Official Report: Monday 21 March 2022
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The first item in the Order Paper is the consideration of business not concluded on Tuesday 15 March. As all business was disposed of last week, we will quickly move on.
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 21 March 2022.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 21 March 2022.
That this Assembly takes note of the proposed changes to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 as set out in the draft Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit on the debate. The proposer will have up to five minutes to propose the motion and up to five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have up to three minutes.
Ms Bunting: The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 make provision for the flying of flags on government buildings on specified days. Under the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000, the Secretary of State has the power to make and amend such regulations. However, in so doing, the Secretary of State is required to refer a draft of the proposed regulations to the Assembly.
The Assembly must then report back to him the views expressed in the Assembly on the proposed regulations by the date he specified. The Secretary of State has a duty to consider the Assembly's report and may amend the proposed regulations as a result of the report before laying the regulations for approval by resolution of each House of Parliament.
The Business Committee was made aware at its meeting on Tuesday 15 March that the Secretary of State had written to the Speaker advising that he intended to make amendments to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 to reflect the latest list of designated days for flag flying, which was published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on 11 February. In accordance with the wishes of the palace, the 2022 list states that Her Majesty The Queen's two birthdays and the birthday of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales are the only royal birthdays to be observed for the purposes of flag flying.
The Government have now drafted amendments to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 to reflect the current list of designated days and bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. A copy of the proposed regulations was circulated to all Members last week and is available in hard copy in the Business Office. The Secretary of State has asked the Assembly to consider those draft regulations and provide a report of its views by 22 March 2022.
The Business Committee did not take a view on the proposals. In line with previous practice, it instead agreed to table today's motion to create an opportunity for Members to consider the draft regulations. The Official Report of the debate will record the views expressed in the Assembly on the proposals.
I will now make some remarks on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party. We on these Benches believe that the display of our national flag is an important and legitimate form of expression of our Britishness and of Northern Ireland's membership of the United Kingdom. That right has too often become the focus of the culture war of the parties opposite and, sadly, of those parties that claim to represent all traditions but are content to trample the principle of consent contained in the Belfast Agreement.
As a party, we greet any reduction in flag flying provision with sadness. However, we understand that the amendments will keep Northern Ireland aligned with the designated days provision published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in February and that they come at the request of the palace and Her gracious Majesty. It is fitting that the guidance for 2022 elevates Her Majesty The Queen's two birthdays and that of her heir in what is a huge personal milestone for her and for us as a nation as our monarch celebrates her platinum jubilee.
My party colleagues Jonathan Buckley, Mervyn Storey and Keith Buchanan have written to the Speaker requesting that the Assembly Commission approve the flying of the Union flag on 28 May to mark the Orange Institution's flagship centennial parade to mark and celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland. Ultimately, the response of parties and Members returned to the House after 5 May to that modest request will be a test of their credentials and commitment to a truly shared future.
I want to be clear that the DUP continues to hold serious concerns regarding the regulation of flag flying in our Province. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom has dedicated flags legislation. The fact remains that the system is unwieldy and not fit for purpose. One practical example of that is that Northern Ireland's regulations do not permit the flying of the Union flag to mark the patron saints' holidays of other regions in the United Kingdom. That does not allow our Province to celebrate the common and historic bonds that we share with other regions of our nation.
Whilst I respect the DCMS guidance and the steps taken in response by the Secretary of State to bring forward the regulations, let me say unambiguously that Northern Ireland's Britishness must be respected, and the right of unionist communities to express national pride should not be held to ransom. The DUP regards the display of our national symbols as a central expression of pride in Northern Ireland's Britishness and membership of the United Kingdom.
Mr O'Dowd: I suspect that, as we debate this topic this afternoon, many families and workers around the North will have more important things on their mind than flags, such as how to heat, eat and keep a roof over their family's heads. I suspect that this will not be at the top of their list of priorities.
The debate is brought to us courtesy of Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State, who, in his presentation of the motion, again completely fails to recognise the need for parity of esteem, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.
The British Government have failed completely to acknowledge the fact that there are many, many people in this part of the island who identify as Irish and who expect their cultural identity, allegiances and culture to be not only identifiable but protected and on display.
It is also worth noting that the British Government continue to fail to bring forward Acht na Gaeilge, despite their agreement that they would do so last year. That is another act of bad faith by the British Government, given their responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement to have parity of esteem for all traditions on this island.
Our position on the flying of the Union flag is clear. We want to see parity of esteem for all identities on this island, and we expect this British Government to act. I have no doubt, however, that they will act in bad faith because, no matter which side you represent in the House, we all acknowledge that honouring agreements is not their forte.
Mr Stewart: Members will be all too aware of the challenges that we face in getting any kind of consensus on flying flags in Northern Ireland. Up to now, we have been subject to 18 days, as per the DCMS list, and, today, we are to lose seven of those, which is almost a third.
In that context, my party thinks that it is reasonable to look at adding some other days to mitigate that loss. There has already been a suggestion for that from a Member for East Belfast. Days such as St Patrick's Day, 1 July to mark the Battle of the Somme and, potentially, the Twelfth of July should also be considered by the Commission. That is a reasonable recommendation, so, hopefully, the Commission will look at it.
Mr Muir: As others said, the list reflects that which was received from DCMS following liaison with the royal household. The Alliance Party will support the change today, as we did the previous update following the very sad passing of the Duke of Edinburgh. The Alliance Party's support for designated days is well known and is a long-established party policy. We have written to DCMS to request that the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme be considered as a designated day. There was unanimity in City Hall to fly the Union flag to mark the Battle of the Somme and not to fly the flag on the Duke of York's birthday. We hope that there can be some consensus today on what has been tabled.
Mr Allister: I very much regret the diminution in the number of days. I can understand removing the Duke of York's birthday, but to see the birthdays of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge removed from the list is surprising and unnecessary. I do not endorse it, nor do I endorse doing likewise for the Princess Royal's birthday and that of others.
It is quite clear that this is a one-way process. There are no additions when, patently, there are days that should be added if Northern Ireland is, indeed, a full and integral part of the United Kingdom. Yet we have this selective reduction in days in a Province where apparently it is a matter of shame to fly the national flag of the United Kingdom on government buildings. Of course, now we have Sinn Féin ever looking for more and, in the words of Mr O'Dowd, demanding "parity". Let me be very clear: there is no equivocation on and no scope for parity in the fact that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. Therefore, there is no place for flying any flag other than that of the United Kingdom on government buildings. That is emphatic and unalterable as far as our position in the United Kingdom is concerned. It is piety dressed up as pious nonsense to talk about seeking parity for a foreign flag, which is that of a foreign country, to be flown with equality in Northern Ireland. So long as we are a part of the United Kingdom, it is and must be the flag of that United Kingdom that flies and flies alone on government buildings in this country.
I very much regret that the Secretary of State, in typical reverse gear, is reducing the number of days. That is a retrograde step that is not befitting of our position in the United Kingdom.
Mr Butler: I thank all the Members who made a contribution this morning. I intend to be very brief in concluding the debate.
In tabling the motion, the Business Committee's intention was to give Members an opportunity to express their views on proposed amendments to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000. The Business Committee has not considered the proposals or taken a view on them.
As detailed in the debate, the Secretary of State wrote to the Speaker on 15 March asking that the Assembly consider the draft regulations and provide a report of its views by Tuesday 22 March 2022. Consequently, in order to meet that deadline, the Business Committee was required to ensure that the Assembly had an opportunity to debate the proposals today. Members have now set out their views on them. I do not intend to run through all or any of those views again; the Official Report records them.
Mr Deputy Speaker, the Business Committee has been advised that, today, you will send a copy of the Official Report to the Secretary of State, who may then choose to amend the proposed regulations before laying them for approval by resolution of each House of Parliament. On behalf of the Business Committee, I ask all Members to support the motion.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this Assembly takes note of the proposed changes to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 as set out in the draft Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Speaker has received notice from the Minister of Education that she wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of the social distancing that is being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members who are in the Chamber should also do that, but they may also rise in their place or notify the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly.
I remind Members to be concise in asking their question. This is not an opportunity for debate but, rather, an opportunity to question the Minister on her statement, so please avoid overly long introductions, as they will not be allowed. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the question period afterwards.
Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): My Department is responsible for the planning, management and delivery of a fit-for-purpose schools estate that is both viable and sustainable in the context of the sustainable schools policy and the outworking of area planning. In that context, I will make a statement regarding my major capital investment plans for the schools estate.
I have visited many schools and witnessed at first hand not only the tremendous work that takes place in each and every school but the need for an appropriate level of investment in the fabric of our schools, whether that is a new building, the extension and refurbishment of existing school buildings or a programme of smaller-scale minor capital works. Such investment is essential in order to provide the first-class educational experience that our pupils, staff and wider school communities deserve and need to ensure that our young people can achieve their full potential.
As Minister of Education, it is my responsibility to ensure, within budget constraints, that that essential capital investment is facilitated as far as possible. My announcement today will permit a further programme of major works to advance in planning and support the delivery of modern, fit-for-purpose schools.
Since 2012, 75 projects have been announced to advance in planning under the major capital works programme. Each project represents an individual programme that requires the significant investment of time and money to plan and deliver. That includes time to identify and secure sites, progressing through the design and statutory planning stages, procurement, and, of course, ensuring best value for the public purse, within approved budget envelopes, throughout.
I am pleased to confirm that good progress is being made in the delivery of announced projects: 28 are now complete; seven are on site; five are in procurement; a further three will move to procurement in the coming weeks; 28 are in design; one has been temporarily suspended; and three have transferred to the Fresh Start Agreement programme, two of which are also complete. Anticipated spend on those projects across the next five years is estimated at £482 million. In addition, 76 projects are being progressed under the school enhancement programme, and a further 27 major capital projects are being progressed under the Fresh Start Agreement programme.
In this financial year, the gross capital budget that has been available to me amounts to some £200 million. My officials have planned and profiled capital spend through the year to ensure that we maximise the use of the funds available to me across each of the main capital programmes. Whilst my Department, like others, has no visibility of its future budget position, my delivery teams in the Department and its arm's-length bodies continue to work hard to progress projects across all the programmes in anticipation of similar levels of capital budget in the medium term.
Many of the already announced major works projects are progressing well. However, given the time required to develop individual projects from concept through to actual build, it is essential that sufficient projects advance to the point where they could effectively utilise capital funds that may be available in the future. To address the need for much greater capital investment in our schools, it is essential that I ensure that I have sufficient announced projects at an early development stage to ensure that available capital budget can be used to greatest effect. It is, therefore, essential that there is a steady pipeline of projects in design, which, in turn, will ensure the continued modernisation of the school estate in future years as those projects move to construction.
Like my predecessors, I take the selection of major works projects to advance in planning very seriously. It is critical that the process that is used to select projects is documented and followed. That was achieved in previous years through the development of a protocol for the selection of projects. In advance of the call for projects, the protocol for selection was reviewed and published on the Department's website. The 2021 call for projects opened on 23 December 2021, and, by the closing date of 14 January 2022, 34 school nominations had been received. Gateway checks were undertaken to ensure that schools that are considered for major capital investment are viable and sustainable, that there was certainty about the schools' future development and that the schools had not been announced for major capital funding under the school enhancement programme. Twenty-eight schools passed the gateway stage. Those schools progressed to the scoring stage and were ranked in merit order, based on the scoring system that is detailed in the published protocol.
In deciding the number of schools to advance in planning under the major capital programme, I considered the capital budget required to build those schools, the Department's current capital works programmes and the capacity of the resources required to develop and deliver the projects.
In that regard, I fully understand that there are many competing pressures for the capital budget available to me and, indeed, on the capacity to deliver. However, I believe that it is important to keep a focus on the future, and, through my announcement today, I hope to bring some much-needed good news, not just to schools and their wider school communities but to the contractors and professionals in the construction industry and the wider economy that, I expect, will benefit from this announcement.
Whilst construction spend on the projects that I will soon announce will not be realised until the end of this decade at the earliest, by making this announcement today, I will ensure a steady pipeline of projects in design, which will, in turn, ensure the continued modernisation of the schools’ estate into the future.
I will now turn to the list of major works projects that I wish to announce to advance in planning. Twenty-eight schools are to advance in planning under the major capital works programme. These schools will benefit from a capital investment in the region of £794 million, with deliverability subject to the level of capital resources available to the Department towards the end of this decade and into the next. In no priority order, the schools are as follows: Ballyclare High School; Ballyclare Secondary School; Ballymena Academy; Belfast High School; Cambridge House Grammar School, Ballymena; Carrickfergus Academy; Dean Maguirc College; Dromore High School; Edmund Rice College; Friends' School, Lisburn; Hunterhouse College; Killicomaine Junior High School; Larne Grammar; Larne High School; Lisnagarvey High School; Loreto College, Coleraine; Lumen Christi College, Londonderry; Malone Integrated College; Mercy College Belfast; Portadown College; Sperrin Integrated College; St Brigid's College, Londonderry; St Catherine's College, Armagh; St Ciaran's College, Ballygawley; St Joseph's College; St Louise's Comprehensive College; St Paul's High School, Newry; and St Pius X College, Magherafelt.
In making this announcement today, it is my intention that these projects will be taken through to construction. However, I should stress that authorisation to proceed to construction on any individual project will be based on the level of capital funding available at the point when a design is complete and all necessary approvals have been secured.
Finally, the projects that I have announced today to advance in planning will benefit over 25,000 pupils across the schools estate. These projects have been carefully selected in line with my Department’s strategy for capital investment, which continues to be shaped by the outworking of area planning and the delivery of a modern, fit-for-purpose estate of viable and sustainable schools.
Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I thank the Minister for her statement. The announcement is, obviously, on the face of it, very positive news for 28 out of approximately 1,000 schools in Northern Ireland. However, I do have concerns, and I would like to ask the Education Minister why only a third of major school building works since 2012 have been completed a decade after the start of those works. Also, the total budget announced today appears to be in the region of £800 million for 28 schools, which I think is about £28 million a school on average. In the midst of a financial crisis for education, does the Education Minister actually have the budget to ensure that funding at that scale will be delivered? Will there be a call for special-school capital works as soon as possible?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Chair of the Committee for his questions, and I want to pay tribute to him. Obviously, this may be his last opportunity to engage with me, particularly in this forum, and I thank him for the work that he has done as Chair of the Education Committee. I wish him well in whatever the future brings for him and his family.
Today's announcement is a significant one, and I am very mindful that there are a number of projects still in the pipeline from previous announcements. As he will understand, they are progressing. There have been some issues quite recently with regard to budget pressures, particularly for those who made bids to take those schemes forward. Those projects have been stalled as a consequence of factors that are outwith my control.
There are pressures with all budgets going forward, but the Chair will recognise, from the statement and from the discussion that I had with him earlier, that I am very clear that there is a need for investment in our schools. It is incredibly important that schools be shovel-ready when capital funding becomes available. This is a good-news announcement. It will bring a smile to the face of a number of Members in the Chamber but also to that of those involved with schools and school communities.
The Chair asked about special schools. He will be aware that this was a post-primary-school call. The handbook for post-primary schools does not fit for special schools, which require a bespoke design to meet their particular needs. My Department is very cognisant of the challenges for special schools and of the need for capital investment in them. It is working at pace to bring forward suggestions on how to move forward with a call. I anticipate that, not in my time but in a future Minister's time, a call will be made for special schools.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, it is custom and practice that some latitude is shown to the Chair of the Committee. I urge Members, because of the interest that has been shown in the statement, to come to their question concisely.
Mr Sheehan: On the cusp of an election, the Minister has announced a capital investment plan for 28 schools, at a cost of almost £800 million and with no delivery targets or time frames. Hundreds of schools across the North are in bad need of investment to bring them up to the standards that our young people deserve. Without a plan or time frame, however, many of those schools will be left in limbo.
Will the Minister provide clarity on when St Louise's in my constituency and its pupils can expect to see the benefit of this announcement?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. He is probably saying that I am electioneering. If I were electioneering, I might be announcing some good news for my constituency, but, sadly, that is not the case.
He will know, from our first engagement, during Question Time back in June, that I was quite taken aback at the condition of our school estate right across Northern Ireland and all sectors. I have made the call, to the Member and his colleagues in Finance, that we should be looking at investing heavily in our school estate and at ensuring that all children and the staff who work with them daily have access to a fit-for-purpose building. I am very positive about the announcement. It is a good-news story. We can see investment in the future, and it is a good sign from the Assembly that we value our schools, our pupils and our staff.
As they will with every other school, my officials will be working very closely with St Louise's. The schools will receive a letter today notifying them of the good news, if they have not already heard from some very excited Members. Work will start immediately on engagement, and we will then go through the various procurement processes for design staff and so on. As the Member will know, those processes do not happen overnight, and there could be a lag of between six and eight years, depending on circumstances, but it is important for those schools to be on the list today.
Mr Harvey: I welcome the Minister's statement. It is good to see her back with us. Will today's announcement of a large number of post-primary-school projects prevent future capital calls from being made for the next decade?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Absolutely not, because the need for calls in the Department will continue, be they for minor works, school enhancement or major capital programmes. The Member may be aware that previous announcements of major capital works took place in 2013 and 2014, and we are seeing the outworkings of those announcements today. There will therefore always be a need, as we have identified, for investment in our schools. Today's announcement helps 28 of them on their way.
Mr McNulty: This is a good news day. There is fantastic news for two wonderful schools in my constituency of Newry and Armagh: St Catherine's, Armagh and St Paul's High School, Bessbrook. My mum and dad were teachers at St Paul's High School in Bessbrook for almost a generation, so it is a very positive news story for them.
Teachers feel undervalued and overworked, Minister, especially in the context of the COVID pandemic that we have just come through. How will you reach out to them and help them to feel valued? How will you help them to get proper remuneration for their efforts in all that they have been through and for the influence that they have on our children's future? How will they be thanked and valued for that?
Miss McIlveen: I recognise that, but I am glad that I brought a smile to the Member's face today. Those two schools, particularly St Paul's, are close to his heart.
I very much appreciate the work that teachers undertake. I am a former teacher, although that was nearly a lifetime ago. I very much value their work, along with that of our classroom assistants and all those who work in schools to make them safe spaces for young people and who make their best efforts to set them on the right pathways through life.
The Member referred to remuneration. He will know that I have been working alongside my colleagues in order to come to agreement, and that work will obviously go on, with engagement between the management side and the unions. I value the contribution that all staff make in schools.
Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for her remarks. I declare an interest: one of my children will be going either to Ballyclare High or to Ballyclare Secondary. I thank her very much for that.
With something in the region of £50 million being invested in Ballyclare, which is well deserved, one of the questions that we have to ask is about future ring-fencing to make sure that the funding goes through. Has the Minister had any commitments from other political parties to support the investment as we go through? If there is no great commitment to it, will we be looking to things such as financial transactions capital (FTC) or the reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) to make sure that the funding is there for those vital projects to be done?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. He has shown commitment to a number of the schools on the list. The soundings that I get from all parties suggest that they are committed to investment. It is very much about whether we see the value of that money at a later date. A certain amount of pressure can be placed on the Secretary of State, particularly if we are looking for Levelling Up funding. It is incumbent on the NIO to understand the value of all our schools and all the sectors in our education system. Today's announcement should go some way to doing that. Before I leave office, I will make contact where I can in order to ensure that any available capital is directed to our schools and school infrastructure.
Mr McAleer: I welcome the inclusion of Dean Maguirc College in Carrickmore in the Minister's list of major capital works. I declare an interest as a parent and as a former pupil, many years ago.
The Minister will be aware from her visit to Dean Maguirc in December that the college badly needs substantial investment and upgraded facilities to cater for the ever-surging demand for places. The burning questions are these: is there any indication of how much of the £794 million might be earmarked for the school, and is there any indicative timing for that?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I had the pleasure of a really good visit just before Christmas to Dean Maguirc, where I was able to meet a number of principals from primary schools as well. I am cognisant of the needs of Dean Maguirc, which were drawn to my attention on that visit. My understanding is that there is probably somewhere in the region of £14 million for Dean Maguirc, although that is an incredibly early indication. It is not a precise figure at this point, because we will have to do a considerable amount of work to bring together a business case on the basis of the need of the school.
Again, as with other schools, departmental officials will work closely with any teams that are appointed and with the school to ensure that it gets the accommodation that it needs.
Mr Buckley: Today is a good day for education and a great day for education in Upper Bann. I thank the Minister for not only listening but delivering on the inclusion in the major works programme of Portadown College and Killicomaine Junior High School, both of which are on today's list. Some £25 million will go to Portadown College and £21 million to Killicomaine. That will go a serious way to help education.
Mr Buckley: As the Minister knows, there have been many false dawns. Those schools are in urgent need of rebuilds and major works. How long will it be before construction work commences for projects such as Portadown College and Killicomaine Junior High School?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I had the pleasure of visiting both schools. I had a particularly good visit to Portadown College along with the Member, and he has worked hard, alongside the principal and the board of governors, to promote the case for the school.
As with other schools, there is a lead-in time for all the projects. Some will depend on sites being allocated or searched for. Some are in a much more beneficial position than others. As the Member will be aware from other school projects, it is somewhere in the region of six to eight years before projects come to fruition. They are, obviously, very much dependent on the budget. However, this is the first step in the right direction for both the schools that he mentioned.
Miss Reilly: Despite its not meeting the sustainable enrolment criteria at the gateway stage, the Minister could have used her statutory duty to ensure that Gaelcholáiste Dhoire was placed in the capital announcement plan. Why has the Minister ignored her statutory duty to Irish-medium education and the needs of the Irish-medium sector?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Today is a good news day for schools across Northern Ireland. I have not ignored my statutory duty to any school or sector.
I had a meeting before this with the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Committee, and we spoke at length. I know about the disappointment that the Irish-medium school in Dungiven did not make the list, but that was not because of anything that I did to prevent that. The enrolment for the school is 272 pupils, and the projected enrolment is 389, which falls well below the sustainability threshold and that for capital viability. I appreciate that that is disappointing to the Member and the school.
A number of schemes that will be completed in 2024-25 are being undertaken in the school, and I understand that, once that work is completed, there will be a 28-class school. Considerable investment is going on. While I appreciate that the school has not met the list today, that does not mean that the school is being ignored. I understand from speaking to my officials that they have had a considerable number of meetings with the school and that the school understands the situation that it finds itself in.
Mr Givan: I commend the Education Minister for the biggest announcement of major capital projects in well over 20 years, led by the Democratic Unionist Party. I am delighted in particular at the announcement of three new builds in Lagan Valley: Dromore High School, Friends' School Lisburn and Lisnagarvey High School. I pay tribute to Mr McConaghy and his predecessor Mr Wilkinson, Mr Moore at Friends' and Mr Sheerin at Lisnagarvey. This is a red-letter day for the children of my constituency.
Mr Givan: Today's announcement will benefit 2,500 children with £73 million of investment. Will the Minister outline how the projects will be prioritised? Dromore High School has a site secured and is at a very advanced stage. When can we see shovels going into the ground? I commend the Minister again for her excellent work in leading the Department.
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member very much for his praise. He may not be so keen on my answer. While schools were prioritised on a list from 1 to 28, once the announcement is made, they are all equal, and it will very much depend on the circumstances in which they find themselves. I appreciate, however, that Dromore High School is in a good position in that it has already identified and purchased a site. I would like to think that it could move forward at pace.
As with all the schools announced today, however, I am not in a position to give them a date for sod cutting. There is something to be celebrated for all the schools announced today, which is that they are on the list and that the projects will move forward.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for the statement, which contains a lot of good news for a lot of schools. I am particularly pleased to see schools from my constituency — St Brigid's College and Lumen Christi College — on the approved list. I am a bit disappointed, however, not to see St Joseph's Boys' School on the list. I have been in touch with the Minister about that and appreciate that her time has been short. Will she outline what steps a school that is not on the list must take or what hoops it must jump through to get on the list for improvements and vital investment, particularly with regard to their antiquated sports facilities?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. St Joseph's Boys' School was, unfortunately, not put forward for the list. Had it been, it may have just crept in. I have made comments about underinvestment across the school estate generally on a number of occasions. I have also visited schools with inadequate sports facilities. The Member will be aware of projects, particularly those involving local communities, councils and Sport NI, from which schools have been able to benefit.
While this announcement is about major capital projects, other announcements may come with a future Executive and Minister. Priorities may also change, depending on the available budget. As the Member knows, the likes of minor works are, at present, very much around the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and health and safety, but protocols around that may change with a future budget.
Mr Beattie: Thank you for the statement, Minister; it is a genuinely good statement. There are no smiling faces at the Lurgan campus of Craigavon Senior High School, however, where some of the most vulnerable children in Upper Bann still eat their lunches — packed meals — between parked cars and where there are still safeguarding issues. You said that you would make a decision on the future of those children as early as possible, but, in the last week of the mandate, you still have not done so. Will you commit to telling the community in Lurgan what the decision on the Lurgan campus of Craigavon Senior High School will be? Will pupils be bussed to Portadown purely because they were not given a grammar school education?
Miss McIlveen: A decision regarding the Lurgan campus will be made and announced this week. There is, however, good news for the Member's constituency, and I would like to think that he recognises that.
Ms Dillon: I am delighted for all the schools that are getting investment; there is no doubt that there is underinvestment in many of our schools. Your predecessor visited St Joseph's Primary School in Galbally. It had the foresight to amalgamate 50 years ago, and its numbers increase year-on-year. It is well oversubscribed and struggling for space. It also has serious health and safety issues — NICCY has reported on the matter — so can the Minister explain why St Joseph's Primary School in Galbally is not on the list?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. For this call, the list was put together for post-primary schools rather than primary schools. I would like to think that a future Education Minister will take the opportunity to bring forward a call for primary schools. The Member may understand that, when I looked at the list of school projects going through for design and procurement, there were not as many post-primary schools on the list, so I felt that it was necessary to bring forward a list to address that. I am hopeful that a future Executive and Education Minister will look to primary schools for the next call.
Mr Hilditch: I certainly welcome the statement. I do not want to dilute Mr Givan's joy, but, as you know, East Antrim has four schools on the list compared with his three. It is certainly a good day for the education sector in my constituency of East Antrim in general and in Carrickfergus in particular. Mr Deputy Speaker, you know the problems that Carrickfergus Academy has had with having to work over two separate sites for several years after the merger, so its inclusion is very welcome indeed. Having written, questioned, lobbied and organised ministerial visits, I believe that today is a day of welcome education news.
Minister, has the budget of £794 million, or any part of it, been allocated to any of those projects?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, the capital budget is not known beyond March 2022. I am content, however, to announce these projects on the assumption that the Department's allocation will be made in due course and will remain at a broadly similar level to what it has been in previous years. Given the lead-in time to construction, it is important that there is a continual flow of projects into the programme in order to utilise capital funds as they become available.
The two primary stages in the completion of a major capital project are the development and design phase and then the construction phase. All projects that have been announced today are to advance in planning. However, progression to construction will very much depend on the available budget. Anything that is announced will start the process, and considerable money will then be spent throughout the design and development stage. There will be a drip feed of budget into those projects over forthcoming years.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I am absolutely delighted to see Hunterhouse College, Malone Integrated College and St Joseph's College on the list. I pay tribute not just to your departmental officials but to the leadership in those three schools. I know that they have been lobbying for many years.
Minister, you will be aware that there is huge pressure on post-primary places in South Belfast. Your statement referred to area planning. Given that many of these projects will take many years to reach completion, how will the Department cope with increased demand, year-on-year, for places in those schools and others around them?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Recently, I went to St Joseph's College to see the conditions there and the incredible work that is being undertaken by the principal and staff. I have a little bit of a vested interest in Hunterhouse College in that I went to Ashleigh House School, which was one of its precursors. Hunterhouse has waited 35 years for investment since the amalgamation back in 1987.
I appreciate that there are pressures on schools in South Belfast. The Member will be aware that quite a piece of work is being undertaken in the area-planning process. I am hopeful that some of it — how numbers will be allocated and so on — will come to fruition in the not-too-distant future.
Ms Brogan: I thank the Minister for her statement. I am really glad that Dean Maguirc College has been included in the announcement. Minister, you will be aware that another key project in West Tyrone is the Strule Shared Education Campus in Omagh, which I have been campaigning for during your tenure. Can you update the House on the progress of the campus, please?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Work continues with the Strule campus. With the bringing together of six schools, over 4,000 pupils will be able to benefit from that flagship project. We remain committed to the project. My understanding is that things are going to plan in the current programme timetable. Assuming that there is the successful appointment of a main works contractor following the pre-construction design period, campus construction is due to begin on-site in spring 2023. It is currently planned to complete in early 2026, with the potential partial opening of some facilities in the academic year 2025-26 and the full campus open for September 2026.
Mr Clarke: Like others, I am very pleased with the announcement, Minister. Two things strike me about it. First of all, it includes two schools in my constituency, Ballyclare Secondary School and Ballyclare High School. Secondly, in response to another Member, you talked about sustainability. To be included in the announcement, a school has to be a sustainable school. It is testament to those schools' sustainability that they made it on to the list.
Minister, you have been asked a number of times, in different ways, about how and when these programmes will be advanced. Have you any indication that any of them are ready to move? Indeed, if you are struggling for suggestions, may I suggest that you take them in alphabetical order? [Laughter.]
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I had the pleasure of visiting Ballyclare Secondary School and Ballyclare High School in the not-too-distant past, and their need was demonstrated on those visits. I was very taken aback at the conditions in which pupils and staff were working in both schools. I very much look forward to the day when they eventually open to pupils after the work. I reiterate the point that I have made to so many Members today that this is a long process, and today is just day 1.
Ms Ferguson: First and foremost, the announcement of investment for Lumen Christi and St Brigid's College is great news today, particularly for those in the Foyle constituency. I am sure that the pupils, families, schools and boards of governors will be delighted about that news and that they are listening in today. Will you provide an indication of the budget that will be directed towards Lumen Christi and St Brigid's College?
Secondly, you said that all schools will be on an equal footing now. What departmental resources have been committed to assisting the progress of those projects from design to planning?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her questions. The costs are only indicative because they are based on today's prices, there is no VAT included and there are site costs and everything else to consider, but, as a broad estimate, St Brigid's College will get £22·7 million and Lumen Christi College will get £26·5 million.
I am very mindful that there are pressures in the Department where resource and manpower in particular are concerned, so those will need to be looked at. However, alongside that, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the Education Authority (EA) will be involved, and we will go out to look for those who will be keen to be involved in the development and design of the projects, so experts will be brought on board in order to make sure that the schemes are brought forward.
Mr Frew: The built form can transform teaching and learning, and the Minister is not only listening to but delivering for North Antrim and Ballymena in particular, with Ballymena Academy and Cambridge House school being on that list. What must the schools do now in the process?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. A letter will go out to each of the schools today to inform them, if they do not already know, of their success in being on the list. One of the schools is a voluntary grammar, but my Department, along with EA, will work very closely with the board of governors of that school to take it through to the next stage. A very intense piece of work will follow this announcement.
Mrs Barton: I welcome the news today. It is especially good to see St Ciaran's in Ballygawley on the list. I do not see Enniskillen Royal Grammar School on the list. Will you give me an update on the progress with that, please?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Unfortunately, I do not have information on that project at hand today, but I am happy to come back to the Member on it.
Mr Poots: This is such an exciting day today, as the Minister has brought such good news to the House of an £800 million investment over 10 years into the future of our children. I am delighted that she has announced three new schools for South Belfast: Hunterhouse, St Joseph's and Malone college. My sisters went to Hunterhouse and my daughter went to Malone college, so I have an interest in both of them. I also have an interest in Dromore High School because my son went there, and I started working with Mr Wilkinson 20 years ago. What is the spend for those three South Belfast schools? Will you tell us the number of children who are in the development plan for the schools so that we know the Department's intentions for this piece of work?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Malone Integrated College has an approved enrolment of 800 pupils, with an estimated construction cost of £25·3 million; St Joseph's has an approved enrolment of 760, with an estimated construction cost of £24 million; and Hunterhouse College in Belfast has an approved enrolment of 710, with an estimated cost of £22·4 million. The Member is also interested in Dromore High School and has spoken to me about it on many occasions, so I can tell him that its estimated construction cost is somewhere in the region of £26·8 million.
Mr O'Toole: First of all, I am in the unusual position of being able to say that I fully agree with my constituency colleague from South Belfast: it is great to see Hunterhouse College, Malone Integrated College and St Joseph's —
Mr O'Toole: In the final week of the mandate, we are having some very unfortunate hectoring from the Member for North Antrim. It is unusual for him to be so uncharitable.
Mr O'Toole: I am trying to lighten the mood, Mr Deputy Speaker, in the final week of our mandate. I am delighted that three schools in South Belfast have been put forward. St Joseph's College, in particular, has been waiting a very long time for a new building. It is a brilliant school on the Ravenhill Road, and Malone Integrated College and Hunterhouse College are also great schools.
Minister, given that we do not have a sitting Executive and may not have one immediately after the election, are you certain that that will not in any way disrupt the capital projects being signed off and delivered?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. He may have missed the statement. Obviously, the projects will take some time to come to fruition, but, as of today, work will be done alongside the schools. An intensive piece of work will be required to get a business plan in place and to deliver design and procurement, so we are probably talking about a lead-in time of between six and eight years. Today is really the first day, but it is vital that we make this announcement to ensure that there is a pipeline of schools coming through so that they are ready to go whenever capital is available.
I believe that the schools will appreciate that things will not happen overnight, so they will not be expecting a new school this time next year. They understand that the process is lengthy but that this is an important day. They are now on the list and are working towards that.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for her statement on capital projects. On 20 December last year, I wrote to the Minister about the restrictions on the borrowing powers of Sullivan Upper School, Holywood, and other similar voluntary grammar and grant-maintained integrated schools in Northern Ireland, and the impact that that will have on their delivery of major capital projects. When can I expect a reply to that letter?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I was not aware that you had not received a response to the letter, but the issue you raise is something that we are very cognisant of and creates massive pressures and challenges for those schools. Obviously, there is an impact on my Department as well due to the manner in which the process has been designed. I am happy to chase that up: I was not aware that you had not received a response.
Mr Stewart: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thought that you had forgotten about me, but I am sure you will join me in welcoming the news for Belfast High School, Carrickfergus Academy, Larne Grammar School and Larne High School and in imploring the Minister and the Department to do all that they can to see those projects coming to fruition as quickly as possible.
Minister, what changes do you want to see to ensure that those projects are not plagued by the same delays experienced by Islandmagee Primary School in my constituency, which received a similar announcement over 10 years ago and still does not have the first sod dug?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, there have been delays in recent years for a number of projects, which is regrettable. I understand that the Department has reviewed its governance procedures at programme and project levels to ensure that major capital projects are delivered much more effectively and efficiently. I would like to think that lessons have been learned and that, particularly given the size and scale of the announcement that we are making today, all efforts will be made to ensure that delivery is as seamless as it can be.
Mr Allister: The statement refers to the fact that the applicant schools were ranked in merit order. Is that at all reflected in how we go forward or is there no prioritisation of projects? Will the Minister give me an update on where we are with Dunclug College and Cullybackey College? Which project was referred to in the statement as being suspended?
Miss McIlveen: I will try to remember all those questions. There is no priority once the announcement has been made because each school will be at a different stage. As I indicated, the likes of Dromore High School already have a site identified and purchased, whereas other schools will have to look at an existing site or look into other sites, which, in itself, will create problems for them.
I was at Dunclug College quite recently. There has been a delay there as a consequence of the contractor moving away from the project. The indication that I got is that there is likely to be a delay of around 12 months. I can get the Member precise updates on Dunclug College and Cullybackey College.
Mr Lyttle: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. DUP Members seem to have access to information about specific amounts of money that have been allocated to each school. If I am not wrong, that information is not yet publicly accessible. Will you ensure that that information is made public as soon as possible?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has made a valid point, which is now on the record. In the future, I hope that that will be addressed appropriately.
I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy): With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a brief statement to the Chamber to update Members on the latest developments arising from the reprehensible actions of P&O last week.
I recognise that last week's announcement will cut across a number of Departments here; indeed, a cross-departmental group of officials has already convened to make sure that we join up on our respective responses. I certainly do not want to cut across the work of ministerial colleagues, so the primary purpose of my statement is to focus on the employment law aspects of what has taken place.
At the outset, let me be clear: neither I, as a constituency representative in East Antrim or the Minister for the Economy, nor my officials in the Department were afforded the courtesy of advance notice of the P&O announcement. I regard its actions as disgraceful. P&O has literally ripped up the employment rule book and, in the process, simply discarded 800 of its loyal and most diligent workforce.
Even now, I can scarcely believe how callously P&O behaved. I understand that up to 50 staff from Northern Ireland could be directly impacted by the announcement. Many of us in east Antrim know some of those in the workforce. The stories that I heard of staff being escorted off ships by men in balaclavas carrying handcuffs are as sinister as they are outrageous. Deploying such a tactic in Northern Ireland on an unsuspecting workforce was so ill-judged and shocking that our condemnation alone is simply not enough.
P&O's announcement last week affected four routes: Dover-Calais, Dublin-Liverpool, Hull-Rotterdam and Larne-Cairnryan. Clearly, it is the last route that I and Members will be most concerned about. Great Britain is, by far, the largest market for sales and purchases here. In 2019, we sold approximately £11 billion of goods into Great Britain and purchased nearly £13·5 billion in return. The Port of Larne — a port that I know very well from my constituency — accounted for approximately 10% of the total tonnage through all Northern Ireland ports. Nearly 400,000 passengers travelled through Cairnryan last year. As P&O is the biggest operator at Larne port, Members can immediately see why its announcement last week had such immediate consequences for both the wider supply chain and the connectivity of business and travel across Northern Ireland.
However, as I said at the outset, I do not want to tread across the responsibilities of others who are already engaged on many of these supply and connectivity issues. I want to focus on the employment aspects for the 800 staff impacted by the announcement. Employment law is a devolved responsibility for this Assembly, so we have every right to be concerned about what P&O did last week. I have heard much made about the financial situation within P&O, and I have some sympathy with any business operating in these challenging times, but that does not mean that a business can just break the law. The law actually recognises that businesses may need to restructure or downsize, and that has happened many times before. Our laws allow for that but recognise that there is a process to be followed. They make it clear in regulation what that process involves, so I do not believe that P&O has acted within either the spirit or the letter of our employment law.
P&O seems to recognise that, as it has offered what have been reported as "enhanced payments" to staff, but let us not be fooled into thinking that that is a generous step. It is not. Indeed, it is an even more cynical way of an employer simply seeking to circumvent its statutory obligations. When any employer falls foul of its obligations to give notice and consult, it is legally required to properly compensate its workforce accordingly. That is all P&O is doing here. It is not an enhanced payment. In truth, it could be considered nothing more than a bribe to stave off the threat of legal action by employees who have been denied their rights.
The law requires employers to engage and consult when they plan to make such numbers of staff redundant. No such engagement took place. There was no consultation.
The law also requires the employer to notify the Department, through the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), when making such numbers of staff redundant. No such notification took place. I understand that there may have been some communication on Wednesday evening with the Department for Transport in London, but I repeat: there was no sharing of that news, or engagement from the employer, with us.
Here we have an employer that has deliberately flouted employment law, seeking to buy its way out of its statutory obligations and failing to consult or notify the responsible authorities along the way. It is simply not good enough.
Of course, this is not the first time we have seen this sort of sharp practice in this industry on these islands. Members may recall that, back in 2005, Irish Ferries unilaterally issued proposals to replace 543 directly employed seafarers with a predominantly cheaper, Eastern European, agency workforce. Its ships would also be reflagged to Cyprus in the process. That dispute was eventually settled only after the intervention of the Irish Labour Relations Commission, so perhaps P&O has failed to learn the lessons from that dispute. However, even now, at this late stage, I encourage P&O to come to the table and discuss this with us.
Earlier today, I met our Labour Relations Agency. It stands ready and willing to meet immediately with P&O to see how they can turn around what is a terrible situation. It must be in P&O's interest to engage, but let us be in no doubt: its reputation, not to mention its future commercial viability, stands to take a massive hit here if it does not change course. It may want to hide behind the small print of maritime law, which might, in its eyes, justify what it has done, but the court of public opinion will not be so sympathetic.
Going forward, not only do we stand ready to intervene, through the Labour Relations Agency, but, if P&O fails to take me up on that offer locally, I have already asked my officials to investigate what remedies we may have for breaches of our devolved employment law. I understand that a similar piece of work is under way in Whitehall. I will be writing to Ministers there to make sure that we are kept up to speed with their investigations.
As far as the staff are concerned, my Careers Service is immediately available to help anyone who has been affected. We have also been in contact with our counterparts in the Department for Communities, who can stand up redundancy clinics and job fairs. Our first and foremost priority must be the staff involved. My Department will do all that it can to assist and support them in the coming days.
Members will have heard me talk about the work of my Department to take forward a comprehensive employment Bill in the next mandate. I have already asked officials to look at the emerging issues from this dispute to identify what more we can do in legislation to ensure that employers do the right thing by their workforce. We will look closely at fire-and-rehire practices. There is no immediate suggestion that that is happening here, but I want to make sure that it has not been an underlying issue. We will also look further at increasing the financial penalty for those employers who think that they can simply buy their way out of employment obligations. If employers want to pay a price to avoid the law, I want to make sure that it is a price that will deter, not encourage, more of this behaviour.
Finally, I turn briefly to consumer protection issues that have arisen from last week's announcement. Yesterday, I read that P&O was, in effect, leaving customers with existing bookings to make their own arrangements. It was offering no further support or assistance with rescheduling. It is treating its customers with the same disdain with which it treated its workforce. P&O is nothing if not consistent, but it cannot do that. In order to make sure that they are aware of their rights, I ask any customers with bookings that have not been honoured to contact the Consumer Council. Compensation, in addition to the reimbursement of the cost of making alternative travel arrangements, may well be payable to customers who have had to reschedule.
Mr Deputy Speaker, my thanks for allowing me the time, in an already congested Order Paper, to make this statement. I hope that Members will appreciate that, because of the lack of engagement with P&O, this remains a fluid situation, which we are still learning about and investigating. Given the concerns already expressed in this place, however, I wanted to share my immediate thoughts with Members. I will do all that I can in the coming days to work with everyone to try to find a better way forward. I commend the statement to the House.
Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I thank the Minister for his statement. It is important that there is strong and unanimous condemnation of P&O's scandalous actions. P&O showed utter contempt for its workers, workers' rights and employment procedures. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it would set a very dangerous precedent if that were to go unchallenged. Strong words are one thing, but we need action. I have heard reports that the bogus, so-called enhanced payments could be time-limited or conditional on workers not taking unfair-dismissal claims. What is the legal position, and what can be done to challenge it via the Department or the Labour Relations Agency? I ask those questions because workers are essentially being bribed not to do what they are entitled to do. I am sure that the Minister will join me in encouraging workers, in order to ensure that they are fully informed, to engage with their trade unions and the Labour Relations Agency before taking any decisions.
Mr Lyons: I absolutely agree that it is important that we send a very strong message not just to P&O but to all companies that might think of getting involved in a practice like this in some way. We need to send a message that it is not acceptable and that just because it has happened once does not mean that it should happen again.
It is absolutely right that we have that cross-party support. It is also right that we investigate exactly what is going on and, where appropriate, that my Department takes action to make sure that the law is followed and, where it has not been followed, that there are penalties for that. The Member will be aware of the employment Bill that the Department hopes to bring forward in the next mandate. I hope that there will be cross-party support to ensure that any potential issues that have arisen out of this and are not already covered by employment law are covered in that Bill.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his statement. I join him in his strong words of condemnation of the disgraceful actions of P&O towards its staff. He has touched on the exploration of the legal options for action that can be taken against P&O. What examination has there been to ensure that this is not something that is used by other employers or could happen again in another sphere of employment law?
Mr Lyons: The Member is absolutely right to raise that issue. I do not want our response to this to give cover or succour in any way to employers that might be thinking of doing this in the future. It is absolutely reprehensible that any company or employer might think that they can get around employment law by, as I and others have said, some sort of bribe. It is absolutely right that the Department takes all the action that it can. That is why I will be working closely with the Department for Transport to make sure that the law is followed and, where it is not followed, that appropriate penalties are put in place. I want to ensure that nothing that has taken place over the last week or that will happen next week will in any way give any cover to other employers like this in future.
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Minister for his statement. I am pleased to say that my party was the only one in this Chamber that showed up to vote in favour of banning fire and rehire in the House of Commons last year. I am glad to see that others are now on board with that, and I welcome the fact that the Minister is saying that he is looking at legislation in the new mandate.
The Minister said correctly that labour and employment law is devolved here. Given the concern that one of the promises made by Brexiteers was that they would use Brexit to water down labour laws, will he make a pledge here that, even if the Tory Government in England decide to water down labour laws further, we will strengthen our employment laws in the new mandate?
Mr Lyons: I have already made a commitment to the House. It may well be that I will not be in post — I know that the Member would want me to stay on — but I think there is broad acceptance that we need to address a number of employment issues that we would have liked to take up in this mandate but were not able to. It is a devolved issue, so, ultimately, it is up to us to decide what our employment laws are. It is absolutely not the case that Brexit has changed anything. There has, of course, been no change to the retained EU regulation in terms of employment law.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for making it clear that his Department got no heads-up from the employers. Did the Department get advance notice from any other source? Exactly which laws has P&O breached?
Mr Lyons: I do not believe that we got any advance notice or warning from any source whatsoever. I found out when a member of staff in my constituency sent it through to me.
It will be for the court, ultimately, to adjudicate on the laws that have been broken. However, we have basic statutory requirements with regard to redundancy. If an employer is making more than 20 employees redundant within any 90-day period, a consultation should take place between that employer and a representative. It is clear that that has not happened, and that is disappointing. In my view, this is a clear breach of Northern Ireland employment law, but, ultimately, it is up to the courts to decide.
Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for his statement. I very much welcome his informing the House that we will look to strengthen employment law in Northern Ireland in the next mandate, particularly around the issue of fire and rehire. Minister, the reality is, however, that you and your party participated in wasting years, during which that type of legislation could have been introduced in this mandate. We are now left without the strength and protection that could and should be provided.
Mr Dickson: Quite simply, my question is this: what action will the Minister take now to meet P&O to discuss the issues?
Mr Lyons: I will address the Member's first point. Given that the Member has been in the Chamber two or three times when I have addressed this issue before, he will be aware that we had only two years in the Chamber to pass legislation. He knows the pressures that were on our time in regard to employment law. We passed the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. I would have liked to go further. However, I have committed that we will do that in the next mandate.
I have requested a meeting with P&O. I have said that I am willing to work with it. I have met the Labour Relations Agency and suggested that it could be an intermediary on the issue. I have not yet received a response.
Ms Dolan: The Minister touched on the fire and rehire concept. I look forward to legislation on that in the next mandate. I am disappointed that it has not happened in this mandate, given that there were complaints to his predecessor from councils.
Minister, you directed people with bookings with P&O to go to the Consumer Council. Have you been in contact with the Consumer Council around what consumers may be entitled to?
Mr Lyons: I will touch on the fire and rehire issue. Yes, we will look at employment law in the next mandate, and we want to address issues that can come from that. However, let us be clear: we have employment law in Northern Ireland now, and that is what seems to have been breached. Let us not in any way allow anybody to get away with this on the basis of what may or may not be in our law right now. It is absolutely the case that what is in our law right now appears to me to have been breached.
I have not spoken directly to the Consumer Council at this time. I am more than happy to do that. However, it is well positioned to hear directly from consumers, and I strongly encourage those who have been affected to get in touch with the Consumer Council so that they know their rights and know how they can proceed.
"up to 50 staff from Northern Ireland could be directly impacted".
Obviously, those staff members covered a range of tasks on the ferry. Do you have any concerns that, when the ferries start to sail again between Northern Ireland and Scotland, there may be a safety issue, bearing in mind that the new staff will have been trained in a very short time?
Mr Lyons: It absolutely is the case that we have had competent staff on ferries not only between Northern Ireland and Scotland but, I am sure, right around the UK and Ireland, who have had many years — in some cases, decades — of experience. I want to make sure that any staff who are brought on and agency workers who are hired to do the job are properly trained. We need to make sure that no corners are cut and that they have all the necessary experience. Not only is what is being done a huge disservice to existing customers and staff, but it is imperative that we look out for the safety of those who will travel with P&O in the future. It is absolutely right for the Member to raise the issue, and P&O needs to be aware of its need to follow all the regulations that may be in place on not only the standard of training required but minimum wage and other entitlements for staff.
Mr O'Dowd: Minister, I am pleasantly surprised by the strength of your statement. It is as strong a statement as I have heard from someone in your position and from your party on employment law. "Well done" on the statement, but what we need now is strong action as well as strong words.
Will the Minister take action with regard to the public funds that P&O has received? I have no doubt that that company, despite making £1·3 billion of profit last year, will have its hand out again for more public money. Will the Minister ensure that it does not receive public money until the practices that it has been involved in are dealt with and it has been punished for what it has done to those workers?
Mr Lyons: The Member has thrown me off a little bit by complimenting me, but I appreciate his words. I think that that was because we are all united on what has happened. P&O's treatment of its staff, especially those who served the company for so long, is reprehensible and disgusting. It is right that we have strong words. I completely agree with him that we need strong actions as well. Some of the financial support provided to that company in the past was via the Treasury or elsewhere in HMG. It is right that they look into that. Certainly, I am more than happy to look at what support has been given and how we can ensure that we do not support companies that disregard employment law in that way.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for the statement. I, too, concur with Members on P&O's disgraceful treatment of long-serving and loyal staff. Is the Minister concerned about supply chains in light of recent activity?
Mr Lyons: Yes. I have outlined the volume of freight that comes in via those ferries. That will inevitably have a knock-on effect. We are seeing additional sailings by other companies and some of the hole being filled in that way. I will work very closely with the Department for Transport, and I get regular updates from it. I will work with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs as well on those issues to make sure that we do everything that we can to ensure that that supply comes in.
That brings up a further question about what role and responsibilities a private company should have when it is responsible for a strategic national asset like that and then goes ahead and closes it down at a moment's notice. We will have to look at that as well.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for his statement today. I echo completely what he said about the deplorable way in which P&O has treated its customers and staff. It is absolutely disgraceful.
Minister, I do not think that any of us could understand the notion of Belfast City Airport being owned by Flybe or British Airways or Belfast Aldergrove being owned by easyJet. That is almost impossible to accept in the interests of competition and delivery for customers. Yet that is exactly what we see in the Port of Larne, where the owner/operator is the only company using it. That cannot be good for competition, and it is not good for delivery to the public. What conversations have you had about alternatives and the potential for a free port in Larne?
Mr Lyons: I am very keen to explore having a free port in Larne. That is another opportunity for us. Ultimately, my aim is to see much more competition not just between Larne and Scotland but, indeed, between all ports in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The cost of travel between Northern Ireland and Scotland is very high, because we do not have the same competition that you might see in, for example, the English Channel. We need to do all that we can to increase competition.
I have been pleased to work with councillors and MSPs in Scotland to look at the A75 and the A77, because improving those roads will be key to getting more traffic there. That will help to make the ports more sustainable for transport — passenger transport in particular. We should explore all the options. I am very keen to see a free port and to ensure that we harness the opportunities that can come from that.
Mr McGuigan: Minister, you quite rightly called out the shameful and disgraceful behaviour of P&O. You stated:
"Our first and foremost priority must be the staff involved."
Again, that is quite right. However, there was no mention in your statement or in the questions of engagement between you and the trade unions that are supporting the workers. Given that P&O is trying to divide workers and pick them off with pay offers, it is absolutely crucial that the Minister engage with the relevant trade unions. Can he confirm today that that is the case?
Mr Lyons: I am more than happy to confirm that I requested a meeting with RMT this morning. Unfortunately, it was not able to attend that meeting. I am more than happy to engage with any of the trade unions that have an interest in the issue. There is no barrier whatsoever to doing that.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the statement and for the detail regarding planned actions. I associate myself and my party with the comments from across the House about the workers involved and those working to help those members affected.
As I am a member of the AERA Committee, my question relates mainly to supply chains. Some of the parties — including the Minister's, it seems — on the local council thought that resources should not be shared with Belfast port at this time of need. I have raised those matters with DAERA for clarification of its intentions. Might good practice involve resource sharing between ports and between agencies to ensure supply chain sustainability at this time?
Mr Lyons: Of course, I want to see the sustainability of the supply chains. That is why I am an opponent of the Northern Ireland protocol, which has caused so many of the issues and problems that we have seen over the past year. It is contributing to the increase in costs: the Road Haulage Association estimated that anywhere between 10% and 25% has been added to costs. If the Member wants to see a more secure supply chain between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I hope that he will join us in our efforts to dump the Irish Sea border.
Mr Beggs: P&O has brutally cast its workforce aside in a Dickensian fashion. There was no consultation or notice, and the company delivered a live message by video link. Will the Minister clarify whether the P&O redundancy announcement is covered by maritime law, Northern Ireland employment law or GB employment law? There seems to be a variety of thoughts on that.
Regarding disruption to trade, our supply chain is exposed because no replacement crew has been approved to operate that passenger vessel safely. Will the Minister get in touch with Her Majesty's Government so that nothing like that can ever expose Northern Ireland again?
Mr Lyons: The Member is right to raise those issues. As I said in my answer to Mr Dunne, there have to be ways to protect a strategic asset such as that.
On the question of redundancies, discussions may go on about which employment law applies here or whether the redundancies are covered by maritime law. The ferry in question, Larne to Cairnryan, spends all its time sailing between UK ports in UK waters, however, so it is likely that Northern Ireland or Great Britain employment law will apply. Even if Jersey law were to apply, there would still be redundancy requirements. It is absolutely right that people be held to account to the law of the jurisdictions in which they operate.
Ms Bailey: I, too, thank the Minister for his strong statement and his written reply to the cross-Committee letter that was issued on Friday, to both of which, unfortunately, we are still waiting for a response from his South Belfast colleague, the AERA Minister.
Minister, you stated:
"P&O has literally ripped up the employment rule book and, in the process, simply discarded 800 of its loyal and most diligent workforce."
Even P&O could not disagree with that. It is largely accepted that P&O has calculated the move to be its cheapest option. When we look into remedies to breaches, I imagine that that has already been costed. Financial penalties aside, Minister, I want to push you on the question raised by Mr O'Dowd: how will you make sure that P&O will not profit from public funding for any and all efforts to clean up the mess that it has deliberately made, particularly given that it owns the port?
Mr Lyons: I hope that I was clear in my answer to Mr O'Dowd. I reiterate that, if it is a role for the UK Government, I will strongly support them in taking action, and, if there is a role for us to play, I will be more than happy to do that as well. If P&O gets public money and continues to act in that way, and if there is a role for us to play, I will be keen to look at all the options available, because it has acted in an absolutely disgraceful way.
What irks me even more is the fact that P&O knew a long time ago that this would happen. Six weeks ago, it engaged a security firm to come onto the boats in the event of trouble. The employees of that security firm were told to ensure that they had their utility belts and handcuffs. P&O knew six weeks ago the difficult situation that it was going to send that security firm into, yet it was not prepared to give its staff any notice ahead of time. It has acted in a reprehensible way, and there needs to be consequences for that.
The Member asked me what that action will be. That depends. I do not know what level of public funding the company gets at the minute. She will understand that we have not been able to have that engagement with P&O yet, but we will take whatever action we can. I hope that she hears the strength of my words today. I am prepared to do anything that I can to support the workers and to ensure that no company thinks that it can get away with this again in the future.
Mr Allister: I am sure that we all agree that any company that is dealing in a decent fashion with its workers does not need balaclavas or handcuffs. I want to focus the Minister's attention on the current economic consequences of the situation. There are hauliers who are at their wits' end wondering how they are going to get their goods, some of which are perishable, transported. I will read the Minister a comment that has just been sent to me by a haulier who listened to the Minister's statement. You will get the frustration:
"All very nice words, but he'd be better focusing his attention on actually doing something about it before small businesses go to the wall while Stormont watches them."
There are not enough spaces on the surviving services to transport necessary goods and —
Mr Allister: What is the Department able to do to bring pressure on other companies in order to alleviate the situation?
Mr Lyons: I understand the frustration of not just the Member but the haulier he has spoken to. I am aware of those difficulties. I do not want to tread on the responsibilities of other Ministers. That having been said, I have had engagement already with what might be considered alternative providers in order to see what we can do to address some of the hold-ups that we are seeing. I know that that will have consequences.
I also know that it is a frustration for the Member and the haulier involved. I am dealing with the employment law side of the situation because that is primarily my responsibility, but I recognise the impact that it is having on the wider economy. Although supply chain issues are the responsibility of the Agriculture Department, we are working together to see how we can ensure that the capacity that is required is there. My Department and I will do everything that we can to get that capacity up to where it was before as soon as possible.
Mr Carroll: I was proud to stand with RMT workers and former P&O workers at Larne harbour on Friday past against that despicable decision. Minister, their union is calling for the public ownership of P&O and its fleet so that the jobs can be kept and the service allowed to continue. Do you support that call? People will find your talk of making employers do the right thing a bit hollow considering that you and your party voted against the trade union freedom Bill only a matter of weeks ago.
Mr Lyons: Of course, it is nonsense to suggest that the trade union Bill that he brought forward would in any way have prevented the situation. It is absolute nonsense, again, from the Member to suggest that. The one problem that we have right now is that the employment law that we have has not been followed. I am more than happy to look at what else we might be able to do to make sure that our employment law is completely fit for purpose, but let us make it very clear: the responsibility lies with the company to follow its obligations. That has not been done, and that is the root of the problem.
That the Occupational Pension Schemes (Administration, Investment and Charges and Governance) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
Ms Hargey: The rule that we are considering today is somewhat technical and places administration and governance requirements on trustees of occupational defined contribution pension schemes. In particular, it requires trustees of certain schemes to disclose their investment returns and demonstrate that they are providing value for their members. It increases flexibility for defined contribution schemes to take account of performance fees payable to fund managers when calculating the cap on charges that apply to default investment arrangements, which are funds into which members are automatically placed by the scheme. It makes other changes. For example, it changes how specific types of pension schemes must comply with the requirements to produce a statement of investment principles. It also includes a provision to control the level and range of charges.
The regulations require trustees of relevant schemes, with less than £100 million in assets and that have been in existence for at least three years, to conduct an annual assessment of the value that the scheme offers to its members. They specify the criteria that must form part of the assessment, including the quality of the scheme's record-keeping, the promptness of accuracy of administration and the extent to which existing requirements concerning trustees' knowledge and understanding are being met. Those measures aim to encourage consolidation of defined contribution pension schemes so that members can benefit from economies of scale and a diverse range of asset class that larger schemes bring. They have been introduced alongside guidance to help trustees of schemes that are in scope to meet the requirements.
The regulations clarify the statement of investment principles, for example the requirement for default investment funds. They may make consequential amendments, for example to the information that must be published on a publicly available website. They amend the definition of charges and make changes to the way that performance fees may be taken into account when assessing whether or not a scheme complies with the charge cap that limits the charges that can be applied to default investment funds. They also provide a cap on early-exit charges and a ban on member-borne commission charges arising under existing arrangements. In complying with the requirement to assess the value for members that their scheme provides, and to report net investment returns and costs and charges, trustees and managers are required to have regard to the guidance issued by the Department.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Before I call Paula Bradley, the Chair of the Committee for Communities, I pay tribute to you, Paula, and wish all the very best to you and your family. It will be a lesser place for your absence, but you will probably contribute just as well elsewhere to the improvement of other people's lives, particularly those of your family. I wish you well in that.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): Thank you for those kind words, Mr Deputy Speaker. Apologies for my slight lateness in getting down to the Chamber; everything has gone a wee bit ahead of time.
The Committee considered the statutory rule at its meeting on 7 October 2021 and understands that the regulations amend a number of existing sets of regulations and will place administration and governance requirements on trustees of occupational defined contribution pension schemes. The regulations will increase the flexibility of those schemes to take account of performance fees to fund managers when calculating the cap on charges that apply to default investment arrangements. There are other small technical changes, including to the way that specific types of pension schemes must comply with the requirements to produce a statement of investment principles. The regulations also include a provision in consequence of the Pension Schemes Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 to control the level and range of charges.
It seems that I speak regularly on pensions regulations. Whilst the regulations that have come before the Assembly in recent weeks are technical in nature, they are no less important to protect the individuals who have money invested in the schemes. The aim is to ensure that occupational defined contribution pension scheme members benefit from efficient administration, sound investment governance and access to innovative and diversified investment strategies. Therefore, the Committee agreed to recommend that the Occupational Pension Schemes (Administration, Investment and Charges and Governance) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be confirmed by the Assembly.
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I was going to say only a few words on the regulations before us. The Minister and the Chair ably outlined the technical nature of the regulations. Mr Deputy Speaker, you then stole my thunder with your tribute to the Chair of the Committee for Communities, Paula Bradley. Paula was elected at the same time as me, and we were thrust onto the old Social Development and Health Committees at the same time. Eleven years on, I am on a Committee that she has chaired so well, dealing with extremely important, emotive issues. I have always been struck by Paula's sense of social justice and her passion for putting people first. Now, she is putting the people closest to her first, and I wish her well with that; they are lucky to have her.
Ms Hargey: I will be very quick. I love how Mark got the SDLP election mantra in there, in the middle of congratulating you, Paula. Obviously, you will be missed. There is no doubt about that, given the contribution that you have made, particularly to the Communities Committee. I have enjoyed working with you in the time that I have been here. Like the Deputy Speaker, I wish you well in the more important role that you are taking on with your mummy and daddy in the time ahead.
There is nothing left to be said about the regulations other than that I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Occupational Pension Schemes (Administration, Investment and Charges and Governance) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): Following the road traffic collisions and tragic fatalities in 2015 and 2016, my Department carried out a detailed safety review of the A26 Lisnevenagh Road, including the junctions between Dunsilly and Ballee roundabouts. As a result of the review, a number of safety measures have already been implemented along the route. Measures implemented at the Woodgreen junction include the application of a high-friction surface on the approach to the A26, enhancements to signage and lines and an upgrade to the street lighting. I am pleased to advise that, since 2016, there have been no injury collisions recorded at the Woodgreen junction, and there are therefore no plans to carry out any further work there at this time. I have, however, asked officials to keep the situation under review.
Mr Frew: I thank the Minister for her update on a junction that has concerned many residents, drivers and pedestrians for many years. At a time, there were plans to stop right turns there, similar to what was done at the Cromkill junction 2 miles down the road. Has the Minister now ruled that out completely?
Ms Mallon: The Member is right that a proposal to prohibit right turns out of the junction was given consideration, but it received a number of objections. A further review of the proposal by the Department and PSNI has identified other potential safety issues, and, as such, it has been decided, on balance, that it should not be progressed.
Mr Allister: Looking back, I raised this issue in 2016, following the tragic death of young Karla Cameron. At that point, the then Infrastructure Minister promised that definitive, real action would be taken at that junction. The junction has proved to be a deathtrap. I suspect that, if it were on the A21 or the A1, there would have been a flyover built years ago. All that we have got, however, at the Woodgreen junction is a few extra lights and some high-friction surface treatment. It is totally inappropriate for a junction that has a record —
Mr Allister: — of death, so is that the best that the Minister can offer us? Has she really abandoned all hope of improving that junction?
Ms Mallon: Mr Deputy Speaker, I take great exception to the use of such language by the Member. As I set out very clearly in my response to Mr Frew, the Department has taken a number of measures. What is really important to point out is the fact that, since 2016, there have been no injury collisions recorded at that junction. My Department will continue to do what it can to improve road safety. As I said in my initial response, I have asked my officials to keep that particular junction and stretch of road under review.
Ms Hunter: Minister, I ask for an update on any other transport plans that your Department is currently working on.
Ms Mallon: My Department is developing a suite of local transport plans, including the subregional transport plan, the north-west transport plan and the Belfast metropolitan transport plan. Those local transport plans will be developed alongside the councils' local development plans and will reflect their growth ambitions. That proactive planning and design approach will facilitate real changes and a holistic consideration of which transport solutions can best deliver our desired outcomes, including having reduced carbon emissions and creating high-quality urban spaces that benefit communities. As local transport plans are to be developed alongside the councils' development plans, their delivery dates will be influenced by that process.
Mr Blair: Whether it is the improvement of the road link in my constituency with North Antrim, which was the subject of the original question, or the progress made on the various active travel routes that I looked at in my constituency yesterday — I welcome some progress on those — how will the failure to agree a Budget impact on the Minister's departmental capital infrastructure spending priorities across the board and across constituencies?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. He raises a crucial point. Of course I had concerns with the draft multi-year Budget that was presented when it was going out for consultation, and I highlighted the reasons for that concern. However, the purpose of having, hopefully, an agreed multi-year Budget was to enable Departments to forward plan and deliver change in their communities with a greater degree of certainty than before. It is therefore deeply frustrating that, without an Executive, an agreed Budget cannot be brought forward. The people who will suffer in all this are our citizens in every constituency right across the North.
Ms Mallon: I take safety on our rural roads very seriously. My Department continues to be actively committed to improving safety on our roads and to work closely with our road safety partners to deliver a programme of road safety education, engineering and enforcement activities. My Department has a rolling programme of maintenance and repairs across the road network. All roads are inspected on a regular basis, and defects that meet my Department’s current intervention levels are recorded and prioritised for repair. The forecast spend for capital structural maintenance in 2021-22 is £85 million. That includes £17 million for a roads recovery fund, with £15 million of that allocated to rural roads, which is a 50% increase on last year and is the highest level of funding allocated specifically to this rural roads initiative by any Minister to date. Significant programmes of work have been delivered across all areas in 2021-22, in particular on rural roads.
From a road safety perspective, we know from the evidence that, regrettably, two thirds of deaths or serious injuries in road collisions in Northern Ireland occur on rural roads. My Department has a campaign within its current public information campaign portfolio that specifically challenges drivers to be aware of the hidden dangers on rural roads, underpinned with the warning, "Your risky driving catches up with you". That message is delivered frequently across the year. I remind all road users that we all have a responsibility as drivers to adapt our driving to the weather, the road conditions and our own ability. Always expect the unexpected.
Ms Á Murphy: In 2020, 73% of fatalities occurred on rural roads. The Fermanagh and Omagh district had the highest number of people tragically killed or seriously injured per head of population. Does the Minister agree that improving road safety in rural areas must be a priority?
Ms Mallon: I absolutely agree with the Member. As she highlighted, as did I in my response, we have particular challenges on our rural roads. Part of that is due to the quality of our rural roads. That is an issue that I have been trying to address. It will take some time, because of historical underinvestment. It is also about ensuring that we have the right infrastructure. We are doing what we can to encourage all road users to be safe in their actions. I will continue to do what I can. The forthcoming road safety strategy will play a crucial role in that. I thank Members across the House, because road safety is an issue that, regardless of where Members sit in the Chamber, everybody feels strongly about, and they have been proactive in spreading that important road safety message.
Mr McNulty: I am aware of the budgetary constraints that you operate under, Minister, but I have mentioned the state of the roads in Newry and Armagh many times in the Chamber. Traversing some of the country roads and back roads, you sometimes feel like you are traversing the far side of the moon. The potholes are not potholes; they are more like craters. Will your new asphalt contracts do anything to alleviate that? Can you give us some information on how they will improve rural roads?
Ms Mallon: The interim asphalt resurfacing procurement strategy consists of four phases of fixed-term contracts, as well as a number of larger one-off contract packages. The first phase of term contracts, with a total maximum estimated value of over £35 million over the next two years, was released for tender on 19 November 2021. Tenders have been received and are being assessed.
The development of the phase 2 competition is well advanced, and it will be released for tender in the coming days. A one-off contract package for Skeoge road and roundabout resurfacing was awarded in January, and intention-to-award letters for a resurfacing contract for the Cookstown area will be issued later this week. Contracts for the Coleraine ring road and cycle path, and for resurfacing part of the A6 at Castledawson, have been tendered, and the tenders are being assessed. A contract for resurfacing in the Ballygawley area has also recently been released for tender. It is anticipated that those contracts will be awarded in April and May this year. In addition, further one-off contracts are being prepared, including for resurfacing part of the A3 Portadown Road.
Mr Beggs: I acknowledge that it is important that there are widespread resurfacing schemes, but it is equally important that potholes are repaired on a timely basis to remove the risk that they present to road safety. Along with that, there is the significant cost of having to repair such a deep gouge in a road and the possible cost of damage to vehicles. What assessment has been made of the overall cost of allowing potholes in rural roads to get to 50 millimetres before they are repaired?
Ms Mallon: The Member knows, particularly as he is a member of the Infrastructure Committee, that the Barton report, which was carried out a number of years ago, identified a minimum level of funding of £140 million per annum to maintain the road network. Allocations to the Department and its predecessor have fallen significantly short of that year-on-year, and we now find ourselves in the untenable situation of there being significant deterioration to our road network. The Department has had to implement a limited repair service compared with what it was able to do before.
The Department continues to do what it can with the resources allocated to it, certainly in respect of defects. Our current standards specify response times for the repair of defects that range from one calendar day for the most serious defects to periods of five working days and four weeks for less serious defects. I assure the Member that I will continue to make the case at the Executive to ensure that we have sufficient funding not only to maintain the road network but to seek to improve it with new infrastructure.
Mr Muir: This is probably the Minister's last Question Time, so I will say that, whilst we have had our differences, it has always been a pleasure to work with the Minister.
Minister, during your tenure as Infrastructure Minister, you announced an independent investigation of the procurement of road surfacing contracts, which are a key element in road safety. Will the outcome of that investigation be reported before the end of the mandate?
Ms Mallon: I thank Mr Muir and all the members of the Infrastructure Committee for very constructive working relationships. At times, those working relationships were tense, but they were always very constructive — I mean that.
Given the fact that this could be my last Question Time as Infrastructure Minister, I also place on record my appreciation for all the hard work of my officials. I have certainly pushed them. I pay tribute to their determination and commitment to the communities in which they live and to the people of Northern Ireland.
The independent investigation is a really important piece of work. Members know that, in my statement to the Assembly on 15 June 2021, I announced that I was establishing an independent investigation to ensure that the Department and others learned from that court judgement. The investigation, led by Ms Sarah Hannaford QC, has been completed. I expect to receive the report in the coming days. My intention is to then ensure that the House is updated on the investigation's findings. As I have laid out to officials, my commitment is to do that later this week.
Mr Dunne: On a similar theme, what lessons have been learned by the Department following the Court of Appeal's ruling that the Department engaged in a clandestine preferential process that caused significant delay to quite a number of significant road resurfacing schemes across Northern Ireland?
Ms Mallon: I agree with Mr Dunne about the seriousness of that court judgement. That is what led me to come to the House to make an oral statement and to the establishment of the independent investigation, details of which I just outlined in response to Mr Muir. I am very keen to receive that report. I have not received it as yet. When I made the statement to the House, I gave a commitment that I would report back to the House and update it on the findings of the investigation. I have also been very clear with my officials that we have one week remaining in the mandate and that we need to ensure that my commitment to every Member in the House is honoured and that they are given that clear update.
Ms Mallon: I am keen to improve facilities for pedestrians, and I recently visited Hannahstown to listen to concerns and see for myself the difficulties being experienced by road users and, in particular, pedestrians. I have given my commitment to the delivery of a new footway through Hannahstown village, and my Department is progressing the design. I have instructed my officials to assess the suitability of the existing speed limit in Hannahstown village. A traffic survey to determine the mean speed and traffic volumes in the village was carried out in January, and the results are being analysed as part of a speed limit assessment. My officials will also carry out a survey to determine the need for a pedestrian crossing in the village, which is an issue that the Member has also raised.
Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for her answer. The Minister will know that Hannahstown village has an increasing population of young families and elderly residents, and they are desperate to have that footpath and, hopefully, those additional road safety measures. The Minister mentioned the work that is being done to progress the footpath: does she have a recent update on the timescale for delivery? I know that there were complications with officials accessing lands for surveys and stuff, but an update on that would be brilliant.
Ms Mallon: The Member will know that there are complexities to the project around topography, the presence of adjacent private residential properties, access to land, which was resolved last month, public utility equipment and the existing narrow masonry bridge. I have said to local residents and to my officials that we need to work hard to complete the design. A consultant has been appointed to take that work forward, so, hopefully, that should progress things further.
Given all the processes that have to be completed, I am keen to see work on the ground started at the earliest opportunity. While it will fall into the new financial year, I have made it clear that it sits perfectly with the blue-green infrastructure fund. Hopefully, whatever Minister is in place will recognise the clear need for and multiple benefits from the project and will continue to push it forward.
Ms Mallon: I have had the very moving opportunity to meet families who have tragically lost a loved one on that stretch of road. That was an important opportunity for me to hear at first hand their experience and the experiences of the local community as they try to go about their everyday business while living in close proximity to a key transport corridor.
I assure the Member and all the families who have been affected and have a lost a loved one along that stretch of road that I reaffirm my commitment to the delivery of the A5. The project will transform things and improve road safety. It will also deliver multiple benefits to those who live around it.
Last week, I published the new environmental statement addendum and associated documentation as the next vital steps for the progression of the A5 dual carriageway scheme. That commenced a consultation process that is open until 6 May. I encourage anyone with an interest in this significant project to make their views known during the consultation period.
In advance of the major upgrade, it is important that we do what we can to improve road safety. I have asked my officials to progress a programme of work that will include interventions at the location, including the provision of street lighting and gateway signage on the approach to Garvaghy. A temporary traffic counter recently gathered information on the speed of traffic at the location, and that information will be shared with the PSNI and will be used to help to inform further safety interventions. I have asked my officials to liaise with the PSNI and the PCSP to consider placing a speed indicator device at the location.
I assure the Member that, on my watch, my Department remains committed to improving road safety along the existing A5 until such times as the long-awaited A5 dual carriageway is constructed and fully operational.
Ms Brogan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister. Thank you for meeting the families so that you could see for yourself just how busy that road is and how much the temporary safety measures are needed. As you said, the temporary safety measures are important, but we need to see the upgrade of the A5. I know that you published the environmental statement last week, but will you give us an update on the progress of the entire project?
Ms Mallon: I have published the new addendum and the associated documentation. The public consultation process is under way and will run to 6 May. As Minister for Infrastructure, I have no authority over when the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) will reconvene the public inquiry, but it is hoped that it can take place later this year. My officials have been in discussions with the PAC to secure an early date for that.
Receipt of the PAC's final report from the inquiry should allow a new ministerial decision to be taken. Subject to the successful completion of all the necessary statutory processes and environmental assessments, the construction of phase 1A could commence later that year. In recent years, the programme for scheme delivery has referred to full scheme completion by 2028. Although some slippage has occurred, that time frame remains achievable. Certainly, I have instructed my officials to work to that time frame.
Ms Bradshaw: Minister, my question is not about the A5. I have written to your private office twice about traffic-calming measures, and I am conscious that it is nearly the end of the mandate. My question is about Orpen Park. I know that your officials were consulting residents about traffic-calming measures. Do you have an update?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): As the Member knows and so does the Minister, that question does not relate to the original question. How the Minister wishes to answer it is at her discretion.
Ms Mallon: I am happy to provide a written update so that the Member has the latest position on Orpen Drive.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member is not in her place to ask question 5. That is due to a sad family bereavement.
The Member is not in his place to ask question 6.
Ms Mallon: Construction of the new 25·5-kilometre section of dual carriageway between Drumahoe and Dungiven, which includes a bypass of Dungiven, is now well advanced, with earthworks, drainage and all 22 structures substantially complete. In November 2021, work commenced to lay the final surface course. To date, more than 30% of the final road surface has been laid.
Work continues on the remaining elements of the project, including the provision of a safety barrier, road marking, signage, street lighting at junctions, landscaping and accommodation works. I am pleased to say that those will be completed this year, largely as planned.
Mr Robinson: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she consider a similar scheme at Greysteel in my constituency to alleviate the significant traffic congestion on the main route from Limavady to Londonderry?
Ms Mallon: The Member will know that the regional strategic network transport plan is being developed with the aim of going out to public consultation. That will set strategic priorities to 2035 for road, bus and rail. I encourage the Member to make representations about the project that he has just cited when that goes out to public consultation. He has raised others with me that can be considered within that framework.
Ms Hunter: Will the Minister detail which active travel measures will benefit the people of East Derry as a direct result of the scheme?
Ms Mallon: To help to promote active travel in line with my Department's commitment to create greener infrastructure and encourage people to walk and cycle, the scheme provides a continuous route for cyclists and pedestrians between Claudy and Drumahoe. It will be a combination of proposed new and existing footpaths and new shared-use access lanes and existing roads that will also provide a link to Oaks Wood and Burntollet Wood.
Between Dungiven and Claudy, cyclists and pedestrians will use the existing shared paths, footpaths and hard shoulder on the old A6 Foreglen Road, which will have significantly reduced traffic flows following the opening of the new dual carriageway. My Department proposes further upgrades to footways and cycleways on some of those sections under separate schemes.
Two park-and-ride facilities are also being provided as part of the scheme to provide local commuters with more sustainable, cleaner and greener transport options. One is in Drumahoe, and it became operational last year. The other is at Claudy and is nearing completion. Covered cycle shelters are provided at both facilities.
Mr Delargy: I welcome the announcement on the development of the A6. I welcome your work and that of the previous Minister, Chris Hazzard. Another key development that is needed in the north-west is better rail links between Derry and Belfast. Will you update us on where that is?
Ms Mallon: The Member will be aware that I have initiated a number of feasibility studies. One is of phase 3 of the Derry to Coleraine rail line. That has been completed, and the business case is being worked on. A feasibility study for the additional three halts and a half-hourly service will be completed in the summer. Overlaying all that is the all-island strategic rail review, which is looking at how we can improve existing rail connectivity on the island, where we can have new rail links, the role of rail for freight and rail connectivity to our ports and airports. I am due to go to Dublin tomorrow to get an update with Minister Eamon Ryan and the consultants on that work, and I am committed to driving it forward. As we have discussed before, there has been historical underinvestment in the north-west, and you can see that most starkly when you look at a map of rail connectivity on the island, so I am committed to doing what I can through working with partners to address that.
Ms Mallon: I have announced my intention to extend the concessionary fares scheme to provide free travel for people with disabilities who currently pay half fare and to new operators who have already indicated or expressed an interest in joining. I am aware that many people with a disability have limited travel options. I took the decision to extend free travel to those who currently receive half fare as, for me, it is not just an economic, societal and environmental issue but a social justice issue, and I am keen to see more people benefit. In response to my bid for funding to do that, the draft 2022-25 Budget consultation included a proposal for ring-fenced funding to support extending free travel and extending the scheme to the new operators that had already indicated or expressed an interest in joining. Regrettably, the draft 2022-25 Budget consultation has now been paused by the Finance Minister in the absence of an Executive. However, I am committed to continuing the work towards completing the necessary steps to enable the scheme to be extended. Those steps include engagement with Translink on issues such as changes to ticketing infrastructure, targeted consultation with key stakeholders and the completion of the necessary approval processes.
Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. I thank the Minister for that. I welcome the steps taken to extend the concessionary fare to black taxis and people with disabilities who access only the half-fare concession. Will the Minister give more detail on the timeline for putting that into action?
Ms Mallon: I want the extension to free travel for people with a disability to come into effect under those new operators as soon as possible. That is the timescale that I am working on. As I said, I intend to work towards completing the necessary steps to enable the scheme to be extended in the new financial year.
I have outlined what steps are required, and I will continue to work to secure the funding. In the absence of that, from our perspective, all the necessary steps are being taken forward. I am clear that the timescale for it is the new financial year.
Mr Storey: The Minister said that, for the continuation of the scheme, it will be vital that we have an infrastructure to deliver it. When will the regional strategic transport network plan be published? She has promised the House on a number of occasions that it would be, but we are told today that it is going out to consultation?
Ms Mallon: It has always been the case that the regional strategic transport network plan would have to go out to public consultation. It is a key strategic document that will set out infrastructure priorities up to 2035. Given that it is such complex and important work, I am sure that the Member will agree that it is important that we get it right. That is the work that officials have been undertaking. The intention is that, when it is completed, it will go out to public consultation, every Member and citizen will have the opportunity to feed back their views and then the plan can be adopted accordingly.
Mr McNulty: Minister, given your ambition to move people towards public transport, do you have enough money to do that?
Ms Mallon: The short answer is no. It has been well rehearsed and is in the public domain that Translink was not in receipt of sufficient funding over many years, which then required it to eat into its reserves. Significant funding was provided during COVID, as was the case for transport providers and operators across these islands, given the significant drop in passenger numbers, which impacted on demand.
Making sure that we have a publicly owned public transport network is crucial. That ensures that we are able to service areas that are not on profit-driven routes. That is really important, particularly for our rural communities. It is also really important that we get as many people as possible out of their private vehicles and onto public transport. The only way that we can do that is by ensuring that we have sufficient funding to maintain the existing network and to improve and enhance the transport offering across the North and, through the all-island strategic rail review, throughout the island. I will certainly continue to make that case with Executive colleagues.
Difficult choices have to be made. We have a difficult Budget and a number of priorities. However, public transport is right up there due to its impacts on the economy, society, the environment and social justice.
T1. Mr Gildernew asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on the A4 Enniskillen bypass. (AQT 2171/17-22)
Ms Mallon: The Enniskillen bypass was one of the key strategic projects that I committed to take forward. Work has started on the ground, and I am sure that the Member has seen that. It is very important that the project advances. Crucial to that will be ensuring that there is the funding to do so.
I refer back to my previous comments about my frustration, which I know is shared, with the absence of an agreed Budget and the missed opportunity of having a multi-year Budget. The progress and pace of that project will be dictated by the funding that is made available to the Department.
I hope that the Member has seen that I have prioritised that project since taking up office. I am certainly pleased to see work starting on the ground.
Mr Gildernew: I thank the Minister for that. Indeed, I welcome that initial works have begun, and I support your indication that we need to see sustained investment in the project. Minister, can you provide more detail about the project, such as what active travel provision is being included and when construction might start in full?
Ms Mallon: We hope to be able to move to full procurement and construction. Of course, that is dependent on the funding that comes across in the forthcoming financial year.
On the issue of active travel, when we look at bypasses, it is very important that we do not just look at them in the very narrow sense of building a road away from a town. It is really important that we breathe life into those towns and make them places where people are comfortable and can enjoy walking and spending time shopping, visiting and socialising. Therefore, parallel to the work on the structure of the bypass — the road — my Department has taken forward a feasibility study to see what we can do to maximise the space in the town centre and revitalise it. It is very important that both aspects progress in parallel.
T2. Ms Brogan asked the Minister for Infrastructure whether she has engaged with the Minister of Education on the impact of soaring fuel costs on school bus operators. (AQT 2172/17-22)
Ms Mallon: The Member raises a very important point. It is certainly an issue that I am concerned about in relation to Translink, although it bought and secured fuel in advance. Members will also know that rising costs are a massive issue for Northern Ireland Water, which is the single biggest electricity consumer in the North.
School transport is a matter that falls to the Department of Education and the Education Authority. However, I am happy to engage with the Education Minister on the issue and provide her with support, because I know how pressing it is. Sadly, it looks set only to escalate further.
Ms Brogan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire fosta. I thank the Minister for her answer. She is right. I have been contacted by a number of school bus operators who have contracts with the Education Authority and are afraid that they will be unable to maintain them because of the cost of fuel. Will the Minister confirm whether she will provide support to bus operators that are really struggling because of the increases in the cost of fuel?
Ms Mallon: I have to be respectful of the Education Minister's role and responsibilities, but the Member will know that we have initiated the third scheme for private bus and coach operators that were impacted by significant reductions in their income during the pandemic. Applications for that scheme closed earlier this month, and we received 90 applications. Those applications are being processed so that payments can be issued as quickly as possible to those who qualify for support. I will continue to engage with the sector. If the Education Minister wishes to discuss the matter with me, I am very happy to do that, given our experiences with Northern Ireland Water.
T3. Dr Archibald asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on the phase 3 Derry to Coleraine feasibility study, specifically in relation to the provision of a rail halt at Ballykelly. (AQT 2173/17-22)
Ms Mallon: That is an important piece of work. The feasibility study on the half-hourly service between Derry and Belfast, and also on the three rail halts, is ongoing and is due for completion in the summer. That will enable us to move to the next stages and get to the point where it is being realised and where the local community there can enjoy the benefits of improved access to rail and be able to get to and from work or do anything else that they wish to do. That work is progressing as planned.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for that response. There is obviously need for improvement in that rail stretch. I think that everybody will agree that it is a very picturesque train journey, but it is a long one. The provision of public transport is important in enabling people to have access to work and in tackling the climate emergency. The feasibility study is being undertaken. Is there a time frame, beyond the completion of the feasibility study, for when we might see delivery?
Ms Mallon: All the steps that need to be taken in advance of construction on the ground are being taken. How quickly progress will be made will be dependent on the funding that comes across to the Department. As Minister, I have been very clear that rail is a huge untapped opportunity that we have been missing. I am very keen that we do what we can to expand the rail network, particularly in the north-west area. I hope against hope that, after the election, we will have an Executive formed and have Ministers in post so that the Minister for Infrastructure will be able to move to the construction parts of the rail projects that we have been working on. That would be hugely beneficial. I know that rail is an issue that many Members across the House feel passionately about.
T4. Mr Durkan asked the Minister for Infrastructure to outline her actions to help people who are struggling with the cost of living, given that she will know that he, like many Members, has been out on the doors to engage with constituents a fair bit of late, and, for once, potholes and parking issues are not the hot topics, meaning that it is incumbent upon our Ministers to work collectively and individually within their Departments to help. (AQT 2174/17-22)
Ms Mallon: The Member is absolutely right. We bandy about terms like "cost-of-living crisis", but the reality is that so many households are being crippled by soaring food bills, fuel bills and energy bills. People who are on social security are absolutely struggling. People who are not in receipt of social security are absolutely struggling, with many saying that their finances are being challenged like never before. There is a responsibility on all of us to do what we can to try to mitigate that and make sure we get money into people's pockets and keep it there.
I was pleased to be able, before Christmas, to take forward regulations in the House to protect people and families from having to pay water charges. It was important to me to take forward the motor insurance legislation to try to protect people against a hike of up to £50 in their motor insurance premiums. Members will be aware that I took the decision to freeze any hike in public transport fares. I did that because I recognise that many people who cannot afford a car are completely reliant on public transport. I also hope that freezing fares will make life easier for people who have to run a car and are facing huge and escalating petrol and diesel prices. It will mean that they are able to afford to travel on our public transport network.
I am conscious of the private Member's Bill that Mark H Durkan is working on. That is emergency legislation that, in the absence of an Executive, would see emergency energy payments go to households right across the North. I am very pleased that, to date, that Bill has been able to secure the political support of every party in the House. People are looking to their politicians to act to help them, and we should certainly be doing everything to help them, even in the very difficult political circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her answer and, even more, for her actions. The Minister referred to private Member's legislation that I am working on. I am awaiting the green light or white smoke from the Speaker's Office's legal team on whether it will be a goer. Should it be, will the Minister assure me of her support?
Ms Mallon: The Member can be absolutely assured of my support. All of us have constituents contacting us, all of us know how difficult and tight things are getting for people, and all of us want to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to help our citizens at this difficult time.
T5. Mr Stewart asked the Minister for Infrastructure, at the risk of sounding ridiculously parochial, whether, in the interests of public safety, she will look into the traffic lights at one of the busiest junctions in Carrickfergus from Victoria Road to the main road, which have failed more than 20 times in the past six months, and despite constant communication with her Department and Siemens, nothing has been done. (AQT 2175/17-22)
Ms Mallon: All politics is local, and these issues are hugely important. I am not aware of that particular instance. My instinct leads me to think that there may be an electrical fault, if the outage has been so frequent, but I give a commitment to taking the issue away, asking my officials for an update and providing the Member with an update in writing.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for her answer. I will move slightly further up the coast, to Larne. Last week's disgraceful actions by P&O shone a light on the questionable ownership of the port. We would not allow an airline company to own an airport in Northern Ireland — it would certainly raise eyebrows — but, in Northern Ireland, we have the Port of Larne being operated by the ferry owners. It does not seem right, or to be in the interests of fairness or delivering for the public. Will the Minister look into the option of a free port for Larne, and at the other options that may be available?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I realise that there may be some sort of a tenuous link between the lights and the supplementary question, but the supplementary question is supposed to be supplementary to the original question. It is at the Minister's discretion as to what her response will be.
Ms Mallon: I am shocked and appalled at how P&O workers have been treated, as was everybody. Who thinks that it is acceptable to treat people in that way — stripping them of their dignity and treating them like a cheap commodity? We need to reflect very carefully on where society is going on workers' rights and protections, particularly in the globalised world in which we live. The Member will know that my Department has a limited role in the situation at Larne because it is a privately owned port, and we do not have statutory responsibilities for ferries or shipping.
That said, while I am conscious that maritime and shipping is a reserved function of the Department for Transport, and I am calling on the Secretary of State for Transport to take every possible step to save jobs and maintain connectivity for passengers and critical goods on the Irish Sea routes, my Department is working with the Department for the Economy and DAERA to ensure that we are minimising any risks to the supply chains for critical goods. My officials will continue to do what they can, working with colleagues across government.
T7. Mr Robinson asked the Minister for Infrastructure to provide a long-awaited update on when the regional strategic transport network transport plan will be published. (AQT 2177/17-22)
Ms Mallon: As I said, it is an important document, because it will set out the infrastructure priorities for road, bus and rail up until 2035. Officials have been working with consultant partners to try to bring further detail to that. I am clear that we need to make sure that we get it as right as we can before it goes out to public consultation. Members will have the opportunity to respond and to make their views known when it goes out for public consultation because it is important that we have a genuine consultation process and that, then, the Minister and the Department are able to reflect on the views and, if required, not shy away from making changes to that document.
Mr Robinson: I thank the Minister for her answer. As this is my last Question Time before retirement, I ask the Minister, again, to commit to the inclusion of a bypass for Ballykelly and a climbing lane at Gortcorbies on the Limavady to Coleraine route within the plan.
Ms Mallon: I wish Mr Robinson well. In my encounters with him, he has always been an absolute gentleman. He has never played the person. He has always really cared about his constituents and his community, and that constantly shines through.
If I were able to bring forward infrastructure projects based on the integrity of the Member campaigning for them, those would all be built, I assure you of that, Mr Robinson. Obviously, however, we need to take projects forward within a strategic framework. I assure you that those road projects will be considered as part of the regional strategic transport network transport plan. Even as a relaxed citizen who is no longer in politics, you can, of course, still make your views known through the consultation process, and I, for one, look forward to reading them.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance): A number of measures have already been introduced, including a £2 million emergency fuel payment scheme and a £55 million energy payment support scheme delivered by the Department for Communities. The latter scheme is mitigating the impact of fuel price increases for some 280,000 of our most vulnerable people.
As a result of the absence of the Executive, my Budget proposals to freeze rates for three years could not be agreed. Despite that, on 2 March, I was able to announce a freeze on rates for the next 12 months. That is in addition to the extension of the small business rate relief scheme, which currently supports almost 29,000 business premises. In conjunction with other measures, including the freezing of Housing Executive rents, that provided further help with the rising costs that families and businesses alike are facing.
An additional £300 million of funding has become available for 2022-23 since the draft Budget was agreed for consultation. Although there is no mechanism to allocate that funding in the absence of an Executive, I have asked ministerial colleagues to bring forward costed proposals on the supports that their Departments can deliver. That will allow us to move quickly once an Executive is restored. I will continue to press the British Government to take further measures, including acting on my request to waive VAT costs and excise duties for a period.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that the SDLP is working tirelessly to progress emergency legislation to access the £300 million that is not being used by the Executive. We want to allow for emergency financial support to be prioritised and given to people and hard-working families who need that money now. Minister, will you commit to supporting our efforts?
Mr C Murphy: I will commit to supporting any and all efforts to ensure that the money that we have ready to support families is released. I have had no indication yet as to the success or otherwise of that particular effort. The Member will know, of course, that the clearest, most consistent and most obvious way to allow us to take decisions to spend money to support families is to re-form the Executive, sit around the table and get back to work to take those decisions. That could be done in an instant. There may be other attempts and measures to see whether we can get around these things. Although I have tried through legal means on a number of occasions to look at possible solutions, the very obvious solution is the one that is staring us in the face, and that is to re-form the Executive.
Ms Dolan: Last week, the Dublin Government cut petrol and diesel excise duties, and we have seen other countries around the world take the same action. Does the Minister agree that, by contrast, the British Government's response to the cost-of-living crisis is woefully inadequate?
Mr C Murphy: I had an engagement this morning with the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, alongside the Scottish and Welsh Finance Ministers, ahead of the announcement that the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make on Wednesday. I hope that the British Government begin to address some of the issues that we have been pressing them on consistently, like excise duties, VAT, energy bills and the rebate on red diesel, which affects rural families, farms and small contractors. All of those issues, alongside the events in Ukraine, which are putting an even bigger squeeze on the cost of living, are creating a real sense of crisis out there. There are steps that the British Government could take immediately, and, given that we pressed them again on that this morning, I sincerely hope that we hear something substantial on Wednesday.
Mr Nesbitt: Does the Minister support the call on the Chancellor to bring in a rebate on fuel tax for essential users to mitigate the high costs that are impacting the haulage sector and, indeed, carers, who clock up a lot of mileage?
Mr C Murphy: There is no doubt that the Chancellor and the Treasury have it within their gift to take measures in relation to that. They need to look at where those measures are most needed. The Member has identified people who are essential users of fuel; undoubtedly, an increase in costs reduces the income to their households. In the case of carers, it is not a very substantial income in the first place. I support any measure that can be put in place. We have been pressing the Chancellor and the Treasury to look at any and all measures they can take between now and next Wednesday. Because we have been pressing them on this for some time, and the crisis and the implications of it for families and individuals have been deepening, I hope that we will see something substantial announced on Wednesday, such as some of the measures that the Member outlined.
Mr Muir: Households across Northern Ireland are facing real dire pressures as a result of the rising cost of living. What efforts has the Minister made to engage with Treasury to encourage it to abandon the increase in National Insurance payments and to uplift benefits in line with inflation as it currently stands?
Mr C Murphy: As I said, my latest engagement with the Treasury was this morning. I have been in touch with it on a number of occasions. This cost-of-living crisis has been gathering since the autumn. Although I very much welcome additional funding for our health system, I do not believe that the correct response was to try to take that from National Insurance contributions. We will continue to press the Treasury to take all and any measures that it can in the time ahead. I believe that it has some scope to take some measures and that it has to recognise that the crisis is deepening and the implications for people are becoming worse by the day. Therefore, the Treasury has it in its power to take some very substantial initiatives in that regard, and I hope that it takes that approach.
Mr C Murphy: I have taken legal advice on this matter and written to Ministers about an approach that would allow the Department of Health to utilise the additional funding related to the increase in National Insurance contributions. It is important to say, however, that that approach will not provide the same level of funding that the draft Budget set out for the Department of Health or any other Department, and it will not offer the certainty that would have been provided by a multi-year Budget. In short, it is no substitute for an agreed Budget.
Mr Stewart: I welcome the Minister's effort on contingency planning, which I hope will allow key services to continue, as well as further spend on waiting list initiatives. In particular, how is the Minister taking into account the unforeseen funding pressures as a result of increased energy costs, which could be up to £50 million across the trusts?
Mr C Murphy: As part of that, we have asked all Departments to bring forward costed schemes that they might consider. Although we do not have the ability to allocate funding to them, I want to be in a position to move very quickly on that, should an Executive be re-formed. I do not doubt that there are energy cost issues across all the Departments. Of course, the priority has to be to try to help families that are under pressure in the time ahead, but nonetheless the Department of Health has engaged with our officials, and I am sure that it will bring forward some sense of where it sees the pressures on the Department in the time ahead.
Ms Kimmins: Minister, do you agree that the only way to guarantee that available funds get to our essential services, particularly our very overstretched health service, is for the DUP to end its electorally motivated boycott of the Executive? Is it not long past time that the DUP stopped putting its selfish party political interests before the people?
Mr C Murphy: Clearly, that is the quickest way to deal with those issues, which everybody is feeling. Every elected representative is in touch with the cost-of-living crisis in particular. The pressures brought about by that have undoubtedly begun to be felt and are increasing daily. Now that we are going into a new financial year, bills will start to fall on doormats, and people will feel an acute sense of pressure.
Of course, we do not have all the funds to deal with all the issues that we want to deal with, but we have some funding available to us, so there is an opportunity to try to provide some support to families in the time ahead. The quickest way to do that — I have heard various intricate solutions to all of that, none of which has borne any fruit to date — is to get back to work with one another, to sit around the table and prioritise the issues that need to be addressed, as we have done in the past, and to allocate the funding to try to provide some level of support.
Mr O'Toole: While I agree that collapsing the Executive is utterly wrong — it is as wrong now as it was in 2017 when the Minister's party did it — I hope that the Minister will be able to support the SDLP's proposal, should we be able to get it on the Floor, to unlock that money and spend it on the cost of living.
Minister, have you had any conversations about whether your Department will be able to spend further Barnett consequentials, should there be any from the spring statement on Wednesday?
Mr C Murphy: I am tempted to remind the Member again of his encouragement for us to bring down the Executive in 2017. I know that he personally was not here then, but he can check Hansard from that time to see what his party's position was on that.
I raised that issue this morning in my discussion with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He is fully aware that the absence of an Executive is impeding our ability to respond to the crisis in front of us. I said to him that he needs to take that into account if there are potential Barnett consequentials coming as a consequence of the spring statement and that we would need to receive those in a way that provided some possibility of their being spent. The officials undertook to go off and examine that. My officials will be in touch with them in the time ahead. As the Member will know, if it comes across simply as an unhypothecated Barnett consequential, Executive approval is required to make sure that that is spent.
Ms Bradshaw: Minister, you will be aware that the new cancer strategy will, hopefully, be published this week. In your response to Mr Stewart, you talked about the Departments coming forward and presenting their pressures. There will be new costs in that strategy, and, obviously, we will need to get it implemented in a timely manner. What is the prospect of funding being forthcoming for the new cancer strategy without an Executive?
Mr C Murphy: As the Member will be aware, in the draft Budget, I proposed to fund the cancer strategy in full. That is not possible when we do not have an Executive to agree a Budget going forward. What we have been able to do through the Vote on Account, however, is to allow the Department to go forward on an assumption of spending of about 45% as its baseline. That does not provide any additional money for all the additional things that were costed and provided for in the draft Budget, such as the cancer strategy, the mental health strategy and the elective care strategy. I am afraid that it does not allow us to deal with those issues.
We will continue to engage with Health to see what support we can get it and how we can get that support, because it is crucial that it be provided in the time ahead. From my perspective, and from the legal advice that I have received, our hands are firmly tied by the fact that we, as Executive Ministers, do not have the ability to sit round the table with one another in order to plan and agree those matters and allocate the funding accordingly.
Mr C Murphy: The draft Budget allocated over £300 million for green growth. While that funding was not ring-fenced in departmental budgets, as part of the Budget consultation, Departments were encouraged to provide details of the green growth projects that they are taking forward. In the absence of an Executive, it will not be possible to agree a multi-year Budget. Therefore, any plans to finance net zero targets will have to wait until an Executive are established.
Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for his answer. Like many across the House, I was very pleased to vote in favour of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill a few weeks ago. Does the Minister agree that, without long-term funding in place to support us to reach our goals, the legislation could be potentially doomed to fail?
Mr C Murphy: I sincerely hope that it does not. The intent has to be to get an Executive back in place as quickly as possible. Climate change is one of a range of hugely important issues that we, as a society, face. We have an ability here to take decisions and to try to allocate the limited funding that we have to things that are priorities for us in this part of the world. The essential purpose of our being here is to take those types of decisions. The way to do that is to put an Executive back in place as quickly as possible to make sure that, having finally got a three-year Budget, we are able to take advantage of it to plan and set targets for ourselves for the time ahead. The sooner an Executive are back in place to take those decisions, the better for everyone here.
Mr McGuigan: Minister, in your answer, you mentioned green growth. Will you give a bit more detail about what provision and strategy for green growth were in the multi-year Budget?
Mr C Murphy: As I said, we had proposed £300 million for green growth. We had also considered ring-fencing that money, but, on the advice of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, that proposition was not taken forward. The money was available to be bid for, however, which would have formed the basis for discussions. As part of the Budget consultation, my Department releases high-level documentation; each Department would have released specific proposals relating to that, but we did not get to that position because, unfortunately, the Executive went down. The sooner that we can get back to that and see the strategies that Departments have brought forward to match the proposed funding for green growth, the better.
Mrs Barton: Minister, are you confirming that you have not been asked to scope out likely resource for capital DEL or DAERA requirements relating to the target of net zero by 2050?
Mr C Murphy: As I said, funding was proposed to be set aside for that. As part of their planning, Departments would have brought forward propositions as to how they would have spent that funding, but we did not get to the stage at which that could be done in the detail that we wanted. If an Executive can be put in place quickly, I assume that we will get back to that exercise, see what Departments bid for and see how that matches the targets. It is a collective decision, however. Net zero is not any single Department's responsibility; we all have responsibility for it. The Executive have set the target, and we all have responsibility to see which projects will lead us most quickly to that area. It is clearly a collective decision. It is unfortunate that we have not been able to get there, because the impacts of climate change will not wait until an Executive are back in place but will carry on damaging the planet as we speak. We really need to get back quickly to making those decisions.
Mr Blair: Following the passage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill, will the Minister seek to ensure that all future financial decisions are climate change proofed to ensure that we play our part in averting climate catastrophe and meet the targets set in that legislation?
Mr C Murphy: When the Executive have agreed and the Act has confirmed the targets that we face, we have to ensure that all Executive decisions play their part in meeting that direction of travel. Although I do not have the power to go into each Department and specify how it spends — our devolution arrangements allow a significant degree of autonomy in each Department, and that is part of our power-sharing framework — nonetheless, each Department is subject to the legislation. If the legislation has targets, spending decisions should reflect the desire to meet them.
Mr C Murphy: The Department has arrangements in place for the use of official vehicles, which relate to journey costs, road and weather conditions, speed limits, parking, passengers, use of mobile phones, smoking and adhering to the provisions of the Road Traffic Order 1995, which concerns the consumption of alcohol or the use of drugs.
Mr Allister: Does the Minister accept that the ministerial car is a departmental asset? If so, what gives him the right to use it for private business, such as he has done? Does he apologise for such use, given that he heads the Department that has oversight of how civil servants conduct themselves in respect of the rules?
Mr C Murphy: As I have said in many answers to the Member, I have reimbursed the Department for the cost incurred, which was £4·36.
Given that he has not only encouraged but provided public support for his friends in the DUP to shut down the Executive, denying us the right to set a multi-year Budget and allocate over £300 million to families who are struggling at this time, he has a strange sense of priorities if he is obsessing over £4·36 [Interruption.]
Mr C Murphy: I have been raising the matter with British Ministers for two years. The continued lack of detail on the Shared Prosperity Fund is concerning. The British Government's engagement to date on EU structural fund replacements has been wholly inadequate, with a failure to recognise the impact of the loss of approximately £80 million per annum to spending power here.
Following the receipt of legal advice, I wrote to Ministers to seek approval to share their high-level departmental priority investment options with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I thank Ministers for their responses and confirm that their departmental information has now been shared. That will enable the Department in London to draft locally specific options to be included in the upcoming Shared Prosperity Fund prospectus and investment framework. I recognise that the lack of detail on the Shared Prosperity Fund is causing significant anxiety to groups, particularly those in the voluntary and community sector. My Department and I will continue to engage with Whitehall on the fund.
Mr Delargy: I thank the Minister for his answer. A greater role for the Executive in the Shared Prosperity Fund is welcome, but does the Minister agree that that still falls woefully short of the British Government's commitment to fully replace the EU funding that we have lost as a result of Brexit?
Mr C Murphy: I do. This morning, I again raised that very point in the meeting that we had with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The £80 million that we traditionally used, through the Department for the Economy and the Department for Communities, to target skills and assist people into employment has not been replaced at all. The groups that provided that service for us now face the prospect of trying to secure the money from the Departments' budgets, which would impact on other services that the Departments provide, or taking pot luck on the Shared Prosperity Fund, with which they might or might not be successful. That is no way for those groups to continue to provide the services that they have been providing over many years to such great effect.
The tailing off and netting of budgets, particularly in relation to farm funding, will leave us significantly short over a number of years compared with the funding that the EU provided previously. The replacement of EU funding may have been written on the side of a bus; our Brexit experience, however, is that it has not materialised.
Mr O'Toole: What has happened with replacement EU funding is nothing short of a scandal. The Economy Minister's desire is to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that his Department and the community and voluntary organisations do not face a huge funding black hole, but they do. We are days away from the end of the financial year. What representations have the Minister and his Department had from the Economy Minister? There are community and voluntary organisations that will not be able to make financial plans for next week because they have not had clarity from that Department. What has he heard from the Economy Minister?
Mr C Murphy: The Member will be aware that that has been an ongoing topic of discussion for some time. I had many meetings with people in that sector. I am very aware of the cliff edge that they face and of the services that they provide to us. At a time when there are job opportunities — our economically inactive numbers have grown, but there are job opportunities out there — that is precisely the type of service that we need to focus on. I recognise the gap that exists. I also recognise that there is a hole in the Department for the Economy's budget in relation to previous funding that it relied on for such issues.
I offered a solution to the Department for Communities and the Department for the Economy to give certainty in advance to the groups involved. The Department for Communities took up that option; the Department for the Economy wrote to me to say that it was not taking it up and that it would provide the certainty required. I hope that it is engaging with those groups and that they are getting some certainty. I have not heard that, but I recognise, as the Member does, that we are fast approaching that cliff edge and that they need a clear sense of how they will be funded in the next year in order to retain staff and make sure that they are there to provide those services.
Mr C Murphy: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 8 and 9 together.
The hubs in Ballykelly, Downpatrick, Ballymena and Craigavon are complete and will become operational when appropriate. Progress is advancing well at the Connect2 hubs in Bangor and Omagh. Planning has started for additional hubs in the Antrim/Newtownabbey area, Derry, mid-Ulster, Enniskillen and Newry, all of which are planned to be delivered over the next two years.
Mr McGlone: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as sin. Minister, will you give some details about the hubs in mid-Ulster, which is, as you will know, is one of the fastest-growing economic areas in the North? When might the scheme start in mid-Ulster?
Mr C Murphy: When we looked at the council areas that had been provided in the first run of the scheme, there was a recognition that mid-Ulster was a notable gap. We want to ensure that there is the ability to access the hubs across all the council areas. The initial programme was mapped on to the data of where people were travelling into Belfast from in order to make sure that the areas that had the highest numbers of people travelling into Belfast were dealt with. We have worked our way through that. We have a good working relationship with local government, and I am sure that we are engaging with Mid Ulster District Council to identify a suitable location so that we can work in partnership with the council to make sure that a hub fits into its economic development strategies.
The purpose of the hubs was to put them in town centres to make sure that they had an added benefit and were not sitting in an industrial estate but were bringing people into the town centres. They coincided with councils' development plans, so they harmonised with those. We will continue to engage. I am not certain about the time frame for that, but the sooner we get that level of engagement, the sooner we can identify sites. We have been pressing ahead with the hubs, and there are a number that are ready to open once we get the back-to-work announcement from the task force in the Department of Health. I think that they will be a success, and there is significant interest in them. They will generate additional interest from people in those areas and create more opportunities in the longer term for people to apply for Civil Service jobs when travelling in and out of Belfast five days a week is not part of that job.
Mr Muir: One of the main Civil Service accommodation areas is at Rathgael House in Bangor. Has consideration been given to relocating to Bangor town centre to aid the regeneration of that town centre?
Mr C Murphy: Politics is becoming very local this week for some reason [Laughter.]
I am not sure why Rathgael House was chosen or whether another option was available in Bangor; I am happy to check that. As I said, the broad template is to look for an available property, discuss with the local council to make sure that it fits in and for it to be as much in the town centre as possible. Rathgael House is slightly out of the town centre. A property should be as central in a town as possible to allow people the flexibility to work a number of days a week from their own area and, perhaps, to provide a space for local government officials to meet central government officials so that we can break down some of the barriers between the strands of administration here. I am happy to see whether another property was available in Bangor town centre, but availability of government-owned property is one of the key criteria. That is possibly why Rathgael House was chosen.
Ms Brogan: I will continue with the local politics trend and ask you for an update on the Civil Service hub in Omagh.
Mr C Murphy: I said in my original answer that the Connect2 hubs in Bangor and in Omagh were advancing well. The Omagh hub may not be up to the same level as the first few that we have done, but it is moving with some progress, and there has been useful engagement with Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to make sure that we get the right place. I know that there is a lot of property in Omagh that is government-owned and that a lot of it is surplus to requirements now. We want to get a place that is the right fit to make sure that it coincides with the development plans for Omagh town centre and makes a contribution to all of that. I have been informed that progress is going well there, and I hope to see more movement on the hub in the near future.
Mr Storey: In the Minister's original answer, he talked about the hubs becoming operational "when appropriate". Can he elaborate on what that means? Does "when appropriate" mean "when we have in place a proper return-to-work policy", so that spaces that have been identified are no longer continually vacant?
Mr C Murphy: The Member is correct. We are waiting for the advice. At the moment, the official advice is that people should work from home if possible. As a Department, we cannot countermand that advice. I have asked the task force if it is looking at the issue, and it will discuss with the Department of Health what the latest advice might be.
The pandemic has not gone away. A lot of people are still contracting COVID-19 and unfortunately there are still people dying from it. So we have to have a cautious approach to emerging from this, although there is a great sense that we are, at last, seeing a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. We are awaiting that advice and making sure that we adhere to it.
We have been developing policies on what a return to work looks like because the workplace, undoubtedly, will have changed. There is much more opportunity for people to have a flexible approach to work, and we need to recognise and accommodate that. IT solutions have advanced rapidly during the pandemic, which allows us to do that, and that is good for the Civil Service generally because it makes the option of working in it more open to people from rural and peripheral areas and to women to make sure that our Civil Service is more reflective of the society that it serves. We are waiting on that advice, and, as soon as we get it, we will press ahead as quickly as we can.
Mr C Murphy: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 10 and 14 together.
In the absence of an Executive, it will not be possible to agree a final Budget for 2022-25. However, there are mechanisms in place that will allow Departments to continue spending to maintain public services. The Vote on Account, which is included in the Budget Bill that just concluded its passage through the Assembly and is awaiting Royal Assent, will allow Departments to continue spending until the summer.
That, on its own, may provide time for a returning Executive to agree a Budget and for a Budget (No. 2) Bill to be passed. However, if that is not the case, from 31 July, the Department of Finance's permanent secretary may approve the issue of cash and use of resources under section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2001. Of course, neither of those allows Departments to plan effectively, nor do they provide the additional resources included in the draft Budget.
I am considering measures that may allow the Department of Health to plan on the basis that its budget will increase by the £400 million generated by the National Insurance increases. However, even if that is possible, the lack of an Executive will still mean that there will be significant funding that cannot be allocated in 2022-23. That includes some £300 million that has become available since the draft Budget was announced.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to topical questions. Questions 1 and 5 have been withdrawn.
T2. Mrs Erskine asked the Minister of Finance to detail the support that his Department is giving to provide people with access to cash in rural areas, given that he will know that access to banking services is very important in rural areas, albeit a number of banks have closed over the past few years in towns and villages. (AQT 2162/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: We have had a number of engagements with the banks. About a month ago, I hosted a banking forum where we brought together the financial institutions, the credit unions, the unions and some of the business organisations, because there is a recognition that a lot of branches have been closing, particularly in small towns — two have closed in my constituency, in Crossmaglen and Keady — which has a very significant detrimental impact on the town centres. Unfortunately, the Bank of Ireland, which closed the two branches in my constituency, just announced a massive profit for this year. Undoubtedly, communities that feel left behind as a consequence of the closures will reflect ruefully on the money that has been made by the Bank of Ireland, in particular, although closing branches across the North is not unique to the Bank of Ireland. I understand that there is more digital banking now and fewer people are using branches, but you represent a rural community, as do I, and you see that those services are essential. We have been impressing on banks the need to keep supporting rural and peripheral communities.
Later this afternoon, we will bring forward the Rates Order in relation to rural ATMs. We are incentivising people to keep rural ATMs because it has become one of the only mechanisms for accessing cash in rural communities, so that is very important. We are doing what we can to continue to support access to cash but we need to continue to press collectively. We do not have responsibility for banks — it lies with London — but we need to press them to continue to support communities and particularly rural communities.
Mrs Erskine: I thank the Minister for his answer. With regard to the rates relief, a number of buildings will be included in that, which is good. However, that may be a small number of buildings that is not representative of ATMs across Northern Ireland. Can you detail why that is the case and whether anything further can be done in relation to ATMs in rural constituencies?
Mr C Murphy: It is a rural ATM support that specifically recognises problems with access to cash in rural areas. Urban centres tend to be served well enough by ATM provision. A number of rural ATMs have closed, so, to provide an incentive, we have given rates relief on rural ATMs. That is measured by the indices that dictate what a rural ward is. If the location is in what is considered a rural ward, it is eligible for the support.
More ATMs may open. In some situations in which banks have closed ATMs, other companies have provided them, and they may well be eligible for rates relief for rural ATMs. It is not fixed; it is based on meeting the rural ward criteria and providing that service. It is specific to rural areas, in recognition of the fact that such areas have particular problems with access to cash.
T3. Mr Sheehan asked the Minister of Finance to outline, had the DUP not walked out of the Executive in an attempt to shore up its electoral fortunes, the additional financial support that would have been available to the ordinary families and workers who are facing mounting, if not intolerable, pressure as the cost of fuel and everyday necessities spirals, albeit some Ministers, such as Deirdre Hargey, have shown leadership and compassion by introducing support schemes including the £200 fuel payment, welfare extensions and rent freezes. (AQT 2163/17-22)
Mr Storey: Three years, Pat. Are you forgetting about that? Short memory.
Mr C Murphy: Those schemes are, undoubtedly, very welcome, but we recognise that they are not enough. The crisis has been deepening almost daily, and events in Ukraine have only added to that sense of crisis. There is clearly a need for more action. Some of that is the responsibility of the British Government. That is why I pressed them again this morning on taking action. We hope to see announcements on Wednesday that will have a significant impact on how people meet the challenges, but we have no indication of whether the British Government will take that opportunity.
On further schemes, as I have said many times, we have £300 million that came after the draft Budget was announced and that we were able to carry over. I asked some Departments to take forward propositions for how they might spend that. We have not got the ability to allocate it, but I want us to be ready, if an Executive come back into place — I sincerely hope that they do in the near future — to hit the ground running in providing that necessary support to families and workers.
Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. Does the Minister agree that many of the causes of the cost-of-living crisis are firmly rooted in disastrous British Government policies such as Brexit and austerity —
Mr Sheehan: — and that Boris Johnson's Government, therefore, has responsibility to take actions such as reducing excise on fuel and home heating oil, abandoning the planned hike in National Insurance contributions and introducing a windfall tax on profiteering energy companies, so that —
Mr Sheehan: — the money can be redirected to those who need it most?
Mr C Murphy: I have raised some of those issues this morning and over the past number of months. We find ourselves in an ever-increasing crisis as a consequence of a series of political decisions. Brexit has been detrimental to all our economic issues here. The protocol tries to mitigate those; it needs work, undoubtedly, but it is, in effect, a mitigation measure.
There are opportunities. The British Government have responsibility in relation to excise duties and VAT on energy bills. The energy companies have been doing well out of arrangements and making significant profits over the past number of years, and there is an opportunity to look at what their contribution can be. Only the British Government can address those matters. That is why we have been pressing them for months on the crisis, which has been building since the autumn and worsening as time has gone on. I hope that they take the opportunity on Wednesday to announce significant interventions in that regard.
T4. Mr Delargy asked the Minister of Finance whether he agrees that, given its impact, the DUP’s collapse of the Executive is an absolutely disgraceful policy that needs to be addressed urgently, particularly in light of its effect on the holiday hunger scheme, which cannot now be guaranteed until 2025, albeit when he worked as a primary-school teacher, he saw at first hand the need for free school meals for vulnerable children to be supported. (AQT 2164/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: A number of additional schemes were brought forward as a consequence of the pandemic. The holiday hunger scheme was one of those, and it is a very beneficial and necessary scheme. There has been some discussion about how far we can ring-fence support for that scheme in the time ahead. We will certainly do all we can, within the restrictions that have been placed on us by the absence of an Executive, to make sure that critical areas such as that get the support that they need. We will leave no stone unturned in that regard.
Of course, as I have said many times in response to all of those issues, the best and most certain way to provide the level of support that is needed right across the community is to ensure that we have the ability to sit around the table as a collective, with all of our differences, but take decisions as we have been doing over the last two years to provide support where it is needed most. That is what we need to do in the time ahead.
Mr Delargy: I thank the Minister for his answer. As well as denying free school meals to children, can the Minister outline how many additional resources have been denied to the beleaguered health service and its overstretched workers by, again, the DUP's reckless and self-serving actions?
Mr C Murphy: The draft Budget proposed a very significant allocation to the Department of Health to address a lot of the long-standing issues that have plagued it as a consequence of many years of austerity Budgets. The Budget was to finally address the issues of employing people and to fix cancer services and address waiting lists and health service reform. All of those things will go on hold until such times as we can agree on the allocations that are necessary for them. The Department of Health has the finances to continue to provide services, but everyone in the Chamber knows very well that if Health is only treading water, it is, in effect, getting worse. Our ability to do anything to support the people who rely on that service and fix the public spend on the health service needs budgetary approval through an Executive process.
T6. Mr Robinson asked the Minister of Finance, who will know about the very successful high street scheme, led by a DUP Minister in the Department for the Economy, to outline what he can do to help the high street as it comes out of two years of the pandemic. (AQT 2166/17-22)
Mr C Murphy: By all accounts, the voucher scheme was successful. I am very glad that it was because it stimulated some spending on the high street. As a rural representative, the anecdotal evidence that I have received is that businesses in small towns felt the benefit of that scheme. Our ability to carry out extra schemes requires approval: that is just a fact of life. It will be for the Department for the Economy to bring forward propositions to support businesses on the high street in the time ahead, but our ability to bring them into effect requires approval.
If the Department wants the Executive to fund a specific scheme, it will require an Executive to be in place to give that approval. When we do not have an Executive in place, there is not much more we can do. However, we have taken forward a rates initiative. The Member will know that many businesses will benefit from a further three-month rates holiday, until July in the new financial year. A lot of those businesses will not have paid any business rates from April 2020 until July 2022, and that is a very significant saving. Specific projects and programmes to support the high street will have to be brought forward by the Department for the Economy and approved by an Executive.
Mr Robinson: Who has the Minister engaged with to come up with innovative ways to help the sector? Some businesses in smaller towns such as Limavady have had a torrid time during and after the pandemic.
Mr C Murphy: I mentioned that we are giving rates relief, and part of today's business is on schemes that will give rates support for start-up businesses in the time ahead. The Member is retiring from his post, and I wish him well in the future. He has been a very effective representative for his community in East Derry. However, we have a collective responsibility to do what we can. We recognise that businesses in small towns, which are the backbone of our economy, are under pressure. We have a collective responsibility to encourage people into town centres and to take whatever measures are needed, be that rates relief or schemes to improve the high street.
As the Member undoubtedly knows, some of that will require us all to sit around a table and agree schemes and agree what funding is allocated to them.
T7. Miss Woods asked the Minister of Finance to detail which Departments, apart from Justice, will see a net budget decrease under the draft Budget, given that he will be aware that the Department of Justice is the only Department for which general allocations are insufficient to cover the baseline cut, despite the fact that, like Health, which is the main beneficiary, the Justice budget includes a demand-led welfare service, namely legal aid. (AQT 2167/17-22)