant workers or sex trafficking, it exists behind the closed doors of houses in our streets in our cities, our towns and our villages. Vigilance and action against that is critical. That is why the progress of the Bill has been very important.
As has been mentioned, it is very important that, from a legislative point of view, we have given guaranteed support of up to 12 months. That will help to empower and equip victims of human trafficking and help them to rebuild their lives. The position agreed by the Assembly is not to cap that. Where there is a need for the Department to give support beyond the 12 months, that can be done.
One of the proudest moments in the House came a number of years ago, when my friend and colleague Lord Morrow's Bill on human trafficking was passed. That was critical in the approach that we take to human beings. Northern Ireland is quite often seen to be in catch-up mode, but we led the way through that Bill. Today, we lead the way again on the issue of human trafficking. That is important.
The next point, which relates to human trafficking but also other aspects, is not to see this as a final position. There is always the danger that we, as legislator, see a problem, see legislation as the solution and, once we have delivered that legislation, say, "That is it out of the way; we can put it up on the shelf and forget about it". Legislation should not be the end of a process; it is part of a process. It is, if you like, a comma rather than a full stop. Nowhere is that more true, for a number of reasons, than in the Bill that is in front of us.
There has been mention of some of the amendments that were made to, and provisions that have been put into, the Bill concerning implementation. It is not simply a document to sit on the shelf; it is about how it is delivered on the ground, in practice. For example, on issues of sexual exploitation, the level of guidance that is given, the level of training that is provided and the level of review that is undertaken will be critical.
The Bill, and particularly some of the new offences in it, has been driven by a changing society in which those engaged in these evils find new ways to exploit and abuse others.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for giving way. I am not minded to speak at length. I want to thank the Minister and all those who have spoken. The Member raises a really interesting point about what is going on in the world at the moment. We know that tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, if not more, will need to find refuge. We have seen the offer of homes for them. Many people from Northern Ireland have taken up that mantle and are offering them a safe space. However, we also know that there are predators out there who would use these opportunities for malevolent purposes; that has happened in the past. We recently went through the pain of the apologies from some of the institutions, which, in some ways, did not go far enough. Is the Member interested in hearing the Minister's position on the use and application of the legislation to protect people who are travelling from war-torn Ukraine and need to avail of safe spaces, which should be safe?
Mr Weir: I will be keen to hear what the Minister has to say. The Bill is multifaceted and touches on a range of victims. There is the vulnerability to exploitation of, for example, those people coming from Ukraine who are seeking sanctuary. There are also those who visit this country and many among our indigenous population, including children, who need to be protected.
Ms Bradley made a very good point about those being abused through imagery. Cyber-flashing, upskirting and downblousing, for instance, will now be criminal offences and cannot simply be laughed off as things that a group of lads do or whatever. It is criminally wrong, and a clear message needs to go out. The point that I was making is that for some of the offences — be it upskirting, downblousing or cyber-flashing — 20 or 30 years ago, the use of technology, whether or not it was conceived, would not have been possible for, or within the reach of, many people.
My point is that we have made important steps in the Bill in trying to cover that situation, but we must not assume that, particularly when it comes to technology, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, the world stands still. Consequently, although we have taken action today, we need to be vigilant as we move ahead in the months and years to come, so that, where we need to update and to cover new avenues of crime, we do so.
My final point about seeing this as a process relates specifically to potential abuse of trust situations, which have been mentioned. The Member for North Down Miss Woods raised that issue on a number of occasions. While I suspect that the Committee, working purely on its own merits, would have gone further, we have reached a situation in which the issue is under robust review. We have the coverage in the legislation, particularly of religious organisations and sporting organisations, but it is critical that the scope of the Bill is proactively kept under review.
There is, to some extent, a lack of logic in saying that, for example, if a youth organisation meets in a church hall, it is potentially covered as part of the church, yet the same youth organisation, if it is not linked with the church but uses the local community centre, is not covered. There is no reason why abuse in both those situations should not be directly covered. As we move ahead on abuse of trust, action clearly has to be grounded in evidence, but we need to be proactive in trying to cover those situations. That is why it is critical that we have such review.
This is a very welcome day, but an element of work in progress remains. We are in the process of making improvements; let us bank the improvements that we have made but keep vigilant to ensure that we bear down to the maximum extent on those involved in that range of criminal activities. Critically, it is on the protection of victims and potential victims that we must always remain focused.
Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill at Final Stage. I recall elements of it being discussed in 2015, so it has been a long time coming and could have been on the statute book much earlier in the mandate, had we not had a suspension of three years. Nonetheless, I welcome the addition of offences, as outlined by Members, including that of upskirting, which follows a campaign by teachers who were the victims of it early in 2020. Mr Weir is right about having to be fleet of foot in the context of the changing dynamics and the threats faced by our children and young people and by women in particular.
As a member of the Policing Board, I receive updates on a regular basis from the National Crime Agency (NCA), which has determined that between 16,000 and 23,000 children and young people are at risk from sexual offences and grooming online. Those are horrendous figures, and that must be a nightmare scenario for any family. The legislation is welcome, but we need resources behind the legislation. As I am sure you will agree, Minister, there are concerns about progress on the backlog of Public Prosecution Service (PPS) cases and about how alleged offenders seek to manipulate the justice system by creating many delays. I hope that that will be rectified.
If I may say so, Mr Deputy Speaker, the BBC Northern Ireland 'Crime NI' programme tonight will outline and put out a fresh police appeal for witnesses in the murder of a young woman in my constituency, Laura Marshall. She was a 31-year-old dental nurse who was seriously assaulted and murdered in her apartment in Lurgan in April 2016. I hope that anyone watching today who might have the vital piece of information will step forward.
The legislation is only as good as its enforcement. It will be enabled by the sentences that judges and others may hand down, by cultural shifts and by changes in behaviour because of the penalties in place as a consequence.
We need to do much more with cybercrime units. We need proper resources for them. Perpetrators of crime are often a step ahead of the law. I hope that, in any forthcoming mandate, when we get an Executive up and running again, the parties that have praised the Bill put resources into its implementation, both to deter and prevent crime, through bringing charges and bringing numbers of people before the courts and through having education programmes and building positive relationships, thus creating a cultural shift. Some of the TV programmes that many of used to watch would be far from acceptable today.
A huge cultural shift is therefore needed, and the legislation goes a long way to recognising the challenges that are present in modern society. As others have said, we cannot be complacent. We must be prepared, at short notice, to put in resources and to bring forward legislation to deal with whatever other offences and measures perpetrators might use to harm women and children in particular.
Miss Woods: I, too, wish the Minister well. I hope that she makes a quick recovery.
As others have said, I am glad that we are here to pass the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill. It has been a long time coming. Now that amendments have been made to the Bill, it will help protect people in Northern Ireland. I will not speak for long. Much of what needs to be said has already been said today and at previous stages, including throughout Committee Stage.
I thank the Minister, her departmental officials who have worked tirelessly on the Bill, our Committee staff and Stephanie, who must be mentioned as an absolute legend. Thank you very much for all your work throughout Committee Stage and also for the past two years.
I also thank Amy and my team, as well as all the sector organisations, stakeholders and individuals that engaged with us over the past year. It cannot have been easy, especially for individuals to recount some of the most traumatic experiences that they have been through. I welcome the fact that the Bill now contains provisions on cyber-flashing, on abolishing the so-called rough sex defence and on threats to disclose private sexual images.
The Bill will improve the operation and effectiveness of the justice system by enhancing public safety and improving services for victims of sexual offences, trafficking and exploitation, but only if it is well resourced and only if people are aware of it, trained in it and know how to use it. The changes that have been made will go some way to closing gaps, resolving inconsistencies and modernising our law, but it needs funding, needs to be understood and needs to be implemented.
As a member of the unofficial Opposition in this place, it is only right that I highlight what the Bill could have been. It is a missed opportunity, and, in many ways, that is entirely down to the DUP. I ask Members to cast their mind back to last summer, when the content of the Bill was being chopped and changed. It is absolutely shameful that important provisions, including requirements to comply with a Supreme Court ruling on non-court disposals for under-18s, technical changes to civil legal aid and statutory charges, and changes to court security powers and procedural adjustments regarding video links and appeal arrangements are not in the Bill.
For some reason unbeknownst to the Committee, powers to transfer the functions contained in section 43 of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 from the Secretary of State to the Department of Justice, in order for it to restart the accreditation process for organisations delivering community-based restorative justice schemes, were deemed too controversial for the Bill.
Most shameful of all was the removal of provisions that govern bail and remand for children in order to strengthen the automatic presumption of bail for children and to introduce specific conditions to be met before a child can be remanded in custody and for how long. Those changes are desperately needed, not least to comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Supposed concerns that the Bill could become a vehicle for legislative content that some Ministers do not agree with should not halt the democratic process in the House.
It is for the Assembly to decide that; it is not for Ministers to direct what we can and cannot talk about.
The fact that the Bill was deliberately trimmed down to narrow its scope and limit the opportunity to have proper debate about issues like the minimum age of criminal responsibility and removing the defence of reasonable chastisement is disgraceful. Despite my attempts, there is nothing in the Bill on equal protection or, indeed, on raising the age of criminal responsibility, which is fundamental to addressing youth justice recommendations that we have known about for decades. Those matters will have to be addressed in the future.
Fundamentally, with regard to sexual offences, the work recommended by Sir John Gillen on consent must be expedited. We need to focus on consent and radically reform how it is understood in our criminal justice system. A failure to protest or resist when subject to sexual abuse is never a form of consent.
Finally, we need to have mandatory, comprehensive, age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education (RSE) for everyone in Northern Ireland. As we know, the Bill covers matters related to child sexual exploitation, abuse of trust in relationships, and sexual offences including the new crimes of upskirting, downblousing and cyber-flashing. The Bill requires guidance to be produced, but there is no statutory requirement for our children and young people to have any knowledge or awareness of those specific issues or about why it is illegal and wrong to do those things. Consent matters. That is so important when it comes to the issues that we are legislating for through the Bill.
Our conviction rates for sexual offences remain shockingly low. That must also be addressed urgently. It is not enough for Executive parties to pay lip service to a strategy to tackle violence against women and girls on the one hand while, on the other, they fail to prioritise the legislative reform that is needed to address the shockingly poor outcomes for women and girls who are sexually assaulted and abused. The Bill will go some way, but we have so much more to do.
Mr Allister: There is much in the Bill that is valuable and worthwhile. My concern remains, however, that, by the inclusion of the very dubious clause 19, the Bill's viability within the competence of the House might be jeopardised by reason of its flagrant breach of article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
I have addressed the House at some length on this issue, but to no avail. Clause 19 introduces a blanket and mandatory ban on public hearings, which, I submit, is wholly incompatible with the expectations of article 6 and in conflict with the very clear jurisprudence under article 6 whereby there are multiple cases that make it plain that you can only have a ban on a case-by-case basis and not on a blanket basis. The House knows better, however, and the House decided that it would support clause 19, repudiating any suggestion of tempering it to ensure, beyond doubt, that it would be human rights-compliant. No doubt the Attorney General will have to take a view as to its compliance with human rights, but, certainly to my mind, clause 19 needlessly raises a question about that.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call on the Minister of Justice, Naomi Long, to conclude the Final Stage. Can we have the Minister on our screens, please? I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments. There seems to be a technical difficulty here. We hope to bring the Minister back.
Can we have the Minister of Justice on our screens? I call on the Minister of Justice to conclude the Final Stage.
Mrs Long: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to close the Final Stage of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill. I am extremely grateful to all of those who spoke in support of the legislation today.
Sexual offences cause serious physical, psychological and emotional trauma to victims, violating them in the most personal and intimate of ways. Often, it is accompanied by a sense of humiliation and shame on the part of the victim and, too often, is a taboo subject in wider society. There is no shame in being a victim of sexual abuse — none whatsoever. The only shame lies with the perpetrator. However, the intrusive nature of investigation and trial can, itself, be traumatic. The Bill, alongside other provisions that I have progressed during the mandate, will assist in addressing many of those concerns, as identified by Sir John Gillen. I hope that this important Bill will play a crucial part in tackling those taboos and will help to generate the confidence in victims to come forward and report their experiences to the police, knowing that they will be believed and will receive the support and protection that they need and deserve.
Human trafficking, whether it is from, to, through or within Northern Ireland, is a trade in human misery by those who seek to profit from the desperation of others. Trafficking exploits those who are particularly vulnerable, in fear or desperation, for sexual exploitation, forced domestic servitude or other forms of modern slavery. It is important that we recognise the impact that that can have on the individuals who are trafficked and that we understand their fear of recrimination and retribution where they cooperate with the authorities and the anxiety that many will have that, having been coerced or forced into illegal activity themselves, they may face criminalisation if they come forward. It is important, today, that we reinforce the message to such victims that that is not the case and that they will be listened to, protected and, crucially, supported as they try to rebuild their lives. The Bill makes further provisions for that protection. I encourage anyone, whether they are a victim themselves or someone who believes that such trafficking or modern slavery is taking place, to come forward and report it to the police.
I want to turn briefly to the comments that have been raised by some Members. First, on budget and resource, I have spoken at length about the challenges that we face in the Department of Justice in respect of the draft Budget. It will simply not be possible to invest in and fund those services as we would wish on those crucial issues unless we see a change to the draft Budget. There is no point in my saying that we will simply prioritise that in the Department, because that alone will not be enough to overcome the funding deficit. It is important, therefore, that not just the Department of Justice but all parties make representations in that regard when it comes to consideration of the draft Budget and the consultation.
I believe that Justice has a crucial role to play in society's health and well-being. It is also an important part of the mechanisms that we have to create safer communities. For that reason, it is important that it is a properly funded service and one that is able to discharge its functions in an efficient and effective way.
That brings me to the point about speeding up justice. I recognise that there are delays in the justice system. We were making inroads into those delays at the start of the mandate. However, COVID has, of course, set that back and created additional backlogs. With the additional COVID funding that we have received to date, we have now seen those COVID backlogs reduced. Earlier this year, we introduced the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, which will allow us to speed up justice in the longer term. However, all those efforts will, again, depend on continued funding and investment. The court system is currently running at 115% of its normal capacity. That cannot be sustained unless we are able to sustain the human resources and funding that that requires.
With respect to the specific issue that was raised about Ukraine, we need to recognise that there are issues. First, immediate humanitarian support is needed for people in Ukraine and those who are fleeing from it. I told Members previously that I believe that it is important that the UK plays a full role in that. As a Minister, I have been briefed by the head of the Civil Service on the latest proposals from the UK Government for how families and people here can go about offering support directly to people who are displaced and arrive in Northern Ireland seeking our support.
However, a complex system has been put in place that is heavily reliant on the generosity of individuals and their ability to identify those for whom they could provide support. The system will need to be reviewed and overhauled if it is to meet the needs of the growing population of people who have been displaced from Ukraine in tragic circumstances. The best way that we can protect those people is by providing safe and efficient legal routes to the UK so that they do not fall foul of traffickers and do not fall into that system in order to make it to Northern Ireland. The recent announcement that we would deal only with those who arrived in the UK under their own steam risks people falling into that trap of relying on others to traffic them here if they do not have the means at their disposal to escape. That is a high-risk approach, and we should address it with the UK Government to seek better interventions that will support people to get here.
Members raised the issue of vulnerability. Dealing with issues around human trafficking and modern slavery more generally is not a responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive or, indeed, of the Department of Justice. I believe, however, that the hostile environment policy being implemented by the UK Government makes it more difficult for us to reach people who are vulnerable, trafficked or enslaved, because their fear is that they will simply be deported under the hostile environment policy to then be re-trafficked to the UK or another country. Current approaches do not fully address that vulnerability.
Members have raised what is not in the Bill. Members will recall that, when I brought forward the Bill, it was a wide-ranging miscellaneous provisions Bill that included many of the issues to which Miss Woods referred. However, in order to get the Bill through the Executive and to the Assembly, it was necessary to narrow its scope. The alternative was that the Bill would have been brought to the Executive but would not have made it here. Pressing, important and necessary legislative changes had to be removed as a result. The Bill represents around 70% of our original intent. We have been working through the remaining 30% as a Department, and we now have, at an advanced stage of preparation, a miscellaneous provisions Bill for early in the next mandate.
The key to being able to develop that legislation in order to take forward the issues to which Miss Woods and others referred and to create a stable situation going forward is to have a quick restoration of the Assembly and Executive. The future Justice Minister will be able to progress that Bill in a short time at the start of the next mandate and deal with the essential and crucial issues that need to be addressed and should be addressed. I have taken action to ensure that a Bill will be prepared, irrespective of who brings it forward.
At this stage, I simply thank, again, the Chair of the Committee and members for their support, their careful scrutiny of the Bill and their valuable contributions to its improvement during its passage. The Bill represents the final piece of a jigsaw of interlocking legislation that is designed to provide greater protection from those who seek to blight the lives of vulnerable people in our community through offending behaviour. I hope that there is a message for those perpetrators in our community today that their behaviour, their exploitation, their sexual offences and their abuse of those who are vulnerable will not be tolerated and will lead to serious and, I hope, swift responses from the justice system.
I look forward to a time when legislation such as this is no longer needed, but, until that time, this Bill and other important Bills that I have brought forward during this mandate will contribute to ensuring a better future for many vulnerable people across our community. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill [NIA 29/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to move the Final Stage on behalf of the Minister of Education.
That the General Teaching Council (Directions) Bill [NIA 54/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Poots: First, I put on record the Minister's thanks to the Chair and members of the Education Committee for their acceptance of the case made by her and presented to them seeking their support for the Bill and their agreement to progress it under the accelerated passage arrangements. I record my thanks to Members for agreeing to accelerated passage in what is a full legislative programme.
In a statement to the Assembly on 13 December 2021, Minister McIlveen announced the outcome of an independent effectiveness review of the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI) undertaken by the Department's consultants, Baker Tilly Mooney Moore. Baker Tilly Mooney Moore's final report revealed that the GTCNI was an organisation in disarray that was failing to deliver against its statutory functions; failing to address identified audit weaknesses; failing to meet normal governance and accountability requirements for a non-departmental public body (NDPB); and failing to provide cohesive or coherent leadership and direction for its executive staff. The report suggested that GTCNI was a body seemingly at war with itself, which should be shocking to hear about any public body but is, perhaps, self-evident, when you consider that, since the GTCNI council was last reconstituted in 2019, a third of its membership had resigned or been withdrawn by its nominating bodies, with many of those departing citing poor leadership, ineffectiveness and an increasingly factionalised, aggressive and toxic atmosphere in the council as reasons for their actions. The effectiveness review drew heavily on self-assessments from council members. The consultants, who have undertaken 640 similar reviews, felt it necessary to state that this was the worst-performing board or council that they had ever examined. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that they concluded:
"It is our opinion that GTCNI is irretrievably broken and there is no prospect of recovery to any form of adequate performance".
It was against that backdrop that, on 13 December 2021, Minister McIlveen announced her intention to legislate for the dissolution of the GTCNI and to stand down its council with immediate effect. There was widespread agreement in the Chamber that her actions were warranted and necessary and that the GTCNI was an organisation that had been struggling for far too long. Some Members reflected that our teaching profession deserved better: I would put it more strongly by saying that the dedication, hard work, resilience and professionalism shown by our teaching workforce demands better. They demand representation from representatives who are dedicated, committed and unswervingly professional and will always work together to find and advance the best interests of the whole profession. That is the GTCNI that our teachers deserved. It is not what they received, so, regrettably, we will now have to start again.
The Department of Education will shortly begin a public consultation exercise to determine what should replace GTCNI. The Department will move at the earliest opportunity to introduce a Bill to the next Assembly to dissolve GTCNI while ensuring that the functions and services that add value to our teachers and schools will be protected and will continue to be delivered effectively and efficiently.
In normal circumstances, that would be the end of the matter: a line is drawn under an organisation that has so comprehensively failed to meet its intended responsibilities, and we focus our efforts on creating a fit for purpose replacement. Were that the case, the Bill would not be required. However, the Minister of Education has received correspondence challenging the authority of her actions in December and suggesting that they may well be challenged in court. The Minister and her officials continue to receive correspondence on a weekly basis from those who wish to resurrect the old arguments and undermine historical decisions and actions taken by individuals in the GTCNI. The correspondence continues to consume an inordinate amount of departmental time and effort just on such issues, and responding to those letters continues to divert staff from more constructive and productive tasks.
The Minister could not entertain any scenario where the Department could once again find itself powerless to intervene in the operation of such an ineffective, factionalised and toxic organisation. She will not take the risk that a legal challenge leading to a reinstated council might permit it to cause further damage to the reputation of our teaching workforce. The passage of the Bill, therefore, represents a further drawing of the line under GTCNI as it was, because the Department will now definitively be able to prevent that situation.
I thank Members for their support for the Bill. The step forward today shows the more positive and constructive future that our teachers deserve. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I genuinely and sincerely thank the Minister for his recognition of the work that the Education Committee, which I am privileged to Chair, has undertaken to cooperate and collaborate with the Education Minister in support of the passage of the Bill in order to deliver urgent reform of the dysfunctional General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland. That is appreciated.
The Education Committee's concerns about the General Teaching Council, including its governance and significant dysfunction, are well documented. That has been the case since special measures were introduced for the General Teaching Council. The Education Committee received briefings from various stakeholders on internal governance issues, alleged bullying and the intentional impeding of business, which created an untenable situation for the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland.
The extent of the Education Committee's concern was reflected in its approval of the Education Minister's decision to take action to dissolve the General Teaching Council in December 2021. The Education Committee supported the Minister's proposal to legislate to strengthen her position in respect of potential legal challenge. After meeting the Education Minister earlier this year, the Education Committee supported her motion to accelerate the passage of the Bill.
The Bill has reached its Final Stage today, and that represents the immediacy that a deeply concerning issue came to require. As a result of the Bill, the Assembly will amend article 101 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 to include the General Teaching Council among the arm's-length bodies (ALBs) that the Department has the power to direct.
I reiterate the overdue need for the delivery of a new, fit for purpose professional body for teachers. As I and other members of the Education Committee made evident throughout our process and the Bill's progress through the Assembly, the overarching solution must be to create an appropriate and similar body that can be of comprehensive service to the critically important teaching profession in Northern Ireland. That vital sector of our community requires a body that is fully equipped to effectively represent and register teachers and govern any misconduct.
The Bill brings to term the existing General Teaching Council. However, it is just the start of a process that must be carried forward by the Department of Education to redraw the new entity and provide it with a full range of appropriate legislative powers and sanctions. The Education Committee understands that that may take time but urges that it be done without any delay. I am sure that a future Committee for Education will continue to work constructively with stakeholders and the Education Minister to provide support and scrutiny of the Education Department's efforts to create a suitable body to effectively support and regulate the teaching profession in Northern Ireland.
Mr Sheehan: First, we recognise the urgent need to wind down the General Teaching Council. It is an organisation that has been blighted by a series of governance and leadership failures in recent years, and, as a consequence, it has failed to live up to its responsibilities as the regulator of the teaching profession here. Such is scale of the dysfunction that we find ourselves working to fast-track the winding down of the General Teaching Council, and Sinn Féin supports that approach. Essentially, the short Bill deals with housekeeping matters so that the Minister can give directions.
The GTC describes itself as:
"the statutory, independent, regulatory body for the teaching profession dedicated to enhancing the status of teaching."
However, in recent years, rather than enhancing the status of teaching, the dysfunction of the leadership and governance arrangements of the GTC threatened to undermine the status of the teaching profession.
In the autumn, which was a very difficult time for our schools due to COVID and the associated staff absences, the General Teaching Council could not process hundreds of newly qualified teachers, which prevented them from entering classrooms. The GTC is a departmental public body that is failing, and many of its members believe that it is failing. As legislators, we would be failing in our remit if we did not bring it to an end sooner rather than later.
As I raised at Further Consideration Stage, it is important that we acknowledge the child safeguarding issues that were of grave concern to the Education Committee as it looked into the General Teaching Council. We must address the shortcomings and put the welfare of our children and young people first. When I raised that issue at Further Consideration Stage, the Minister gave assurances, but it is important to mention it again as it is so important.
Until now, teachers who faced serious allegations might not have been employees of a school. That could be for a number of reasons: a teacher could resign from a school before any disciplinary action was processed; a substitute teacher without a contract with a school could be accused of serious professional misconduct; a teacher who was referred to the GTCNI for serious professional misconduct could apply to teach in another jurisdiction; or a teacher who was referred to the GTCNI for serious professional misconduct could decide to work as a home tutor, using their teacher registration certificate as proof of their suitability to teach children. I accept and acknowledge that the Minister gave assurances at Further Consideration Stage, but I mention that point again to ensure that we, as an Assembly, recognise the importance of child safeguarding.
We need a fresh start. Our pupils, teachers and school leaders deserve better, and they are quite prepared to work with the powers that be to bring about the much-needed change. Graham Gault of the National Association of Head Teachers summed it up well when he said:
"We are the school leaders' union, and our members desire a regulatory body that ultimately serves our children. We are glad that the Minister has taken this action and we are committed to working alongside her and her Department in developing a new, effective and fit-for-purpose regulatory body."
The draft legislation provides us with an opportunity to make progress. Ongoing work is required by the Minister and her Department to produce a clear plan that shows us what teacher registration will look like and, crucially, what regulation will look like going forward.
Mr Harvey: At the outset, I thank the Minister for the speed at which she has acted to address the issue. It was clear to those of us on the Education Committee not only that the Bill warranted approval but that it should be moved under accelerated passage. I am pleased to see it come to Final Stage.
To say that the Baker Tilly Mooney Moore report revealed an organisation in chaos would be an understatement. The findings were all the more alarming given that the organisation was a public body. Those in the profession had been raising concerns about the GTC for some time, including about the lack of leadership in the organisation, the ineffectiveness and lack of professionalism and a systemic atmosphere of aggression. That was all made very evident by the findings of the effectiveness review, which called upon us to urgently address the problems that had arisen.
I know that those in the teaching profession will be pleased that the matter is finally getting the attention that it requires. I agree with the Minister that our teachers deserve and demand better. The Bill will ensure that we can now wipe the slate clean and move forward to consider what should replace the GTC, without fear of the reinvention of an organisation that no longer serves any meaningful purpose. That is without doubt a positive step and will be seen as such across the profession.
Whatever the form or structure of what will fill the void that is left by the dissolution of the GTC, we must ensure that teachers are supported with the best services and functions of a representative body. Those core principles must be protected and will need to be first and foremost for any new body if we are to avoid these difficulties in the future.
Mr Butler: I see the new Member for Lagan Valley sitting in his seat, so I welcome Mr Paul Rankin. I hope that he enjoys his few days on the Bench, although his is not the face that I expected to see here. I perhaps expected to see Mr Donaldson.
I will move to the matter that we are discussing. The Minister is not here, and I wish her the very best with her illness. I thank her for the speed at which she acted on the report. The Committee heard a number of reports about GTCNI. Concerns were raised with regard to teachers and, more specifically, our pupils. We welcome what is happening. I thank Minister Poots for stepping in and bringing the Bill to its Final Stage.
I want to ask one question, if that is OK. Minister Poots might not be best placed to answer it, but perhaps the officials and the Minister of Education could respond. The problems that existed still exist. The winding up of GTCNI and the creation of a new body is vital. However, teachers and young people are still subject to a lot of the concerns that the Committee members have shared. Could the Minister find this out for us: will there be an interim report on what steps the Department is taking before new legislation comes forward to ensure that the matters that have been raised, whether in the report or at the Committee, are addressed in the interim?
Mr Poots: I thank all those Members who have contributed to the debate and everyone who has ensured that the Bill has travelled smoothly. It is a situation that neither the Minister nor the Assembly should have found themselves in. No organisation should be able to continue as the GTCNI was continuing, and therefore the actions were necessary. The Department is eager to work to establish the replacement body that teachers need and desire as quickly as possible. I will ensure that Mr Butler's question is answered in writing.
In conclusion, the Bill will draw a line under the old organisation. The Department of Education is eager to get on with the new body. When the Department launches its public consultation on the issue in the near future, I invite everyone with a desire to see a fit for purpose replacement established, which will support and enhance our teaching workforce, to share their views as part of that exercise. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the General Teaching Council (Directions) Bill [NIA 54/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.30 pm. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time, with questions to the Minister of Health.
The sitting was suspended at 1.26 pm.
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I thank the Member for his question. In 2017, in response to steadily rising demand, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service carried out an extensive demand and capacity review, which recommended a significant increase in the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service workforce and the introduction of a new clinical response model to obtain more effective performance targets and to improve efficiency and safety.
Implementing the new CRM is one of my Department's transformation priorities and is a key enabler of the wider health service reform that is required to meet our long-term population health needs under Delivering Together. That, however, is largely dependent on growing the paramedic workforce. The full implementation will therefore require additional funding to recruit and train sufficient numbers of paramedics.
The first key milestone in the CRM programme was achieved when NIAS introduced new evidence-based response targets, and that was done on 12 November 2019. Although there were some initial improvements in the response times to immediately life-threatening calls, overall performance across all call categories will not see sustained improvement until significant additional resources are in place.
My Department is currently reviewing a final draft outline business case (OBC) that was received from NIAS in December 2021 for the required investment. That will shortly be submitted to the Department of Finance for further consideration. Although approval of the business case is entirely subject to additional recurrent funding, the funding required to deliver the CRM was introduced in my Department's additional funding requirements as part of the Budget 2022-25 exercise.
As Health Minister, I remain extremely concerned about the current uncertainty over the three-year Budget planning exercise as a result of the absence of a functioning Executive and the delay that that is likely to cause for key programmes such as the CRM. That will undoubtedly affect patient care. It is therefore vital that clarity be given on the Budget as soon as possible. In the meantime, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service continues to recruit and train as many staff as possible within the available resources and to prioritise calls in line with the new CRM.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome any progress in that area. The sad reality, however, is that people and places have not seen the improvement to date. In some areas, people might have to wait up to three times as long as the target time for an ambulance to arrive. That would be completely unacceptable if it were a Domino's pizza. It is beyond the pale if that has been the case for people who are waiting on hospital treatment and whose life —
Mr Durkan: — is at risk. Will the Minister outline how much resource is required and tell us where we are at with securing that?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I hope that he was trying to be flippant when he compared the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service to Domino's Pizza and was not undermining the Ambulance Service staff, who do an amazing job.
First, I recognise the hard work and commitment of NIAS staff, particularly in the past two years, when, in common with those in other areas of the health service, they have faced increasing demands on their services and challenges in achieving targets. Even prior to COVID-19, NIAS was experiencing steadily rising demand without its being matched by investment, and that made it increasingly challenging for it to meet performance targets consistently across all categories. That was the rationale behind the development of a new CRM, which ultimately aims to put in place a much more resilient workforce and a much more sustained performance against response-time targets in the longer term. In the past two years, those pressures have increased owing to higher rates of staff absence, the number of staff vacancies and the ongoing issues with lengthy patient handovers. Those handover issues are linked to a lack of capacity and patient flow right across our system.
In the meantime, I am aware that NIAS is recruiting and training as many additional staff as possible within the available resources and has diverted considerable resource from its non-emergency transport service to its accident and emergency response. The assistance of voluntary and private ambulance services has been key in freeing up NIAS resources to respond to life-threatening or serious calls by providing crews to respond to low-acuity calls. I understand that, although crews respond to calls, Ambulance Service call handlers, including highly skilled paramedics, are available to provide telephone advice to callers.
Ms Flynn: It is fair to say that the response times for ambulances are an emergency in themselves, particularly in our rural areas. I understand the logic of co-responding with the Fire Service, but can the Minister explain why some of the legal and workforce issues were not addressed before that announcement was made?
Mr Swann: There was ongoing engagement with the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) board and the main union on what is addressed as Maggie's call. We were in a position to go ahead with the Carnlough station as the first responder to Maggie's call. That was supported by the workforce in that station and joint working between the NIFRS board and the NIAS board. Those concerns were addressed at that point, and an additional concern has been addressed by the Fire Brigades Union at, I think, head office level rather than local level.
Mr Chambers: A paramedic's work can be challenging, both physically and emotionally, and even comes with a little bit of danger. Does the Minister agree that Northern Ireland is fortunate to have the number and calibre of student paramedics coming forward that it does?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that point. I visited the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service towards the end of last week when the last cohort of its internally trained paramedics were coming through. Their enthusiasm, commitment and desire to be part of the NIAS workforce was a credit to them, their trainers and also the service and the investment that it is making to support the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the detail that he has provided already. We touched on the issue of an inter-agency approach a question or two ago. Can the Minister give a broader update on emergency service reform, including interlinkages between first response services to include cardiac arrest response, for example?
Mr Swann: The Member is touching on the initiative that has been referred to as Maggie's call and what we have been able to do in Carnlough station, initially, where we have seen the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service coming together in response to a cardiac call. It is a system that has been progressed to the point where we have been able to launch it in Carnlough. It is something that I would like to see rolled out across all our stations, both retained and full-time, so that we can see the blue-light services of ambulance and fire brigade working hand in hand, especially in the areas that they can, such as cardiac response. It is the start of what I think can be a development.
One of the benefits that we have in Northern Ireland is that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service is under the Health portfolio. That is an advantage that many of the other areas or devolved nations do not have. We can see that co-working coming together a lot more efficiently. I would like to see the initiative that is referred to as Maggie's call rolled out as soon as possible.
Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answers up to now.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question and his enthusiasm. For over three decades, the European social fund (ESF) programme, funded by the European Commission, has been a key source of funding for disadvantaged people, including the long-term unemployed; ex-offenders; young people not in education, employment or training; and people with a disability. The ESF has enabled people with a wide range of disabilities to access and stay in supported employment, and that helps trusts to meet their strategic priorities as set out in the draft Programme for Government framework and related Regional Health and Social Care Board service delivery models.
The fund was due to finish at the end of March 2022, but the programme has been extended under ESF call 3 until 31 March 2023. That is dependent on organisations securing the necessary match funding. Beyond that, arrangements post ESF remain unclear. That includes the role of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund as its replacement. The total value of ESF projects that specifically supported the disability sector is in the region of £15·6 million, and that supported 21 individual projects. Most projects have sufficient match funding in place to proceed after 1 April 2022, but I understand that a small number still have match funding gaps. All have a minimum of 81% of the funding in place and could be scaled back if necessary.
The Finance Minister leads on fiscal policy and the negotiation of EU replacement funding with the UK Government. My officials continue to engage with the Department of Finance and Whitehall colleagues to ensure that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will replace funding gaps created when the ESF ends. Officials continue to engage proactively with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on that issue through established channels, and we will continue to make representation through the Department of Finance.
Mr G Kelly: Apologies for my enthusiasm, especially after 20 years. I thank the Minister for his answer. He gave a comprehensive rundown of some of the funding. After the recklessness of Brexit, however, harm is still being done to services in communities. There was the recent loss of funding from the European social fund, and countless other services are at risk of closing. The Minister is engaging with Westminster and others. Is he engaging with the services that are involved, especially those that are in danger of being closed in the short term?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his additional question. At the end of my initial answer to him, I pointed out that the Finance Minister leads on negotiations and the fiscal policy regarding EU replacement funds. My Department continues to be supportive of the work being done.
Minimal information has been shared on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund's being able to match the required funding and infrastructure models that were previously met. Although the levelling up White Paper was published in February 2022, it lacks any confirmation of the quantum of funding for here to replace that £80 million a year. The Finance Minister is leading on that work. We have not had any direct engagements about organisations being funded by us or the ESF, because that fund is not directly managed by my Department.
Mr Swann: GPs are often the first point of contact for many people seeking diagnosis, treatment and support. They play an important role in promoting health and well-being, supporting people to manage long-term conditions and coordinating patient care across specialities and sectors. They have also played a significant role in our response to the pandemic. That has included operating primary care COVID centres, undertaking an extended flu vaccination programme and playing a key role in the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine programme.
The general medical services (GMS) contract sets out the core elements of what GPs must provide to their patients. It is an agreed contract that covers all four nations of the United Kingdom. There is scope, however, for optional and enhanced services to be negotiated annually in Northern Ireland between the Department of Health and the Northern Ireland General Practitioners Committee (GPC), and that allows us to identify local priorities for increased focus each year. Under the quality and outcomes framework (QOF), GP remuneration is tied to the provision of quality care against a range of clinically based indicators. At the outset of the pandemic, the Health and Social Care Board negotiated with the Northern Ireland General Practitioners Committee and my Department to stand down the QOF elements of the GMS contract in order to enable GPs to respond to the escalation of COVID by establishing COVID centres without suffering financial detriment.
My Department recently commenced engagement with the GPC on the GMS contract for 2022-23. The negotiations are at an early stage. It is important to note, however, that GPs have continued to have a responsibility to provide core services to their registered patients and that the pandemic has not, in any way, negated that requirement. The service has been working hard to make best use of available resources for everyone seeking to access the care that they need.
Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for his response. That was really helpful. A misunderstanding exists about how GPs are managed, in that they are, essentially, private organisations that deliver an NHS contract. Minister, I am sure that you appreciate that accessing GP services across Northern Ireland is an issue about which we, as MLAs, are regularly contacted. The fact that the issue is so widespread leads me to believe that it is systemic.
I will ask you a hard question, given that this is probably your last Question Time: is the shortage of GPs due to your Department's poor workforce planning over 10 years?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for indicating that this will probably be my last Health Question Time in this mandate. I will miss it greatly.
I do not put the blame for workforce planning and training at the feet of my Department. Having one-year non-recurrent budgets has made those challenges even more difficult. I fully recognise the need for additional GPs to be trained. As such, my Department, with the Health and Social Care Board and other stakeholders, has commenced work on reviewing the number of available training places for GPs in Northern Ireland. My Department has continued to invest in our GP workforce. It has increased the number of GP trainees by over 70% from 2015 levels. There are presently 111 new training places available for GPs each year. Work is under way to review the number of GP training places to ensure that we have the right number of GPs to meet our needs. That is part of a wider piece of work that my Department is taking forward to explore options for meeting our GP workforce needs in the most cost-effective way. It is important to note, however, that the increasing demand for primary care services cannot be met solely by increasing the number of GPs. It is also about other elements, including the wider roll-out of primary care multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) and the introduction of advanced nurse practitioners and additional general practice nurses. All that will make a difference to the way in which services are delivered in primary care and contribute to improved patient outcomes.
Mr Gildernew: Minister, people continue to struggle to get appointments to see their GP. That is causing extreme anxiety for patients and is putting additional pressure on services and GPs, especially in areas such as Trillick and Dromore. There are particular issues and knock-on impacts in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone and West Tyrone constituencies. Minister, when will the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and West Tyrone see extra health staff being deployed on the ground to support GPs in the roll-out of their work?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I nearly set him up by referencing MDTs; he has been pushing my officials on that issue at the Health Committee. I hope to be in a position within the next week to state where that roll-out will be.
The Member mentioned GP services in the south-west. There have been significant GP workforce issues in the Western Trust area, particularly in the southern part. The Health and Social Care Board has been engaging with practices across the south-west area. My Department will continue to work closely with the Health and Social Care Board and GP representatives to consider how best to respond to the challenges that face general practices in Northern Ireland and to ensure that we have a GP workforce in Northern Ireland that is supported, motivated and sustainable, and that continues to provide quality care to patients.
We want to encourage even more highly capable medical students to choose a career in general practice. We recognise that positive experiences during clinical placements can have a major influence on such decisions. The commencement of the graduate entry programme at the Ulster University medical school in Magee is a significant development in that regard. The curriculum of the graduate entry programme places a significant emphasis on primary care placements, with a high concentration on clinical placements in rural settings in the west. That will help to ensure that there is a supply of local students who wish to pursue a career in general practice in those areas. Other elements include the wider roll-out, as I said, of multidisciplinary teams, as well as the introduction of advanced nurse practitioners and additional general practice nurses, all of whom are making a difference.
Mrs Cameron: What discussions have the Minister and his Department had with pharmacists to ascertain what role Community Pharmacy will play in assisting GP services and moving forward the transformation of healthcare? Will Community Pharmacy be included in the Encompass roll-out next year?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I note her work as chair of the all-party group on community pharmacy and the engagement that she continues to have. I met the senior board and office bearers of Community Pharmacy last week to discuss how we look to the next three-year programme of work that it can do in partnership with us in the Department of Health and across the wider health sector. The Member is aware of Encompass, and I think that the Health Committee will receive an update in the near future on where that will be rolled out. The initial target is for it to be rolled out across all health and social care settings before we look at when it will be feasible and cost-effective to roll it out to the wider health family, which includes Community Pharmacy. The Member will also be aware that, in the meantime, we are looking at e-prescriptions, which can be easily transferred across all health sectors, especially into Community Pharmacy.
Mr McGrath: Knowing that the Minister loves Question Time so much, I submitted a question for urgent oral answer. That was accepted, and I will ask it later.
On the theme of difficult questions, at the beginning of February, we submitted a question for priority written answer, which was to be answered within five days. It asked what percentage of the departmental budget is spent on general practice. Is that a difficult question to answer? Might you have that information to hand now?
Mr Swann: I do not have that to hand now, but I will follow up on that for the Member.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. I appreciate that this continues to be a worrying and uncertain time for anyone who is experiencing long COVID, and I would like to take this opportunity to reassure Members that my Department fully recognises the need to provide support to those who are dealing with longer-term health impacts as a result of COVID-19 infection.
On 1 November 2021, I launched the first dedicated assessment and treatment service for post-COVID-19 syndrome in Northern Ireland, and those clinics allow people to have a comprehensive assessment of their condition and will help them to access the services and expert advice that they need to support them in their recovery. From then to the end of January 2022, approximately 1,000 people aged 16 and over have been referred to the multidisciplinary assessment clinics across the region. Following consultation with paediatric specialists in Northern Ireland, post-COVID-19 services have been designed for people of 16 years of age and older, with the intention that children with persistent symptoms after diagnosis of COVID who require more specialist assessment can be referred to trust paediatric services in the usual way. COVID-19 in children is usually of a short duration, with relatively mild symptoms. However, I am aware that some children with COVID-19 experience prolonged illness and that the impact on them can be devastating.
The MDT clinic is one element of the suite of services being established for post-COVID-19 patients. Other elements will include bespoke pulmonary rehabilitation; a dysfunctional breathing service for patients with significant respiratory symptoms post COVID-19; additional support for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients discharged from clinical care; strengthened psychology support to all trusts; and signposting and access to self-management resources.
Mrs D Kelly: Thank you for your answer, Minister. You rightly outlined a lot of medical and therapeutic interventions, but many children are suffering post-traumatic stress-type symptoms or, indeed, social isolation as a consequence of COVID. At the weekend, I watched a programme in which children were being helped by a charity in partnership with a riding school. It was the same type of therapeutic intervention as happens with pets. Minister, will there be enough flexibility for and financial support to trusts to allow for that imaginative type of partnership to deal with that specific type of impact of long COVID in children?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. She makes a point about the mental health supports that have been in place. The Member will be aware that that is why I established the mental health support fund. Charities and the voluntary and community sector are utilising that money to support individuals across society in a wide range of services. I have visited some equine support services, which provide great value to the patients who use them. I am not aware of the specific pet intervention that the Member mentioned, but, when I launched the dedicated assessment treatment service in November of last year, it was in recognition of the immediate need to establish those very important services. At that point, I made £1 million of funding available for 2021-22, and a bid to maintain those services has been made as part of the budget process for the next three financial years, 2022-23, 2023-24 and 2024-25. The imaginative additional ones will look at how they can best intertwine their work with that of with our core delivery while we work in partnership with the voluntary and community sector. The Member will be aware that a core focus of the mental health strategy is how we work with our third sector partners to improve that service.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his response to Dolores. The Minister has outlined the role of the MDTs and the psychological and mental health support services. Will the Minister give everyone here an assurance that there will not be a postcode lottery for those services, given that getting access to MDT clinics, if they exist, and getting on the waiting list, particularly for child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and adult services in mental health, is really difficult?
Mr Swann: I acknowledge the Member's point. There will be a further announcement of the next steps on MDTs and when we intend to roll those out. As I said in the Chamber last week or the week before, that will be dependent on the workforce and the commitment to financing over the next three years. The same applies to CAMHS. One of the things in the mental health strategy is the regional approach that we need to take to mental health when we reform it so that there is not a postcode lottery. Since coming into this post, I have been trying to make sure that there is not a postcode lottery across Northern Ireland, especially when we look to rebuild services, whether they are surgical, medical or mental health supports.
All trusts are progressing at a significant pace in the establishment of long COVID clinics. We are seeing a slight delay in the establishment of our COVID clinics in the Western Trust, but that should not hamper the support that is available for patients.
Ms Bradshaw: Minister, I recently attended an online meeting with some long COVID patients. The lack of support for children who are living with long COVID was raised, and I saw some harrowing footage of that. I appreciate what you have said today, and I hope that there is progress in engaging with young people and providing them with a service. How is your Department reaching out to other parts of these islands and further afield to engage in clinical trials, given that some very sick children would benefit from some advancement in the medical treatment for long COVID?
Mr Swann: The Member will be aware of the standards in outcomes and practices that are being developed in Germany — I am not sure if she is directly referring to those — and that are already being accessed by some patients in Northern Ireland. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is responsible for providing that evidence-based guidance and advice for public health and social care partners.
The post-COVID-19 services in Northern Ireland for managing long-term effects have been designed in line with the NICE guidance, and that guidance covers those who identify, assess and manage the long-term effects of COVID. Long COVID services in Northern Ireland will be continually reviewed and updated in line with any updates to NICE guidance. That guidance will be for adults and young people who are post-COVID-19 patients and will be on safe and effective treatments for long COVID.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. All income that is received from parking charges in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust is used for the operational upkeep of the car parking facilities. That includes the maintenance costs of parking assets, which include barriers, pay stations and CCTV. The removal of that income will require maintenance costs for car parks to be sourced from alternative trust funds. That will result in additional resourcing pressures and an inevitable impact on patient services.
Funding that is sourced from car parks also enhances security on acute hospital sites and provides a car parking team with a CCTV retrieval service as well as a car park patrolling function on the Antrim Area Hospital and Causeway Hospital sites. Should that service be removed due to insufficient funding, that team of staff would have to be redeployed into the corporate support services department. Free car parking will lead not only to a loss of income but there is potential for car park spaces, particularly on some hospital sites, to be used by commuters and staff as a park-and-ride facility. Patients and other service users may, therefore, be denied spaces when attending appointments with sick relatives. That issue has presented challenges to car parking provision on a number of hospital sites. There are also a number of hospital sites in the Northern Trust that do not charge for car parking, such as the Whiteabbey Hospital and the Moyle Hospital.
Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for his answer. As this is possibly his last Question Time as Minister of Health, as a colleague in North Antrim, I wish him well in the upcoming election and look forward, no doubt, to meeting him on the roads and in the area.
Mr Storey: The Minister mentioned the deficit in funding. Does that mean that, as a result of the imposition of the legislation, instead of us having money and the car parks being managed, there will be a free-for-all? If so, that will undoubtedly lead to chaos in our hospital car parks, as opposed to the current situation in which they are managed and revenue is generated from them.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. I look forward to the engagements across North Antrim that he mentioned, because they have always been engaging and positive, unlike those with some of our other constituency colleagues.
Mr Swann: Now now, Jim. I did not mean you. [Laughter.]
Mr Swann: Do not take that personally.
The Member referred to the private Member's Bill on hospital car parking charge. I have raised concerns about that, as have my Department's staff and trust officials, with the Health Committee and the Bill sponsor. I tabled a number of amendments at Consideration Stage, which were, unfortunately, not accepted in full. Those would have gone some way to addressing the concerns from a Departmental and trust point of view, and the Bill sponsor could have accepted them. We have tabled further amendments that, if made, will see a time frame brought in to allow trusts and the Department to introduce car parking charges that are in line with the intention of the private Member's Bill.
The policy of making sure that those who need car parking are not penalised in any way is one that I support, but I want to ensure that such a policy is not abused. I hope that, in a spirit of willingness, we can meet the Bill sponsor, who picked up the private Member's Bill that Fra McCann introduced. Progress can still be made on that to benefit patients, visitors and the trust. There is a piece of work that can be done by the Department and trusts in partnership with the Bill sponsor.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of the period for listed questions. We move on to topical questions. Question 9 has been withdrawn.
T1. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Health for a progress report on the £700 million road map that was announced last June to address hospital waiting times, given that, at that time, figures showed that 184,000 people had been waiting for more than a year for a first hospital outpatient appointment, with a further 66,000 patients waiting for more than a year for surgery or hospital treatment. (AQT 2151/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his point. The elective care framework that I announced at that time came with a requirement of £707·5 million over a five-year period. We were able to secure funding for the first year. The initiatives that were launched, and are under way, include the introduction of mega-clinics to maximise patient throughput; outpatient assessments being delivered by GP federations in primary care settings; a regional retention initiative for nurses and midwives; recurrent and significant use of the independent sector; the development of in-house health and social care capacity, including a workforce appeal and continued investment in staffing; and the implementation of green pathways and green sites.
Also in the elective care framework was the day procedure centre at Lagan Valley Hospital. That is working extremely well and is supporting a range of specialties from across the region to undertake the most urgent clinical cases. We have also looked at opportunities to deliver more elective surgery on a regional basis, and we are exploring other units across the health and social care service. Those initiatives are aligned with the elective care framework that I published, which set out a five-year plan to systematically tackle the backlog of patients who are waiting.
I published an interim progress report on the actions in the elective care framework on 24 February. That report recognises the additionality of the non-recurrent funding that was made available in 2021-22 and was initially targeted at those patients. Unfortunately, because we do not have an agreed Budget, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the implementation of the framework and for those patients who are waiting.
Mr McGlone: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he clarify whether last year's figures —184,000 and 66,000 — were reduced or dented by the measures from that £707 million-odd and, if so, by how much?
Mr Swann: I can give the Member figures as of 31 December 2021, if he wants to make the comparison: 147,878 patients were waiting for a diagnostic service, of which 83,643 were waiting longer than nine weeks for a diagnostic test, and 49,632 were waiting longer than 26 weeks; 120,097 patients were waiting for inpatient day case treatment, of which 97,850 were waiting longer than 13 weeks, and 69,373 were waiting longer than 52 weeks. While the initiatives that I referred to see some of those figures hold steady, others are increasing. That shows how much the waiting list initiatives are needed, as an additionality to what we are currently able to provide in-house.
T2. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Health to outline the immediate action that he is taking to address the pressures being experienced by emergency departments in Northern Ireland, particularly because, last month, a potential major incident was declared at Antrim Area Hospital in his South Antrim constituency. (AQT 2152/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. As he says, the hospital is in his constituency, but it borders mine and is a few miles from my home, so I am fully aware of the pressures and work undertaken there.
A trust or management team does not declare a potential incident lightly. Some members of staff referred to it as a flare-up, prompting the hospital to call and seek assistance. We have had a number of initiatives, especially over the past 18 months to two years, on how emergency departments work together through ambulance "smoothing". That is where ambulances are redirected to emergency departments, should there be spare and available capacity. However, there is not a lot of that in our emergency departments at the minute.
A major review of emergency medicine is due to be published shortly. There is no quick fix to this. No matter who you speak to across the medical professions, they will tell you that. It is about long-term development and investment, not just in our workforce but in our facilities, so that we can get on top of 10 years of underinvestment in facilities and workforce.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for his reply. I am grateful for the reviews that are being undertaken and the initiatives that are under way at the behest of trusts. Are all aspects of the pressures on emergency departments being addressed? The issue of access to GPs has been mentioned a number of times today. Is the impact of that on emergency departments being actively considered by the Minister and the Department?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. He made reference to the specific point that was raised earlier about GPs and the work that they continue to do. A number of times in the House, I have addressed the misconception, or misperception in some cases, that our GP services are closed. The Member knows that they are not, but it is a narrative that is out there and that is hard to address. I would like to make sure that people are aware that there is access to GP services as necessary.
Recent figures on access to GP services indicate that, currently, practice teams carry out approximately 200,000 consultations weekly. Feedback from our GPs indicates that many patients, particularly those with chronic disease, are presenting with more complex needs, which is making it more difficult for GPs to see all the people who they would wish to.
It is not about one part of the health service putting pressure on another; it is all under pressure. There is no spare capacity in our service that we can readily divert to help elsewhere. Especially over the last two years, we have all seen the health service come together and work as one, delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. It is challenging. The people who work in the health service know the pressures that they are under, but I have never seen a workforce, although tired and under pressure, that is more resilient, especially as we come out of this wave of COVID-19. The members of that workforce are keen to redress the situation and get back to the work that they want to do.
T3. Mr Gildernew asked the Minister of Health to confirm whether he will make decisions on the duty of candour, stroke services or workforce planning before the end of the mandate, given that the transformation of health and social care here is arguably the greatest challenge facing a future Executive. (AQT 2153/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. Those are all major pieces of work that are either in the system or working their way towards my desk. I have received an initial response in relation to the duty of candour from the workforce and am considering what that can be. The question of whether I can make a fully informed decision between now and next Friday is challenging, given exactly what has to be done. I have to ascertain further sureties.
On stroke services, the Member will be aware that I have asked for additional work to be done on the numbers. At the start, the review of stroke services did not fully take into consideration the aging population in Northern Ireland. A number of developments have been made with regard to stroke services, the accessibility of certain medications when it comes to stroke prevention or stroke reversal and how we support stroke patients
Apologies, Colm: what was the third area?
Mr Swann: Again, workforce planning is ongoing. The Member knows that we set out a number of initiatives as a result of the 2026 strategy, which stated that there were to be three-yearly reports. The report that was due during this period has stalled due to COVID, but the one about workforce planning, additional nursing training places and the additional places and investment that we need to put in continues. I would like to be in a place to make an announcement about that, but I cannot give surety to the Member and do not want to mislead the House. That work will continue, however, and, if it is not done in this mandate, I can assure you that it will be ready for the next Health Minister, whoever that may be come 5 May.
Mr Gildernew: I thank the Minister for his answers. Minister, there have been very many sad and tragic moments over the past number of years as a result of COVID. Regrettably, we have also seen various scandals that have rocked the health and care system: Muckamore Abbey, Dunmurry Manor, Clifton House Residential Home, urology, radiology and more. Given the need for clarity and answers for victims, can you confirm that you will publish the neurology report before you leave office?
Mr Swann: I will do my utmost. The Member asked that, I think, at the Health Committee. He mentioned the transparency and the challenge. The Member will also be aware that, since coming into office as Health Minister, I have announced public inquiries, under the Inquiries Act, into urology, neurology and especially into Muckamore Abbey. Work started on that inquiry in the past week. I encourage people to interact with that inquiry team.
Those three inquiries build on what I think all of us in the House want, which is for people to be reassured that the service that they get is safe, quality-approved and consistent, whether that is achieved through the different medical bodies, training colleges or professional standards. It is imperative that we give that reassurance and get trust back into the general population of Northern Ireland. I will not make any commitment to the Member that I cannot promise, but I will write to him by the end of the week, if I can, specifically regarding the time frame of that report, because he has asked about it in the past.
T4. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Health how important he considers the independent living fund (ILF) to be. (AQT 2154/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. Last Thursday, there was a very good engagement event, which was facilitated by the Health Committee, between the Disabled People's Parliament and the Committee on a number of issues. That was the first question that was asked. I am not sure whether the Member was watching that or is just intuitive.
The independent living fund is essential and beneficial. The Health Committee heard, as I have heard previously, about how the fund allows people with disabilities to live independently and support themselves independently — it is in the name — but also about the importance of the assurance that they would get support during the COVID pandemic, because they were employing services and individuals directly. I place great value on the independent living fund, but, again, given the current challenges with a recurrent budget, where I would like to do more, unfortunately, at this time, I am not able to confirm that I can.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that the permanent secretary has not given him back any paperwork yet. Will he be launching the consultation on the independent living fund over the next week or two, before he leaves office, and looking at possibly reopening it to new applicants in the future?
Mr Swann: I am not aware of anything that is due to come to me between now and next Friday about launching a consultation on the ILF. If something is already in preparation, however, I will confirm that to the Member in writing.
T5. Ms Ennis asked the Minister of Health, who will know that he announced in January that trusts had been instructed to reopen day centres and respite centres, to state when those services will resume, given that, as COVID restrictions ease, families that rely on them feel that they have been left behind, with some still waiting for that crucial help to start up again. (AQT 2155/17-22)
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. During a previous Question Time, I gave further clarification on the targets that a number of trusts have specifically identified for how they plan to step up those respite and day-care facilities. Some trusts are more ambitious than others. I had asked that all trusts publish on the Department's website their rebuilding plans to show the speed at which they will work. As the Member has indicated, I made it clear that my expectation of our trusts is that they get those facilities back up and running to full capacity as soon as it is safe and practicable for them to do so.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That ends the period for questions to the Minister of Health. I ask Members to take their ease before the next item, which is questions to the Assembly Commission.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for his question. The Assembly Commission has, at all times, sought to apply in a pragmatic and practical manner the regulations, when they were in place, and the guidance issued by the Executive. That has included the guidance that staff should work from home where possible. That guidance is still in place, so the Assembly Commission has sought to facilitate working from home where it is possible.
The Commission does not record the average number of staff who are working in person in Parliament Buildings each day. The number or proportion of Commission staff who are working in person in Parliament Buildings to support the work of the Assembly is dependent on business need and will fluctuate from day to day.
Members will recognise that, throughout the pandemic, a significant number of staff have been working in the Building on different days, particularly to ensure that the Assembly and its Committees continued to do business. It was incredibly important that the Assembly remained able to make decisions and pass legislation during that period. Members will be aware that officials have undertaken a lot of work to adapt how the Assembly works to deal with the constraints that were created by the pandemic. I therefore take this opportunity to record the Assembly Commission's thanks to our staff for the continued support that they have given to us throughout this challenging time.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank Mr O'Dowd, and I join him in thanking Assembly staff for their work during the pandemic. Has there been or will there be any assessment of the impact on productivity of working from home? Is there a plan for the future — a return to what was or a hybrid future for staff?
Mr O'Dowd: I am sure that an analysis of the outworkings of the Assembly is possible. A lot of that work depends on the people in this room and how productive we are rather than how productive Assembly Commission staff are, in fairness to them, but it is something that, I am sure, officials will take note of. Moving forward, the Assembly Commission has given staff a commitment to develop a homeworking policy, and that process is well advanced. A draft policy has been consulted on with all staff and trade union side. On foot of the consultation responses, a revised policy is being developed.
Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for his question. The Speaker launched the exhibition on Friday 4 March 2022 at an event in the Great Hall to coincide with the first Women's Parliament. The launch was attended by members of the Assembly Women's Caucus, Parliament participants and some of the women who feature in the exhibition, academics and Assembly Commission staff who had assisted with the exhibition.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Commission member for his response. I just want to praise the exhibition. It is important that we promote the valuable contribution that women make to politics here. Are there any plans to extend the exhibition or even take it on tour to local museums and community centres so that young women in our communities can see the positive benefit that women bring to politics here and potentially get more involved in political interaction?
Mr Clarke: I do not believe that there are any immediate plans, but the exhibition will be retained for future use and will be a particularly useful focus for future outreach events, including potentially using the exhibition in locations outside of Parliament Buildings.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for his question. I am pleased to inform him that the review of the display of artefacts is at a very advanced stage. The Member may have seen the letter that the Speaker issued on behalf of the Assembly Commission earlier today.
The review was undertaken by a working group comprised of officials and Dr Eamon Phoenix. It was conducted in line with a set of principles agreed by the Assembly Commission. While it is challenging, Members have been invited to a launch of the new display on Wednesday 23 March. I do not want to pre-empt the launch, but I will give Members an overview. The new display reflects the history of the parliamentary and political institutions connected to this Building. That includes the period from the original Parliament in 1921. It also covers the background to the Good Friday Agreement and the creation of this Assembly, as well as subsequent political negotiations over the years. The major figures and events over the past 100 years have been reflected in a way that ensures that all political perspectives of the Assembly are reflected. It will see a number of portraits and photographs displayed in the corridors for the first time. It will also mean that a number of the Assembly Commission’s artefacts will be taken out of storage or moved from locations where they were not accessible to the public.
I highlight the fact that the Assembly Commission believes that the new range of items on display will be a major addition to the experience of visitors to the Building, and it seeks to provide visitors with a context to our current politics. The Commission believes that the exhibition will be a positive addition to the Building. This has been a significant project involving a lot of work for officials, and, on behalf of the Assembly Commission, I thank them for their hard work.
Mr Delargy: I thank the Member for her answer. Will the Member agree that it is important that Parliament Buildings, through its artefacts and symbols, reflects the diverse community that it represents?
Mrs D Kelly: Absolutely. That was very much at the forefront of the Assembly Commission's mind and of the instructions given to the officials. We relied heavily on Dr Eamon Phoenix and others to ensure that we had as diverse a range as possible. Obviously, it would have been much more reflective if politics in the past had reflected the diverse community that we reside in, particularly with women, but I think that we have done that.
Mr Allister: As someone who has campaigned on the artefacts issue for many years, I will reserve judgement until I see the exhibition and the permanency of it. Specifically, will portraits of former Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland be on permanent display?
Mrs D Kelly: A number of figures will be on display. Obviously, there will be feedback required by the new Assembly in the new mandate on the success or otherwise of that. Given the number of artefacts that we have, however, that does not at this stage suggest — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Excuse me, Mrs Kelly. When Members wish to have private conversations, they are not so private in here, because they can be audible up here. Thank you. Continue, Mrs Kelly.
Mrs D Kelly: It is not my understanding at this point that former Prime Ministers will be on permanent display, but I will ascertain the facts of that and write to the Member accordingly.
Mr Blair: I thank the Member for his question. The Member will be aware that the Assembly Commission has responsibility only for the lawns adjacent to Parliament Buildings within its curtilage, and those end at the railings to the front of the Building. Beyond that, the management of the Stormont estate falls within the remit of the Department of Finance, specifically its estates management unit.
While the Assembly Commission has not considered an alternative use for the lawns within its responsibility, support and encouragement for biodiversity and pollinators has been put in place through the installation of an apiary at the west side of Parliament Buildings. As well as increasing biodiversity and supporting pollinators, the apiary is used to raise awareness of the dwindling numbers of native bees.
Works on the Stormont estate under the control of the Department of Finance are informed by the Stormont estate woodland management plan and the conservation management plan. Those plans have not recommended the rewilding of the formal lawn areas. Across the wider Stormont estate, the estates management unit has provided a woodland environment with minimal intrusion to help to protect and expand the habitat for plant and animal life.
The Assembly Commission, through the events office and the education office, promotes the nature trails throughout the estate and encourages visitors and school groups to make use of the grounds when they visit Parliament Buildings. In that regard, the Assembly Commission's sustainable development office is a partner of the Eco-Schools group and helps to raise awareness of the wildlife — our bees in particular — in the estate when meeting school groups.
The Assembly Commission's sustainable development office continues to liaise closely with the estates management unit to enhance the biodiversity around Parliament Buildings by whatever means possible.
Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for the answer. It is a bit disappointing to hear, given that we have such expansive lawns to the front and side of the Building, that we could not use even a small portion of them for some sort of biodiversity and rewilding project. We could set a good example by having such a facility. That might be something that the Commission could consider, and maybe the Member could take that back to the Commission to see whether that is possible.
The Member referred to some of the other facilities on the Stormont estate. Could there be some sort of formal partnership between the Department of Finance and the Commission, given that most people see the estate as one, for some projects to be done jointly?
Mr Blair: As I understand it, there is regular contact between the Department of Finance and the Assembly Commission on estates matters, especially where the estate for which the Commission is responsible interfaces with the remaining Stormont estate. I am more than happy to take the suggestion of further work in that regard back to the Commission and the sustainable development office.
Mr McGuigan: Will the Commission engage with wildlife organisations such as the RSPB to see what else it could do to support and encourage wildlife in the environs of the Assembly Building?
Mr Blair: I thank the Member for that question. As I outlined, the sustainable development office will continue to work closely with the estates management unit to encourage visitors to Parliament Buildings to avail themselves of the walking trails, for example, throughout the Stormont estate. There is no reason, therefore, why the suggestion in the previous question to extend that to other biodiversity trials could not also be done in conjunction with environmental groups. I am happy to take that back in conjunction with the previous point.
Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for his question. The Assembly Commission, in conjunction with the designers and the contractors, has investigated a number of water ingress issues in Parliament Buildings but, so far, has been unable to address all the issues successfully. Having been unable to agree on the cause of and responsibility for those issues, the Assembly Commission instructed solicitors in June 2021 to advise on determining liability for the defects. The external experts have prepared preliminary expert reports on the matter, and counsel has been instructed.
Given that the Assembly Commission may need to resolve the matter through legal proceedings, the Commission needs to be careful in its public comments on the matter. However, I can advise that the Commission has agreed that there should be an initial effort between the parties to resolve the issues of liability through mediation. Failing that, the Commission will issue legal proceedings against those responsible for the defects.
Mr K Buchanan: At times, the Building has looked more like Steptoe's house — some people will understand that reference — than a seat of government because there are so many buckets around. That said, does that mean that repairs cannot be carried out until the liability and responsibility are clarified? Therefore, we will still have the leaks until liability is clarified through the legal route.
Mr Clarke: The Assembly Commission is closely monitoring the defects that you have referred to to determine whether remedial work needs to be carried out in advance of an agreement on the liability.
Ms Ferguson: Can the Commission offer assurance that everything that it is doing to reach a resolution on the issue will ensure that the public purse is protected?
Mr Clarke: I can give that assurance. The Assembly has gone to great lengths in the mediation process to get value for money for the Assembly and the wider public.
Mr Allister: Can the Commission advise us of when the limitation period expires? What has been the cost to date of such work as has been done?
Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for his question. I do not have that information in front of me today, but I will get him a more detailed follow-up answer.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for his question. An update on the current COVID-19 health and safety measures was issued to all users of Parliament Buildings on 1 March 2022. The update set out the current arrangements for ensuring the continuing safety of everyone in the Building. The update noted that all coronavirus regulations have ended, but it also advised that the Assembly Commission will seek to follow the public health guidance that remains in place. That is entirely in line with the responsible and effective approach that has been adopted up to this point.
The current measures to ensure everyone’s safety include encouraging the wearing of face coverings in areas of the Building that can become congested and suggesting that a distance of 1 metre be maintained throughout Parliament Buildings. Naturally, the use of hand sanitiser remains in place, as do the protective screens that have been in place for some time. The Assembly Commission is acutely aware that, in the absence of regulations, much of the response to the risk of COVID-19 infection is centred on personal responsibility. In that regard, the Assembly Commission commends the responsible approach adopted by Building users and encourages that to continue.
Mr Gildernew: I thank the Commission member for that answer. Will the Commission continue to provide guidance and encourage adherence to that guidance to protect visitors, staff and Members in Parliament Buildings?
Mrs D Kelly: The Member is right to urge a cautious approach because we know that the infection continues to be rife throughout the community, although, thankfully, the consequences are not as fatal as they were a year ago or even a few months ago. However, while the Commission staff can issue instructions to other staff, it is for the party Whips and leaders to encourage the representatives of the political parties to pursue a cautionary approach and follow the guidelines.
Mr Storey: I concur with the comments about being cautious. However, even though we are in the last weeks of the mandate, for how much longer will the stationery office in the Building be closed to Members and their staff? That has been the case since the commencement of the restrictions.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for drawing that to our attention. I am acutely aware of that. As the Member will know, the Commission continuously reviews the guidance and does not second-guess the Executive. However, if there are issues with the provision of particular services, we want to hear about them. We will reassess that situation, make a recommendation and come back to the Member.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for his question. As he will be aware, the Assembly Commission agreed an approach to the decade of centenaries that requires that any Assembly Commission decisions to mark centenaries be agreed by consensus.
The Assembly Commission agreed a programme of events for the centenary. However, political consensus could not be reached on the proposal for a centenary stone when it was considered previously. While it is possible for the Assembly Commission to reconsider any proposal made to it, the issue would remain one of being able to reach a political consensus.
Mr Allister: By "consensus" the Member means that it is subject to the bigotry of the Sinn Féin veto. That is why the issue has never been addressed. If it was in the capacity of the Commission to address the platinum jubilee to the limited extent that it did, one would think that it was surely not beyond it to address the centenary of the country that the Assembly purports to preside over.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Before the Commission member responds, I caution Members about the use of certain terminology. Be careful in your use of words, please. OK, Mr Butler.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. He will know that I am here to reflect the Assembly Commission’s corporate and agreed position rather than my personal view. It is no secret that there were different views in the Assembly Commission on the matter, but that reflects the politics of the Assembly itself.
Mr Blair: I thank the Member for his question. The Department of Finance engaged with Assembly Commission officials to consider the policies and decision-making processes that the Assembly Commission has in place to govern events and requests for commemorations in Parliament Buildings. In particular, Assembly Commission officials provided an update on the review of artefacts that the Assembly Commission has recently conducted and the principles that were agreed for that process. Those principles were agreed by all parties on the Assembly Commission and acknowledge the need to be inclusive of and sensitive to different political views across the Assembly. If the Department of Finance seeks further formal input from the Assembly Commission, that will, of course, be considered positively. However, it is for the Department of Finance to determine how any review dealing with the Stormont estate is conducted.
Mr Storey: I thank the Commission member for his answer. A successful event was held in the grounds of the estate on Monday — Commonwealth Day — to mark Her Majesty's platinum jubilee. Does that not show that, when there is an absence of bigotry and political prejudice, an agreement can be reached that accurately reflects the history of Northern Ireland? Will the Member commit to having further discussions with the Department of Finance to ensure that the outstanding issues regarding our history and heritage, on which there has been a failure on its part to deliver, will be looked at?
Mr Blair: I am not in a position to make a commitment on behalf of the Commission, but I am sure that the points that the Member has raised will be considered.
The event that the Member referred to was, of course, held within the precincts of Parliament Buildings. Therefore, it was a matter for the Assembly Commission, not the Department.
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for her question. The Assembly Members' pension scheme is a trust-based occupational pension scheme. Up to five Members are appointed by resolution of the Assembly to act as trustees. The trustees are responsible for administering the pension fund in accordance with the scheme rules, the law as it relates to pensions and pensions regulatory guidance.
The trustees have appointed an investment manager to invest the pension fund on a day-to-day basis. That appointment and the direction of the investment manager is a matter for the pension trustees. While the matter is for the pension trustees and not the Assembly Commission, I am advised that the trustees have recently appointed a new investment manager. In doing so, they ensured that the need to be able to undertake socially responsible investments was included in the specification for the new investment manager. The Member may wish to contact the trustees to discuss the matter further.
Miss Woods: I thank the Member for his answer. I have been continually contacting the trustees in the last two years and have yet to receive a firm date for when I can meet them.
The war in Ukraine has brought a sharp focus on the reliance on Russian fossil fuels and companies. Will the Member assure the House that the Commission will recommend a full review of the amount that is invested in the Northern Ireland Assembly Members' pension scheme, which, I believe, every MLA is a member of, and into Russian oil, coal and gas?
Mr O'Dowd: For the sake of openness and transparency, I will declare an interest. I was a trustee in the last mandate, but I have not been a trustee in this mandate.
While the Assembly Commission makes pension contributions, the pension scheme is administered by the trustees and not by the Assembly Commission. Therefore, where the money is invested does not fall to the Assembly Commission.
Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for her question. The energy costs for Parliament Buildings relate to gas and electricity usage. The Assembly Commission avails itself of a Department of Finance framework for the provision of gas, and it also uses a DOF contract to purchase its 100% renewable electricity. The total energy cost for Parliament Buildings for this financial year, 2021-22, is forecast to be just under £480,000. That is an increase of £194,000 and is up almost 68% on the cost in 2020-21, which was £286,000.
Ms S Bradley: I thank the Member for the answer. Let me say that £480,000 is a staggering amount, and it will, no doubt, increase. Will the Commission investigate why, on the hottest days of the year, the heating in the Building remains on? Can we find the "off" button, please?
Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. The Assembly Commission will consider what you have raised. It is very much on our minds at the minute, given the rising energy costs, which are outwith the control of the Assembly.
Mr Butler: Mr Deputy Speaker, reaching question 14 is a bit of a record for any sitting, is it not?
I thank the Member for his question. The Member will be aware that the Assembly Commission agreed to a request from the Assembly branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to grant permission to plant a tree on the grounds adjacent to Parliament Buildings to mark Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's platinum jubilee. That decision was agreed unanimously by the Assembly Commission, and I think that it was welcomed by all members as very positive.
Members will also be aware that a Speaker's event was held yesterday on Commonwealth Day. At that event, the tree to mark the platinum jubilee was officially planted by members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association branch and members of the Assembly Commission. The Member will be aware that the main focal point of celebrations for the platinum jubilee will be an extended public holiday from 2 June to 5 June.
The responsibility for leading the Assembly in marking civic events and other important occasions comes within the Speaker's representational role. Members who were here in 2012 may recall that Speaker Hay held a concert in the Great Hall to mark the diamond jubilee with the then Lord Lieutenant, Dame Mary Peters.
Obviously, after the May election, the Assembly is expected to elect a new Speaker. It will therefore be for the Speaker at that time to determine any additional arrangements for how the Assembly marks the platinum jubilee in advance of the June focal point.
Mr Robinson: I thank the Member for his answer. As this is a unique event that will never happen again and to recognise the outstanding service that Her Majesty has given, including to Northern Ireland, if the next Speaker agrees, can an invitation be extended to the palace for Her Majesty to attend this momentous event here in Northern Ireland?
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for his very useful supplementary question. Official invitations to visit the Assembly and Parliament Buildings are the responsibility of the Speaker, not the Assembly Commission. As we are all aware, it is not possible to know how full a programme of travel and events Her Majesty The Queen will be able to undertake for the platinum jubilee. However, the normal protocol is that such invites are best taken forward through official channels rather than in a debate on the Floor of the Chamber.
Mr O'Dowd: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am raising this point of order as an individual and not as a member of the Assembly Commission. I ask that the Speaker's Office takes a look at Mr Allister's comments during that session. I have no doubt in my mind that Mr Allister is an expert on the subject of bigotry and how to administer it. I ask that his comments during Question Time are examined.
Mr Allister: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Nesbitt: On a different subject, Mrs Kelly suggested that the review of the display of artefacts was very well advanced. I should say so, because the Speaker published the outcome at 2.17 pm.
Mr Allister: I trust that Mr O'Dowd will look up the dictionary definition of "bigotry". He might see that it applies to a T to Sinn Féin.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): You have probably repeated the claim that was made earlier, but we will leave those matters to the Speaker.
I ask Members to take their ease while we move to the next item of business.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Mr Colin McGrath has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.
Mr McGrath asked the Minister of Health to provide an update on the actions his Department will take to safeguard children and staff at care homes following the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) decision to deregister a centre run by Praxis Care after inspectors found significant shortcomings that placed children and staff at risk.
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I am aware that the RQIA undertook an inspection of a children's services residential care home for children in January this year. The inspection findings are clearly very disturbing and found staffing deficits which, in RQIA's assessment, compromised the provision of quality care for children with complex needs.
The South Eastern Trust has fully engaged with Praxis Care and the RQIA to explore the challenges in children's services and provide the support that is necessary to ensure safe care. As an immediate and decisive response, the trust redeployed statutory staff to address critical vacancies in the care home in order to maintain service provision. The trust developed a contingency plan to take ownership of the children's service, engaging families and the children to ensure transparency and provide assurance that decisive action was being taken. The children's service is now registered with the appropriate trust and additional trust staff have been redeployed to address deficits.
To be clear, the trust has now taken full leadership, management and oversight responsibilities in the children's service and will continue to work with the RQIA to ensure the delivery of safe and quality care. In the longer term, my officials are working with the Health and Social Care Board and all trusts to develop a framework to redesign services for children with disabilities and complex needs.
Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for his response. We have spent months and years in this place talking about the impact of inadequate care in mother-and-baby units and other institutions that the state places children in the care of, and we have always referred to that in the past tense. Yet here we are in 2022 discussing a children's care home in which the situation has deteriorated such that the trust has had to step in and take over. The root of the problem appears to have been staff shortages and staff inadequacies. There is an inference from the RQIA's statement that a result of those difficulties is that they impact upon the care of some of the most vulnerable in our community.
I appreciate that we have difficulties in many areas of the health service because of workforce challenges. However, I would like to know when the Department first became aware of the problems that were being faced and how much intervention there was from the RQIA prior to the decision to deregister the home? Surely the staffing issue did not occur overnight.
Mr Swann: As I said in my opening statement, the RQIA undertook an inspection in January this year. It then served a notice of intent in February. It has acted in a speedy way to undertake work with the South Eastern Trust, which acted immediately to put in place provisions. There was a proactive response from the RQIA and the South Eastern Trust. They mobilised quickly to make sure that additional support was provided to those children who needed it.
Mr Gildernew: Minister, supporting and keeping children safe is clearly a paramount requirement of us all. I welcome the trust's stepping in to manage and deliver those key services. Has the trust asked for or been given additional resources to take on the running of the care home? Could this open the way for other failing care homes to be rescued?
Mr Swann: The RQIA and the South Eastern Trust interacted on what needed to be done to address the RQIA's findings about those significant staffing deficits, including staff competency, in the care that was being provided. The RQIA also had concerns about the leadership and governance structures, which required the decision to be taken at speed.
The Member will be aware of the other processes that have been put in place by the RQIA in other trusts. At this point, the trust has not asked for additional resource to be able to do that. It mobilised its own staff as quickly as was needed to make sure that it was able to maintain safe staffing levels and that the care of the residents was maximised at that point.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answers to the questions so far on what is a very concerning subject. What engagement has the Department or the RQIA had with the parents or next of kin of the children who have been placed at risk in that centre to reassure them and provide clarity on the situation?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. That is one of the main cruxes of the issue. In my answer to the initial question, I said that there was engagement about the care not only with the parents but the children themselves. I also indicated that there was engagement by the RQIA not just following the inspection and in the decisions taken but, as is required in an RQIA inspection, through its interaction with the children and young people about the support and services with which they were being provided and whether that met their needs. There was engagement by the RQIA throughout the entirety of the process.
Ms Bradshaw: I was shocked but not necessarily surprised when I saw the news this morning about that form of accommodation. Minister, you will recall that I wrote to you not that long ago about a constituent of mine whose discharge from the Iveagh Centre has been delayed for several years. That cuts across into the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) report, 'Still Waiting', on the lack of appropriate care packages in the community for young people. An enduring concern that we on the Health Committee have is that a lot of those children will end up in adult services and then become institutionalised. What is the Department of Health doing about providing proper care for children in community settings?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her point. She will be aware of the Children's Homes Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005 and the requirement from the Department of Health to publish minimum standards for children's homes as well. In those, standard 4 relates to safeguarding children and young people and the other work that needs to be done to make sure that there is support for each individual, that that is assessed based on individual need and that there is an individual care pathway as well.
The Member will also be aware that, on 21 January, I announced an independent review of children's social care services. That review commenced in February. It is being led by Professor Ray Jones and supported by an expert panel, and it is expected to take approximately 16 months. That review will be fundamental to the examination of children's services. It will focus on quality, equity, resilience and sustainability to ensure that our services are capable of responding to the current and potential future demand level and complexity of need; are effectively meeting the needs of the children, young people and families with a range of vulnerabilities; sufficiently and supportively engaging them in the decisions that affect their lives; and are adequately supporting staff and carers in the exercise of their statutory and other duties in the course of their caring responsibilities.
As I have announced, even with regard to the legislation that we completed this morning, this is the start of a process, and a lot of work has to be done to ensure that the issues that Mr McGrath mentioned do not happen again. The RQIA's intervention and inspection, and the quick action of the South Eastern Trust, proves that we are in a very different place from where we were when some of those inquiries initially took place.
Ms Flynn: As we all know, protecting children in care is the main aim of our social care services. With that in mind, will the Minister tell the House whether there have been any safeguarding referrals as a result of that extraordinary action?
Mr Swann: I am not in a position to answer that question at this time, but I can follow up with the Member directly or through the Health Committee.
Mrs D Kelly: As other Members have said, the safeguarding of children and young people is our priority. On reflection, are we paying the staff who are tasked to work in the care homes well enough, and have they the right skills, talents and attributes to look after our most vulnerable, given that there is, I am sure, a disparity between the pay scales of the third sector — the voluntary and community sector or charity sector; whatever you want to call it — and trusts?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. She indicates a challenge that we have across all of the care sectors as regards the support of the staff in the sector by way of what they are being paid and the compensation that is there. Professor Ray Jones will also look at that as part of the review into children's social care services that I announced, because we cannot rely entirely on the third sector, the social sector, to carry out that function. It is also important that those services are inspected by the RQIA to make sure that they are serving at a standard that supports the people who are using the facilities and that the RQIA acts where it sees that action is needed. In this case, it has.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Member for raising the issue. My thoughts are with the young people who have been failed and put at risk. The Minister practically stated that the recruitment and retention of staff may have exacerbated some of those inexcusable failures. What assessment has he and his team made of the suggestion that such services should not be supplied by charities but by the state and the NHS, to avoid a repeat of any of these cataclysmic and heartbreaking failures?
Mr Swann: The Member and I have had discussions about what is a mixed economy in relation to our social care and social provision, where we rely not only on third-sector providers in the voluntary and community sector but on the private sector. Part of the remit of the review of adult social care is to look at how we rebalance how much is supplied by trusts versus what is being provided by the private and voluntary and community sectors. I believe that the trusts and the Department should be doing more centrally, because that is what our National Health Service is about: providing a health service at all points. I know that that is one of the points on which the Member and I agree.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes questions on the question for urgent oral answer. I ask Members to take their ease while we move to the next item of business.
That Standing Order 42(1) be suspended in respect of the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill.
Mr Lyttle: I will keep my comments brief. I welcome the opportunity to move the motion to suspend Standing Order 42(1) for the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill. Its suspension would give the Assembly a genuine opportunity to pass a long-overdue legislative reform that commands increasingly broad political and public support.
Ms McLaughlin (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): After the Bill was introduced on 17 January, the Committee resolved to do what it could to ensure its passage by the end of the mandate. It agreed to invite the Bill sponsor to meet it, wrote to the Business Committee to urge early scheduling of the Bill's remaining stages and issued a call for views on the Bill in advance of the formal Committee Stage. In that way, the Committee had heard sufficient evidence by the time that Second Stage was complete to progress to an early conclusion of Committee Stage. The Committee has indicated a will to ensure that the Bill progresses, and I am happy to support the motion.
Mr Allister: I do not object to the Bill's content. The Bill is long overdue. I do, however, object to the corruption of the processes of the House and to the Business Committee's aiding and abetting that. Last night, we had the same with another Bill. Today, it is this Bill. We have cut corners with all sorts of Bills. The House is doing itself no credit by playing fast and loose with its Standing Orders and processes. That is fundamentally wrong. I suspect that the Bill could have been introduced a long time ago.
It is a necessary Bill. St Louis Grammar School in my constituency is advertising for a home economics teacher. The application form talks about:
"a community inspired by the Catholic faith, living out Gospel Values and reflecting all traditions of our Irish Cultural Heritage."
What that has to do with home economics is clearly nothing, yet it is a barrier to the employment of some. For the Bill to address that, insofar as it will, is necessary, but it should not have been necessary to corrupt the processes of the House in order to pass it.
Mrs Dodds: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I support the principle of the Bill, but I put on record my concerns about the process that it has taken. I have spoken to the proposer of the Bill at length and agree that it is necessary in principle, but it seems that we are now giving accelerated passage to private Members' Bills in the House. I spoke at Second Stage about some of the concerns around what the Bill does and what it does not do. Although it looks at the legal exemption from fair employment law, it —
Mrs Dodds: I will in a moment; of course I will. I just want to make this point.
It looks at the exemption from fair employment law for teachers — that is a good thing, because we should employ people on the basis of equality and of their qualifications to teach a particular subject — but the Bill does not look at the barriers to education and to employment in schools. It does not look at the very important issue of ethos and how some schools may or may not want to protect it. The Bill also does not look at the issue of the certificate of education that is required for some Catholic maintained schools. Although this is a necessary Bill and I am happy to support it, we have, in many ways, ignored the wider issues in the processes around it.
Mr Catney: I thank the Member for Upper Bann for giving way. As you know, I have a private Member's Bill going through the House. It has taken me about 18 months of work to get it here. For the first three years of my being here, I was not allowed to come to the House and fulfil my role as an MLA for Lagan Valley. At the end, I have found it difficult as well, because of the removal of our First Minister. Does the Member agree that, because of the time that there was to introduce a private Member's Bill — 18 months or two years — there was always going to be congestion? I support the Member who has brought this proposal for this Bill today. I hope that you agree with me.
Mrs Dodds: I agree with you. You made some very valid points. There is support across the House for the principle behind the Bill, and so it has been deemed right to rush its stages. I have a general concern that we are now governing by private Members' Bills. That will be to the detriment of the House. The lack of scrutiny and consultation is to the detriment of the House and of good legislation.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Executive Office Committee for its support for this motion. I sincerely hope that it will present the Assembly with the opportunity to progress this important legislative reform. I acknowledge the contributions of Mr Allister and my Education Committee colleague Mrs Dodds, with whom I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging on a wide range of education-related issues in the time that we have spent on the Education Committee together. I assure Mr Allister and reassure Mrs Dodds that, in no small part due to the proactive and extensive engagement and consultation of the Executive Office Committee, there has been no corruption of due process for this four-clause Bill. I welcome the fact that it now has increasingly broad public and political support. I commend it to the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Mr Allister, your dissent has been noted, and I feel that the motion has been carried. As there are Ayes from all sides of the House, with the exception of one dissenting voice, I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 42(1) be suspended in respect of the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group with one amendment, which deals with extension to commencement.
I remind Members that, once the debate on the group is completed, the Questions on the amendment and clauses stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we will proceed.
Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
In page 1, line 10, leave out "12" and insert "24".
Ms McLaughlin: I say at the outset that everyone whom we heard from during the Committee Stage agreed that the exception for schoolteachers in the Fair Employment and Treatment Order 1998 (FETO) should go. That is what we heard from stakeholders, the Department of Education and the education bodies. That is what we had in the responses from the vast majority of respondents to our online call for views. The key questions raised were about when. The main hesitation with removing the exception immediately was due to two main factors: first, providing time for conversations to take place as to how the ethos of a school can be maintained without the exemption in place; and, secondly, allowing time for the introduction of monitoring systems and for the related guidance to be drafted and issued.
On the issue of ethos, representatives from the Catholic school sector were very clear when they told the Committee that they did not use the exception to maintain the ethos of their schools. Why, then, is there a need for any delay in removing the exception? Other stakeholders, such as the Transferor Representatives' Council, including the Presbyterian Church and the Church of Ireland, felt that time was needed to have conversations about the preservation of ethos. The Committee is not insensitive at all to any of those views. There may be additional challenges to maintaining a non-denominational Christian ethos in controlled schools without the cover of an exemption, especially when other stakeholders ask why there is a need for a Christian ethos at all in a school controlled by the state. The Department of Education felt that we had not given sufficient time for consultation with the various school sectors on how the transition can be managed. This issue has been debated for many years, with recent Assembly motions in 2013, 2014 and 2021. Why have those conversations not been taking place until now?
The second rationale for delay is for schools to be given time to be able to adjust to the monitoring requirements under the 1998 Order. The Equality Commission recommended delaying the removal of the exemption on those grounds, as did the Department of Education.
The Committee was responsive to the argument that a delay may be appropriate for the required systems and processes to be developed and for appropriate policy development and training to take place. Some members of the Committee felt that there should be no delay in removing the exemption and, indeed, that the 12 months in the Bill was generous.
At this point, I put it on record that the Bill sponsor has been extremely open and flexible in discussions around how long the exception should be delayed. He has engaged with the Minister of Education to hear her concerns and has listened to the evidence from other stakeholders. The Department asked for at least 30 months but did not give a rationale for that. The Committee felt that a reasonable compromise would be 24 months. Therefore, the Committee recommends that the provisions of the Bill can be delayed up to 24 months, if not commenced sooner by the Executive Office.
I record the Committee's thanks to all those who responded to the call for views, whether that was by writing to the Committee directly or through the online survey. I thank the witnesses for their evidence and for the open and frank conversations that we had with them in Committee. I thank the Assembly's Research and Information Service (RaISe) for the thorough and detailed account of where the exception sits in the wider international context. I thank the Bill Office and the Examiner of Statutory Rules for their sound advice. I also thank the Clerk and the Committee team for moving forward with pace on the Bill.
The Committee for the Executive Office seeks to amend the Bill to come into force no later than 24 months after Royal Assent.
I will now make some comments in my capacity as an SDLP MLA. My party was founded to pursue civil rights for all of our population. More than that, my party is proud of its relationship with the trade union movement. For both those reasons, the SDLP strongly supports the Bill. We believe that religious discrimination is wrong and that we must move forward in the spirit of bringing our society together. Our party strongly believes in equal opportunities for workers, and the Bill is an important move forward in that regard. I am proud to support the Bill on behalf of my party.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Sula dtosaím, just to remind Members that we are not discussing the merits and demerits of the Bill; the debate is on amendment No 1. I realise that people want to contextualise, but make sure to focus, please. Gabh mo leithscéal, a Phádraig. Lean ar aghaidh.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. To set the context, the Bill is about repealing the exemption from fair employment legislation allowing schools to discriminate when employing teachers. We do not know of any instance when it has been used, and it has always been assumed that the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) wanted the exemption. It stated clearly in Committee that it has never used the exemption when employing a teacher. That is the context, and the Chair has eloquently pointed out that almost all the stakeholders to whom the Committee spoke were in favour of the repeal of the legislation.
I will move on to the amendment. I thank the sponsor for introducing the Bill. It is another important brick in the wall in normalising the society in which we live. The Bill stipulated that it would be 12 months before commencement. The Department was unhappy with that and wanted 30 months, but, as the Chair pointed out, after discussion during our clause-by-clause consideration last week, the Committee decided that it would compromise on 24 months. We support the amendment.
Mrs Dodds: I support the Bill and thank its sponsor for the work that has gone into it. In the previous debate, I stated my concerns about the process, but no one in the House is in any doubt that the Bill is necessary and the right and proper course of action.
On the amendment, as many have pointed out, the Department might have liked to have longer. However, when we look at issues, we sometimes see that creating the practical conditions for things to change takes a little time. I am content with 24 months' notice for the Bill to come into effect, although I believe that many schools can make it happen sooner by doing it informally.
I support the Bill, and I hope that the 24 months can be used to iron out some of the issues that the Chair of the Committee presented in her summary of the evidence that was given to the Committee. Many people were worried about the general Christian ethos and values about which people would want to have an honest and transparent conversation. People also commented on barriers to fair employment that are not strictly related to the Bill, such as the certificate and access to it.
I would like the 24 months to be used positively in order to iron out some of those difficulties, but we support the Bill.
Ms Armstrong: It my pleasure to speak on behalf of the Alliance Party in support of my colleague Chris Lyttle's private Member's Bill, the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill.
It appears that the planets have aligned for the legislation. We have arrived at the right time for the majority, if not all, to be in support of the revocation of article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. That simply means that all teachers will be protected by fair employment legislation in the same way as all other employees.
The issue has been considered for many years. Before I speak to the amendment, I will say why I support it. The Equality Commission considered the removal of article 71 in 2004. It felt then that the exception should be retained for primary-school teachers in Northern Ireland. It was not time then, but it is now. We have only to look at the website of the NASUWT The Teachers' Union to see that it calls for:
"changes to equalities law in Northern Ireland to ensure no teacher can be discriminated against when applying for jobs, regardless of their religion."
On 24 February, the BBC education correspondent, Robbie Meredith, confirmed that Bishop McKeown of CCMS had said that the exception was "no longer appropriate or required".
I thank the Bill sponsor, Chris, for introducing this private Member's Bill to fix the issue by extending equality protections to our teachers. I also thank the Executive Office Committee, which worked with the Bill sponsor to enable the Bill to come to the House for debate and to progress. It is a short Bill covering an issue that used to be controversial but, thankfully, is not any more. Earlier today, the Agriculture Minister, taking the place of the Minister of Education, spoke about the professionalism and excellence of the teachers that we have in Northern Ireland. It is right that we protect all those teachers by bringing their whole profession under the protection of fair employment legislation.
I turn to the amendment. The extension to 24 months gives all employing authorities and directly employing schools time to update their employment practices to ensure that fair employment is in place. If you work out the timings, you find that the fair employment legislation requirement will need to be met by about April 2024, in good time for appointments to be made to fill teaching positions from August or September 2024. That should not be an onerous task for any employing authority or school, as fair employment has existed for all non-teaching roles and other employers since the FETO legislation was enacted in 1998.
The Alliance Party gives its full support to the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill, which will, at long last, ensure that teachers are all protected by fair employment legislation.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): An dtig linn Daniel McCrossan a thabhairt ar an scáileán, le do thoil? Can we bring Daniel McCrossan on to the screen please?
He has gone, so I will call the sponsor of the Bill, Mr Chris Lyttle.
Mr Lyttle: I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. I thank the Speaker's Office and the Business Committee for scheduling the remaining stages of the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill and giving us the opportunity to debate it.
I set out to progress the Bill in order to revoke article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment Order and to include teachers in fair employment protection because, in my assessment, that is an overdue legislative reform with increasingly broad public and political consensus. That assessment bears scrutiny now that we have reached Consideration Stage with a single substantive amendment to increase the deadline for manageable implementation of the Bill from 12 to 24 months.
The amendment tabled by the TEO Committee Chairperson, Sinead McLaughlin MLA, is the product of collective hard work and engagement between a wide range of people and stakeholders but particularly the TEO Committee. I thank the Chairperson, the Deputy Chairperson, John Stewart MLA, and all TEO Committee members and the Committee team for their proactive consideration, evidence taking and scrutiny of the Bill at Committee Stage, which has allowed this important reform to proceed.
I thank the Education Minister, Department of Education officials and the education management and sectoral bodies for their engagement with the Bill. It is testimony to the extent of that work that there appears to be increasing consensus at Consideration Stage in support of the passage of the Bill before the end of the mandate, on the grounds that it provides that manageable time for implementation.
I am grateful for the amendment proposed by the TEO Committee with cross-party consensus to extend the implementation time from 12 to 24 months. The amendment achieves that objective and is fair and reasonable to all who is involved. There is no desire in any political party to place any undue burden on the schools and teachers that the Bill seeks to support. The amendment achieves that aim. We owe so much to the teachers and schools that have shown such service and leadership to our community. The fact that the Bill includes them in protection from religious discrimination on the grounds of their faith is a long-overdue and small way in which we can show them that support and gratitude.
It is my intention to submit a minor, non-substantive tidying amendment for Further Consideration Stage before the deadline tomorrow.
On those grounds, I am now more certain than ever that the Assembly can pass into law what is a positive legislative reform for fair employment for teachers before the end of the mandate next week.
I thank Pat Catney for his support. It was remiss of me not to have done so at the last stage. Despite not being a member of the TEO Committee, which has worked so hard on the Bill, Pat gave the Bill support, and I commend him for his efforts in his private Member's Bill on providing free period products for all. The last few weeks have shown what the Assembly can achieve when we work together on small but significant legislative reforms that will mean a great deal to many in our community.
Mr Stewart (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I am pleased to make a winding-up speech on amendment No 1 on behalf of the Committee for the Executive Office. I thank all Members who contributed to the debate for their participation. I also thank those who provided evidence to the Committee to inform today's debate. I thank Members for their support for the amendment and, in particular, for bringing their perspectives to the debate. I acknowledge the concerns that were raised and hope that they will be allayed by the conversations that take place over the two years that follow the Bill becoming law.
The overriding interest to the Committee is that teachers can apply to any school without prejudice or discrimination. The Committee also saw from the evidence that that can take place without loss to the ethos of any particular school. The ethos is generated by governors, parents, teachers, non-teaching staff, students and the surrounding community, not by barring employment to anyone on the grounds of their religious convictions. I again thank all Members who spoke today. There was agreement on the amendment across the board.
I will make a few comments about the amendment as an Ulster Unionist MLA. First, I thank the Bill sponsor for bringing this short but significant Bill here today and for the tenacity that he has shown on it. All being well, the Bill looks set to pass by the end of next week. I thank the members of the Committee for their input on the amendment during the discussions that we had last week. I think that originally I probably said that I was content with 12 months, as per the original drafting of the Bill, but, off the back of the evidence given by the Department of Education last week, when it requested 30 months, 24 months is probably a fair compromise. The Department should not look to use the full 24 months: there can be an optimistic approach to try to change any processes as quickly as possible. That is doable within the time frame. The Ulster Unionist Party supports this important piece of legislation. Thank you very much.
Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. I ask Members to please take their ease while we move to the next item of business.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
That the Marriage, Civil Partnership and Civil Registration (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 (S.R. 2022/48) be annulled.
Mr Allister: Two matters have prompted the prayer of annulment. The two matters on which to focus attention are the unnecessary squander and the process followed in respect of this particular statutory instrument, which provides the facility for someone to record their marriage details in Irish.
To start with the process, astoundingly, when the Finance Committee looked at the statutory instrument and called evidence on it, we discovered that, before the statutory instrument was ever brought to the Committee, and before it was ever made, the Department of Finance had decided to spend £261,000 to upgrade an IT system to facilitate that, and presumed — that is the point about process — the support of the Committee and the Assembly to put in place retrospectively that upon which it had already spent £261,000. That amount of money would employ eight nurses for a year, but the registrar thought that it was appropriate to spend that extravagant amount of money on the IT upgrade before ever bringing any proposal next or near the Committee.
That prompted the next important question of the registrar: what was the demonstrable demand for the facility? Here, the story gets even more astounding, because the answer was, "We have had one or two calls a month" — one or two calls a month from people asking for the facility. The average of that might be 18 people a year asking for the facility to record marriage details in Irish. In response to that, it was thought to be appropriate to spend over a quarter of a million pounds.
Today, at lunchtime, I attended, with others, the cancer project meeting. There is a worthy cause that is crying out for funds, but the House and the Department think that it is more important to squander £261,000 to meet the needs of 18 people a year.