Official Report: Tuesday 08 February 2022


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

Matter of the Day

Mr Speaker: Mr Matthew O'Toole has been given leave to make a statement on the Police Ombudsman's report, which fulfils the criteria that are set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that interventions will not be accepted. I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business is finished.

Mr O'Toole: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for accepting the Matter of the Day. On Saturday past, I, along with others, joined the families of those who were murdered at Sean Graham bookmakers 30 years ago, on 5 February 1992. At that event, those families gave voice to the decades of frustration at their inability to get accountability and justice for the murder of their loved ones. The people who died that day were Coleman Doherty, Joseph Duffin, who was also known as Jack, James Kennedy, Peter Magee, and Willie McManus. There were the attempted murders of several others.

Today, the Police Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, has published her detailed report into those murders and allegations that surround them, and the murder and attempted murder of several others in that area. Those include the attempted murder of Samuel Caskey on 9 October 1990, the murder of John O'Hara in April 1991, the murder of Harry Conlon in October 1991, the murder of Aidan Wallace in December 1991, the murder of Michael Gilbride on 4 November 1992, the murder of Martin Moran in October 1993, the murder of Theresa Clinton in April 1994, and the murder of Larry Brennan in January 1998.

The ombudsman finds a web of investigatory failings, completely inappropriate police behaviour and what she terms "collusive behaviours". As Members in the Chamber will know, as a result of a Court of Appeal finding, the Police Ombudsman is now not able to make a direct finding of collusion, but in her detailed report, which comes to more than 300 pages, she is clear that she finds extensive evidence of what she terms "collusive behaviours".

I will not go through all the allegations. They are not allegations any more but findings in her report. I will highlight a couple of them, however. One is the failure of Special Branch to share information with investigating police on the murders. Another is the failure to tell people when there were known threats against them. Although the Police Ombudsman does not find that the murders could have been prevented by police actions, she does find that there was a failing to tell people that they were at risk, which is shocking. Perhaps most shocking of all, however, is the finding that an apparently deactivated gun was placed back into the hands of a UDA/UFF informant. That is utterly shocking.

The findings of the Police Ombudsman's report speak for themselves. It is now time, 30 years on, for the families to get accountability, and although I —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Toole: — understand that many will want to speak up for —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Toole: — the many RUC people who served with decency and honour —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Toole: — it is important to say that not having accountability for these types of actions does nothing for all those RUC officers.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr O'Toole: I therefore stand today with the families of those who were murdered at the Sean Graham bookmakers and with the other families.

Ms Kimmins: At the outset, I will say that my heart goes out to the families of the 11 people murdered, who included a 15-year-old boy, and all those injured as a result of collusion between the British state and the UDA. My thoughts are with them today as they try to come to terms with the stark revelations in the Police Ombudsman's report on the deaths of their loved ones at the hands of loyalist murder gangs.

It follows previous reports into loyalist mass killings in Loughinisland and Greysteel, carried out using weapons that British state agents helped to import and distribute to the UDA, the UVF and Ulster Resistance. Eighty people were killed with those weapons, and the ombudsman has revealed that those responsible for bringing them in have never been investigated, despite the involvement of state agents.

The ombudsman has also said that eight RUC Special Branch agents were involved in 27 murders and attempted murders in south Belfast, with one agent being recruited because of his involvement in the planning, preparation and execution of previous murders.

The ombudsman found collusion in each and every killing. Lives could and should have been saved, but warnings about attacks being planned were not passed on, and state agents involved in murder were allowed to kill and kill again.

It beggars belief that the RUC handed guns back to loyalist paramilitaries so that they could be used to kill again.

The latest report by the ombudsman shows a clear pattern of collusion and cover-up. Evidence and documentation were destroyed, and warnings were not passed on to victims. Special Branch refused to pass on relevant intelligence to investigators. Eyewitnesses to killings were exposed to risk, with their names read out in front of suspects.

The report is a devastating indictment of collusion between the British state and loyalist paramilitaries. That is why the British Government want an amnesty for their state forces, their intelligence services and the agents who killed for them, and it is why victims, families, political parties and human rights groups continue to oppose those plans vigorously.

It is time to address the legacy of the past by implementing the mechanisms agreed at Stormont House in a human rights-compliant manner to ensure that families are not waiting any more decades for truth and justice.

Mr Clarke: I declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board (NIPB).

It gives me no pleasure to talk about the contents of this report today.

However, I find it ironic. I am sure that you would not give me enough time to read out the names of all the people who were murdered at the hands of terrorists, many of whom are represented in the Chamber today on the Benches opposite. Indeed, the identity of the SDLP Member who submitted the Matter of the Day was telling, given that his colleague who sits on the Northern Ireland Policing Board besmirched the name of the RUC in previous comments. This is just part of a litany of incidents in a campaign to destroy the name of the RUC, which is something that many of us thought had been settled in 1998.

The findings of the report on any involvement are disappointing, but then I think about the previous Member's comments about documents being destroyed and weapons being handed out. I say to her: how many opportunities did the organisation that her party represents have to hand out weapons that killed almost 3,000 people in Northern Ireland?

I am also struck by the fact that the ombudsman has found the opportunity to create a criminal offence for coercive behaviour. All those things stand in contrast with the out-of-court settlements that the Chief Constable has made in the past few months, not connected to loyalist paramilitary attacks but to those from the nationalist community and the cover ups in relation to them. Indeed, I have sat in many meetings with the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), and if the information that was provided at those meetings was in the public domain, it would be harrowing for people to hear. However, I have never heard calls from the Benches opposite for inquiries into those cases, nor have I heard Members from the Benches opposite condemning the actions of some of their own in relation to murders, including those of RUC officers.

In 1998, a line was allegedly drawn in the sand on all these things, but we continue to hear about all these inquiries, which are one-sided in nature. The sooner that that stops and we move forward, the better.

Mr Nesbitt: The Ulster Unionist Party is a party of law and order: no ifs, no buts. No one is above the law. Anybody who is guilty of wrongdoing should face the criminal justice system. That said, we are possibly in the worst of all places. Not for the first time, the Police Ombudsman has concluded that there were murders that could not have been prevented and could not have been stopped, yet she points the finger at police officers with the expression "collusive behaviour". What does that really mean?

During my time as a victims' commissioner, the most powerful conversation that I overheard in this area was between a retired senior police officer who had served in the RUC and a man who had spent time in prison as a member of the Provisional IRA. The policeman said, "You see, I never woke up in the morning thinking, 'Who can I hurt today?'", and the IRA man replied, "Ah, but I did".

There are things in life that you can explain but you cannot excuse. I am not standing here trying to excuse wrongdoing by anyone who served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. However, if you think about the length — decades long — and intensity of our Troubles and the number of fallible human beings who put on the uniform of the RUC, inevitably you have to conclude that mistakes and bad decisions were made. I do not excuse that; I just accept it as part of the human condition.

Yesterday, the House marked the platinum jubilee of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, and I am reminded of what she said in Dublin during her state visit in 2011. Looking back on our Troubles, she said there were:

"things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all."

That applies to the Troubles. Violence was not inevitable. As an Ulster Unionist and a trustee of the John and Pat Hume Foundation, I am committed to peaceful change.

Had we all committed to peaceful change, we would not be having this debate in the House today.


10.45 am

Mr Blair: I declare my membership of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. My first thoughts are with the families of those who were killed in these attacks and with those who survived and have been living with the physical and mental scars for all these years. Today will be one of mixed emotions for them as their long-held concerns have been proven to have foundation. They have the full support of the Alliance Party in their campaign for justice.

The revelations in the report are deeply disturbing and raise serious issues and questions that need to be answered, and they have the potential to undermine confidence in policing. It must be addressed by the police and the Policing Board immediately as the report identified collusive behaviours by the RUC in the investigation of murders and attempted murders carried out by loyalist paramilitaries in the 1990s. There remains in our society huge individual and collective hurt. The Police Ombudsman's report is further evidence of the pressing need for a comprehensive mechanism to deal with that and give people the justice and closure they deserve.

Mr Buckley: I, again, put on record my membership of the Northern Ireland Policing Board as I rise to speak on what is, no doubt, a very difficult day for the families involved with the Sean Graham bookmakers. I think of those families because, no doubt, this has brought back some very painful memories of a very difficult time. Equally, I look towards many former serving RUC officers and families who are equally disturbed and annoyed by the memories of their loved ones that this incident brings to their doorstep. Let us not forget that 300 RUC officers were killed during the Troubles while performing a duty of law and order to defend and protect the people of Northern Ireland. Over 280 of those officers were killed by republican terrorists. How many inquiries or reports did they get, and how many of their killers were brought to justice?

Sadly, today, in 2022, we continually see an attempt to compare today's standards of policing operations with what was happening in a chaotic time in this province's history. It is important that I put that on record because I come from a family with members who have served in the law institutions and forces that protected this country through some very dark and difficult days. I think of the nine officers killed in the Newry mortar bomb attack. I think of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Robert Buchanan, who were lured to their death in the Irish Republic, yet many have fallen silent in their pursuit of justice for them. Many former RUC officers are scarred by what they saw during the Troubles. They lost friends and family and had to live in constant fear. We need to remember that 90% of deaths in Northern Ireland during the Troubles were caused by paramilitaries. Everyone deserves justice. Let us think of Teebane, La Mon, Bloody Friday and Enniskillen. Some want to tarnish the memory of the RUC. For those who were wrong, the vast majority will call them out for what it was. I, for one, am proud and grateful for their diligent service in the protection of the citizens of Northern Ireland through some very dark and difficult days.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Storey: I stand as a former member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. No one should take any joy or any sense of glorification in a murderous campaign that left widows, orphans and broken families.

I have a brother who has proudly served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve and as a part-time PSNI officer for 41 years. I thank God every day that he is still alive, because, sadly, many other families heard the knock on the door and a masked terrorist shot them through the head or in the back. Sadly, there are people in the Chamber, elected to public office, who have glorified those heinous crimes; who have covered up; who have been involved in collusive behaviour; and who have not told the police all that they know about what happened. Today, I call on them to search their conscience. The party opposite has supported and glorified the IRA, a murderous machine that cost lives and created orphans and whose members could not even tell families from their own community the truth about where they buried their loved ones. Is it not time that we had the truth?

Members from the party opposite always like to talk to us about truth and justice —

Mr Speaker: I advise the Member that we are dealing with a Matter of the Day tabled by Mr Matthew O'Toole, which deals with the ombudsman's report. He has strayed very, very far from that. I advise the Member —

Mr Storey: Mr Speaker, I am not questioning your authority, but it is all part of our dark past. If we are to have the truth about what happened with the members of the RUC, we are also going to have to have the truth about what happened with the members of the IRA and those who have been their fellow travellers for 40 years, who still put on uniforms and go to memorials and graves to glorify them and say that it was right. Remember, it was the republican movement that talked about an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other. It was the Armalite that created the burials, the orphans and the graves.

Today, I stand here proud of a family member who served in the RUC.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Storey: I commend the RUC, and I trust and pray that its vilification will come to an end.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up. Thank you.

Mr Catney: I did not want to speak on this, and I do not want to make any political statements about it. However, I operated in my workplace in a bar, which was not too far from Hamilton Street, and I knew the family of James Kennedy. I knew the father, Jackie, very well, and I remember the shock that we had at the death of that young boy at 15. I remember my mother baking a cake of wheaten bread and bringing round the ham to Hamilton Street and the pure sorrow within that house.

All of this really shocked me, all the statistics and all those who died throughout the Troubles. At times, to keep my place of work open, I probably called on the police to try to open up the town, but that does not excuse it. If there was wrongdoing in the police, we need to root it out. There is nobody here who would disagree with that.

I will finish with one last comment. I think of young Jamie's mother — Jackie's wife — who very soon followed her son to the grave. I can tell you, folks: she went into her grave with a broken heart, never mended from that day. I pass on my condolences to all the victims.

Mr Chambers: I was proud to wear the RUC uniform as a part-time reservist for some 15 years. I did not serve with one officer who I heard threatening to go out and harm any member of our society. Thousands of officers served with distinction, many of whom have gone to their graves and many of whom are still alive. The families of those who served will be hurt by the broad-brush nature of the ombudsman's report and, more importantly, the broad-brush opportunities that it provides to the history rewriters.

My colleague Mike Nesbitt spelt out where the Ulster Unionist Party stands on law and order. If anyone, whatever uniform they wore or none, has done wrongdoing, they should be brought before a court of law, be made to account for their actions and receive the due punishment, but please do not besmirch the reputation or memories of those thousands of officers who left their homes every morning and left their wives and children behind them without any certainty that, at the end of their working day, they would return to their family unharmed or, indeed, alive.

Ms Bailey: It has been said that everybody deserves justice. It is a sad day when we still have to step up in the Chamber and declare that we support law and order and when, in looking at and addressing such reports, we have to caveat them with political point-scoring.

Lives were lost. People died. Other lives were damaged. Families were broken. A community was terrorised. When we know that wrong was done, we have to make it right. It is time that we put people first and that we do everything that we can to end the suffering of so many victims. Let us put people first, and, if everyone deserves justice, let us do all that we can to make sure that they can access that justice. Let the ombudsman do her work, and let all our thoughts be with those families today. We have made some great strides forward, but we are not there yet.

Mr M Bradley: I rise to speak on this disturbing report. It is not pleasant reading. While no one is above the law and all should be subject to the law, the report is strong in both supposition and allegation. I think of friends in the RUC who were murdered, blown up, maimed and left with severe disabilities. In my area, an IRA bomb explosion on the street where I worked killed six innocent civilians, mainly pensioners. I will never forget my memories of that day.

I feel strongly that all victims of the atrocities that were carried out in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles should be remembered. Anyone who breaks the law should be subject to the law, be they RUC officer or terrorist. I extend my sympathy to any family that lost a loved one during the Troubles, no matter what their background or where they come from.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for that contribution. That concludes the Matter of the Day.

Mr Nesbitt: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I failed to declare my membership of the Policing Board. I apologise to you and the House for that omission.

Mr M Bradley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I, too, failed to declare my membership of the Policing Board. Like Mr Nesbitt, I apologise to the House.

Assembly Business

7 February 2022

Mr Speaker: The first item of business on the Order Paper is the consideration of business not concluded on Monday 7 February, which was yesterday. As the motion from the Committee for Infrastructure was not reached when the sitting was adjourned last night, we will commence with that item of business. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment.


11.00 am

Committee Business

That this Assembly recognises the difficulties and disruption caused to all public-facing services, including the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA), as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic; further recognises the unnecessary costs that can be faced by individuals and businesses as a result of preventable delays in the provision of driver and vehicle testing services by the DVA, including driver testing and retesting, and the reduced number of vehicles being tested when compared to pre-pandemic levels; acknowledges the work done to date by the Minister for Infrastructure and the Department to restore services; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to put in place creative and innovative measures to eliminate unnecessary and preventable delays in the delivery of services by the DVA, in order to reduce costs and uncertainty to individuals and businesses.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allocate one hour and 30 minutes to the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Buckley: I stand as the Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure to speak to the motion and to commend it to the House.

I wish to acknowledge the difficulties that DVA staff have faced during the pandemic, trying, as they have done, to continue the vital work of carrying out driving tests, vehicle tests and other important services. I can safely speak for the Committee when I say that, like many during this period, they rose to the challenge in difficult circumstances and their efforts should be commended.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Committee for Infrastructure has engaged with the Minister and her officials on the impact of COVID on her Department, specifically on the work of the DVA. Prior to my time as Committee Chair, the Committee engaged in the matter extensively. Shortly after the initial lockdown in spring 2020, the Committee requested that the Minister provide oral evidence on the impact on DVA services. The Minister and her officials came to the Committee on 3 September 2020 to discuss the issues, the first of many briefings on the problem. During the briefing, the Minister acknowledged the challenges for the DVA, the fact that the lockdown had created a backlog in its services and, now that services had recommenced, the real need to deal with that backlog.

During the briefing, the Committee discussed with the Minister how she intended to tackle the backlog, which, all Committee members realised, was a growing concern. The Minister said that, after the initial lockdown, the DVA began to resume services in June 2020 with mitigations and social distancing in place. The reinstatement of driving tests began in July 2020. Motorbike driving testing resumed from 6 July 2020, as did driver theory tests, with safe social distancing in place. The Minister outlined that, as of 1 September 2020, around 200 key workers, including doctors, nurses and front-line workers, would be tested first, followed by approximately 3,800 customers, most of whom were young people who had had their tests cancelled, to ensure that they were not inconvenienced further.

At that time, the Minister and her officials assured the Committee that all was in hand, a plan was in operation and the backlog was a priority. At that meeting 18 months ago, the Committee tested that assertion. The Committee asked about the backlog of 3,800 customers. Surely the backlog was bigger than those whose test had been cancelled. What about all those who would normally have been added to the list in the intervening months? Given that the Minister had indicated that fewer tests could be conducted per day due to COVID restrictions, how would the backlog be dealt with? The response from the Minister and her officials at that time was that they had not extrapolated how many tests they expected to receive. Members asked the Minister to look at the average intake in previous years and were told:

"I do not think that we can"

estimate from previous years, due to COVID. That was a fundamental mistake. There was an error in risk management and crisis planning. There was an acknowledgement that there would be a backlog but no understanding of what was coming down the line. At the early Committee meeting, when Committee member after Committee member asked about the rationale, they were informed that working from home restrictions made it difficult to know what numbers were coming down the track. At that meeting, the Committee asked about the employment of new examiners and was informed:

"We have been examining the potential for recruiting additional driving examiners. The Committee will appreciate that a recruitment and training process is quite lengthy, so we have to ask ourselves, given that it will be a short-term surge in demand, whether that is a viable option, but it is being explored."

That was in September 2020. The Committee continued to have briefings on the issue: on 4 November 2020, 20 January 2021, 21 April 2021 and 10 June 2021. I could go on and on.

The Committee has spoken about DVA testing and driving tests continuously because of the legitimate concerns of Members across the House about the impact of delays and backlogs on individual constituents. At almost every meeting, the Committee agreed to write to the Department for updates and more information. Every time, the Committee emphasised the public concern about the growing backlogs. As time went on, it was not just about the backlogs: it was becoming clear that there were huge difficulties behind the backlogs. Individuals were not able to take up work, businesses could not get staff into roles where driving was a requirement and increasing numbers of cars were being left with no MOT and were falling foul of insurance companies and, worryingly, the PSNI.

That is not to say that the Minister and the Department did nothing in the face of that pressure from the Committee and the public. Temporary exemption certificate (TEC) schemes were put in place; there were discussions with the PSNI and insurance companies about enforcement; and opening hours at test centres were extended. Eventually, there was the recruitment of new staff. That is to be applauded, and I will do so publicly on the Floor of the Assembly as the Chair of the Committee. The backlogs, however, have continued, and the issues have remained. I know that the Minister has been on record at each Committee meeting emphasising that it is not a perfect scenario and that, in a sense, there is still a significant issue to be dealt with in relation to backlogs.

By 26 July 2021, the DVA was able to reinstate normal vehicle testing times and advised the Committee that, since then, it had been able to maintain vehicle testing capacity by adopting a range of measures including the recruitment of additional vehicle examiners, the use of overtime to provide cover for leave and sick absence and a reduction in the vehicle test appointment time. On 28 October last year, the DVA advised the Committee that it had conducted 117,907 full vehicle tests in August and September — 96% of the five-year average for those months. Again, that progress is to be applauded. The backlog, however, remained. The reason given to the Committee for that was that demand for services had increased. That is the same demand as the Committee had warned the Minister of and asked her to put measures in place to address from the beginning of the pandemic.

The Committee for Infrastructure has tirelessly asked questions and heard evidence, but the backlogs remain and are causing hardship and stress. As Committee Chair, I, for one, can speak of several examples of young people keen to get into the workplace and keen to contribute to their household being held back by their inability to secure a driving test. That is not prevalent in just my area — at Craigavon test centre, for example — and I know that other members, going by the experiences expressed at the Committee, have had similar issues.

That has taken the Committee to this point. We felt that, because we were getting nowhere with the Department through constant back-and-forth correspondence, by bringing the motion to the House, we could plead with the Minister to think and talk creatively and to bring forward creative solutions with the resources that she has. The Committee asks that she and the Department get off the merry-go-round of chasing the backlogs and try to get out in front of the crisis for the sake of the individuals who are concerned and for our economy. On that basis, I commend the motion to the House.

Mr Boylan: Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. I will speak in favour of the motion. I remind Members that the role of a Committee is to scrutinise, not criticise, and part of its responsibility is to try to work with the Department in order to address the issues, which is why we brought the motion to the Floor today. I want to put that on the record.

At the outset, I welcome the motion and commend the efforts of DVA staff, who have worked very hard to tackle the backlog that has arisen as a consequence of the COVID pandemic. People have been frustrated with trying to get a vehicle or driving test since services resumed, there is no doubt about that. Not getting a test can be very restrictive for people, many of whom need a car to get to work or to get on with daily errands. While some measures have been introduced, and we welcome them, it is clear that more needs to be done in order to provide the public with better access to important services such as driving and vehicle tests.

Our learner drivers are struggling to get a timely driving test and are waiting months on end, and when tests do show up, many of those drivers cannot make a booking at their test centre. What does that mean? It means that they have to travel further distances to get to a test centre and mothers and fathers have to take time off work to transfer them to the test. We need to see additional examiners being recruited in order to increase testing capacity across the North. The driving test backlog has distressed learner drivers for far too long. Many people, like I say, need transport to get to work and for day-to-day living.

We need to see the vehicle test backlog addressed as well. It is vital that the MOT backlog is urgently addressed and that people can get timely access to such a basic service as a vehicle test, not least because there can be unfair car tax penalties. As we all know, we need a valid MOT certificate in order to tax a vehicle. While the DVA asks drivers to contact it if they need an urgent MOT for their tax, many have been fined for not getting a test in time due to the MOT backlog. I was disappointed by the Minister's response to that. She stated that car tax is an issue for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Swansea, and, when asked, she did not state how many drivers had been affected. I would appreciate it if she could say whether that has been qualified or quantified since. We need to look at addressing unfair penalties that have been issued due to circumstances outside drivers' control. Overall, there needs to be better communication between DVA and drivers on what to do in this unique situation, whether that is for driving tests or vehicle tests.

On another note, on behalf of my colleagues who are looking for a theory test centre in Fermanagh, I ask that the Minister give us a wee update on that. I know that many Members from there have raised that before.

It is vital that the driving and vehicle test backlog is urgently addressed so that people can get timely access to tests and not have to worry about being unfairly penalised. I will work with the Minister and the Committee to try to address the issue. I support the motion. Sin a bhfuil le rá agam.


11.15 am

Ms Hunter: I thank my colleagues on the Committee for working together on the motion. In particular, I am pleased that members accepted and acknowledged the work that has been done by the Minister for Infrastructure and the Department to restore the services. It is important to acknowledge the work that has been done. Not only did Minister Mallon take on crumbling DVA services, with the lifts breaking in her first few days, but, following the Executive's decisions and based on the public health advice of that time, she had to turn off and turn on DVA services. It is no secret that the COVID pandemic has thrown all our public services into disarray, which, in turn, has led to delays. We only have to look at our health service and the waiting lists: there are patients who have been waiting for years for operations. It is testimony to Minister Mallon and officials in the DVA that they have kept drivers safe on our roads. They are now doing record numbers of MOT and driving tests against pre-pandemic figures. Against all odds, and against delta and omicron, DVA staff are working longer hours. Those public service workers deserve our thanks and support. They have been on the front line, working against the highly contagious virus.

I agree with other Members that there has been disruption and confusion for the public. My constituents have faced those challenges, too. The challenges were caused by COVID and met with solutions by the DVA and our Minister. For anyone to argue otherwise is pathetic politicking. With some parties walking away from their responsibilities in government and others trying to pull down the Assembly for an early election, I say to them, "Take a leaf out of the SDLP Minister's book and go back to work and find solutions". The SDLP is focused on people: people first and people before politics. To ensure that we can continue to enhance our public services, we need to continue with the job that we are paid to do.

Members will note that the motion asks about "creative and innovative measures". I am still unsure about what measures colleagues are seeking. I know that the Minister has asked the Committee what additional ideas it has for the DVA to explore, but I am not aware of what is on the table.

Mr Buckley: Will the Member give way on the creative solutions?

Ms Hunter: I am going to get through this.

Preferring to deal in facts rather than fiction, I will focus my closing comments on reality. The reality is that the Assembly and the public owe a great deal of gratitude to our public workers and civil servants who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep people safe on our roads. Yes, COVID has caused great disruption, but the service is working and delivering, rather than crumbling in the face of challenges.

Mr Beggs: I, too, support the motion. I recognise the challenge that the DVA has faced in keeping the public and its staff safe during the COVID epidemic. MOT staff have worked a considerable amount of overtime. The DVA has attempted to recruit staff, but it has experienced great difficulty in doing so. I can see why there is a difficulty in recruiting, considering that a fully qualified mechanic with a minimum of three years' experience will, I understand, receive a salary of £23,500. Only three out of 10 who were selected and invited to start training actually turned up. The others probably got a job since they were initially assessed. Despite the efforts to date, waiting lists are growing. Others have referred to a comparison of five years. The only valid comparisons are of the demand and supply numbers. Sadly, in recent months, the waiting lists have been growing. In September, waiting list numbers increased by 36,000 and, in October, by 22,000.

Mr Catney: I thank the Member for giving way. It is no secret that the pandemic has thrown all our public services into disarray, which has led to many delays across all those public services. Look at our health service. A lot of that is due to the pandemic. Does the Member agree?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an additional minute.

Mr Beggs: The pandemic has, obviously, created difficulties, but we are over the pandemic. The restrictions that had existed are over, as of the end of the summer. We need to meet the demand. There were problems pre pandemic as well. Due to the problem with the ramps, virtually all testing was stopped for a period in DVA, immediately after the Minister took office. That was not her fault, so I am not pointing at her.

I am saying that there is an endemic problem with the DVA. Even before then, there were usually periods during the year when we would hear of excessive waiting times. The DVA is a monopoly provider, and, as a result, the public have difficulty keeping their cars on the road. There has been anxiety as people try to get an earlier test. Many have been fined for failure to tax their car, and they cannot tax their car because it has not had an MOT test.

I welcome the fact that the DVA has trained additional dual-skilled testers who can carry out driving tests, but, again, there is huge demand. I recognise that considerable overtime has been worked. What therefore do we do? First, there are huge risks from doing nothing. If we do nothing, there will be additional pedestrians, particularly ones walking on rural roads, where the private car is virtually the only means of transport. There will be an effect on the economy as people are unable to get to work. There is already an effect on NHS staff who are unable to work shifts and take up overtime opportunities because they perhaps rely on public transport and have not been able to get a test or keep their car on the road. There is also a shortage of staff in domiciliary care. To work in that sector, new applicants need a driving licence, and, without one, they are blocked from applying. The follow-on from that is bed-blocking, with patients unable to get support in their home.

What are the real options that we can suggest to address the backlog? This is what we are about. As the Minister will know, I have been asking why we are not using more temporary exemption certificates. Why are we not dealing with the bulge that is there? We are testing almost as many vehicles now as there is demand, but we need to remove the bulge. It takes about 10 weeks from applying to getting a vacant spot. I know that personally from having experienced it. A departmental road safety official who appeared in front of the Committee indicated that only 1% of accidents occur as a result of mechanical failure, and he also said that there is no statistical information pointing to any increased risk as a result of the use of temporary exemption certificates. I do not want this to happen in the long term, but using TECs now is the only practical means of quickly dealing with the backlog and allowing the public to have a degree of normality.

What are the other options? I think that we have to free the DVA from the restrictions of the public sector, which are what is preventing it from paying the going rate for a mechanic. Recently, I was talking to some major vehicle retailers, and I know from them that they would generally advertise a job with a salary of £35,000, so are we surprised that we have difficulty recruiting staff? We have to free the DVA from the restrictions of the public sector so that it can get out there and meet the market forces.

We also have to recognise that there has been no difficulty in Great Britain throughout the period in question. There is no monopoly there. Private garages provide a service, and guess what? They provided that service the whole way through the pandemic. Great Britain has not experienced all these failures. Perhaps we need competition. Competition is good for improving standards, and that flexibility of competition is needed.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Beggs: What can we do about driver testing? I ask that we look at what is happening in GB, where the testing of light trailers has been dispensed with, and that we avoid the taxi licensing requirement —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Beggs: — that wedding and funeral cars are subject to in order to create capacity.

Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for coming here and the Committee for tabling the motion. I will talk a bit more about MOTs, about which a number of Members have already spoken, and driving tests.

I recall from back in January 2020 the situation that arose from the suspension of all MOT testing as a result of cracks being found in 52 of the 55 vehicle lifts in 15 test centres across Northern Ireland. That is the background to what we are dealing with, and a report was published following the investigations into that. It does not make for great reading, but that is the context for what we are dealing with. MOT tests had already been cancelled, and, unfortunately, we then moved into the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a devastating impact on people's lives and livelihoods. Far too many people have lost their lives as a result of COVID-19. I pay tribute to and thank all the staff at DVA for the work that they, as key workers, have done to provide key services. It is important to recognise that work. The measures that suspended MOTs and driving tests and the current operational arrangements for MOTs were put in place as a result of public health measures to protect staff and the customers who access those services.

This is a key and serious issue that needs to be addressed, but it is not unique to Northern Ireland. At the end of last month, it was reported in the 'Irish Independent' that learner drivers were waiting an average of 10 weeks to take a driving test and that 33,000 drivers were waiting to take their driving test, with, on average, 3,500 tests being done per week. The Road Safety Authority (RSA) said that it would take 10 weeks to clear the backlog, and it was confirmed that eight of the 60 test centres had reported waiting times longer than 10 weeks. So, the issue is not unique to Northern Ireland, but it is one that we need to address.

I am aware of the testing regime that we have in Northern Ireland, and we can, perhaps, debate that another day, but the background is that it is in place for good reasons, and it is important that we take that into account.

I thank those responsible for the work that has been done on MOTs, with the recruitment of additional vehicle examiners, the use of overtime, the conducting of tests on Sundays and bank holidays and additional slots being made available. I must recall, however, the frustration that there was with the new booking system when it was launched and the problems associated with it. There were significant queues and frustration with trying to get an MOT booked.

As has been discussed, there are also issues with insurance. Some insurers are not showing the flexibility that we had hoped they would. Also, if you do not have an MOT, it is, frankly, impossible to get your motor tax. That issue impacts motorists and, in particular, those involved in used car sales. Last week, alongside other MLAs, I met the National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA), which outlined the frustration that they are experiencing in getting MOTs for the used car fleet to enable them to sell those cars on, particularly at a time when demand for them is high.

Turning to solutions —

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Muir: Yes, no problem.

Mr Beggs: Like the Member, I have met that organisation. It indicated that there is a shortage of new vehicles and that more used cars are being sold by its franchises. Does he agree that there is an urgent need to increase capacity, because there will undoubtedly be more MOT demand?

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his intervention.

Turning from problems to solutions, we are very good at talking about problems in this House, but we are not too great on solutions, particularly in the current situation —

Mr Speaker: The Member has an additional minute.

Mr Muir: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

One solution could be a targeted use of temporary exemption certificates, which have been discussed, to deal with the backlog. That is particularly relevant, given the engagement with the National Franchised Dealers Association that I outlined on assurance about roadworthiness before any further TECs are issued.

Another solution lies in the length of time that people get as notification for their MOT. If I had waited for the letter for the MOT for my vehicle to arrive, I would not have been able to get an appointment before the MOT expired. I knew the day that I could go on and book, and, as soon as that came around, I was able to get an MOT. It seems to be a very simple administrative thing, but we could send people letters much further in advance to encourage them to book their appointments. That is a simple solution to the issue.

The other key issue is the availability of driving tests. That has impacted so many people, particularly key workers who do night shifts and need access to a vehicle to undertake their duties. There is also an impact on people as a result of increased use of taxis. I appreciate the efforts that have been made, but there is not a great deal of light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the backlog for driving tests. I need to hear a bit more from the Minister about what more is being done on that.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. He has raised some of the issues to which he sees there being innovative solutions. Does he agree that it would be unfair for anyone to criticise the Committee for criticising but not offering solutions? As Mr Beggs pointed out, it is on record that the Committee has offered solutions, whether on temporary certificates, an increase in the number of testers or the other solutions that the Member raised. There is also the idea of a reserve list for those who, having waited a long time to get into the queue, fail their test and are put to the back of the queue again.

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his intervention. That is an important issue, because you go right to the bottom of the queue. There is also the issue of key workers, who are in vital need of transport.

At the end of the debate, let us focus on leaving here with solutions and with positivity, because that is what people are looking for from the institutions. People are looking to us to provide leadership and solutions. I have no doubt that the Minister is committed to doing that, but let us all focus and, yes, unite on the motion.


11.30 am

Mr Clarke: I will follow in Cathal Boylan's spirit when he said that we are here to scrutinise. I am not a member of the Committee for Infrastructure, but it is important that we scrutinise, although not necessarily be critical. As we get into the debate, however, it is difficult not to be critical.

First, my thoughts are with all those who work in that environment. We have been through a horrendous two years. I am not suggesting for a minute that the ramps were the Minister's fault — clearly, that was not the case — but we could say that it was a perfect storm. The timing of that situation, closely followed by the pandemic, provided an opportunity for some of those things to be fixed. That worked out in the Minister's favour, but "perfect storm" is probably the best way to describe it. As time has gone on, however, the innovative ideas have not been there.

We have heard, for example, that the police will not do someone for not having an MOT, but we have never heard the same assurances from the insurance companies. Now, we are two years down the road, and people are having difficulty with obtaining road tax. There is no help for those people — no innovation, no ideas. Mr Beggs highlighted the problems associated with that, and I concur with him. Recently, most of the people who have contacted my office have asked how they can tax their vehicle without an MOT. They cannot do so because there is no solution for that. The Minister has missed a trick here. She should continue with short-term exemptions until she can get on top of the waiting list.

I will correct the Minister's party colleague, who said that the numbers are now similar to those pre-COVID. We are testing less than we did pre-COVID, according to my reading of the motion, unless I have read it wrongly. It talks about a reduction from the pre-COVID numbers. If that is the case, it is an indictment of the Department. Maybe the Minister will address that in her contribution.

As I look around me, there are not many Members here who look close to 17 or 18 years of age. There is a degree of excitement when that time comes. [Interruption.]

No, definitely not. [Laughter.]

I did not want to call the Member out.

Mr Speaker: It is a distant memory for many.

Mr Clarke: It may be a distant memory for us all, but I can clearly remember it. I remember the excitement of that time coming up to 17, but that has now been dashed. I have heard from people who, in the midst of the coronavirus regulations, had come to the magical age of 17 but had to wait for another year. In the grand scheme of things, that may not be the most important thing, but, as Mr Beggs mentioned, there are, for example, people who have gone through their education and want to work in domiciliary care but cannot do so unless they have their driving licence.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. He has touched on a very important point that has been of great concern to the Committee. There are young people who have waited, perhaps, for a year to get their test. They are experiencing mental anxiety and, unfortunately, due to nerves, may fail the test and have to wait for a time, paying again for lessons, with no test available in the short term. That adds to their anxiety and fear, and it is a huge concern.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an additional minute.

Mr Clarke: Absolutely. That takes me back to November/December 1985, when I failed my test: I got to do it again in February. Now, however, in the same scenario, you will wait much longer. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, that may not seem important.

I suspect that the Minister muddied the waters at one stage when she talked about increasing the period from one year to two years: I am against that. You cannot say that you are up for safer roads and safer standards and then increase the MOT period to two years. Someone else referred to what has happened in England: they have continued with business as usual, but, of course, they have an added complication that we do not have, which is that their cars come due for MOT a year sooner than ours. There is already a difference between here and the mainland, and it is probably more important to look at that, as opposed to making roads and cars safer. Obviously, we cannot do that at the moment.

Ms Hunter talked about us running away, but the Minister has had this problem for two years, and it is still not fixed. Whilst some may accuse us of running away, the Minister has been responsible for her Department for two years. The problem has not gone away; indeed, it is getting worse. I look forward to hearing those innovative and creative ideas for fixing the problems and coming up with solutions. We cannot continue in the way that we are.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Clarke: I will, yes.

Mr Beggs: As I said, in GB they have dispensed with light trailer testing, which frees up the testers to deal with the waiting list. Why are we not doing that? On top of that, there is no need for the drivers of wedding and funeral cars to have a taxi licence. I have even learned of advanced drivers failing the theory test, yet they are perfectly good drivers. We need to adopt what has worked elsewhere.

Mr Clarke: I concur with the Member. I raised the issue of the trailer test with the Minister, but she was not minded to do that here. Today is an opportunity for her to say why that is and why she is not taking on some of the suggestions that the Member makes. All those things will reduce the numbers of people waiting.

I support the thrust of the motion.

Mrs Erskine: Although I am not a member of the Infrastructure Committee, I commend it for bringing the motion to the House. I also pay tribute to the DVA staff.

I will just paint a picture of the situation that faces my rural constituents. The Member rightly raised the issue of theory testing in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Many constituents have been in touch with me, exasperated, frustrated and angry that they cannot access testing appointments in a timely manner. Fermanagh and South Tyrone residents are disadvantaged, especially when it comes to MOTs. They have been told to meet appointments that involve travelling as far away as Ballymena, Downpatrick and Mallusk: lovely places but difficult for my residents of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It takes a resident of Belleek, for example, two hours to travel to Ballymena. From Derrygonnelly to Downpatrick takes two hours and 15 minutes of travel. From Maguiresbridge to Mallusk takes an hour and a half. Those times are one way so, if you live in those areas of my constituency, you essentially lose a day's work to get an MOT test, and it costs more in fuel. Is there any redress for people in my area who have had to make those journeys through no fault of their own?

Someone in Fermanagh and South Tyrone whose MOT expires on 17 February cannot get an MOT appointment until 6 May. Those reports have been covered in the local newspapers, and it is not good reading for the Department for Infrastructure. In an area where bus routes are limited and there are no trains, how are people to get their shopping or their pension or meet hospital appointments? It is a particular difficulty for my young constituents, who have difficulty in accessing work due to transport difficulties and are unable to access driving tests in a timely way.

I also want to raise an issue regarding the theory test. People have to travel, again, to access them, and I ask the Minister to provide an update on what her Department has done to alleviate the problems. How and why has she allowed this situation to develop, and what answers can she provide to my rural constituents? Many in my constituency rely on their cars and vehicles, and, without them, there is social isolation. This issue goes beyond simply getting an MOT or a driving test.

When it comes to the MOT backlog, garage owners have rightly raised real concerns. They fear that people will continue to drive their cars when there might be an unknown fault or, indeed, through necessity, in a rural area. MOTs ensure that there is car safety and flag up motoring issues that motorists might not otherwise be aware of to ensure that their cars are roadworthy. However, in my constituency, garage owners say that this is affecting their livelihoods. Last year, a garage owner was in contact in desperation, looking to get an MOT test for a person buying a second-hand car. They were afraid of losing some of their second-hand car trade as a result of the difficulties of getting MOT bookings.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that the vast network of second-hand car dealers has faced significant challenges in accessing MOTs to enable them to sell cars? It would be important to hear an update from the Minister on her engagement with that sector at this difficult time.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an additional minute.

Mrs Erskine: Yes, absolutely. We have heard that second-hand car trade has increased during the pandemic. That point is important, because, as was touched on earlier, the fact that people are buying second-hand cars will add to the backlog. In the case of the small rural garage dealer that I spoke of, the loss of trade equated to £30,000. That may seem insignificant to some people, but it was a lot for that business and stressful for the owners. The issue is affecting livelihoods. The delay is costly, and that is why the Minister must act. We have heard about temporary exemption certificates, and different solutions have been bandied about in the House today. For the sake of my Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituents, I ask the Minister to act on what is a real problem.

Mr Speaker: I invite the Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, to respond. The Minister has 15 minutes.

Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Committee for Infrastructure for tabling the motion and for its positive framing, which recognises, as Members have, the incredibly hard work that our DVA staff have been doing over a sustained period and after significant disruption to what is a high-volume, public-facing service.

As Members will know, driving tests and vehicle tests are high-demand public services that have been badly disrupted as a result of the unprecedented pandemic. Driving tests have been suspended for a total of around 10 months, and vehicle tests have been delivered at a significantly reduced capacity to comply with public health advice and guidance. Like all public-facing services across these islands, DVA services are experiencing high levels of demand that are unprecedented.

We are still in the midst of the pandemic, and the DVA continues to put in place measures to maximise capacity and minimise disruption while keeping customers and staff safe. The challenge of delivering the services remains, and my officials monitor closely the impact of omicron on staff absence levels, particularly where absences may impact on the delivery of front-line services such as driving tests and vehicle tests. I thank all the DVA staff, who are working so hard and flexibly through the pandemic to provide services to customers whilst keeping themselves and customers safe. They certainly have not been doing nothing; in fact, they have put in a series of measures and continue to do so.

The DVA continues to work hard to increase its capacity to meet the high demand for driving tests for all customers, including those who are required to take a further driving test. In the first full eight months since driving tests resumed on 23 April, the DVA conducted 46,525 driving tests, which is 39% higher than the five-year average for that period.

The DVA currently has 42 full-time driving examiners and 43 dual-role examiners who conduct vehicle and driving tests and can be utilised across the network of test centres to meet driver testing demand. The DVA is completing an external recruitment competition for 16 new full-time driving examiners to be assigned across the network of test centres. That will increase the overall full-time driving examiner capacity by approximately 40%. In addition to the recruitment of additional examiners, the DVA will continue to offer driving tests on Saturdays and, in certain centres, Sundays, where it is suitable to do so. Overtime is also being used to rota off-shift dual-role driving examiners to provide cover for scheduled driving tests where, due to a variety of unforeseen reasons such as sickness absence or the requirement to self-isolate, driving examiners are unable to attend work.

The DVA releases private car driving test appointments five months in advance on the first working day of each month, and additional test slots are released as resources become available. Due to the constantly changing position, customers are advised to check the online booking system regularly. They may also wish to consider booking a test at another centre.

Of the 46,525 driving tests that have been conducted since services resumed on 23 April, over 9,000 candidates who failed their driving test have successfully booked a second test and, of that number, over 5,000 have gone on to book a third or subsequent driving test. Those figures show that a significant number of candidates have been able to book a further test or tests in a relatively short time, because they have the same unrestricted access to the booking system as anyone else.


11.45 am

I recognise that nerves play their part for everyone who takes a driving test. It is important to point out, however, that a candidate must commit more than 15 minor driving faults or one serious or dangerous driving fault to fail a driving test. Generally, serious and dangerous driving faults are not caused by nerves but by poor driving due to the candidate either lacking concentration or not being properly prepared for the test. I therefore consider that prioritising driving tests for those who have already failed a test, particularly that minority who have failed to prepare properly, would be unfair to the many candidates who have waited patiently to take their first test.

It is also important to point out that figures show that, for private car candidates who failed their first test between 1 October and 31 December, the average number of days that it took to book a subsequent test following an initial fail is as follows: from the first to the second appointment, the average waiting time was 21 days; from the second to the third appointment, the average waiting time was 19 days; and, from the third to the fourth appointment, the average waiting time was 17 days. Those facts demonstrate that the processes that DVA has been able to apply are having a positive impact on reducing the waiting times for drivers who fail their first driving test.

I will turn to vehicle testing. On Monday 26 July 2021, the DVA reinstated normal vehicle test times. That increased capacity across the network of test centres. From 1 September to 31 December, the DVA conducted 264,540 full vehicle tests, which is 8% more than the five-year average for those months.

Mr Beggs: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Mallon: Yes, I will give way.

Mr Beggs: Does the Minister accept that the five-year average is much lower because there are more cars on the road and much greater demand? The important figure is not the five-year average but the number of applications and the number of tests that are delivered.

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question.

Mr Clarke: Will the Minister give way on the same point?

Mr Clarke: Does the Minister also accept that the five-year period from which she has taken those figures covers the period when the centres were shut?

Ms Mallon: The point is that some Members are of the view that we are conducting far fewer tests than previously. The facts that I stated demonstrate that, despite mitigations having to be put in place and despite the fact that DVA workers have been working long hours and additional measures are being put in place, we are conducting over and beyond pre-pandemic levels. We are not just accepting that and standing still. As I outlined, we have recruited additional examiners and are using off-rota deployment. We are providing additional capacity where we can, and we continue to do what we can to maximise capacity and minimise disruption.

Mr Delargy: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Mallon: Yes, of course.

Mr Delargy: Minister, I come back to a point that I wanted to raise earlier. A huge number of young people from my constituency cannot get to school or university or take on part-time jobs because they cannot get their test. I was therefore very pleased to hear that one innovative solution that was talked about was that additional testers would be put in place. I hope that, when that is done, there will be a guarantee that at least some of those testers will be deployed to Derry to make sure that the backlog, which seems to be more stark in my constituency than in others, is tackled.

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. As I outlined, we continue to recruit additional examiners. Since driving tests resumed, the DVA has conducted 4,320 driving tests from the Altnagelvin and New Buildings test centres in Derry. That number is over 33% higher than the five-year average. Of course I recognise the frustrations faced by first-time drivers, but we continue to put additional capacity in place to try to alleviate frustration and minimise disruption.

I will go back to vehicle testing, which is an issue that was raised by a number of Members. The DVA has steadily increased its vehicle-testing capacity by adopting a range of measures, including the recruitment of additional vehicle examiners, the use of overtime to provide cover for leave and sick absence and a reduction in the vehicle test appointment time. The DVA is also offering vehicle test appointments on Sundays and bank holidays at most test centres. Following the conversion of an adjoining building at the New Buildings test centre, additional testing capacity has been made available to meet demand in the north-west.

The DVA releases vehicle test appointments each day. Customers are encouraged to regularly check the booking system, as they are able to change existing appointments to a different test centre and time if a slot becomes available. We are also issuing reminders earlier than previously, which recognises the point that Mr Muir made.

The DVA's resourcing position remains fluid. The DVA has completed the recruitment of 37 full-time vehicle examiners, which will help to meet the demand for vehicle tests. So far, 29 of those vehicle examiners have been posted to test centres. The other eight, who finished their training last Friday, will take up their posts this week. Further training courses are being scheduled for February and March.

The DVA is experiencing significant demand for vehicle testing services. In some cases, customers may not be able to have their vehicles tested before their current MOT certificate expires. I know that that is an issue of concern to Members. In such cases, I ask them to encourage their constituents to book the earliest available test appointment for their vehicle. That may mean travelling to another test centre instead of their preferred location. The DVA has consulted the PSNI and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) to make them aware of the current position. The PSNI has agreed not to penalise a driver of a vehicle whose MOT has expired, so long as the vehicle is in a roadworthy and safe condition, the vehicle is properly insured, and the driver can provide proof that a test appointment has been booked. The ABI view is that not having a valid MOT certificate would not necessarily invalidate your insurance, but customers should check their policy documents or speak to their insurer if they find themselves in that position. The ABI has confirmed, however, that it is a condition of insurance that owners maintain their vehicles in a roadworthy condition.

Members will know that vehicle tax is a reserved matter under the DVLA, operating on behalf of Treasury, but the DVA's advice to customers who need to tax their vehicle and cannot secure an MOT date before their MOT expires is to book the earliest available appointment and check the booking system for an appointment before their MOT expires. If you get to within five days of the expiry date of your tax and have not been able to secure an MOT appointment, or if your tax has expired, contact dva.customerservices@infrastructure-ni.gov.uk, and the DVA will do its best to get an urgent appointment for your vehicle. I assure all Members that, to date, all customers who have used that process and contacted the DVA in those circumstances have been offered an earlier appointment. Any customer requiring an MOT to tax their vehicle will be given priority. Leaflets including that information are being issued by the DVA to customers with their MOT reminder notices. Details are also available on the nidirect website and are being communicated through social media channels.

Mr Beggs raised the issue of systemic change. Members will be aware that, in August 2021, I issued a call for evidence on the potential introduction of biennial MOT testing for private cars, light goods vehicles and motorcycles. That ran for eight weeks, and I am pleased to say that some 1,200-odd consultation responses were received. Those responses are being analysed, and a synopsis of the results will be published shortly. For me, road safety remains a priority. I remind drivers and riders that, regardless of the frequency of MOT testing, the statutory responsibility to ensure that a vehicle is roadworthy rests with the owner at all times. Any subsequent introduction of biennial vehicle testing would require the development of primary legislation, which would not be deliverable in the current Assembly mandate.

One of the suggestions made by Members previously, although not here today, was to use approved driving instructors to conduct driving tests. That is not possible under the legislation. In fact, under the legislation, driving instructors cannot act as driving examiners. To do so, they would be required to resign from being a driving instructor, which would have an impact on the people who are waiting to take their driving test in the first instance. However, we, of course, examined that as a potential option. The other issue that was raised by Mr Beggs was the privatisation of the DVA. That is the model that is used in England, where you can take your car to a private garage. The issue of the DVA delivery model was scrutinised under a previous Minister, and the public-sector model was the recommended way forward.

It is my policy preference that DVA remains in the public sector, but, of course, if a subsequent Infrastructure Minister wished to take a different course of action, it would be for them to have that discussion with their Executive colleagues.

I have to say that there is tension about the extension of temporary exemption certificates. I am conscious that, in some ways, Members are telling me that they are opposed to the move to biennial testing because of the impact that it would have on road safety and on private garages, but, at the same time, they are calling for TECs to be utilised once again in order to try to deal with the situation. The truth is that we do not have the vires to do that. The legal vires to issue TECs no longer exist now that normal test times have resumed. I also have to constantly balance the road safety concerns with that call. As Members have said, as a result of the lift situation and the pandemic, we have issued a number of TECs. I think that Members will agree that, in that context, it is important that vehicles are brought forward for testing for road safety purposes.

Mrs Erskine raised the theory test, and you will know where all the test centres are located. They are all located within 40 miles of constituents. The balance in this matter is between the provision of additional test centres, the additional costs that would be incurred and those costs then being passed on to the customer. I am keeping the issue under review.

In closing, I thank Members for their acknowledgement of the Committee's hard work. I am always open to hearing the Committee's suggestions about what we can do that is beyond what we are currently doing, what is legal and will not counterbalance road safety. I thank the Committee, and I look forward to continuing to work with it on this and many other matters.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Minister for that contribution, and I call the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure, David Hilditch. The Member has 10 minutes to conclude and wind up the debate.

Mr Hilditch (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure): I welcome the Minister and thank her for her attendance in the Chamber this morning. I will make some remarks first as an individual Member.

I recognise the range of measures that the Minister has adopted to lessen the burden, such as the recruitment of additional vehicle examiners and the use of overtime to provide cover for sick and leave absence, making additional vehicle test slots available in most centres. Further slots may also be made available due to cancellations and by offering vehicle test appointments on Sundays at most test centres and on bank holidays when testing is not normally available. However, through my constituency office, I am contacted day and daily by concerned members of the public who still cannot access an MOT appointment. There are a number of people who cannot, for various reasons, access the internet. That completely excludes them from the process of booking an MOT test. One issue is communication. I attempted to use the advice phone number, from which I was signposted via an automated message to a lengthy website address that the Minister was able to read from the page in front of her. That is quite difficult, especially when the call is cut off. That is not good enough. We are excluding a significant portion of our society. The current phone booking system is not fit for purpose.

The pandemic showed us that those digital forms of communication are not available or accessible to everyone. Digital exclusion in later life has become starkly apparent. Research by the Centre for Ageing Better emphasised the significant digital divide amongst 50- to 70-year-olds and how it has worsened because of COVID. The Department needs to do better and make the booking process accessible to everyone.

Another issue is insurance. I appreciate that the DVA has consulted with the PSNI and the Association of British Insurers to make them aware of the current position that the Department is in with delays. Although the Association of British Insurers says that its members would take a pragmatic view until the delays are resolved, there are too many grey areas that have left motorists in limbo and wary about the process. I have been contacted by people who have been unable to access an MOT test for months. They do not wish to take the risk and are, therefore, left without any form of transport.

Another issue is tax. Without an MOT, you cannot get your vehicle taxed. That is handled by the agency in Swansea, as has been stated. If your vehicle is not taxed, legally you have to declare that and take it off the road, and you are at risk of being subject to fines.

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hilditch: Certainly.

Mr Clarke: Does the Member accept that the Minister has been fairly dismissive of some of the suggestions that have been made in the debate and even of the Association of British Insurers and the grey area to which he has referred? Does the Member accept my assertion that the Minister has been dismissive of some of those suggestions and has disregarded the concerns of many members of the public about all the problems that they face?


12.00 noon

Mr Hilditch: I agree with the Member about the difficulties that members of the public face. They really need to be dealt with by the Department.

It is essential that the Minister works with DVLA to address the unfair penalties that have been issued due to the poor management of the Department, which are completely out of the drivers' control.

Another issue is that driver tests are being cut short. If the pupil makes a mistake in the first five minutes, the test is basically over. The test experience is essentially for learning, and for that to be cut short is leaving certain pupils at a disadvantage.

Whilst I acknowledge the difficult circumstances that the Minister has operated in and the work that she has done to date, the cocktail of examples that I have provided shows the extent of the failings, which are directly impacting on the most vulnerable in our society. I call for the support of other Members to pass the motion and call:

"on the Minister for Infrastructure to put in place creative and innovative measures to eliminate unnecessary and preventable delays in the delivery of services by the DVA, in order to reduce costs and uncertainty to individuals and businesses."

I will now speak as Deputy Chair. We have heard much today about the impact of the pandemic on the work of the DVA and on the individuals who use its services. I, too, praise the staff of the agency for their diligence and hard work in what has been an unprecedented and difficult time.

The words of my fellow Committee members stand as a testament to the importance placed on the issue by our Committee and to our in-depth scrutiny. Since the start of the pandemic, the Committee for Infrastructure has continually asked for the Department's mitigation plans. The Committee and all Members here will have heard from constituents who have felt the impact of the DVA backlogs. We have not been able to offer them solutions coming from the Department; instead, we have had to advise them to hold on for a little longer and that, sooner or later, they will move up the list. As Members know, we can do that for a while, but, after that, members of the public, understandably, expect to see improvements.

The Department has had two years to think of ways out of the situation. However, as we have heard, the difficulties, the waiting lists and the impact on individuals remain. The mitigations that have been put in place by the Department are not enough to ensure that an end to the backlog is in sight. As we have heard from members of the Committee, we have had rolling exemptions and increased opening hours. However, as outlined in the Committee's motion, it is now time:

"to put in place creative and innovative measures to eliminate unnecessary and preventable delays ... in order to reduce costs and uncertainty to individuals and businesses."

Given the hardship that has been caused, the economic cost and the constant requests by the Committee, we ask the Minister to please act. It is often said that to repeat the same actions over and over again and expect a different result is a sign of madness.

Mr Catney: I thank the Member for giving way. I am not a member of the Committee, but I think that there is some politicking going on here. To be honest, some parties walked away from their responsibilities. This SDLP Minister stood up, faced them, answered them and showed you that there is an increase. Please stop politicking. [Interruption.]

Mr Hilditch: I am sorry that I gave way to you there.

Mr Catney: Stop it then.

Mr Hilditch: Stop what?

Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hilditch: Stop what?

Mr Speaker: Order, Members.

Mr Hilditch: There is no politicking in the Chamber here. As you can see, the Committee has widespread party membership, so, for you to get up and make those accusations is totally wrong.

Mr Catney: It is not wrong.

Mr Hilditch: It is wrong. It is wrong.

Mr Speaker: Order, Members. Mr Hilditch, resume your seat. Mr Catney.

Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Speaker: Mr Boylan, behave.

I want Members to stick to the agenda, stick to the Order Paper, stick to the running order and stick to good behaviour in the Chamber. We will go back to Mr Hilditch.

Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Boylan: Apologies, Mr Speaker.

A couple of Committee members talked earlier about innovative measures. Over the last 12 or 18 months, we, as a Committee, have never got an answer from the Minister on the theory test centre in Fermanagh. There is also the issue of biennial testing, which Members may agree or disagree with. Mr Beggs suggested the extension of temporary certificates. Those things were talked about, and departmental officials listen in every week. We suggested solutions. They may not have worked, but the Member has to agree, no matter what any other Member has said and not to deflate the tyres on the vehicles of Mr Muir or Ms Hunter, who sat on the Committee too, that we brought forward suggestions and solutions. That cannot be denied.

Mr Hilditch: I certainly agree with the Member. This is a cross-party issue at the Committee. Nobody is in any doubt about that.

We have all lived with the pandemic for two years. A year and a half ago, the Committee drew the Minister's attention to the issues and the detail, and it has continued to do so. Surely the Minister and her officials have now been able to find better ways to deal with the issue. The contributions in the Chamber today have acknowledged the areas of concern and echoed the calls for action. I therefore urge the Minister for Infrastructure to recognise those factors and take action. I commend the motion to the House.

Mr Speaker: I thank Members for their contributions, more or less.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises the difficulties and disruption caused to all public-facing services, including the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA), as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic; further recognises the unnecessary costs that can be faced by individuals and businesses as a result of preventable delays in the provision of driver and vehicle testing services by the DVA, including driver testing and retesting, and the reduced number of vehicles being tested when compared to pre-pandemic levels; acknowledges the work done to date by the Minister for Infrastructure and the Department to restore services; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to put in place creative and innovative measures to eliminate unnecessary and preventable delays in the delivery of services by the DVA, in order to reduce costs and uncertainty to individuals and businesses.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two.

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

Executive Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The next items of business are motions to approve four statutory rules (SRs), all of which relate to the health protection regulations. There will be a single debate on all four motions. The Minister will move the first motion and then commence the debate on the motions listed in the Order Paper. When all Members who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. I will then call the Minister to move the second motion. The Question will be put on that motion, and the process will be repeated for the remaining statutory rules. If that is clear to Members, we will proceed.

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit on the debate.

Mr Swann: Today, Members are considering four statutory rules that are narrow in scope and that implement the decisions of the Executive taken on 20 January 2022 to ease the restrictions. SR 2022/6, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 14 January 2022. SR 2022/11, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 21 January 2022 and came into operation at noon on the same day. SR 2022/12, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 21 January and came into operation at noon on that day. SR 2022/16, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 26 January 2022.

At their meeting on 20 January, the Executive were given an update by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), who confirmed that Northern Ireland was likely to be past the peak in case numbers, although it remained a possibility that case numbers could rebound due to the impact of the return of schools. They also advised that hospital admissions and bed occupancy as a result of community transmission of COVID had peaked and were beginning to fall slowly. The data showed that a rise in COVID ICU occupancy was not expected in this wave and that the amendments to the regulations were a balanced and proportionate intervention based on the best available evidence.

Taking into account the improved outlook in hospital pressures, the Executive decided to relax some restrictions. They also decided that the requirement to provide proof of exemption from wearing a face covering should be removed and that the reasonable excuse of severe distress be reintroduced to the regulations. Therefore, while the requirement to provide proof of exemption may no longer apply, the other provisions remain.

Turning to the regulations that are the subject of debate today, with your permission, I will take the three coronavirus restrictions amendments first, followed by the amendment relating to face coverings.

The first set of amended regulations today is the amendment No. 6, which made minor amendments to ensure that the regulations fully aligned with the policy intent and did not make any substantive change to the restrictions. The amendments were, first, to amend the language used to describe how a person must remain in their seat in a theatre, concert hall, conference or exhibition venue or similar venue except to access their seat. They replaced the reference to accessing a table, which was relevant to a hospitality setting but not a performance venue. Secondly, they corrected the drafting of regulation 11, which had inadvertently become corrupted in the preparation of the regulations for publication. None of the changes made altered the policy intent.

The amendment (No. 2) regulations removed the requirement to be seated in performance venues and hospitality settings and removed the maximum number that can be seated at a table.

The amendment (No. 3) regulations amend the principal regulations to permit dancing in hospitality and other venues and the reopening of nightclubs. They amend the requirement for COVID status certification so that that applies only to nightclubs and indoor unseated or partially seated events with 500 people or more. They make an amendment so that failure to comply with regulation 3 is not an offence; that is to say that it is not an offence for a person responsible for a shop to breach their duty to take responsible measures to limit the transmission of the virus. They remove a statutory requirement for those responsible for office premises to have social distancing measures in place.

The amendment to the wearing of face coverings regulations removes the requirement to provide proof of exemption if requested by a relevant person and reinstates the reasonable excuse of severe distress.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, any restrictions will be subject to regular review by the Executive. Likewise, all Ministers have repeatedly said that we will not retain restrictions for a day longer than is necessary. As always, if we are to step our way out of restrictions, both personal and public responsibility is required. I again take the opportunity to urge everyone to continue to make safer choices and follow the public health advice. Doing that will not only help to keep you, your families and others safe; you will undoubtedly play your part in keeping our society and economy open and in reducing the pressures that our health system faces as we move into the time of year that increases the pressures on our health service and its workers.

I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I will make some brief remarks as the Chair of the Health Committee before making some comments as my party's health spokesperson.

The Committee welcomes the fact that we are in a place where we can look at lifting restrictions. We have got to that point thanks to the vast majority of the population following the guidance and rules through difficult and challenging times. I thank every one of them for their patience over this period. We are also at that point thanks to the vaccination programme, and I thank all those who took part in the vaccination programme, including GPs and their staff, pharmacies and other vaccinators in our centres and mobile teams. I continue to encourage people to get their vaccinations and boosters when they can. We are also at that point thanks to our Health and Social Care (HSC) staff, who cared for our most vulnerable, our families and our friends, often when we were unable to do so.

I thank them for all their work and for the support that they provided and continue to provide to our families and communities throughout the pandemic.


12.15 pm

While it is welcome that we are considering the easing of restrictions, we are not through the pandemic yet. We have a consistent number of people — over 300 — in our hospitals with COVID, and we are seeing COVID-related deaths daily. Therefore, it is important that we all continue to play our part and follow the guidance, including wearing masks, social distancing and having good hand hygiene.

The Committee was briefed by officials on the statutory rules on 3 February. The Committee welcomes the clarity provided by the amendment that deals with the wearing of face coverings. That removes the requirement to provide proof of exemption and reinstates the reasonable excuse of severe distress. That issue caused the Committee some concern during its consideration of a previous statutory rule, and it welcomes the clarity provided by the amended rule.

I ask the Minister to provide some clarity on the process for bringing forward further COVID rules if there is no First Minister or deputy First Minister in place. It would be useful to hear from the Minister what powers there are to bring forward further rules.

The Committee considered the statutory rules and agreed that it was content for the rules to be approved by the Assembly.

I will now make some brief remarks as Sinn Féin's spokesperson for health. Many of the changes relate to the lifting of restrictions and the easing of some requirements. The Assembly and virtually all Members, at some point or another, have stressed that the restrictions should not be in place for any longer than they need to be. Given the evidence and advice to lift the restrictions, their lifting is, indeed, to be welcomed.

I also welcome the clarification of and changes that have been made to the face-covering regulations and the lifting of some restrictions on hospitality. However, the possibility of the further easing of restrictions may be in some doubt. As we debate the lifting of restrictions that affect hospitality and some of the most vulnerable, it has not gone unnoticed that the DUP seems intent on restricting the ability of the House and the Executive to deliver for people. I look forward to the Health Minister's announcement on the legal advice that he has sought on the making of future regulations.

Obviously, a lot of the focus today is on the regulations and the legal powers within them on, for example, the lifting of social-distancing requirements in nightclubs, workplaces and hospitality and entertainment settings. However, I and others are struck by the fact that, more than a week after the Minister stated that he had approved a plan to reopen day centres and respite services, we have seen nothing to date. The current guidance and direction are not contained in legislation, yet, as we ease restrictions on nightclubs and other hospitality settings, day centres and respite services are no better off than they were last week or last month. I plead with the Minister to make his plan public and to act urgently on something that is within his power to provide relief and respite to hard-pressed carers.

Mrs Cameron: First, I express my condolences to those who lost loved ones in recent weeks as the result of COVID-19. While society continues to embrace a return to normality, it is important to remember that there are those who mourn and for whom that return to normality will be more difficult, having suffered loss. Furthermore, it is worth reiterating our support for front-line healthcare workers who continue to care for those with COVID-19 in our hospitals, for those who work in the care home sector and, indeed, for all those who are involved in management across the trusts, as they battle winter and pandemic pressures in light of high levels of staff absence. A huge thank you must go to all those, at every level of the health service, who have been at the coalface of the pandemic. We owe a great deal of gratitude to each and every one of those individuals.

The amendments represent, once more, the improving situation and the step-by-step return to what we once took for granted. The previous time that I spoke in the Chamber on COVID regulations, I spoke of the devastating impact that the pandemic, and the regulations that had been brought forward, had had on our hospitality industry. I do not need to repeat my previous comments, but I add that the progress in these amendments — on table numbers, seating requirements, dancing, the reopening of nightclubs and so on — is a welcome boost to the hospitality sector and, indeed, to all in wider society who enjoy a night out or catching up with friends.

The reinstatement of severe distress as an exemption to the wearing of face coverings and the removal of the offence that went with that particularly bad move is very much welcomed.

We must continue to look at ways of supporting our hospitality sector to recover. In that regard, I know that my colleagues at Westminster are lobbying for the VAT reduction to 12·5% to be extended to at least the end of this year. That would be a great help to local businesses, and I trust that the Finance Minister is making similar representations to the Treasury on that matter. It is now my hope that the Health Minister can use the powers that I hope he has — I look forward to getting clarity on that — to move ahead with the withdrawal of the remaining regulations and to take that final step, as a society, back to normality.

For the past two years, the Minister has repeatedly said that he will not play party politics with the pandemic. I shared that view and worked with him throughout that challenging time. On occasion, I could have chosen to disagree with the Minister, but I stood with him, as many of us did, in order to combat and get through COVID-19. For anyone to play politics now with the removal of regulations would be entirely wrong, so I welcome the comments made by the Minister yesterday that he believes, as I do, that the restrictions must be lifted this week and that he will endeavour to do so. Reaching this point in the pathway out of the pandemic is very welcome for every person in Northern Ireland who wants our home lives, workplaces and social lives to return to normal and who wants to see our young people and children back enjoying the full experience of the youth that they deserve to enjoy.

We have always said that restrictions should be in place only for as long as is strictly necessary. Therefore, we welcome the Minister's announcement earlier this week. We want the direction of travel that the Minister has outlined and to which he has committed to become irreversible. As vaccination rates remain high and natural immunity increases, there should be a shift to encouraging responsible personal choices and providing very clear guidance. It is important that any legal advice that the Minister has commissioned also clarifies the basis for reintroducing restrictions or extending powers, should a new and serious wave of the virus emerge in the coming weeks and months. I support the motions before us today.

Mr McGrath: I welcome the opportunity to speak on these statutory rules today. I am fully aware that they allow for the easing of some restrictions that have since been amended, but that is the nature of the legislative process that we have dealt with over the past two years. In summary, the first statutory rule that we are discussing today is a technical amendment, the second one removes the need to be seated and the cap on the number of people at tables, and the third permits dancing and live music once again. The last one relates to face coverings. It removes the requirement to prove an exemption and allows for a reasonable excuse for not wearing a face covering. We will, of course, support those statutory rules today, as we have throughout the past two years.

It has been a period of unprecedented crisis and, for some of us at least, continuous learning, such is the nature of an unknown and unseen virus. It forces us to constantly have to respond to its evolving presence, and, as the Health Minister detailed for us, it has been through the collective efforts of everybody working together that we have been able to turn this corner today.

We all have been working together for the past two years, but today we heard that, even without a First Minister and a deputy First Minister, the Health Minister may be able to remove further restrictions. The public will welcome that. Businesses will certainly welcome it, though, as the Health Minister rightly said, it cannot be a free-for-all. The public have worked with us for the past two years. They distanced themselves from their families and friends and did every single thing that we asked of them. We were truly all in it together. However, at the last minute, the DUP has walked away. Suddenly, the hard Brexit that it championed seems to be more important than the COVID restrictions and public health. I wonder whether that has been the case —

Mrs Erskine: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGrath: Certainly.

Mrs Erskine: Does the Member agree that, while my colleagues and I are here, we are debating legislation, and that legislation will go through, we cannot forget that the protocol is costing £2·5 million per day in Northern Ireland? Yet I am here and debating important legislation today. I have not walked away, and certainly the DUP will continue to debate legislation here.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for her intervention. She may be right about the costs associated with the protocol. Say that to the families —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I encourage Members to come back to this debate, not to have a debate about the protocol. I ask Members to concentrate on the COVID regulations that are in front of them.

Mr McGrath: Say that to the family whose family member has died. Say to a relative of someone who has died as a result of the pandemic, which we have tried to prevent with these regulations, that financial issues in another policy area should impact on our capacity to legislate on this matter. The families of those who died will not find much comfort in it being argued that, somehow or other, there is a legitimisation of another policy area and that it can impact on this one. They would struggle with that.

The regulations that we discuss today — I do not want to deviate from the business at hand — have been a key tool in our fight against COVID. When the leader of the DUP was all over the media last week saying that, in removing the First Minister, he had allowed the Health Minister to remain in post so that he could do the business, that was generous of him. However, if you can excuse my frustration, Mr Deputy Speaker, I say that it is the business of this place to legislate for the good of people. If our COVID response is to work, this place must work in the entirety of its parts. If some parties feel that their narrow, blinkered agenda is more important than the health of the public and our education services, perhaps they need to reassess why they are here in the first place.

We will support these regulations and do what we can to continue to help our communities to get through the COVID pandemic.

Mr Chambers: We have asked families across Northern Ireland to make many personal sacrifices in their daily lives over the last two years, in particular with regard to the education of their children and grandchildren. Those with loved ones in residential care were hard hit by the restrictions that had to be imposed on visiting to prevent the transmission of COVID into those vulnerable settings.

We also asked the public, when the game changer of vaccination came along, to avail themselves of the vaccine, and they did so in their tens of thousands. We owe a debt of gratitude to that public cooperation. Unfortunately, many others took a different view, but that was their choice.

The very fact that we are here today discussing relaxations in the regulations and guidance around COVID is due to public adherence and to the dedication of our health and social care staff and volunteers, who not only nursed the sick at great personal risk at times but rolled out the vaccination programme, which was such a huge success and a credit to everyone involved.

The Minister of Health has maybe been placed in a difficult position by the events of the last few days. He has made it clear in his public statements over the last few days that he is keen to see the regulations being relaxed as far as they can be at this time. I hope that that legal advice does allow him to repeal regulations that, we cannot forget, were put in place at the will of the entire Executive. I hope that the legal eagles will take the view that it would be well in the public interest to allow the Minister to intervene on an individual basis and to repeal and relax the regulations.


12.30 pm

I have put this on record many times, but we cannot put it on record often enough: the House sends its sympathy to all those who have lost loved ones. I know many families who have lost mothers, grandmothers and fathers during this terrible pandemic. We must also not forget the hundreds of people who are still suffering from the various long-term symptoms that they have been left with because of the virus. The medical profession does not have all the instant answers to that, but I am sure that there is a lot of research going on in the background to find ways to help those people who are still suffering from the effects of COVID.

Finally, we cannot put on record often enough our absolute gratitude to all the staff in our health and social care system. Pharmacists, doctors, GPs, nurses, health visitors — I do not want to leave people out — and the entire health and social care family have really stepped up to the plate and, at times, at personal risk. Once again, I put on record my personal gratitude and that of the Ulster Unionist Party. Today, we certainly support the Minister in all his efforts to relax the regulations.

Ms Armstrong: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I will support the regulations today. The last time these regulations were debated, we were all aware that the changes that we are now seeing and that are being debated would be coming, so I do not intend to repeat many of the points that were made previously by my colleague Paula Bradshaw MLA.

It is worth following the logic. We have moved to allow some venues that were closed to open, subject to presentation of a relevant COVID pass, and we have allowed venues that were already open, by and large, to operate free from COVID passes and the rule of six. It may be noted that COVID passes remain a recommendation. Venues may feel that they may benefit from using them as a risk-reducing mitigation, but it is now left to them to use their judgement.

The changes to the face coverings regulations are the ones that my colleague Paula Bradshaw spoke about during a previous debate. Alliance was never totally convinced that the Christmas changes in that area would be practicably implementable — that is hard to say. The announcement of changes caused genuine stress to many, and they will welcome this absolute confirmation that they will not be pursued. These regulations constitute a very sensible way out of restrictions. They allow for significant and greater freedoms to be restored while leaving measures in place that will restrict spread and act as a clear and present reminder to the public that there is a declining but still very present risk from the virus to public health.

As we all know, we were due to take further steps on 10 February, but some have opted to make that difficult and leave those decisions on the shoulders of the Minister of Health. Suffice to say that health is Alliance's priority, even if it is not the priority of others.

For clarity, these regulations apply predominantly to hospitality venues, with some technical changes applying to areas such as the vehicle used for driving instruction. None of them applies to schools. What is going on in schools is, first, instructive. Secondly, it is highly frustrating for those working in schools that the provision and use of filtration or ventilation systems seem to be sporadic, and many teachers are left baffled as to what the strategy is. Regulations are clearly in place to reduce the spread in other public spaces, yet that is not evident to many schoolteachers. There is a very practical impact. Many teachers get the virus and have to self-isolate, leaving schools short-staffed and constantly playing catch-up. Exam year students are not having the continuity of teaching that they need to prepare them to sit written exams, most for the first time ever. It remains unclear what the strategy in schools is concerning the virus, taking account of the understanding that it is airborne and particularly that omicron is so infectious.

This debate concerns the regulations, and we still have time to consider and plan for what lies ahead, even though we are now in far from ideal circumstances. I trust that planning is ongoing across Health and Education. Like the Chair of the Health Committee, I ask the Minister to clarify what will happen to the restrictions, and their further easing, if a First Minister is not renominated by this Thursday. Can he clarify how they will move forward?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): No other Members have indicated that they wish to speak. I therefore call the Health Minister, Mr Robin Swann, to wind on the debate and conclude the discussion.

Mr Swann: I welcome today's debate on the three amendments to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations and the amendment to the face coverings regulations. I thank Members for their contributions. Ms Armstrong's last question about what will happen is the most pertinent. As yet, I have not received legal advice on what will happen, where the powers lie and what steps I can take. We knew and understood what the process was prior to the First Minister's resignation. Now, however — not for the first time, unfortunately — we are in uncharted waters.

As I said yesterday, it was my intention to go to the Executive this week to advocate the removal of COVID restrictions. In the absence of an Executive, however, I am seeking, as I said, legal guidance on how I can replace the bulk, if not all, of the remaining restrictions with clear guidance and advice. As I said, it would be intolerable if we were to find ourselves in the position of being advised that this week is the time to lift remaining restrictions but had no legal or political mechanism to do so. I await legal advice on what options I currently have. Let me be clear, however: the easiest way to have ensured that the restrictions were lifted would have been not to collapse the Executive last week. As they say, a week is a long time in politics. The Executive were due to meet on Thursday, and that decision could have been made there.

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Allister: I have two points, if I may. Surely, under all of the regulations, the power is bestowed on the Minister of Health, and, secondly, is it not correct that, given that the enabling legislation has a sunset clause, all regulations will fall upon attaining the sunset date?

Mr Swann: I will respond to those points in reverse order. The current sunset date for the regulations is 24 March. I think that it was Ms Cameron who asked what ability there would be to reintroduce or extend —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I ask the Minister to ensure that his microphone is pointing in the appropriate direction so that we can pick him up.

Mr Swann: Apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I think that it was Ms Cameron who asked what ability there would be to reintroduce or extend powers if necessary, should there be another variant or an international requirement. That is also being explored. The basis for the regulations is the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. As I have always said at the Dispatch Box, all decisions to date have been made by the collective authority of the Executive, so we need to seek legal guidance. The Member will be fully aware that I need to seek that clarification before I can announce any further iterations or make decisions on my own, as Minister of Health.

Mr McGrath: Thank you very much for giving way. I want to follow on from the last remarks. Interestingly, if the Health Minister was able to take the decisions all along, he was not the one who was out announcing those to the public and who was seen as the guardian of the public. Other Ministers got out there and took to the fore in order to make sure that they got the limelight for that. Now that they are not in position, it is suddenly your issue, and you have to deal with it.

Will you undertake to publish this week the medical evidence suggesting that the regulations can be relaxed? That is especially important if they are not relaxed because, legally, you cannot do so. It is important that the public realise exactly why, if regulations can be relaxed, that is not being done.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that point. He may not be aware, but I thought that, being a member of the Health Committee, he would be, that the Department continues to publish the R paper every week and put it online. The Executive met fortnightly, but we continue to produce that weekly update.

I will return to some of the decisions that demonstrate that anything to do with COVID was a collective responsibility of the Executive.

I remind Members, although they will be fully aware of this, that in, I think, November 2020, a cross-community vote was taken in the Executive not to proceed at a certain point with recommendations that came forward. That demonstrates that, legally, that power rested with the Executive as a body corporate, but, as I said, I have not received the final legal advice on what responsibilities or powers lie with me as a Minister, given where we are politically.

I replicate and reiterate the Chair's words of thanks to the people of Northern Ireland for the steps that they have taken and the dedication and support that they have shown in following the regulations and guidance over the past two years. We need to continue to take those steps because we are not yet completely out of the situation. I encourage anyone who has still to come forward to take part in the vaccination programme, whether that is because they have not started it or still have to complete it, to take the opportunity to do so while the vaccine is here.

The Deputy Chair, Ms Pam Cameron, reminded us that, unfortunately, there are still people losing their lives due to the virus but that there are things that we can all do and continue to do. She is right. I know that there were times when it was difficult for her and her party to support some of the propositions that I was bringing forward, but they did, because we knew that it was right to have that collective support to combat COVID, and we continue to have that. I thank her for the encouragement to seek further guidance on the ability to reintroduce or extend powers should that be necessary, considering where we currently sit.

Mr McGrath's comments re-emphasise the commitment and all-party support that I still see and feel in the House for our health service and those who work in it. I hope that that apolitical support continues over the next weeks and months because it will be crucial as we see what happens and what our health service needs to do as it re-engages in the work that it wants to do.

Mr Chambers talked about the game changer, which is our vaccination programme. Again, I encourage anyone who has not yet taken up availability in any stage of the vaccination programme to come forward, should that be for a first dose, second dose or booster dose. I encourage everybody to do that, because we have seen the difference that our vaccination programme has made to the seriousness of the illness, hospitalisation rates and pressures on our ICU. Mr Chambers commented on the legal eagles who are out there. We have found a new cohort of legal eagles on social media who have moved from being experts on epidemiology to being experts on legality and what lies in regulations and law.

Ms Armstrong made a point on the schools issue. That has been raised by the Education Committee, and there has been a recall for a debate in the House on it, but, as the Member will be aware, schools and education have always sat outside the regulations. The recommendations that we provide and the advice and guidance that are given to schools and boards of governors to follow are a conjoined piece of work between the Department of Education, the Education Authority, the Public Health Agency and we in the Department of Health.

I hope that I have answered as many —

Mr Gildernew: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gildernew: Minister, do you understand the frustration of those who have had the services of day centres and respite care removed? Given that we are welcoming today the relaxation of restrictions and a return to at least some degree of normality, those people still do not have access to those services. Will you advise us when the trusts will bring forward plans to reinstate the services in full?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I apologise to the Chair, because he had raised that point. The Member will be aware that when I was most recently here for Question Time, I said that I had given instructions to the trusts to include in their three-monthly rebuild plans details on when those services would be up and running again. I will get that clarity for the Chair from each of the trusts when those plans are updated and published.

I hope that I have answered as many Members' queries and questions as possible. In closing, I remind Members that the choices that we make now will be crucial in ensuring that the virus does not begin to spread once more. As we continue to remove the remaining restrictions, our society will move closer to a return to normal life. As we move through one of the most difficult times that we have faced throughout the pandemic, we are again asking everyone to look after themselves and one other by following the simple precautions: get your first and second vaccine doses and your booster; limit your social contacts; meet outdoors when possible; if meeting indoors, make sure that the rooms are well-ventilated; wear a face covering in crowded indoor spaces; take a lateral flow test before meeting others; and practise good hand and respiratory hygiene.

By making safer choices, following public health advice and complying with the regulations, we can all play our part to help lower the spread of COVID-19. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.


12.45 pm

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The second motion on the health protection regulations has already been debated.

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The third motion on the health protection regulations has already been debated.

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The final motion on the health protection regulations has already been debated.

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

That Standing Order 42(1) be suspended for 8 February 2022 in respect of the Final Stage of the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit on this debate.

Mr Swann: Standing Order 42(1) provides that there should be a minimum of five working days between each Consideration Stage of any Bill. I fully recognise that providing that time between stages serves to ensure the Assembly's detailed legislative scrutiny by providing Members with the opportunity to consider in detail the legislation that is being proposed. I ask that it be noted that no amendments have been tabled to the Bill at any stage, despite a number of Members expressing their opposition at Second Stage.

I am sure that Members are aware of the Donate4Dáithí campaign and how Dáithí and his family have been involved in campaigning for and promoting the Bill. It is therefore only fitting that I have moved the motion to suspend Standing Order 42(1) in order to accommodate the Mac Gabhann family, who are present at the Bill's Final Stage. I trust that I will get the support of the House on that basis.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): It is appropriate that we take all steps to ensure that this crucial legislation goes on the statute book. It is a credit to all those who have campaigned over many years, and, at this stage, it would be bitterly disappointing for them to see it interrupted as a result of political considerations in the Assembly. I fully support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister to conclude and wind on the motion.

Mr Swann: No one has expressed a negative opinion, and I have the support of the Chair of the Health Committee. I therefore ask that the motion be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Order 42(1) be suspended for 8 February 2022 in respect of the Final Stage of the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill.

That the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill [NIA 30/17-22] do now pass.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Mr Swann: The Bill illustrates precisely why it is so important for us to have a functioning, progressive Assembly in Northern Ireland: one that works to improve life for all our people. It is only two years since New Decade, New Approach, and we once again face political uncertainty that threatens to deny this place and the citizens of Northern Ireland future opportunities to bring forward positive changes.

It is in that context that I have great pleasure, and some relief, in moving the Final Stage of this Bill. As we all know, it has been long-awaited by so many who are involved in organ donation and transplantation. One of the greatest challenges has been bringing the Bill forward in a shortened mandate. The support from the public and all those who have long campaigned for it, however, has helped secure its passage to this point. On their behalf, I am extremely pleased to have been able to bring forward this legislation in my tenure as Health Minister.

I once again place on record my sincere thanks to Jo-Anne Dobson, who started the journey and who personally convinced me that our organ donation laws needed to change. I also thank the many individuals, families, teachers, patient support groups and charities across Northern Ireland who have worked tirelessly over many years to promote organ donation.

There are too many to name, but particular recognition must go to the Mac Gabhann family for its resolve in not only campaigning for a change in the law but raising awareness and support for organ donation in Northern Ireland. That is why I ask that the Bill be commonly known as Dáithí's law. It is about the passion of Jo-Anne, of Dáithí and of Maírtín and Seph, his parents. As a parent of a child with a congenital heart defect, I know only too well what has driven them to campaign for legislation to get the support that is necessary.

For them and for the patients who will benefit from organ transplants in the future, the Bill's reaching Final Stage is an important moment.

Agreement from the Assembly will permit my Department to begin a full year of implementation preparations, which will include comprehensive public awareness campaigns and staff training, before deemed consent comes into effect in the spring of 2023. It is important that we take this time to inform people and encourage them to have the conversations that they need to have.

I would like to recap the particular elements of the Bill and what it seeks to achieve. Our strategic aim is to increase the rate of consent in the small number of cases in which it is clinically possible for organ donation to proceed after a person's death. Doing so will increase the overall number of donors and, ultimately, the number of life-saving organs that are available for transplantation to those people in Northern Ireland who are on the transplant waiting list. The consent rate is normally around two thirds of possible cases. We want that to be consistently at 80% or above, as that will make a real difference to those who are on transplant waiting lists. This Bill, alongside continuing public education and awareness, has the potential to achieve that.

It will be considered that everyone living in Northern Ireland agrees to donate their organs when they die, unless they have confirmed otherwise by opting out of the organ donor register or have otherwise made their decision known or they are from one of the excluded groups. It will be vital to make sure that the public fully understands the new law. Accordingly, the Bill includes a requirement for my Department to inform the public about deemed consent every year. In order to meet that requirement, there will be 12 months of comprehensive public engagement and advertising before and after the law comes into effect. Thereafter, that work will become part of the rolling programme for promoting organ donation, which my Department oversees.

Half of our population have joined the NHS organ donor register, which represents a steady increase from 30% since 2013. Many more than that — consistently around 90% — say that they support organ donation. However, that means that families are often left with a difficult decision when a loved one dies. Approximately one in four families decide to not proceed with donation when faced with that decision, most often because they do not know what their loved one would have wanted or what decisions they had made. When families know what their loved ones would have wanted, they are much more likely to honour those wishes.

It is important to emphasise that families and loved ones will continue to play an essential role in a deemed consent system. The effect of the proposed change to the current law will be to shift the focus to the donation conversation. That conversation is conducted with families at the end of life by expert NHS specialist nurses in order to establish the known decisions of their loved ones. Every other part of the end-of-life care pathway will remain unchanged and will be conducted in line with current clinical and professional standards.

Those individuals who do not wish to donate their organs will still be able to record their decision on the NHS organ donation register. They will be able to that through the NHS Blood and Transplant website or its helpline. They can also discuss the issue and let their families know their decision. Under the new law, being an organ donor will still be your choice. Organ donation will remain a priceless gift.

I thank those who have assisted and advised my Department in the development of the Bill, particularly NHS Blood and Transplant, the Human Tissue Authority, the British Medical Association, the Public Health Agency and our exceptional clinicians and specialist nurses who work in the field of organ donation and transplantation. I thank the Health Committee — its Chair, members and staff — and all the Members who have contributed to the passage of the Bill.

It is also important that I recognise the expert input from the Office of the Legislative Counsel in the preparation of the legislation. In particular, I acknowledge Mr David Sewell, who drafted the Bill but, sadly, passed away late last year. His support and advice throughout was greatly appreciated by my Department.

I thank my departmental officials for their work and support in drafting the legislation. Their work was notable by the fact that no amendments were tabled to the legislation at any stage.

Finally, I acknowledge every one of the 2,307 living and deceased organ donors and their families from across Northern Ireland who have given the ultimate gift of a donated organ.

Every one of those is a decision that has helped another person to live or have a better quality of life. We are fortunate to live in a place where people have such generosity, compassion and kindness towards others, and we are fortunate to have a health system, which has grown alongside that, to provide a world-class transplantation service.


1.00 pm

I hope that the passage of the Bill fittingly honours our past donors and donor families by taking organ donation and transplantation to the next level for current and future generations. I therefore urge all Members to support the Bill, and I commend it to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed to meet at 1.00 pm, and I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 1.30 pm. I ask Members to note the time.

When we return, the first item of business will be the continuation of this debate, the Final Stage of the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill. The next Member to speak is Michelle O'Neill.

The sitting was suspended at 1.01 pm.

On resuming —


1.30 pm

Debate resumed.

Mrs O'Neill: Today is a hugely positive day. I commend everybody who has worked together to get us to this point. This legislation is vital and life-saving and will make a huge difference to the lives of so many people and families who are waiting for a transplant. If there was ever a reason for politicians in this place to unite and join together, this was one. It has been a fantastic campaign, and I give all credit to wee Dáithí and his parents, Seph and Máirtín, for being the face of the campaign and taking us to this point. I know that they are watching eagerly. It is about much more than our passing the legislation today, however, because that is not their only achievement. The very fact that we are talking about organ donation is crucial. Robin, you have been passionate about the issue the whole way through, and I commend everybody for bringing us to this point. It has opened up the necessary debate and the healthy conversation that we all should have with our families, friends and loved ones.

We know the impact that organ donation can have on so many families. Well done to everybody for getting us to this point. As we come towards the end of the mandate, it is an incredible and life-saving legacy. On this important day, we say to everybody: continue to have the conversation. I am so glad that we have got to the Final Stage.

Mrs Cameron: I am delighted to speak in the Final Stage debate on the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill.

Whilst I do not doubt that we all support organ donation and the desire to prolong and protect lives, for some of us, including Members of the Assembly, deemed consent is not a subject that we are entirely comfortable with. I am pleased that, in our party, Members were not whipped on the Bill.

I am personally pleased to give my full support to the legislation. Through the Bill, we have provoked discussion, greater awareness of the need for organ donation and, ultimately, conversations around the dinner table. That needs to be replicated across Northern Ireland if the Bill is to be the success that we so greatly want it to be. I firmly believe that, ultimately, the controversy around deemed consent will drive all those important conversations and will, hopefully, ensure that we are confident in our thoughts and wishes on organ and tissue donation. My personal support for the change in the law is motivated by one thing, which is to stop unnecessary deaths. Whilst I in no way wish to imply that any other position on the Bill is less legitimate, for it is not, I cannot get myself away from that core reason for supporting the Bill, which will help people to live longer, healthier lives.

The Bill retains the right of the family to have the final say, by stipulating:

"deemed consent will not apply where a person in a qualifying relationship to the deceased … provides information that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the deceased potential organ donor would not have consented to be an organ donor."

That acknowledges that the role played by someone's family is what ultimately distinguishes between a hard and a soft opt-out model for organ donation. I am, of course, conscious of all the differing views on that. It concerns me that, even though I can make my wishes known and sign up to the organ donor register, my wishes can still be overturned. I also accept, however, that, for some, it is simply too much in the face of the heartbreaking scenario that a few of us may find ourselves in. I say that because it is my hope that, ultimately, the stipulation will provoke discussion amongst family members. If the Bill is to have that effect in Northern Ireland, we need to ensure that it is promoted in such a way as it becomes a topic of conversation and that families have clarity.

None of us wants our wishes to be acted against when we can no longer speak for ourselves; hence the importance of awareness. I again stress the need for the Department to take forward a publicity campaign to provoke debate in the public sphere and in the private home, should the Bill become law. In Wales, where a similar deemed consent model is in place, the new law was accompanied by an active public awareness campaign: first, to ensure that people understood the new system; secondly, to encourage more people to make the positive decision to become an organ donor; and, thirdly, to give people who may want to opt out the information that they need to do so. Let us learn from Wales and take advantage of being the last in the UK to legislate by introducing best practice.

Similarly, the exemptions around children are appropriate and right. They will help to ensure maximum public support for the change in the law. How we treat children in this area is a particularly sensitive and emotive issue, as it always is. However, there are many inspirational children who have donated or received organs. One such inspiration is little Dáithí. He has waited for his heart transplant for three years, but his story and campaigning have helped to raise awareness of donation and rallied support for the law. I am sure that I speak for all Members when I say that our hope and our prayer is that a transplant can happen as soon as possible for that little man.

I mentioned that there were public awareness campaigns in Wales when they changed the law. As I draw my remarks to a close, it is worth restating that, in Wales, adopting the policy has had a positive impact on donation. It has helped to increase rates of donation from 58% in 2015 to 70·7% in 2020. As identified in the Committee's consideration of the Bill, it is important that, once the Bill becomes law, the Department monitors the impact of the law change and reports its findings.

Donated organs have saved lives and will save lives in the future. We are not talking about millions of organs; only a small number of organs can be donated after death. I say that not to minimise the importance of the issue and the debate but to ensure that there is an understanding that, for most people, organs will never be donated, because of the circumstances of death. Yet, every donation matters greatly and can literally mean the gift of life or of a physically much better quality of life and a life lengthened due to the generosity of another.

There are also great opportunities for organisations such as Cancer Research to use donated organs and tissues. It is a wonderful opportunity to play a part in finding cures and treatments for serious and life-threatening diseases.

I started by stating that my support for the Bill was based on my belief that we must do what we can to stop unnecessary deaths. That is what Wales did, and I believe that the people of Northern Ireland want to do the same. However, let us also ensure that those who explicitly do not want to donate know how to opt out, ensuring that their wishes are also fulfilled.

I thank the officials from the Department of Health, the Committee Clerk and team and all those who gave evidence to the Committee on what, for many, will be a life-changing and life-enhancing Bill.

Mr McGrath: It is my delight to speak about the Bill. This place is so often defined by the issues that divide us, but, with this Bill, we have been afforded an opportunity to let this place be a force for good and to be something positive. Ultimately, it is something that will save lives.

For a little moment, I will look at where we are. In the last year, 87 of our residents received 113 life-saving transplants from 51 donors. That is 87 of our citizens who might not be alive today were it not for the selfless choice of the 51 individuals who signed up for the organ donor register. The sad side of this, however, is that an average of 115 people across the North are waiting for a transplant. Today, we are discussing matters of life and death. Some people bravely stare that in the face every day.

With almost 25 million people worldwide on the organ donor register, one would think that nobody should be left waiting for a transplant, but the cold fact is that, of the 500,000 people who die every year across these islands, just 5,000 — 1% — do so with organs that are viable for transplantation. Under our current legislation, organs may be donated only where an individual consciously consents to that while alive, or if their family consent on their behalf. The purpose of the Bill, which I am delighted to see reaching its Final Stage today, is to amend our legislation so that, when consent is not explicitly provided by the donor, it will be deemed or presumed. Exemptions, which are incredibly important to some, are built into the legislation.

Other countries have moved to an opt-out system. A number of those, such as Portugal, Belgium, Croatia and Spain, have achieved incredibly high rates of donation. What helped those countries to achieve the high rates? Was it enacted legislation, or was it education that was delivered? As with all good forces of change, it was a bit of both. As legislation is progressed, public awareness is highlighted. Media campaigning also increases awareness. In 1986, Belgium introduced the system that we are debating here in 2022. Thanks to a public awareness campaign that ran concurrently, kidney transplantation from deceased and living donors increased from 19 per million to 41 per million of the population over a three-year period. The number of available transplants nearly doubled, thanks to the legislation and the education that went alongside it.

I add my voice to the others today that have thanked the people who are live donors, or who donated after they died, for their incredible bravery. I mention in particular a young woman called Rachael Molloy, who had her whole life in front of her but, sadly, passed away a number of months ago. Her family are very close to the SDLP in Belfast. The family took that very brave decision, which resulted in three people receiving organs and surviving. The family who made that sacrifice are very close to some members of our staff and wider team in the party. I extend my thanks to Rachael's family for their bravery during what must have been an incredibly difficult time for them.

The success of the Belgian model comes from a broad package of measures, including a media information campaign and awareness raising among the wider public about the merits of the system. That needs to form part of the continuous learning process in our legislation. As has been referenced, I am sure that all Members are aware that such a campaign has been ongoing here for some time. The example has been set by young Dáithí and his family. Dáithí has been awaiting a new heart for the past three years. He, like the superhero he is — we have our badges on today in honour of Dáithí — has been highlighting the importance of organ donation wherever he goes, including here at Stormont today. The first time that I had the pleasure of meeting young Dáithí, I saw him giving our Health Minister a powerful right hook. I am not quite sure whether the Health Minister is over it yet, but that showed the power of his campaign and the power of what young Dáithí has done in bringing all of us along and ensuring that we progress this legislation.

There is much more that I could say about the Bill and the need for it, but suffice it to say that it is my hope that, in three years' time, through the Bill and public awareness, those 115 people, including young Dáithí, will no longer be awaiting the gift of life but will have received their transplants and be enjoying a happy, healthy and active life as a result of the organ donation programme.

It will also ensure that those right hooks will continue for the next set of Ministers.


1.45 pm

Today shows the Assembly at its best. It is delivering real change that will impact on people's lives positively. It is delivering laws that make lives better. It is us being responsible, sensible and diligent. I am happy and glad to support the Bill.

Mr Chambers: I am just reflecting on the remarks about young Dáithí and the right hook that he threw at the Minister. I am sure that, if that was the only right hook thrown at the Minister in the past two years, he will have been able to dodge it.

It is a momentous day for Northern Ireland, especially for the hundreds of people, including many children, who await the opportunity of receiving a life-changing transplant. It is a day of renewed optimism and hope for all those people and their families. The fact that the Bill has come before the House at this time without any amendments or political or public controversy demonstrates that it is welcome and well-received legislation. My party fully supports the Bill and commends the Health Minister and his team of officials for progressing it to this point. It would, however, be remiss of me not to place on record today my acknowledgement of the work of Mrs Jo-Anne Dobson, a former Ulster Unionist Party MLA colleague, who has championed the cause for over 10 years. Indeed, she donated an organ to her son.

I would also like to place on record my appreciation of the renowned work that is carried out by the kidney transplant unit in Belfast. I am sure that the Bill will enhance its ability to change even more lives. It is a good day for Northern Ireland, and I warmly support the legislation.

Mr Dickson: First, I want to say how delighted I am that the Health Minister has christened the Bill Dáithí's law. That is a massive tribute to the family and their campaign, and I proudly wear the campaign pin today. I also want to give thanks to Jo-Anne Dobson, former MLA and colleague here in the Assembly. She was and remains a champion of organ donation. She spoke to me on many occasions about her family circumstances and her son. At the same time, I had a friend who was going through a kidney transplant. He had had a transplant, he then had cancer and had to recover from that, but the cancer treatment destroyed his transplanted kidney. Subsequently, five years later, which was the time that he to wait, he was able to have a second kidney transplant. Today, he leads a normal, full and healthy life. That is the success of the ability to provide a transplant.

My colleague Paula Bradshaw, who is not here today, would have spoken on the Bill. Unfortunately, Paula is not well today. I am delighted to be able to speak on it. The ability to register as an organ donor, which will take only a few moments, and share that decision with families is important. Parents may also wish to consider that their children, although unaffected by the Bill as it stands, can opt in to be donors.

With regard to the specificity of the legislation, the Bill is just one step of a journey by which I hope that Northern Ireland will come to reach the international target of 80% of transplants coming from deceased donors. It is evident from elsewhere that deemed consent will start that journey. No one, however, is claiming that it will, of itself, by any means complete it. In evidence to the Committee, the Bill was summarised as part of a journey to normalising organ donation.

That is the key here. Campaigners have noted that the public are ready and the specialists are ready, and we certainly know that the service is ready.

The Bill has a set of exemptions, which others have referred to, that cover any concerns that have been raised over the years. It bears repeating that it applies only to deceased adults who were resident full-time in Northern Ireland at the time of death. It also makes for other allowances.

Eleven people died last year while on the waiting list for an organ transplant here in Northern Ireland, yet just one donation can help up to nine people. Therefore, in many ways, the most important aspect of the legislation is the element on awareness raising, which is not in the equivalent legislation for England. I seek assurance from the Minister at the end of the debate that we have a strong publicity package ready to go immediately after Royal Assent is granted. It has been recognised that publicity goes beyond just adverts. The experience from countries, such as Spain, for example, shows that, beyond doubt, investment in education and organisations will be required in order to truly deliver an incre