Official Report: Wednesday 09 March 2022
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The first item of business in the Order Paper is the consideration of business not concluded on Tuesday 8 March. As all business was concluded, we will move on.
That the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill [NIA 28/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Final Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill has been moved. The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit on the debate. I call the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to open the debate.
Mr Poots: Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you, once again, for your patience with all of this as we move the Final Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. We have had many lengthy debates on the legislation at various points during its passage through the Assembly, and rightly so. It is an important piece of legislation that will impact on the work of the Assembly and the Executive for decades to come. Essentially, the key decisions on the legislation have been taken, and its passing should be a formality.
I am pleased that my Climate Change (No. 2) Bill has reached its Final Stage. It has been a great challenge to get to this point, given the work that was required to develop the legislation at pace and to complete all the necessary processes and stages in its passage. Anyone who has taken significant, complicated and cross-cutting Executive legislation such as this forward will appreciate the amount of work that is involved, not just for me but for my officials, the AERA Committee — I give my thanks to it — the Bill Office staff, the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC), Members and the Speaker's Office. Thank you to all involved. Some said that I could not or would not bring the legislation forward, but it is clear, as I stand here today, that those accusations were unfounded.
I am grateful for the support that my Bill has received during its passage through the Assembly. Climate change affects everyone in Northern Ireland and on the planet, and it requires people to respond at local and global levels.
As politicians, we have a duty to take action to ensure that our environmental footprint becomes less significant and that we produce a sustainable economic and environmental model where both can prosper.
It was a privilege for me to visit Alternity Biogas Energy this morning to open a facility where biomethane, which is largely extracted from waste food products, is being turned into fuel through anaerobic digestion. Through further work, it is now being used to power trucks. Those trucks will produce around 20% of the carbon that a normal diesel truck would. The common-sense logic behind that is huge given that 20% of our diesel comes from Russia.
We have all those sources of energy here at home, and lot of them are on farms. Instead of taking away the methane altogether by removing the animals and the food, or by just allowing the methane to go into the atmosphere, we can capture that methane through anaerobic digestion and turn it into fuel for trucks, tractors and, indeed, homes. The mix of 80% biomethane with 20% hydrogen enables us to heat our homes without changing the boilers that are currently in those homes. All those things demonstrate to us the wisdom, common sense and practical nature of adopting high-quality policies that deliver on reducing the environmental footprint, reducing the methane that goes into the atmosphere and providing an energy source that is reliable, local, cost-controlled and will not be subject to the huge lurches that we have seen over the past few weeks. The common sense in what we are doing is very clear.
The Climate Change (No. 2) Bill will help to ensure that we do the right things. Since my appointment as Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in January 2020, I have made climate change a top priority in my Department and have ensured that resources are prioritised to deliver this legislation. Indeed, the Executive Bill has reached Final Stage ahead of the private Member's Climate Change Bill, which has only reached Consideration Stage despite being introduced to the Assembly four months earlier. That shows the commitment that we have made to delivering this legislation, having gone through all the due processes, including proper consultation, before we commenced.
I have been clear and consistent throughout all the debates on the Northern Ireland climate change legislation that we should follow the advice of experts and set targets on the basis of the evidence. There are Members in the Chamber who will take expert advice on climate change but will not take expert advice on how you respond to climate change. That is for them, not me, to answer, but my Bill, on its introduction, reflected the recommendations from the United Kingdom Climate Change Committee (CCC), which is the statutory, independent adviser on climate change. There are people on that body who have unsurpassed expertise and can provide us with evidence and advice. Delivering the targets that they recommended would have seen Northern Ireland make a fair and equitable contribution towards the UK net zero target.
Unfortunately, however, at Consideration Stage, a majority of Members of the Assembly agreed to change the headline target in the Bill to net zero emissions by 2050 — and that really was done for a headline. It is purely an aspirational target and one that, unless we invest huge amounts of money or acquire carbon credits, we are unlikely to achieve. On the use of carbon capture and storage technology, the acquisition of carbon credits is not the way to go about it. We need to ensure that, in the steps that we take, we minimise the amount of carbon produced here and we sequester as much carbon as possible. We will not do that without the assistance of the agricultural sector. Therefore, it is crucial that we bring that sector with us, thus the importance of the amendment that I moved last week.
As I have highlighted many times, we are talking about spending hundreds of millions of pounds per annum not just to reach the net zero target by 2050 but to continue beyond 2050. The long-term impacts of the decisions that are being made in the Assembly will be highly significant and will be felt by other Departments, such as the Department for Infrastructure, the Department of Education and, of course, the Department of Health. Again, it will be for Members to identify whether they are going to go through with some of that spending or go back on their word and support the Health and Education Departments. Nevertheless, the headline is there, and we will work with that as things stand.
Those present today will know that the issue that concerns me most about the overall net zero target is the potential impact on our local and very successful agriculture sector. There are some in the House who think that it is too successful. There are some in the House who think that we should not produce food for 10 million people but should only produce food for the people who live here. That is an entirely selfish notion and one that I do not want to be associated with. It is selfish because this world needs food.
We are in a circumstance where Egypt, which is a country in North Africa with a population of 120 million, is tendering for wheat and is not getting the supplies of wheat that it needs to feed its people. People tell us that we should let our land go wild: that is an absolute nonsense. It is a travesty. It is inhumane and it is wrong. Therefore, I support our agri-food sector in the production of food. We are one of the most efficient food producers anywhere in the world, and we are one of the most efficient food producers in keeping carbon down in the world. I will continue to make it very clear that we cannot allow those things to happen.
The agri-food sector in Northern Ireland employs some 113,000 people. Some people seem to think that those jobs do not matter because we are going to have all these new, green jobs etc. We should not cast away what we have; we should build on what we have. We should bring in the green jobs while keeping those existing 113,000 jobs. That is why I tabled the amendment at Further Consideration Stage to limit the impact of the net zero target in that regard and ensure that what we require of the agriculture sector and others in reducing methane emissions is in line with the evidence and advice from the experts.
My amendment clarified that the net zero ambition of some Members will not require a level of methane emission reduction of more than 46% by 2050, which is consistent with the advice from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UK CCC's balanced pathway recommendations and the ambition of the Paris agreement to achieve long-term temperature goals. That will be very challenging and will require significant new policies. The transitional elements of the Bill should help to ensure that the challenges that rural communities and many sectors will face while tackling climate change are recognised and taken into account when developing and implementing policies. There is also a requirement for Northern Ireland Departments to consider the risk of carbon leakage when deciding policies and proposals that are to be included under the climate action plans and for Departments to take into account the desirability of eliminating or minimising that risk.
Of course, we would not have required such amendments had the targets in the Bill, as introduced, been agreed, but at least I have been able to mitigate some of the potentially damaging impacts that aiming for overall net zero could cause, whilst also strengthening the just transition opportunities for rural communities.
In addition to the targets, the Bill includes a number of other important elements, which will help us to address issues that are caused by climate change.
Those include a requirement to produce five-year climate action plans that set out policies and proposals for meeting carbon budgets and the emissions targets; a requirement on a number of Departments to produce sectoral plans and to meet targets connected to them; a range of reporting requirements and duties for Departments and the Climate Change Committee; a requirement on my Department to bring forward public-body reporting regulations within 18 months of the Bill's achieving Royal Assent; and duties on all Departments to exercise their functions, as far as it is possible to do so, in a manner consistent with meeting the targets in the Bill and the carbon budgets that we set under it.
That last element in particular is crucial. All Departments and, indeed, all parts of our society will have to play their part in helping to reduce emissions. Climate change is not a one- or two-Department issue. The provisions ensure the need for all of us to act, as they will be enshrined in law, and if that does not happen, we will have no chance of getting anywhere close to the targets in the Bill.
I should add that that will not be achieved without investment. When I made requests for the green growth strategy to be properly funded, I was hugely disappointed by what was on offer in the proposals that came from Mr Murphy's Finance Department, because Sinn Féin Members' words and the money that the Sinn Féin Finance Minister provided did not match up. You will not reach 82% by 2050 on that budget, never mind 100%. There is therefore no point in going out and conning the public by saying that you want to do something significant on climate change and want to make efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon emissions, if you are not prepared to put your money where your mouth is. I challenged Sinn Féin Members last week to put their vote where their mouth was on the issue of herd reduction, and they demonstrated that they are quite happy with herd reduction, in spite of what they had said a few weeks previously. I challenge them again: if you want to achieve what you claim that you want to achieve through the legislation, the Sinn Féin Finance Minister needs to put his money where his party's mouth is on the issue, otherwise it will not be delivered.
That concludes my opening remarks today. I look forward to the Bill's being passed and to every party in the Assembly's supporting the efforts to implement and deliver on its ambitions.
Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I welcome the opportunity to speak today on behalf of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs at Final Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. It would be remiss of me not to comment on what is a significant step forward for our local Assembly. We have collectively brought forward and developed climate change law and, in doing so, have addressed the long-standing legislative gap between us and our neighbours. Although total agreement on emissions targets and oversight structures was always unlikely, it is fair to say that, over the past number of weeks, the key issues have been debated well, and, at times, vociferously, and there can be no doubt about Members' commitment and passion to deliver climate change law that is robust, deliverable and fair to key sectors of our economy.
The Committee has had the unique privilege of evaluating two climate change Bills simultaneously in the past year. Although that has proved challenging, there is no doubt that the extensive time and effort that the Committee has taken to listen to stakeholders and experts has been crucial in shaping some of the amendments that have been incorporated into the Bill. In particular, the Committee welcomes the inclusion of a just transition principle, which will place an onus on Departments to ensure that their plans for reducing emissions support sustainable job growth; take account of key sectors of the economy and small businesses; and safeguard the most vulnerable in our society from the adverse impacts of change. Furthermore, following the overwhelming feedback to our calls for evidence, the provision that obligates Departments to consider harmonising policies and approaches with those in place elsewhere on these islands is very much welcome and will ensure that our local approach maintains parity with that of our neighbours.
The Committee also welcomes the amendments made at its suggestion to ensure that the targets for emissions percentages and years can only ever be revised in the future to make them more ambitious. That will serve to alleviate any stakeholder concerns about the commitment to strong climate action and puts in place a legal safeguard against any potential move to weaken targets in the future. The amendment to the Bill that requires DAERA to bring forward regulations outlining the specifics of the duty on public-sector bodies is a positive addition that will ensure that they all are appropriately consulted on what can be reasonably expected of them in delivering on climate change reporting measures.
Before closing, I take the opportunity to thank the many hundreds of people who engaged with the Committee's call for evidence on climate change legislation over the past year and the dozens of stakeholder organisations that provided evidence to the Committee orally and in writing. Many of those stakeholders did that for both Bills over the past eight or nine months. Getting to this stage has required much effort, engagement and energy from the Committee and from Members of the House. That is testament to the fundamental importance of the Bill progressing today. It will set a framework for how we can ensure that, as a society, we can contribute to the global effort to mitigate climate harm and sets a fair and just pathway for the transition to a low-carbon economy.
I will add a couple of points in my capacity as Sinn Féin's agriculture and rural affairs spokesperson. We have engaged extensively over the past year on the topic. That includes the 52 evidence-gathering sessions that the Committee took part in. We met hundreds of schoolchildren and many stakeholders from local government and small businesses. We engaged and listened attentively over the past eight or nine months. Sinn Féin proposed a total of 39 amendments to the Bill, including amendments on public consultation, rural equality and small business proofing, the agriculture transition fund, carbon leakage, the social and economic role and importance of farming, and methane. Putting forward 39 amendments on behalf of the party took a huge amount of work by fellow MLAs our policy officers and the Bill Office. I also thank the DAERA officials, because they were on hand to clear up any outstanding issues or points of clarity that we had. I am thankful to them from a party point of view. We wanted to get this right, and we put forward those amendments at both Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage. It has been a long process. We want to get it right, because the legislation will set the trajectory for the next 30 years and beyond.
In conclusion, I thank everyone who has been part of this. I commend the Bill.
Mr Irwin: I welcome the fact that we have reached the final stage of this process. It has been an arduous process. As I have said before, it is a concerning time for our farming community and its representative bodies and for the entire agri-food sector. The Climate Change (No. 2) Bill process was started by the Minister and his Department with a firm and strong focus on the science, a realistic view that climate change would be tackled by measures that were complementary to the planet and would ensure that our agri-food sector would continue to meet the consumer needs of Northern Ireland and its export destinations. With the unfolding horror in Ukraine, as Putin continues his brutal invasion of that country, the security of food supply and the ability to meet the needs of consumers is vital. We have already seen alarming price rises in many products, the most worrying of which is the continuing upward trend in fuel and electricity prices. All of that makes decisions around future energy generation and emissions measures very important. I am clear that we must get those decisions correct.
The Bill, at its Final Stage, is representative of as many views on the debate as it is possible to have. It represents a way forward, and whilst, ultimately, it is extremely challenging, it provides a chartable course towards achieving the aims of protecting the climate and protecting livelihoods. The various views on the issue have been well noted in the Chamber, and it is clear that disagreement will continue on how best to move forward. However, this Bill is the most realistic prospect of delivering the aims and objectives.
I do not intend to dwell longer than is necessary on the Final Stage debate, given the legislative pressures on the House as the mandate draws to a close. I am content that my views have been taken on board and have been well documented, as have the clear views of the agri-food industry. We must now look to the methods of enabling the targets contained in the Bill to be met.
Mr McGlone: I am glad that we have arrived at the Final Stage of the Bill. Climate change is clearly one of the most fundamental issues facing the human race. As we, here and now, think of what is happening to the human race, however, we tend to put things in a bit of perspective. In order to have a serene atmosphere, it is obvious that we need to have a serene and peaceful planet with serene and peaceful people in it. I think, particularly now, of the people of Ukraine; of the damage, human and atmospheric, that is being done, on this occasion, by Russian aggression; and, indeed, of the threats of nuclear destruction. I make the point again: a peaceful planet and a serene atmosphere run entirely one with the other.
I am glad that we have arrived at the point where we have a climate change Bill. It is an accommodation that recognises the importance of reducing our contribution to climate change; recognises the domestic realities; incorporates a just transition and oversight mechanisms; and presents opportunities in the green economy, one of which the Minister outlined in his speech. As a member of the AERA Committee, I thank those who contributed to the Committee's evidence-gathering sessions; as the Chair said, there were 52 in total on both Bills. I thank colleagues on the Committee for working relatively well — in fact, very well — together on the matter, and I especially thank the Chair for his steering and forbearance throughout. In particular, I thank the Committee Clerk and staff and, obviously, the staff in the Bill Office — it is good to see Barbara with us today: I am sure that she does not mind my mentioning her — for their support and efforts throughout. Through the Minister, I thank his officials, who were there to provide us with evidence and some steer as we worked our way through what turned out to be a complicated and lengthy process.
I am glad that we have arrived at the Final Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. The SDLP supports it.
Mrs Barton: I thank all those from whom we took evidence on the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. I also thank everybody in the Assembly who supported us in many different ways.
Today, at Final Stage, we are looking at a very different Bill from the one that was introduced. Many supportive amendments have been made, while some clauses have been removed and replaced with alternatives. The Bill now has 65 clauses and is divided into five Parts.
Not everything in the Bill will please everyone. Northern Ireland will not be immune to the severity of the impact of the issues of climate change as part of the United Kingdom. It must accept that legislation and targets are needed for the reduction of emissions in line with the Paris climate change agreement. As part of the UK, Northern Ireland must, therefore, now work towards reducing its emissions. It must also remember, however, that it has a duty to not permit the carbon leakage that comes from imported foods.
The agriculture sector of course accepts that meeting the emissions targets over the next number of decades will be challenging. The separate methane target will, however, realign Northern Ireland with the Climate Change Committee's balanced pathway for agriculture. The agreed amendment will see methane levels fall to 46% from their 1990 levels by 2050 and will contribute to our net zero target. By separating methane, which breaks down relatively quickly in the atmosphere and is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, farmers can now use the available scientific data, which indicates that food additives can reduce methane emission by up to 30%.
With continued research, innovative ideas and improvement in science, the impact on the farming industry, while challenging, will hopefully ensure the continuation of a thriving agriculture sector and allow agriculture to contribute to tackling climate change. The Bill will contribute to the protection of our environment in, I hope, a sustainable and sensible manner for generations to come. I commend the Bill.
Mr Blair: I am pleased to join the debate remotely today and to speak on behalf of Alliance. At the outset, I thank the DAERA officials who were involved, the AERA Committee members, the Committee officials and those who presented and made representations to the Committee in relation to the progress of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill and the Climate Change Bill.
On the day that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave its "bleakest warning yet" and reported on an "atlas of human suffering", the Assembly in Northern Ireland backtracked on its decision to deliver net zero legislation. I cannot overstate my disappointment in the parties that supported the delivery of a changed, inadequate and disproportionate target and strove to create loopholes in and exemptions to our responsibilities in Northern Ireland. Wealthy nations like the UK disproportionately bear responsibility for climate change. That is known to be a fact. Low-income communities in the global south urgently need justice to cope with escalating loss and damage and to adapt to the future. To deliver anything other than our best was to turn our back on those who are most at risk from and least responsible for the climate emergency.
The debate should never have been about the agriculture sector versus the environmental sector. To quote that IPCC report, we have:
"a brief and rapidly closing window"
in which to adapt to climate change, with the risks associated with lower levels of warming being greater than previously thought. The debate should have been about every person, every sector and every Government playing their part in mitigating the impacts of climate action. We should not have limited our ambition for climate action. Furthermore, by protecting one strand of one sector over all strands of all others or even giving the impression of doing so, we stand to lose enormous economic and social opportunities and confine Northern Ireland to being the carbon outlier of Europe. We need ambition at a political level, because the opportunities are ours for the taking. The race to net zero is seeing growth in economic opportunity among our neighbours and competitors. I regret to say that, on this issue, as in many other areas, we remain the exception to ambition.
Mr Harvey: Throughout the passage of the Bill, I have continually sought to defend the agri-food sector against attempts by some in the Chamber to destroy the industry. Since the introduction of the Bill, it is fair to say that our farmers have been to the brink and back. The process has caused a lot of needless anxiety and concern for many who have watched on, aware of the potential of the legislation to destroy their livelihoods. There is a lesson to be learned here for Members, especially in light of the pending stages of the private Member's Bill still to follow: we must continue to remind ourselves that lives and livelihoods are bound up in our tackling of climate change.
As with so much that is considered by the House, striking the right balance is everything. It was clear that the right balance had not been struck subsequent to Consideration Stage. The outworkings of votes at Consideration Stage, if left unchallenged, would have resulted in an estimated reduction in the number of active farmers by 13,000, with job losses across the agri-food sector running into tens of thousands.
Amendments at Consideration Stage dealt a body blow to the Department's carefully considered Bill, changing it almost entirely. At Further Consideration Stage, however, some parties had a reality check. Amendments that were tabled by the Minister at that stage offered a lifeline to bring the legislation back into the realms of reality. I am glad that, to a certain extent, that lifeline was accepted, particularly in relation to amendment No 1 and the clarification on methane and its contribution to the net zero target. A degree of protection and support was won for the agri-food sector, and I know how much relief that brought to farmers across Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it was hugely disappointing that amendment No 17 was not supported by Members. A clear opportunity was presented to the House to send a message to the rural community that its contribution to net zero would be fair and proportionate. Mr Allister called it a litmus test of whether Members were on the side of farmers or not. I am sad to say that the latter was evident in relation to amendment No 17.
As has been said repeatedly, our agri-food sector has always wanted to play its part in tackling climate change. Indeed, the industry has always been ahead of the House in its effort to enhance environmentally friendly procedures, practices and processes. The sector did not need us to tell it; it did it itself. Many often forget that, when we consider the agri-food sector, we are considering families and communities who have been the custodians of our countryside and environment for generations, long before it became popular, and long before the Green Party and the climate crisis lobby existed. The outworkings of the Bill should be to better equip and enhance the work that is ongoing, not to vilify and punish our farmers. Let us be in no doubt: the targets that have been set, thanks to amendment No 1, will be difficult, and there will be a price to be paid. They are ambitious, but, most importantly, they are realistic and based on science.
I commend the Department and the Minister for their efforts throughout the process to ensure that key themes of the Bill and the amendments that they proposed subsequently were clearly evidence-based, in keeping with the expert advice from the UK CCC, the intergovernmental panel and the Paris agreement. Unfortunately, on occasion, Members have been headline-driven as opposed to science-driven. I trust that, as we move to consider the Bill in the name of Ms Bailey, Members will bear the science in mind.
Mr Muir: It is important to note that it has been a long and tortuous road to this point, but we have reached it. It is also important to note that, although the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill that we are debating at Final Stage takes forward a key New Decade, New Approach commitment, we are still, two years later, waiting for the delivery of an independent environmental protection agency. The Climate Change (No. 2) Bill is, if anything, just one action as part of a wider programme of work that needs to be taken forward. It is only a starting point.
The Alliance Party will vote in support of the Bill at Final Stage because, as the proverb goes, better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without. This Bill ain't no diamond, but, on the whole, the Alliance Party is of the view that it is better to have something than nothing. We have reservations, and it is important to outline those today, as my colleague John Blair has done. It is also important to put on record our commitment to bringing forward a private Member's Bill in the next mandate to deliver the real ambition required to deal with the climate crisis that we now face.
The Alliance Party, as my colleague John Blair outlined, is disappointed that the Bill was watered down at Further Consideration Stage by excluding methane. Last week, only a few months after the UN Secretary-General said that the IPCC report was nothing less than "a code red for humanity", the IPCC reported that there was:
"a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future"
on the planet. We need to live up to that challenge. The challenge presented to Northern Ireland is real, and we must meet it. We owe it to future generations to step up and take actions to avert a climate catastrophe.
I will turn to the implementation of clauses 12 to 21 of the Bill as it was amended at Consideration Stage. My colleague John Blair wrote to the Minister on Friday asking what considerations he and his Department had given to the implementation of those clauses. Amendment Nos 57 and 58, which were tabled at Further Consideration Stage, corrected serious technical defects in clauses 12 to 21. In its report to DAERA, the Office of the Legislative Counsel stated that a subsidiary power of the Department is required. It is our understanding that that delegation of powers is required in order to ensure that clauses 12 to 21 are fully operable. As the Minister did not move amendment Nos 57 and 58, we are concerned about the operation of those clauses.
Sectoral plans and associated targets were added to the Bill at Consideration Stage by the Alliance Party after drafting by the Assembly Bill Office. Those clauses, once drafted and proposed, were then passed with the support of the majority of the House. I would be interested to learn from the Minister why he did not move the correcting amendments and how that impacts on the sectoral plans and associated targets that were inserted at Consideration Stage. If we are to achieve the targets that are set out in the Bill, the action from different sectors is crucial. That is why we moved the amendments, and it is vital that they are implemented. Clarity is required from the Minister.
In closing, I did not think that we would reach this point with the Bill, but I am glad that we have. I put on record my thanks, particularly to the DAERA officials, who I know have spent a significant amount of time on drafting the legislation, to officials in the Bill Office in the Assembly and to officials in the Assembly generally. We have reached this point, and hopefully the Assembly can move on and agree the Bill at Final Stage.
Mr McGuigan: As others have done, I thank the Committee staff, staff from RaISe, the Bill Office and departmental staff for all their assistance throughout this process. I also thank all the witnesses and those who responded to the consultation. I also give thanks and praise to the climate campaigners out there, particularly young people, who helped to keep the issue on the agenda and have led us to where we are today.
Let there be no doubt that dealing with global warming and climate change is the issue of our time. From the resumption of the Assembly in 2020, when Sinn Féin tabled the first motion that was debated in the Chamber in order to declare a climate emergency, progressing climate legislation in this mandate has been a priority for us. We wanted legislation that was not only ambitious, with a net zero target, but legislation that was fair, just and deliverable. We wanted legislation that would help us here in the North to play our part in the climate emergency and that left no sector of society behind.
The Bill may be considered to be the Minister's Bill, but, in reality, it bears no resemblance to the Bill that he introduced here a number of months ago. In my view, the process has witnessed good collaboration across most of the political parties in the Chamber, and, through the work of Sinn Féin and others in the Committee scrutiny process and at previous stages of the Bill, a vast number of amendments have been added to the Bill. Those amendments will ensure that the work that we do over the next three decades will be based on just transition principles. There will also be a just transition commission to help oversee progress, a separate just transition scheme for the agriculture sector and other protections for small businesses and our agricultural and rural communities. From the Bill, work will be done with an eye on nature-based solutions, and there are amendments that we and others tabled in order to deal with carbon leakage. Also introduced is independent oversight via a climate commissioner, as well as climate action plans and sectoral plans. The Bill also includes the very important protection of the need for public consultation and the support of MLAs at various steps along the way.
The Bill is, by and large, a framework Bill, but it will, rightly, be central to the work, plans and policies that the Executive and all Departments will take forward, and, over the next three decades, it will help to transform the society that we live in.
We must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. If the need to save our planet did not make that obvious, the current cost-of-living crisis, because of our dependence on oil and gas, should certainly hammer home the point.
Mr Poots: On that very issue — dependence on fossil fuels — one of the means of switching from fossil fuels was to burn woodchips. We had the issue with the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme, and the headline in the paper today is that £90 million has been lost to the Northern Ireland Budget because Sinn Féin will not agree with the proposals that are being put forward in that area. The Member might reflect on that when he talks about moving from fossil fuels.
Mr McGuigan: I suppose that I thank the Minister, the new Member for South Belfast, for his interjection. I am surprised that he chose to interject to mention the RHI scheme, which was a disastrous DUP scheme that did nothing to redress global warming but did instigate a financial crisis and the collapse of this institution. Minister, we need to ensure that any progress that we make is based on green energy schemes that work and do the job that they set out to do.
The Minister takes me on to my next point very well. Stormont often gets a bad press, primarily because of the actions or inaction of the DUP. Often, people do not notice the impact of the work that is done here, but a cursory glance at what has happened in the Chamber in the past three days — since Monday — gives an indication of what the Assembly can do. We have considered the Private Tenancies Bill, which will protect renters in the private housing sector, an autism Bill, the first gambling legislation in close to 40 years, sexual offences and trafficking victims legislation, free period products legislation and a domestic abuse Bill. This evening, after we have debated two climate Bills — potentially — we will consider free hospital car parking legislation from my colleague Aisling Reilly.
Every one of those pieces of legislation is much needed to help, assist and protect individuals, communities and society as a whole in the North. Whilst I do not want to rank any of the work that we do here by importance, I am glad that, before the end of the mandate, we will finally have a climate Bill. That is an important legacy to leave for those who are elected to here in May, but, more importantly, it is a legacy and an opportunity for our children and grandchildren well into the future.
Ms Bailey: I am pleased to have arrived at the Final Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. It is one of the most significant pieces of legislation that the Assembly has considered, and it tackles the most important issue of our lifetime. The Bill has been a long time coming. After three missing years in the mandate, an Executive was reconvened after the New Decade, New Approach agreement was finalised, which promised us a climate Bill for Northern Ireland along with an independent environmental protection agency. The Minister took office on 11 January 2020, and it has taken us over two years to get to this point.
On 3 February 2020, the Assembly passed a motion calling on the Minister to bring forward a climate change Act and establish an independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland. The Minister responded by saying that he would not be rushed into introducing measures that we would later regret. On 21 July 2020, the Assembly passed a further motion, which called on the Minister to introduce a climate change Act with legally binding, ambitious targets within 100 days. The Minister responded by telling us that the time frame was impossible and that the Assembly's ask was ridiculous.
When the Minister failed to step up, civic society and activists stepped in. By the hundredth day of the Assembly's restoration, a climate change Bill for Northern Ireland had been drafted, to be introduced as a private Member's Bill, and had the support of all parties except the DUP and the TUV. The cross-party Bill was submitted in September 2020 and introduced to the Assembly in March 2021, setting the framework for what we need in a climate change Act for Northern Ireland: strong net zero targets, a just transition, non-regression and robust climate action plans that take a holistic view of the crisis by incorporating targets on not only greenhouse gases but soil quality, air quality and biodiversity.
Once the Bill was introduced, the Minister suddenly found that he did have the time to take forward climate change legislation. The Minister's Climate Change (No. 2) Bill was introduced in July 2021. It was much less ambitious and narrower in scope. It was a watered-down version of what had already been proposed. The fact that we have two climate Bills close to completion is down to the fact that the Minister's hand was forced by an unrelenting civic movement and cross-party working. United in the demand for climate action, those people stepped up in the face of the Minister's refusal to meet his commitments.
I am delighted to see a few of the faces behind that push in the Public Gallery. I know that others are listening online to witness the passing of this stage of the Bill on its journey to becoming the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. I acknowledge the professionalism and the work put into the Bill by Barbara and her team of private Member's Bill Clerks, the Committee Clerks and the departmental officials.
It is positive that the Bill, in its current form, is much stronger than it looked when it was introduced. That is thanks, in part, to 12 successful Green Party amendments. On policy areas, it largely mirrors what was in the initial Climate Change Bill and the cross-party desire to see robust legislation.
The Green Party has managed to put a just transition firmly on the agenda and, through amendments, at the core of the Bill. That means that consensus-building with people and communities, and empowering them to play an active part in the transition to net zero, should be at the heart of actions coming out of the Bill. Be in no doubt that the Green Party will be watching very closely. Our amendments have ensured that action taken in Northern Ireland to reduce emissions should simultaneously serve to reduce poverty, inequality and social deprivation. We have guaranteed a just transition fund for agriculture, which was missing from the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill until an amendment was made to it. That is to ensure that farmers can access financial support and advice on reducing emissions.
We are particularly proud of the fact that we secured an amendment requiring sectoral plans to eliminate gender inequality and advance equality of opportunity between men and women, which would make this one of the first pieces of gender-proofed climate legislation in the world.
Targets have been expanded to look beyond emissions to soil quality and biodiversity, because the problem of climate breakdown is inextricably linked to ecological breakdown and the state of our soils. We secured an amendment requiring policies and proposals to support nature-based projects that enhance biodiversity, protect and restore ecosystems, reduce emissions and support climate resilience. The Green Party will push to see that delivered and not swept aside in the push for further economic development, which has caused the crisis that we are in.
We secured vital, Northern Ireland-specific, independent oversight through the establishment of the Northern Ireland climate commissioner. The commissioner will be an independent organisation, separate from government and political interference and bias. Its report will provide an independent, scientific critique of the efficiency of the Executive's climate action plans. The role of the Northern Ireland climate commissioner will be crucial in underpinning public trust in climate policy. The absence of independent environmental regulation in Northern Ireland generally, and the absence of an agency, has eroded public trust. If Northern Ireland intends to make the deep-seated changes necessary to tackle climate change, the public must have trust in the system and be invested in the process. The commissioner will ensure that the public and climate policy decision-makers have all the necessary information to assess whether the Executive's climate policy is effective, fair and in line with the best available climate science. That should ensure that we will no longer hear the trotted-out excuse that we simply do not have the proper evidence needed to create the right policy.
The Bill is much stronger than when it was introduced, thanks to the extensive amendments tabled by parties across the House. However, the amendments that passed last week to create a separate target for biogenic methane, so that the Bill does not reflect a truly net zero target, have seriously weakened the Bill's provisions. That shows that, when it comes down to it, our political parties will not make the hard but necessary decisions that go with climate action, because that would require them to think beyond elections and electoral cycles. We are elected by the people of Northern Ireland to show political leadership. Meeting the climate crisis requires bravery, but, at the eleventh hour, the majority of MLAs caved in to the demands of a lobby that represents the highest-emitting sector in Northern Ireland. That is a political and moral failure, and future generations will judge them harshly for it.
There are fewer than eight years left in the global carbon budget. That gives us two thirds of a chance of staying under the critical threshold of 1·5°C global warming. What is right is not always what is popular. With fewer than eight years left to avoid catastrophic climate change, Members of the House have decided that votes and lobbyists are more important than fully addressing the "code red for humanity" warning and the "atlas of human suffering" warning given to us by the IPCC. The Minister focused on headlines during his contribution, yet he totally ignores those headlines.
What happened last week with regard to amending the Bill to create split methane targets is the perfect example of parties' duplicity; they are talking out of both sides of their mouths. Once they feel that the public will not understand the detail, they do what they want to do and not what they have said they will do. The DUP has, at least, been consistent in its position, but other parties that claim to speak for the planet, the environment and climate justice showed, last week, what they truly stand for: keeping their seats, no matter what. Citizens who want to cast their vote for the planet should know that, last week, the DUP, the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the UUP and the TUV spoke in favour of significantly weakening our net zero commitments. Parties that were co-sponsors to the cross-party private Member's Bill — Sinn Féin and the SDLP — spoke in favour of split targets for methane last week, abandoning the commitment to a net zero target for Northern Ireland. It is great to see the climate champions in the SDLP supporting net zero by 2040 and no split methane targets at Westminster. Why, then, would they not support the same here? The climate champs in the UUP make manifesto demands for a UK net zero target by 2035 but vote for our contribution to be 82% and for splitting the targets.
Throughout this process, it has been noted and argued that, despite having a similar emissions profile to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland did not set split targets for methane. At Consideration Stage, Sinn Féin successfully passed an amendment what would require us to align our policies with the Republic, yet they now support different targets for Ireland, North and South. How does that make sense? The island of Ireland is a single biogeographic unit. At every stage, the Green Party advocated for an all-island approach to climate action. Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others caved in to corporate lobbyists, creating two separate targets for this island with all the administrative, legal and practical difficulties that come with that.
It is abundantly clear that, in the course of this process, Members lost sight of what this legislation is truly about. On the very day that Members of the Assembly watered down and weakened the Bill, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 'Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability' report. The IPCC says, unequivocally, that:
"places where people live and work may cease to exist, that ecosystems and species that we've all grown up with and that are central to our cultures and inform our languages may disappear".
The IPCC report also states that the burden is falling overwhelmingly on those who have not caused the problem. Large parts of Africa will become uninhabitable. Growing numbers of people are dying as a result of excessive heat. Fifteen times more people have died as a result of floods, droughts and storms in vulnerable regions such as Africa, South Asia, Central America and South America than have done in other parts or the world. That is climate apartheid, where the rich pay to escape heat and hunger and the rest of the world watches.
The report sets out an atlas of human suffering. In the words of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres:
"This abdication of leadership is criminal."
Thanks to the inclusion of many Green Party amendments, the Bill is stronger than when it was originally introduced. It is not everything that we wanted it to be, particularly given its less ambitious methane targets. I respect the will of the House, however. It has been a democratically developed Bill, with much cross-party working. Now is the time for us to ensure its delivery. It is time to get behind the structures that are contained in it in order to allow us to create the systemic changes that are so urgently needed.
In agreement with the co-sponsors of the Climate Change Bill and Climate Coalition Northern Ireland, I have decided that, if the Final Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill is passed by the House, I will not move the Consideration Stage of the Climate Change Bill. The will of the House would be similarly expressed, and the outcome for the target would not change.
Although the Minister has held true to his word by not delivering an independent environmental protection agency in this mandate, it is a historic day for Northern Ireland. The Bill creates an important framework for the future for the climate action that we need to take. The Bill is not everything that we would like it to be, but it is an important first step, and one that we all need to keep building on. It is now time for every politician and political party and all Departments and civic actors to step up and put the policies in place to see the Bill achieve real emissions reductions, while also securing a sustainable future so that people and communities can thrive and be equipped with the tools that they need in order to thrive. The climate crisis is the biggest crisis that humanity is facing today. We need to play our part. I am glad that today we are creating the building blocks to start moving forward.
It is time to future-proof Northern Ireland. I look forward to working with the people in South Belfast along with my new constituency colleague to deliver what is contained in the Bill.
Dr Archibald: I am delighted to contribute to the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill's Final Stage. I, too, pay tribute to and thank those who have campaigned for so long for climate legislation. I acknowledge the work of the Department; the AERA Committee — in particular, its Chairperson, my party colleague Declan McAleer — all those who provided evidence; the Bill Office; and Clare Bailey and other MLAs, including my colleague Philip McGuigan, whose work, along with that of activists, on bring forwarding the Climate Change Bill motivated the Minister to bring forward this Bill.
From today, we will no longer be the only region in these islands without its own target-led climate legislation. We have navigated a long and complicated path to get the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill to Final Stage. The engagement and debate has been useful, however. The interest and strength of feeling shown reflects what is at stake, which is the very existence of our planet, as we know it, for future generations. We should not and must not, in any way, diminish the climate and biodiversity crises that our planet faces. Action to tackle those crises means changing how we and future generations live our lives. Not acting, or delaying, means catastrophe and more irreparable damage.
This Bill has evolved into what it is now: ambitious but containing safeguards and protections for our communities, achieved by Sinn Féin working with others to make strong amendments to the Bill. It has the principles of just transition enshrined in it — defined in it, in fact. It ensures consultation, collaboration and partnership. It means that future MLAs will have to sign off on regulations and plans. Good progress has been made from the point where the Minister asserted that it could not be done in this mandate to where we are now with a climate Bill that we have managed to find some consensus on. We now have a framework for us to work within to tackle the climate emergency that will also ensure fairer treatment. As well as being based on the principles of just transition, it provides for a just transition commission to plan a way forward, a just transition fund for agriculture to support farmers to adapt and innovate, and a climate commissioner for oversight.
It is worth stating again what just transition means. It means that lower-income workers, small businesses and those who work in sectors that are more dependent on fossil fuels or that produce more emissions and have more to do to decarbonise are not punished or left behind, unable to transition; that those who can afford to do their bit do it; that there is a fair and just pathway for all; and that we work together to tackle deprivation, enhance social justice and develop a greener, fairer economy and society. Those are laudable aims. We now have to deliver on them. It will be for the next Assembly to ensure that it happens, in collaboration and partnership with our communities and wider society.
A lot of the debate on this legislation focused on agriculture and our rural communities. It was right that their concerns were highlighted, discussed and listened to and that protections were incorporated into the legislation. I hope that those who led in challenging robustly on this legislation will continue to speak up on the other threats facing our family farms and rural way of life: the future agriculture policy, the outworking of Brexit and the trade deals being done by the British Government. Those things need challenged, too. I assure our farmers and rural communities that Sinn Féin will do what it has always done and has a clear track record on: standing up for our family farms and fair treatment for our rural communities.
We now turn to the future, and, with this legislative basis, future policies and strategies will have to align to it. We can and must look to the new opportunities in developing our green economy, new skills and jobs and different ways of working. We must ensure that the well-being of our citizens and our planet is a priority and is measured alongside economic metrics.
My final words are for our young people who went on strike and protested and have ensured that climate and biodiversity crises are on the political and policy agenda: keep shouting, keep protesting and make sure that we as political representatives make good on the promise of this legislation and deliver on its potential. I support the Bill at Final Stage.
Mr Allister: I have no difficulty with issues pertaining to making our planet as pristine as we can. That is sensible, right and necessary. I have no difficulty with reducing harmful emissions as much as we can, and I have no difficulty with issues pertaining to clean energy. My goodness, I represent North Antrim, where we have Wrightbus as the lead in the magnificent work that is being done on hydrogen-fuelled buses. Where I do have difficulty and what I dissent from is the woke consensus that man can change the climate. Of course, we all should aspire to leave this planet in pristine condition and a better position than we found it, but to suggest that puny man can, by himself, change the climate is, I think, something that has been swept along by a tide of obsession and hysteria that does not bear scrutiny.
The Climate Change (No. 2) Bill certainly started off better than Clare Bailey's Bill, but whether it has ended up much better is very debatable. It is a flawed piece of legislation because, the methane concession apart, it embraces the net zero ambition — or compulsion, indeed — by 2050. Inevitably, even with the methane concession, it will harm our key agriculture industry. There will be herd reduction because of the Bill; herd reduction that will be voted for by virtually everyone in the Assembly, and that is at a time when food production in the world has never been more perilous.
If someone is looking for a code red alert, they will find it in Ukraine in respect of food production. Where is Ukraine going to be, this year and in future years, as a producer of the vital wheat and cereal that helps to feed much of the world? Judging by current conditions, it is unlikely to be able to make anything like the contribution that it has hitherto made, yet it is in those circumstances that the House is saying to Northern Ireland, which produces food to feed 10 million people, "We're going to impose restrictions on you so that you produce less". That is in a context where the world needs more, and we are going to do it because we are all signed up to this wokeism about climate change. I really do say this to the House: it is wrong-headed, particularly now in the circumstances that the situation in Ukraine has created. Now, we are going to compound that by impinging upon production in agriculture in this Province. That I cannot and will not support.
I said in the last debate that amendment No 17 was the litmus test of whether the House was on the side of or against farming. Alliance, the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Greens clearly declared themselves against farming interests by voting down amendment No 17. That was the litmus test for me. It is also the litmus test for the Bill.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Member for taking an intervention. Does the Member accept, or has he heard, the comments of the president of the Ulster Farmers' Union, the largest farming organisation in the North, who did not support amendment No 17? Rather, the UFU is of the view that farming wants to be part of the solution here. Does he accept that? That comes from the largest farming organisation in the North, and surely it has a more authoritative voice than the Member.
Mr Allister: I have no difficulty in accepting Mr Chestnutt's observations about climate change, but the Member who intervened obviously has, because Mr Chestnutt was one of those who argued loudest that we should not go beyond the Climate Change Committee's recommendations of 82% — something that Mr McAleer was deaf to, that he voted against, that he insisted on rejecting. I take no lectures about the leadership of the farmers' union and its view from Mr McAleer, who demonstrably indicated that he rejected the primary advice by rushing headlong into voting for the contribution to the decimation of farming that the Bill represents.
I am quite clear: amendment No 17 was a litmus test not just of whether we supported farming but of whether the Bill was ever worthy of support. By rejecting amendment No 17, the House made up my mind on the Bill. Therefore, I will not vote for it.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots, to conclude the Final Stage of the Bill.
Mr Poots: I thank the AERA Committee Chair and members for their contributions to this and previous debates. I will seek to respond to some of the comments that were made.
I will start with Mr Blair. His contribution was pretty cliché-ridden, and he talked about the loss of an economic opportunity. Does Mr Blair not realise that 113,000 people here depend on jobs in the agri-food sector? He also said that it should not be an issue between agriculture and the environment. However, Mr Blair and his colleagues made it an issue between agriculture and the environment. They rejected the advice of the Climate Change Committee, who are the experts. They knew how to deal with climate change better than the experts did and were happy to destroy people's jobs and livelihoods in the process. That is what the Alliance Party is about. Mr Blair also said that we have not been ambitious: this is an ambitious Bill.
Ms Bailey and others referred to young people. After this business concludes, my next event will be at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), where there will be a careers fair and bursaries will be awarded to young people. There will be hundreds of young people at that event who are investing their future in the food industry — an industry that the majority of people in the Chamber were prepared to decimate and that Ms Bailey still wants to decimate. That is the message to those young people from some in the Chamber: they do not care about their jobs, their livelihoods and their futures. Those young people are investing in producing high-quality food for people in this country and in countries across the world, but that is not of value to people in the Chamber. Shame on those people.
Mr Muir commented on the need for an independent environmental protection agency. Of course, he said that while conveniently ignoring the fact that, through the Environment Act 2021, we have created the independent Office for Environmental Protection. Therefore, instead of the politically based European Commission looking into those affairs, we will have an independent Office for Environmental Protection that is entirely independent of government.
Mr Muir also talked about methane being excluded. Of course, methane was not excluded. Methane is a much shorter-lived greenhouse gas than many others. It is still in the targets. I have to clarify again — it is on the public record, but I will put it on again — that the reduction to 46% is consistent with IPCC advice. We have heard the IPCC being quoted: what we have proposed in the legislation is consistent with that advice. It is also consistent with the UK Climate Change Committee's balanced pathway recommendations and the ambition of the Paris agreement to achieve long-term temperature goals. We have achieved all that in what is proposed, yet Members are still critical.
I want to mention RHI to Mr McGuigan because he said something that was entirely un-factual. He is welcome to challenge this, but my Department informed me — I have put it on the record — that, between 2012 and 2030, the renewable heat incentive will contribute a 7% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Mr McGuigan wants a 100% reduction: there is something that achieves 7% of that 100%. Many people are using that scheme in good faith; many are heavily indebted as a consequence of installing RHI boilers; and many — the vast majority — run those boilers at a significant loss. However, Mr McGuigan thinks that it is a good idea to give £90 million back to the UK economy. He is saying, "We do not need that. We do not want these people to reduce greenhouse gases by 7%. No, no, they should import that gas from Russia instead". Sinn Féin could deal with that by supporting the Department for the Economy's proposals, which will make what we do in Northern Ireland similar to what is happening in the rest of the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. However, Mr McGuigan and his Sinn Féin colleagues are blocking that. They are blocking a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring that money that could come to Northern Ireland to enable that to happen stays in London. That is not a smart place to be, and I note that there are no explanations from Sinn Féin for the silly position that it is adopting on the issue.
Ms Bailey provided an analysis of how we got here. It may be somewhat self-indulgent to make the suggestions that she made, but they do not stand up to any scrutiny or facts. When we had the debate in July, we were engaging in a consultation process and bringing about legislation, but, because we were doing things right, it could not be done in 100 days. This is not my mantra; it has been said for generations. Rushed legislation is bad legislation. Ms Bailey's Bill, which, I am glad, is now off the agenda, was a poorly drafted, economically damaging Bill. It would not have resolved issues around climate change. In fact, it would have done harm to the climate change agenda, because Northern Ireland would have exported its food production to other places that would have carried it out in a less environmentally friendly way and emitted more carbon to produce the same number of kilos of beef and the same number of litres of milk. That would have been the consequence of Ms Bailey's Bill. All that she would have done is shift carbon emissions from Northern Ireland to other places and shift jobs from Northern Ireland to other places.
Mr Givan: I thank the Minister for giving way, and I commend him on reaching the historic occasion of a climate change Bill being passed in the Assembly. I also commend him on the political skills that he has used to navigate the Bill through the Executive and the Assembly.
In the context of exporting Northern Ireland's responsibilities for producing its own food in Northern Ireland — food that meets the need here and in other parts of the United Kingdom — is it not more important than ever, at a time of political uncertainty, that we have food security in Northern Ireland and food produced in Northern Ireland rather than being dependent on other nations? Whether it is about getting the right foods for Northern Ireland or, indeed, reducing carbon emissions, we should not franchise that responsibility out to nations like Russia and other parts of the world whose values are not in keeping with the values that we share in Northern Ireland. The Bill strikes the right balance between meeting environmental needs and ensuring economic and food security.
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for raising that issue. He is absolutely right about that. Ms Bailey talks so much about the problems in sub-Saharan Africa and other places. Those problems are here today, Ms Bailey. Maybe you do not realise that there is a massive problem in sub-Saharan Africa. When tenders for product are put out there, people do not respond. Tell that to the 120 million people in Egypt who are looking for food. They tender for that food, but there are no responses, and that is because there will be a shortage of food as a consequence of what is going on in Russia and Ukraine and food supply is already finely balanced. The policy that Ms Bailey wants this country to adopt is to produce less food. I say that that policy is mad. We have a growing number of people living in the world, and any policy under which you produce less food for that growing number of people is not a policy that any rational, sensible Parliament, Assembly or person should want to adopt.
The Member mentioned soil quality, but we are already ahead of the game. Planes and drones are out at this moment doing lidar mapping of Northern Ireland, and around 60% of that has already been achieved. We are already lidar mapping all of Northern Ireland so that we can see what is going on underneath the ground. We have a scheme over the next four years to analyse all the soils in Northern Ireland so that the appropriate nutrients to support food production can be introduced. We did not need legislation to do that; we needed common sense. That is being done.
Ms Bailey has always been critical of this DUP Environment Minister, but I have always said that, while the legislation gives us a framework, the green growth strategy gives us the engine and the transmission to drive all this forward. I stand to be corrected, so I will be happy to take an intervention, but I have yet to hear Ms Bailey complain that Mr Murphy did not give substantial enough support to deliver green growth and to deliver on the environmental agenda in Northern Ireland. She can quickly criticise the DUP Minister, but she is reluctant to criticise a Sinn Féin Minister. She can answer for that, although I note that she has not.
The Member also referred to the agri-food sector as the highest-emitting sector — not the highest-employing sector but the highest-emitting sector. That is how she looks at the agri-food sector. I recognise —.
Ms Bailey: Will the Minister give way on that point?
Mr Poots: I was just about to respond on that, so the question did not need to be asked. I recognise that the agriculture and agri-food sector emits around 27% of carbon emissions. It has reduced its emissions over the years, but it has not reduced as much as some other sectors have. The energy sector's move from coal to gas production has helped significantly. As a consequence of things that are happening now, there is some movement back to coal, which is hugely regrettable. That regression is taking place because of circumstances that are beyond anybody's control. The agri-food sector is looking at the challenges and will meet them, but that needs to be done in a timely and constructive manner.
I mentioned where I was this morning and the opportunities that are to be derived from anaerobic digestion. Instead of doing away with cows, we can capture more of the methane that cows produce and use it to heat people's homes and run vehicles. How is that not a logical solution for a food-producing country? How is it a better idea to grow thistles and weeds, which, by the way, does not help biodiversity, than to grow grass, grain and protein crops? There are opportunities to do more of those things.
I understand where Mr Allister is coming from. There will be a herd reduction as a result of the Bill, but that does not mean that there has to be a reduction in agricultural output. There are opportunities to grow alternative crops, including protein crops and foods such as kale, spinach and wild rice. Those things may seem far-reaching, but, over the next number of years, we will be looking seriously at crops like those in order to ensure that we can continue with food production in a significant way. There will be alterations, and I and the farming community accept and understand that.
Anaerobic digestion gives significant opportunities in horticulture because of the heat that is produced as well as the electricity. Many significant opportunities can be derived from growing crops like tomatoes, horticultural plants and so forth because we will be able to produce power and energy from animal nutrients and cattle slurry etc.
Mr Allister: I thank the Minister for giving way. Does his Department have an estimate of the extent of herd reduction that the Bill will produce?
Mr Poots: The Climate Change Committee has given advice on that. It is different from what it would have been under the 82% target. Given that we have adopted the 46% methane target, the reduction will perhaps be less than what it would have been under the 82% target. Nonetheless, significant opportunities can be developed by the agri-food sector. Nothing stays the same: things change. We have built up a large dairy and chicken sector, in particular, over the past 30 years, and some of that will change. However, we will ensure that there is an opportunity for people to continue to live and work in the countryside and maintain the agri-food sector. Therefore, I can support the Bill in its current form.
Ms Bailey: I thank the Minister for giving way. I also thank him for the talk on the future of farming. Obviously, that is an area in which he is very well versed, being a farmer himself.
Minister, given that you are talking about emissions, can you indicate, for example, how many of our areas of special scientific interest or special areas of conservation are breaching the ammonia limits?
Mr Poots: Ms Bailey does not like to give me any credit for anything, but under my tutelage, and as a result of decisions that I have taken in the Executive, that will be reduced by 25%. I imagine that not many others would have been able to deliver such a significant reduction — 25% — in another Department in two years on something to do with the environment. I will accept any praise that she might have for that reduction in ammonia and for the proposals that I am putting together to further reduce ammonia emissions. That is important.
Mr Muir made an issue of my not moving amendment Nos 57 and 58. Mr Blair has, I believe, written to me on that issue as well. The purpose of amendment Nos 57 and 58, which I tabled at Further Consideration Stage, was to replace the content of what are now clauses 13 to 22 — clauses 12 to 21 prior to the Further Consideration Stage — and link it to the requirements on the production of climate action plans. That would have helped to ensure that the provisions in the Bill on sectoral plans were clear and effective and were applied and administered efficiently.
The reason why amendment Nos 57 and 58 were not moved is that the amendments to remove clauses 12 to 21 were not selected for the Marshalled List. Therefore, there was no point in moving amendment Nos 57 and 58. Notwithstanding that, I have indicated that the view of officials is that there are no legislative competence issues with respect to clauses 13 to 22. There are certainly issues with the wording of the provisions, which could have and would have been improved if all my relevant amendments had been selected, voted on and agreed. However, the purpose of the subsidiary power contained in amendment No 57 was to provide flexibility to enable the targets to be more precisely delineated. It was never stated or implied in any correspondence from my Department that the power was required to make clauses 12 to 21 — now clauses 13 to 22 — operable or that they would be outside competence without them.
Of course, the most significant and concerning aspect of the clauses on the sectoral plans and associated targets is the inclusion of the aspirational target, which does not align with the recently agreed Executive targets and has the potential to be hugely costly on delivery. I assure Members that I and the Department are committed to ensuring the full implementation of the Bill's provisions once they are passed into law.
It is my privilege to make this winding-up speech. I thank Members for their support and commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill [NIA 28/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Chambers: I beg to introduce the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill, which is a Bill to make provision for the preservation of documents relating to certain institutions and residents of those institutions between 1922 and 1995, and to certain children of those residents.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
That the Integrated Education Bill [NIA 23/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.
Ms Armstrong: The Final Stage of a Bill is the last debate when the House discusses why a Bill should or should not pass. We have already debated at length the content and detail of the Bill, so there is no need to rehash amendments won and lost. In keeping with convention, I will take the opportunity to say a few words of thanks to those who have helped me along the way: in the private Member's Bill unit, James Gilsenan and Denise Morgan; in the Bill Office, Caroline Perry, who has been instrumental in making sure the Bill has got this far; in the Education Committee, the Chair, Chris Lyttle, the Clerk, Aoibhinn Treanor, and all the members; the political parties and members who have taken time to engage; the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE); the Integrated Education Fund (IEF); AlumNI; the Association of Principals in Integrated Schools (APTIS); and everyone who took the time to respond to my consultation or to the Education Committee's consultation.
Mr Speaker, I thank you and your office. There have been 36 hours of debate, so far, with some very long sittings for your team. I appreciate the professionalism that has been maintained throughout the process. Of course, I thank Alex and Roisin in the Business Office for all their help and advice. I thank Daniel Greenberg, who drafted the consequential amendments when the Minister decided not to progress the amendments prepared by the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC). The drafting of the Bill was done by a professional, leading draftsperson. Indeed, Mr Greenberg was one of the drafters of the Good Friday Agreement. It was a privilege to have his professional input. I also thank Fiona McAteer — she will very cross at me for mentioning her name — who, with me, has lived with the Bill from day 1. I do not think that I have ever heard another policy officer mentioned so much in the Chamber. Fiona's intelligence, diligence and ability to work with others have been outstanding, and I thank her very much for all her time. Finally, I thank my family, both my Alliance family and Barry and Sophia, for putting up with me for the past six years.
I believe in a shared society, free from intimidation, discrimination and fear, where everyone is safe, can play their part and is treated fairly and with respect. I believe in a society for everyone. That is why, when the opportunity arose to support integrated education through a private Member's Bill, I felt that it was time to turn words into actions.
Integrated education was enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement as being:
"An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education".
The agreement placed a duty on the Department of Education to "facilitate and encourage integrated education". Integrated education is part of our peace process, It is a vehicle for change. I am aware that it is not the panacea to fix all that is wrong with our education system, or even with Northern Ireland itself, but having more young people growing up together and being educated together will help to move Northern Ireland forward.
Dr Matthew Milliken of the School of Education UNESCO Centre at Ulster University said:
"Around 93% of children in Northern Ireland attend schools that are largely segregated along religious/ethnic lines. It has been calculated that as much as £1bn may have been spent over the last decade on educational initiatives that seek to address the implications of this segregation."
The main aim of the Integrated Education Bill is to allow parents to have a preference for the type of school that they want to send their child or children to. Across Northern Ireland, some areas do not have an integrated school, so parents and children have no choice, and, in many areas, lots of integrated schools are oversubscribed, which means, again, that parents who want to send their child to an integrated school are denied that opportunity. Their children then go to a controlled or maintained school. That does not happen to parents who choose a maintained or controlled school. If they choose that type of school, their child will go to it. There will always be an option for controlled and maintained schools. There is not the same opportunity for people who want to go to integrated schools or, indeed, to Irish-medium schools. The Integrated Education Bill adds to the duty to "encourage and facilitate" by placing a statutory duty on the Department of Education to support integrated education, to assess parental preference and to produce a strategy and action plan to aim to meet the demand for integrated education.
Mr Allister: Is that not the very territory that takes the Bill into the creation of supremacy for one sector over another? Is there another sector where there is a statutory duty to "encourage, facilitate and support"? There is not. The Member knows that. The only sector with that statutory duty will be the integrated sector. Therein lies the supremacy that the Member is trying to create for that sector to the disadvantage of others. That is confirmed by the fact that she voted down the amendment to ensure that there would be no adverse financial consequences for other sectors.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Member, but there has been a duty to "encourage and facilitate" integrated education over the past number of years. Look where that got us.
The Bill adds to the duty to "encourage and facilitate" by placing a statutory duty on the Department for Education to support integrated education, to assess parental preference and to produce a strategy and action plan to aim to meet the demand for integrated education. Why is that needed? It is needed because, after 40 years of integrated education, only 7% of the pupil population attends integrated education, and there are only 68 schools, soon to be 69 with Bangor Central Nursery School opening as an integrated school in September 2022. That will be 69 out of 1,091 schools in Northern Ireland. It is a minority in the number of schools and a minority of pupils.
Whether others like it or not, integrated education is one of the four sectors in Northern Ireland. Integrated education is a stand-alone concept. Every integrated school has had to meet the legal processes required under the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 before the Department of Education has legally recognised it as either a controlled integrated school or a grant-maintained integrated school.
The Bill's long title clearly states that it makes:
"provision about integrated education; and for connected purposes."
It references no other sectors, because there are planning authorities for controlled and maintained schools that carry out those functions for those schools.
The Bill allows a coherent policy direction for integrated education, meaning that the sector will not have to rely on the political position of the Minister of the day. There are those who say that the Bill is flawed because they do not want it, but it is positive and progressive legislation. I ask all Members in the House to support the provision of integrated education by voting for my private Member's Bill today.
Mr Sheehan: I welcome the opportunity to speak at Final Stage of the Integrated Education Bill. I commend the Bill sponsor for bringing the Bill this far. I also thank her and her staff, particularly Fiona McAteer, for the constructive engagement that we had with them throughout the Bill's passage. It has been useful to us and, no doubt, created a situation of trust and transparency between the two teams, for which I thank the Bill sponsor and her team.
There is a lot of hysteria and misrepresentation going around about the Bill. It is effectively being portrayed as a hostile takeover of two massive multinationals by a very small company. I heard Jeffrey Donaldson on the radio this morning say:
"93% of pupils... are going to be... disadvantaged by this Bill."
What utter nonsense. That is not even true, and it does not come anywhere near the truth. If people want to have a constructive debate about the Bill, they should do so. If they have issues with it, they should outline those issues. Talking about supremacy is just arrant nonsense.
Mr Sheehan: No, I will not give way to you, Mr Allister. You are only a messer. I will give way to anyone who wants to have a constructive discussion on this, but I am not giving way to messers. [Interruption.]
Mr Sheehan: I even heard a former member of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) on the radio last night discussing the Bill and saying that there was a presumption in one of the clauses that every new school would be an integrated school. We all know that that was in the Bill as introduced, but it was removed at a very early stage. In fact, the Bill sponsor acknowledged that that clause was problematic and that she needed to change it — at Second Stage she said that she was going to change it — yet here we had on the radio last night the former head of the CCMS, who knows every intimate detail of our education system here, saying that. That person either has not kept up to speed with the passage of the Bill or is deliberately misrepresenting what is in the Bill at Final Stage. That is unacceptable, yet it is politicians who get a bad name: I ask you.
One of the issues that I have with the opponents of the Bill is that not one of them has come forward to suggest an alternative. I have made the point in the House that, if parents want to send their child to the maintained sector or the controlled sector, they will inevitably get their child into that sector. Children may not necessarily get their first-preference school, but they will definitely get into either of those sectors. That is not the case with the integrated sector or the Irish-medium sector.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank Mr Sheehan for giving way. He said that he has not heard an alternative. What about waiting for the report and the recommendations from the independent review of education?
Mr Sheehan: I agree that that is a relatively strong argument, but we know how long those reports take, and we know about the difficulty with implementing reports. How many reports are sitting on dusty shelves in the Education Department and others? The independent review of education is unlikely to complete a report in less than two years. Are we going to continue waiting?
Mr Nesbitt: I appreciate Mr Sheehan's indulgence. The Ulster Unionist Party has been waiting for 101 years for a single education system. We have the patience to wait.
Mr Sheehan: Perhaps if the Ulster Unionist Party, at the inception of the state, had created an education system that was going to be fair and culturally diverse, we would not have had to wait that long. That is the fundamental flaw in the education system here.
What is happening here is not that a sector is being given an advantage but that the integrated sector will be brought up on an equal footing to the other sectors, so that, if a parent wants to send a child to an integrated school, they will be able to do so. The Department will have to produce a strategy to meet the demand for integrated education. That is what this is about. It is not about creating an advantage or creating disadvantages but about creating a level playing pitch. For that reason, Sinn Féin and I support the Bill.
Mrs Dodds: I have said many times during debates on the Bill in the House that we all want to see a Northern Ireland that is more prosperous and more peaceful where we can move forward together as one community. We want to see a society where we value education as a means to get a good job, provide for our family and have a decent standard of living, irrespective of our religious, social or political background. We want a society that is fairer, more inclusive and more equal. We want a society where our children are educated together, can play together and, ultimately, go to work together.
In saying all of those things, I am not blind to the need for change in our education system. There are huge issues to be addressed, including underachievement, funding gaps, vocational education, inequality in accessing education and addressing the skills deficit in our economy. The Bill will address none of those fundamental issues. In many cases, it will serve only to exacerbate the current problems in our system. The Bill is about one sector in our education system and one sector only, a sector that accounts for approximately 7% of the school population. The Bill fundamentally ensures —.
Mrs Dodds: I will in a moment, when I make a bit of progress.
The Bill fundamentally ensures that the Minister of Education will have additional duties in law towards the integrated sector that are simply not there for the maintained and controlled sectors. Added to the duties to encourage and facilitate, integrated education will have the pleasure of the duty to support it. Clauses 4 and 5 set out the duty to support and its meaning in terms of funding and additional need now and in the future. There is no requirement in law on the Department to adhere to any of those duties when addressing the needs of any other sector in the education system in Northern Ireland. It will be unique to the integrated sector.
Clause 9 requires the Department to publish a plan for the integrated sector. That plan must include targets and benchmarks. It must include the identification of resources to encourage, facilitate and support integrated education. The Bill states that it must also:
"quantify funding commitments and identify respective resources ... (including resources for facilitating the establishment of new integrated schools, the expansion of existing integrated schools and the transformation of existing schools into integrated schools".
The Department of Education is not required to bring that forward for any other part of the education system, and an amendment to try to make it more even was not accepted by the House. Therefore, I view the Bill as being fundamentally flawed.
Many in the House claim that the Bill is about children being educated together. The Bill, fundamentally, is about one sector of education — the integrated sector — and fails to acknowledge that children are educated together in other schools and other sectors. I want to read, for the record of the House, an email that I received from a primary school in my constituency:
"I am the principal of Carrick Primary School, Lurgan. The school has 500 children, with three learning support centres, two speech-and-language centres. The school is diverse, with 23 languages and a variety of religious backgrounds. Out of those 500 children, 147 are newcomer children to Northern Ireland, children of Syrian refugees and of those who have come to live and work amongst us. Children are educated together and valued for who they are and how special each one of the children is within the school. I am writing with concern in relation to the Bill for integrated education. I would firstly state I support children being educated together. However, I believe the Bill will ultimately discriminate against schools like Carrick, where there is such a diverse population."
That school, where there are pupils from a range of backgrounds, where there is a wide mix of religions and, most importantly, where children are valued for who they are, by the Bill's standards, is not integrated and would not benefit from the Bill's benefits. In fact, it would be disadvantaged in terms of places and funding. That is where the Bill leaves us. That is a terrible legacy to leave for children in Northern Ireland.
Mrs Dodds: I will give way in a moment or two, but I want to make this point.
Members should ask themselves this: how will this promote a fair and equal society? How are those children, parents and teachers meant to feel when they see that level of priority bestowed on one school and one sector but not their school or their sector?
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Member for giving way. She mentioned that only 7% of pupils would benefit from this because only 7% were in integrated schools. Her argument is that this will give supremacy to one sector. Will she accept that, if one sector represents only 7% of the school population or of schools, that is, by definition, unequal and that seeking to promote and grow that sector is hardly an unreasonable aim in that context?
Mrs Dodds: The Member makes a valid point, in that it is not unreasonable to aim to grow the sector; in fact, the sector, for a number of years, has enjoyed advantages that were not part of any other sector. The Department already had to encourage and facilitate integrated education. The addition of the word "support", which comes with huge beneficiary implications, is very different indeed for the sector.
We will not create a society that is more equal and fairer by giving one sector more than the other. That is a fundamental thing for the House to consider when it comes to the fairness and inclusivity of the Bill.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Member very much for giving way. Does she agree that the definition of integration in the Bill does not take away from the fact that integrated schools can be created only through the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989? That is not talked about in the Bill; it is kept as it is. The Member talked about all the integrated schools, but the Department of Education's legislation defines what an integrated school is and when it can legally be called an integrated school.
Mrs Dodds: The Member has made that point on a number of occasions in the debates that we have constantly had in the Chamber.
One thing that we should remember about the Bill and from the Member's statements more generally — the Member and I have engaged not only in the House but across many media outlets in the past days — is that there is a view that children and schools can be fully integrated only if they are in the integrated sector. In many ways, I find that an intolerance that is difficult to fathom.
Mr Allister: Is the Member surprised that the Bill sponsor does not seem to know her own Bill? Her last intervention is totally contradicted by clause 1(3), which says that subsections (1) and (2), which provide for her new definition of integrated education, "apply for the purposes of" the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. The very thing that she denied to the Member is there in black and white.
Mrs Dodds: We could dispute that all day, but what I am really concerned about is the kind of divisiveness that the Bill will engender, not only now but going forward. What we have is a Bill that supports and gives benefits only to one part of the education system. I find that intolerant in the extreme, particularly from a party that tells me that it opposes labels and stereotypes. A sign above the door does not define the level of integration in a school, as is well proved by Carrick Primary School in Lurgan.
I have received a huge number of emails, letters and phone calls about the Bill. Many parents and teachers are quite distraught that their meagre level of resources could forever stay stagnant or, worst of all, be redirected in order to comply with the demands of the Bill. As uncomfortable as it is for many in the Chamber, my party and I are not willing to allow that to proceed unchallenged. Standing quietly by or meekly acquiescing to a Bill that disadvantages and devalues the overwhelming majority of our pupils and our schools is not something that I am prepared to do.
Many accusations have been levelled at those of us who are willing to challenge the Bill. Sinn Féin thinks that it is not very progressive to challenge the Bill and to use every means at our disposal to defeat the Bill. Note to Sinn Féin: it is not at all progressive to support legislation that would disadvantage 93% of our school population. Pat Sheehan talked about a "hostile takeover". Probably, the gentleman knows a lot about attempted hostile takeovers. However, this is not a game that we are playing; this is about real children, real people's lives and the future of our schools in Northern Ireland.
Others in the Chamber throw up their hands in horror at the use of a petition of concern (POC) in the context of the Integrated Education Bill. I repeat for the record — I have said it many times — that integrated schools are excellent, and I will continue to support the sector and the parents and children who make the choice that an integrated school is the right school to meet their needs.
The Bill is not about the education of children together. If it were, it would be a much wider Bill, and it would encompass those sectors that already educate children together. The Bill is about the enhancement of one sector of education. I note that its sponsor is nodding her head shamelessly. It is about giving one sector a significant advantage in law that is not available to any other. The Bill is not about levelling the playing field. As I said before, I will not stand by and see 93% of our schoolchildren disadvantaged. They are children who deserve the best, many of whom come with special needs and social and educational disadvantage.
There is another group in the Chamber today: those who know that the Bill is flawed and that it will disadvantage children in their communities. Those in that group are willing to vote against the Bill but do not have the backbone to stop it. To be honest, theirs is the worst of all situations. They are scared of political opponents and scared of the great and the good. Although worried about the impact on schools, children and young people, they are unwilling to stand up for them.
The time has come to take a brave stand, and the stakes could not be higher. I urge those who have expressed their deep concerns about the Bill, publicly and privately, to show the courage of their convictions: put the interests of our pupils and schools first, and stop bad legislation from becoming law. The people of Northern Ireland — pupils, parents, teachers and your constituents — are watching, and they will take a dim view of those who fail to protect them, their schools and the interests of their communities. The decision that we take today will have long and lasting consequences, and there is no excuse for inaction.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the sponsor of the Bill for her opening remarks.
I grew up in Strabane, and every aspect of my life has been shared and naturally integrated. I am a great-grandson of two people from very different religious, political and educational backgrounds. They found each other, married and had a family of 13, and they have 47 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren. That huge family circle has been built on true, natural integration. Strabane, as a place, had a very difficult time, and any difficulties were eroded by the building of relationships and trust.
Throughout my education, my parents made a decision that their children would attend the local school, which, they felt, was the best school to meet my needs and those of my siblings. I grew up my entire life beside people who were from different political and religious backgrounds and who lived in different communities. It never once came to the fore of my mind that they were in any way different from me. That is a key component of how I developed as an individual.
The school that I attended was naturally integrated. It worked tirelessly, every day, to erode difficult relationships, bring people together and ensure that children could thrive, grow and learn together. That is the vision that I want for this place, and, indeed, that is the vision that my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents had for their families.
We support educating our children together, and we want to see our children being educated together, but we have to recognise that that does not stop or start at the school gates. Unfortunately, in many parts of Northern Ireland, although children are naturally educated together, they go home to their own communities, where they are entirely isolated from each other. They may not see each other away from the school gates. That happens. We need to erode the segregation in our communities and to absolutely erode it in our schools.
We in the SDLP have always been committed to all our children having the opportunity to be educated in a genuinely sustainable, world-class education system. That remains our objective. We strive to build an education system that not only promotes the highest academic standards but enables every child to reach the limits of their potential so that they can become caring and contributing members of our society. We desire the very best pastoral support for our children and young people in striving towards that goal. We backed fully all the recent well-being initiatives that were brought forward by various Departments in order to improve our children's education and well-being.
We in the SDLP have also been very clear throughout this process that we want to see greater support for the integrated sector. Does the Bill do that? The SDLP fully supported the Executive's decision, as part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, to commission an independent review of our education system. That is supported across the House and is a process that my colleagues in the SDLP and I have engaged with thoroughly. We look forward to the report that the review will produce and recognise that it may have recommendations that require legislative change, even to some of the matters in the Bill that we are considering today.
We have spent months and months on the Bill, working day and night. No Committee has met to deal with a Bill as often as the Education Committee has met to deal with this Bill to see how we can progress it. Unfortunately, there are issues with the Bill. I am on record many times stating that from the outset of the process. For instance, it does not demonstrate how it can contribute to creating more sustainable schools across the entire school estate. I have raised those concerns repeatedly. Those are very big concerns of mine, but, hopefully, the independent review will address them and create a comprehensive picture of what we ought to do about them.
The SDLP also noted some concern about the failure of the sponsor to consult, at the earliest possible stages, with all the parties whose sector or mode of operation stand to be significantly impacted by the Bill. That omission presented various problems at the Education Committee that are clearly stated on record. We expressed concerns that were shared with us by various sectors, including the CCMS, the controlled sector, the Education Authority (EA) and the Department. We had engagement with quite a number of other stakeholders. We have been the bridge-builders, trying to find solutions in order to ensure that we improve the Bill to get it to a level that is satisfactory and does not disadvantage other children.
Furthermore, the Bill lacks commitments to have high academic and pastoral standards and to tackle underachievement, particularly when it is ambitious enough to redefine integrated education.
Again, that is something that we raise continually in the House.
The excellent report of the expert panel on educational underachievement led by Dr Purdy, which is also a product of the New Decade, New Approach commitments, has presented us with the opportunity to be world leaders in that sphere. That opening is not to be missed, and all education sectors should be fully signed up to the report's recommendations.
Central to the SDLP's vision for education is the notion of parental choice. Parents must be allowed to select the school that they believe best meets their child's needs, and we welcome all opportunities to promote parental choice in that regard. That includes the right of parents to opt for integrated education, which has been put forward strongly in the Bill. With that in mind, I will move directly to the Bill to outline some of the other concerns.
The SDLP fully subscribes to the principle of children being educated together and is fully supportive of the policy of parental choice. However, from the outset — I will not fill this full of bluster — the Bill has had difficulties. It has not gone without notice that the short Bill was subject to over 100 proposed amendments. That is testimony, in itself, to some of the difficulties in relation to whether it had been competently drafted. Furthermore, legal advice from several directions pointed to serious drafting problems, which has given parties cause for concern that the sound legislative threshold that is necessary for successful passage through the Assembly had not been met. The fear of unintended consequences should not be taken lightly, nor should the potential for a significant number of various judicial reviews.
Indeed, of the amendments that were proposed, the SDLP tabled 25 and moved 18, which were successful.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for giving way. He has said that the Bill will surely be subject to a number of judicial reviews. Why on earth, then, is the SDLP supporting the Bill? Despite all the difficulties that the Member has outlined, I suspect that there is a great big "but" coming.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Member for her intervention. I am sure that she will know from her long experience of dealing with the legislative process that every piece of legislation that comes through the House can be subject to judicial review. The Bill is no different. Every piece of legislation that comes through the House can have a particular issue for an individual who has every right to bring forward a judicial review. I am merely pointing out that there are obvious areas where that may be the case.
Through the amendments that my party tabled throughout the process and through engagement with the sponsor, who was very engaging with me, my SDLP colleagues and the Education Committee, we have sought to bring greater clarity of thought to some of the clauses and a measure of protection to various sectors along the way, particularly Irish-medium schools and shared education. The Bill is, without doubt, in better shape now that it was when it was introduced. That comes on to the point that Mr Sheehan raised. I, too, have received a huge number of letters, emails and phone calls, and I have held meetings with various principals, educators and parents. The narrative that is being put into the public domain today does not reflect the Bill that is sitting in front of us today. Instead, it reflects the Bill that we started with, which members of the Education Committee worked with the sponsor on to help get into much better shape.
Mr McCrossan: I will in a second.
That is why I raise, in particular, the issue with the Irish-medium sector. It was clear that the Bill would create a conflicting statutory duty on the Department of Education as it already had a statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education. The SDLP's amendment was a small but significant one for Irish-language schools, and it remains to be seen whether that it will address all the issues that may emerge when the Bill's provisions are rolled out in an Act. Still, the SDLP considers that to be an essential step, and will have no fear of returning to the House to seek fresh redress on behalf of the Irish-medium sector should there be good cause to do so. We stand for equality and a desire to see all our children treated as equals. I will give way to Mr Humphrey.
Mr Humphrey: Thank you very much. Only last night, I had a conversation with the chair of a board of governors. I have also met school teachers and principals. Quite frankly, I am rather perturbed by what the Member is saying. Is he seriously suggesting to the House that those school principals, teachers, governors, chairs of boards of governors and many parents who have concerns and who have written to me cannot follow the passage of the Bill through the House and are not up to speed? Is that what he is saying?
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Member for trying to put words in my mouth. That is not what I said. What I said was that, largely, the correspondence that I have received refers to the Bill as presented, not the Bill that is in my hand today. There have been significant changes to the Bill. The Member shakes his head, but his Minister will know that I have worked tirelessly to reshape elements of the Bill to make it much more practical and acceptable.
Mr McCrossan: I would keep it down, but I am a bit fed up with the Member and others on the Benches trying to create a very different narrative from the reality. Legislation is not rigid; it is fluid. It is there to be shaped by our working together collectively to improve it. People have different opinions on how legislation should progress and what should be included in it.
Shared education is an essential programme open to every school in this jurisdiction. By contrast, changes favouring integrated education will currently benefit only 7%. I know that the Member wants that figure to improve considerably, as does the SDLP. It is essential that we have a vibrant and fully supported shared education programme. That will enable integrated schools to work with and partner with controlled, maintained, Irish-medium and voluntary schools on a equal footing to share best practice and contribute to community cohesion. Our amendment protects the resources flowing to some of those programmes.
Even after so many changes, flaws in the proposed legislation remain. That is widely acknowledged around the House. No one will stand and say, "This is the perfect piece of legislation". Following Further Consideration Stage, it has become clear — I have made this point — that a growing number of people believe that other sectors may be adversely affected by the Bill's outworkings and equality issues that are increasingly coming to the fore. However, I know from conversations and direct engagement with those who had concerns that those concerns have since been alleviated to a significant extent by the Bill as it currently sits. They are not happy with it in its entirety, but it is a better Bill than it was at the start.
Concerns have also been expressed about whether the Bill has been subject to an equality impact assessment. The SDLP is very clear that children are all equal in our eyes. Indeed, we consider that every child is our child. With that in mind, and to alleviate growing concerns, we believe that the equality concerns recently expressed should be factored into the workings of the independent review of education. It is clear to us that the Bill must not restrict the deliberations of the independent review. That review should be free to look at all aspects of the Bill, including the equality implications, with a view to making recommendations that may require legislative change in future.
Mr McCrossan: I will in a wee minute. I just want to make this point, and it is a critical point. If we have concerns about aspects of the Bill, and the outworkings of the Bill prove to be as bad as some say they will be, surely Members on the opposite Benches would be very keen to see an Executive re-established to ensure that we can fix some of the issues that may arise further down the line and that, by working together, we can work through some of those challenges. I would like to think that Members in the House genuinely want to see our children educated together and to get an entire process in place through legislation that is totally and absolutely fit for purpose, but that does not disadvantage other sectors.
As a party, we have done our best to fix an imperfect Bill. I have found the process very frustrating, very arduous and full of challenge and hurdle, but we have all gone through that process. Each party has worked with various stakeholders and sectors to seek out their concerns and try to remedy them via amendments and to work with the sponsor to get a Bill that was fit for purpose. In fairness to the sponsor, she met us at every opportunity when we requested her to do so.
I will give way.
Mrs Dodds: Thank you. The Member has spent a considerable time saying that some of the concerns — I will put it no stronger than that — that those he met had with the Bill have now, largely, been assuaged. I wonder whether the Member read the letter of 3 March, just a few days ago, from a range of stakeholders, that stated:
"We believe this flawed legislation is not fit for purpose and will educationally disadvantage over 90% of children and young people."
That came from CCMS, the controlled sector and a range of other stakeholders.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Member for citing that piece of correspondence. I, too, received that correspondence, and there has never been an example of sectors coming together in such a way to share concerns. I have said time and time again throughout my contribution that I am very well aware of concerns, all of them.
I am also aware that, in direct conversation with some stakeholders, some of those concerns — some of them — have been alleviated. The Bill is focused on integrated education and educating children together but, in particular, on the integrated education sector. However, if people believe that we are going to be able to craft a Bill that is to the pleasing of absolutely every person, that is not going to happen. The reality is that we have to shape legislation to make it fit for purpose to ensure that concerns are addressed.
I have been honest throughout the process about having concerns about the Bill. However, I am also honest in saying that I want to see our children educated together. What I do not want to see is any detriment to the other sectors, which have spent many years in bringing our children together, naturally integrating them and breaking down and eroding barriers. That has happened in the controlled sector, it has happened in the maintained sector, it is happening in the Irish-medium sector and it absolutely has been happening, obviously, with the integrated sector.
That said, the SDLP is fully committed to the integrated sector being fairly treated, and we desire parental choice for all. Therefore, I will be writing to the independent review panel, as I have continued to do throughout the last number of months, asking whether it will bring forward its findings as soon as possible, including recommendations to ensure that the integrated sector has its full and proper place in the education of our children, recognised and underpinned with appropriate legislation that promotes equality of opportunity for all children and young people.
If we were to start this all over again, would we start here? Would children be educated separately? No, they would not, but we are where we are. I do not want to see legislation that would damage other sectors, and I am very certain that is not the intention of the sponsor, but I want to see good legislation that will have a direct, meaningful and positive impact on eroding the clear barriers that exist in some elements of our education system.
I started by outlining that I am a product of a naturally integrated education system, of a family that has shared and integrated naturally throughout. I was thinking about that this morning. I am an uncle of a young child whose father is South African, whose mother is Irish, who was born in London and attended the local gaelscoil in Strabane. We in my family, my community — this community — want to see those barriers eroded, but we want to see good legislation to ensure that it can happen.
The Bill is a step forward. There are concerns. The SDLP is well on the record, throughout the process, stating those concerns.
It is not a perfect Bill, but we cannot stomp on the Bill sponsor's foot for that. We need to shape the legislation, move it forward and ensure that we erode the very clear barriers that have existed.
I commend the other sectors — the Catholic maintained sector, the controlled sector; the Irish-medium sector and the voluntary sector — for the work that they have done over a very long time. I also thank them for engaging with me and sharing their concerns. Hopefully, I have alleviated some of the significant concerns that they had.
Mr Beattie: It is always great in these debates to reflect on one's own education and on how one was brought up. A lot of my education as a young man took place in England, Scotland and Wales, and it was integrated education in every facet. We had no idea what religion even was during my formative years.
When I came back to live in Northern Ireland, I went to Hart Memorial Primary School and Clounagh Junior High School, which are both in the controlled sector, and, again, there was genuine mixing. I never had a concern, and those were integrated schools in all but name. I then went to Portadown Technical College, as it was called then. I spent my last two years in education there. I was disenfranchised, and, when I stepped out of education, I left with no qualifications. Throughout my whole education in the controlled sector, I engaged with all people and all religions. The sector was integrated in all but name, and that is exactly what we should have had.
When I came back here and got into politics, I started looking at how we educate our people. It is great to see Diane and John here, who understand the Dickson plan. For those who do not, there is a bit of reading for them to do to try to understand what it is all about.
Portadown Technical College that I went to is now Craigavon Senior High School. It is split across two campuses, with one in Portadown and one in Lurgan. At the Lurgan campus, kids have to eat their packed lunch between parked cars, because there are no facilities for them. I have been hammering on for years and years about getting that fixed.
Mr Speaker, thank you for showing latitude by allowing me to go off on a slight tangent. My point is that sometimes change is good. Sometimes, however, change does not work, so we have to manage it and may have to change it again. As it stands, the Bill may need to be changed in the next mandate.
The Ulster Unionist Party has supported a single education system since 1921 —
Ms Bradshaw: I thank the Member for giving way. My point is on his commentary about the school estate. Does he agree with me that all sectors are in need of more capital build and refurbishment funding?
Mr Beattie: Absolutely. I do not disagree with that. That is a different point from mine. My point was that Portadown Technical College changed to Craigavon Senior High School, yet that change did not work. Sometimes, change does not work, and we have to reflect on it. That is probably where we are at, but you are absolutely right.
I was saying that the Ulster Unionist Party has supported a single education system since 1921, with a single curriculum, in which all our children are educated together, regardless of their religion or background. Do you know what we would call it? We would call it "education". That is what we wanted. I hope that the independent review of education will seriously look at that for the future, but the Bill that we are talking about does not do that. It does not create that. It simply adds to the pitting of one sector against others. It is not a levelling-up.
We tried to make amendments to fix the problems that we saw in the Bill so that no one sector would be affected, but they were declined. Those amendments would have fixed an awful lot of the problems that we face. Moreover, the Bill sponsor has failed spectacularly to bring the stakeholders along with her. Clearly, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Controlled Schools' Support Council (CSSC), the Governing Bodies Association (GBA), the Catholic Schools' Trustee Service (CSTS) and the Transferor Representatives’ Council (TRC) are all opposed to it.
Mr Beattie: Just one minute.
What we have set here is genuine panic. It is not deliberate, but there is genuine panic in the maintained and controlled sectors. There is genuine panic among principals, teachers and parents, and we have set that panic going. I will give way.
Mr O'Toole: I very much appreciate the Member's giving way. I want to go back to what he said about the single education system and link that to what he has just said about sectors being panicked and disliking the Bill. If he wants to create, as I think we all do in theory, a genuinely single education system that will inherently be an integrated education system that unites all the sectors, will he accept that, in order to do that, you will, by definition, have to put some noses out of joint in the controlled schools, in the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and, indeed, in every other body that, by definition, has an interest, to some extent, in the continuation of the status quo? You cannot have a single education system while keeping happy absolutely every interest group. Does he accept that?
Mr Beattie: Yes, of course I accept it, and that is why we debate in a good manner and understand each other's points of view. However, I started that with a bit of commentary about how I was in the controlled sector and how it was naturally integrated. It just did not have the name "integrated sector". It was integrated schools that I went to.
This Bill has ended up as a poor Bill, and we have tried to engage with it at every single level. I thank the Bill sponsor for her engagement — she really has engaged — and my spokesperson on education, Robbie Butler, has done his best to try to make this work. However, it has not worked, and we have panic out there. The Bill is misunderstood, and we have not brought the stakeholders with us. If we had stopped and taken time to bring those stakeholders with us, I do not think that we would be having —
Mr Beattie: Just a minute.
— the dramas that we are having now.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member accept that it is, at times, the job of leaders to respond to panic rather than promote panic? Can he provide a few points of detail on what he thinks the panic is about?
Mr Beattie: It is like everything. Stopping panic is about not creating it in the first place. That is the fundamental problem. The details are that the people out there who run the different sectors of our education system do not fully understand some of the issues that we are dealing with. I know the fair intent of the Bill, but if we do not bring those people with us and they are lost, there must be a regain somewhere with regard to this. That is what I wanted to see and what we wanted to see. We wanted to try to amend the Bill so that it could be acceptable to as many people as possible, on the understanding that you cannot please everybody. We cannot support the Bill at its Final Stage, but I will say this: we do support the integrated education sector. Of course we support the integrated education system, and, come a new mandate, we will aim to fix what we believe are some of the problems, and we will do that, hopefully, in consultation with other parties.
However, there is a question that is being asked all the time. I am being baited by this question from various quarters, and no doubt I will be baited by this question afterwards. The question is about the petition of concern.
Let me be clear about the petition of concern: the Ulster Unionist Party will not abuse a mechanism that we put in in good faith in 1998, and signing a petition of concern on this issue would be an abuse of that mechanism. There is no minority, no single identity being affected. This is a societal issue that we have to deal with, and we have to deal with it in a democratic way, as we are doing today through a vote and as we will do in the next mandate to fix the problems.
I have clearly engaged with many people to come to that point of view. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission made it quite clear to me that a petition of concern would not be within the letter or the spirit of what it is intended for, and if we go to the new mechanisms in NDNA, the Human Rights Commission will be one of the arbitrators on petitions of concern. In this instance, the use of the petition of concern is not what it is intended for.
Leadership is a lonely place, whether internally or externally, and moral courage is a component of leadership. Having looked long and hard at the matter and having read the emails and listened to the arguments, we in the Ulster Unionist Party are clear that we will not sign any petition of concern, but we cannot support the Bill.
Ms Brogan: I am pleased to speak on the Final Stage of the Integrated Education Bill. I thank the Bill sponsor, Kellie Armstrong, for all her work in getting the Bill to this stage and for engaging so extensively with the Committee for Education, with individual Members and with our party. In finding solutions to the many issues and concerns that were raised throughout the process of scrutinising the Bill, Kellie was always very forthcoming.
It is fair to say that, up to this point, progressive parties have worked together on this legislation, which will ultimately help to ensure that families who wish to send their children to an integrated school will have that choice. Despite what some parties might say about the Bill, choice is what it comes down to. We have a diverse and often complex education system, but, currently, only 7% of pupils are educated in an integrated school. No one has anything to fear from integrated education, and the Bill does not disadvantage other sectors. It will do no harm to the controlled or maintained sectors. The Bill is about choice, and it tries to ensure that the growing demand for integrated school places is met.
I am happy to support the Bill, and I urge other parties to join us in supporting those parents who want their children to attend integrated schools.
Mr Newton: As we have done at every stage, we oppose the Bill. Mr McCrossan is not in the Chamber at the moment, but I am not unlike him in the sense that I believe in all our children being educated together. When it was appropriate, I took steps — so that I do not get told off when I get home, I should say that my wife and I took steps — to ensure that our children had the opportunity to enjoy the company of and to be educated with children from all backgrounds, whether they were from a different religious background, a different nationality or a different ethnicity. They enjoyed that, and it was part of the roundness of their education. I do not want to take away from anyone who had an education in a school that did not offer that opportunity.
I wish the integrated education sector well, because, as my colleague Mrs Dodds said, it does an excellent job. We are not here to debate the excellent job that it does.
As Mr Beattie said, the Bill comes at a time when an independent review of education is coming up. There may be an opportunity to change the Bill, because it has flaws, and everyone now recognises that. Nevertheless, the House is going to vote for it. Some folk here are going to vote for this legislation knowing that it has flaws. There are aspects of the Bill that we are not content with, but the House is going to vote for it.
Mr Humphrey: The Member makes a very valid point. Earlier today, we debated the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. A number of people who opposed the Minister's Bill made the point that it took so long — over two years — to get to today, yet they want to rush this Bill through. The same parties that made those points have accepted that this Bill is flawed.
They have all said that this Bill is flawed and that there are aspects with which they cannot live and that need to be changed, but they want to rush it through.
Mr Newton: Thank you. There seems to be a similar attitude to this legislation. We, on this side of the Chamber, and indeed others, have consistently argued that a private Member's Bill is not suitable for this type of legislation. The ramifications of the Bill are significant. No other Bill going through the House has caused the controversy that this Bill has among those who will supposedly benefit from it, in overall terms, when it comes to the education of their children. No other Bill has raised such concerns. Indeed, Mr Beattie referred to it as "panic". I do not see it as panic; I do not see that. However, I see those who argue and make representation against the Bill as being constructive, analytical and intelligent. Indeed, they see the ramifications of the Bill for their education sector.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you for giving way. You used the word "ramifications" several times. Will you elaborate on that, please?
Mr Newton: I will come to that later.
The Bill sponsor announced this morning that the Bill is now a good Bill because Mr Daniel Greenberg looked at it with her. I have the greatest respect for Daniel Greenberg. He is talented and knowledgeable and is sought after for his expertise. Indeed, in that sense, he is highly respected here and in Westminster and, I imagine, in Scotland and Wales as well. However, Mr Greenberg takes his instructions from the Bill sponsor. He does not construct the Bill; he takes his instructions from the Bill sponsor.
Ms Armstrong: I thank Mr Newton for bringing up Mr Greenberg, who certainly received instructions from me on the drafting of the Bill. However, Mr Greenberg also contributed quite strongly to the Bill and said that it was his moral privilege to work on it. Indeed, he was able to bring forward amendments that the Office of the Legislative Counsel could not bring forward because they were not put forward in the House at Further Consideration Stage. Perhaps the Member will agree that having Mr Greenberg's influence on the Bill shines a light on how well private Members' Bills are supported through our Bill Office.
Mr Newton: I have no doubt that private Members' Bills will be supported in the future. I have a private Member's Bill that, unfortunately, will not reach its First Stage. I agree that private Members' Bills need greater support as they make their way through the House. I hope that that aspect will be resolved, as it deserves to be, in the next mandate.
Those who are to be the beneficiaries of better education fail to be convinced that the Integrated Education Bill will deliver that aspect, except to their disadvantage. Again, it has been referred to that the chief executives of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools; the Controlled Schools' Support Council; the Governing Bodies Association, which is the body covering voluntary grammar schools; the Catholic Schools' Trustee Service; the Transferor Representatives' Council, which represents the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church; along with officials from the Department of Education and the Education Authority have all raised concerns about the Bill.
The language that is being used by some is not typical of the language that one would see in communications from such bodies. The phrase "elevate integrated schools" is used. Their concerns are echoed in an open letter, which states:
"We believe this flawed legislation is not fit for purpose and will educationally disadvantage over 90% of children and young people."
That is not the type of language that we expect to see from such respected bodies. Their overall concern is the education of our children. They represent schools, and they say that the Bill is "flawed" and "not fit for purpose", but it looks as though we will vote it through.
I move now to the history of the Bill. As has been mentioned, we had lots of discussion at the Education Committee and in the Chamber, and many Members spoke. We have been consistent in our approach. We are opposed to the Bill, not to the integrated sector, and we have been opposed to it from the start. Others rose to speak in the Chamber. I am greatly saddened that Mr O'Dowd has not taken a more active part in the debate. At Second Stage, Mr O'Dowd spoke eloquently on the Bill, but he spoke strongly against it. Considering his previous experience as an Education Minister, I have no doubt that what he was saying should have been listened to. It should have raised our concerns. I am sorry that Mr O'Dowd has not been available to comment.
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for giving way. I would argue that what I said during the first debate was listened to and that the Bill has been dramatically restructured since I made comments at Second Stage. I would not and could not have supported the Bill as originally drafted. It has changed dramatically. It is now a Bill that I can support.
During the Second Stage debate, I made comments about GAA sports and the Irish language that were unfair to the integrated sector. I put on record my apologies for those comments. In the heat of debate, I went too far, but I can now support the Bill at Final Stage.
Mr Newton: I have the quote from Mr O'Dowd; in fact, he has just used the phrase "too far". At Second Stage, he said, "the Bill goes too far."
Mr Newton: I have acknowledged what you said.
Others also spoke strongly against the Bill. I am pleased that the Ulster Unionist Party is to vote against the Bill — that is at least a small step in the right direction. At Second Stage, however, in reference to the SDLP, Mr Robbie Butler said:
"Like the party opposite, the Ulster Unionist Party will support this stage of the Bill, but with serious health warnings." [Official Report (Hansard), 6 July 2021, p53, col 1].
"We do not support the Bill in its current form; I do not think that any party here would. However, as I said to its sponsor, the intent is good and, with certain tweaks, it could be transformed into a useful Bill." [Official Report (Hansard), 6 July 2021, p54, col 1].
Let us come to the conclusion of the Bill and to what we have written on paper. We have the Integrated Education Bill's explanatory and financial memorandum. I will read paragraph 11, which is under the heading, 'Financial Effects of the Bill', into the record word for word, because, at some stage, Members will have to account for the vote today. It states:
"Article 64 of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 provides for a duty 'to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education' on the Department of Education. This bill proposes to add the duty to support integrated education. This will result in promotion of integrated education in the manner that the Shared Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 legislated for the promotion of shared education. There will be resourcing, implementation and running costs which may include, but may not be limited to, implementation requirements arising from the general duty to support under clause 4."
My colleague Mrs Dodds raised the concern with clause 4, which deals with the duty to "encourage, facilitate and support" integrated education. If that is not putting one sector above every other, I do not know what kind of argument would be acceptable to those who have concerns about the Bill but are going to vote for it.
Mr Harvey: As the Bill comes into the home straight of the legislative process, the time for decisions is upon us. We have reached the last chance saloon for Members to wake up to the realities of what the Bill will mean for their constituents and for the schools that are in their constituencies. I know that, over recent weeks, many have been listening to the growing voices in the controlled and maintained sectors as schools, teachers, boards of governors, principals and parents begin to assess the true impact that the Bill would have, should it make its way into statute. I plead with Members to not only listen to but act on their calls to oppose what is, in essence, bad legislation.
My opposition to the Bill has been long held and consistent and is due, fundamentally, to the systemic discrimination that will flow from the Bill against individual children and the schools that they attend outside the integrated sector. As I have said repeatedly throughout the Bill's passage and at every stage, I want to see children educated together. What is in contention in the House is not the integration of children from different faiths and none but the concept of the creation of a hierarchy in educational funding, policy and standing, which must be opposed.
Some Members have attempted to ride two horses on the issue. On the one hand, they have claimed to be opposed to segregation and the elevation of one education sector above the others, yet, on the other hand, they have supported a Bill, the clear outworkings of which will be to create such a situation. Decision day has now arrived. Members will either stand up for local schools and schoolchildren in their constituency or be happy to see children being disadvantaged because of the uniform that they wear and vibrant schools withering on the vine because they are in the wrong sector. An opportunity still exists for Members to support a petition of concern that has been tabled. That is an opportunity to support the 93% of children in Northern Ireland who will be left behind otherwise.
The people of Northern Ireland are watching the proceedings today. I urge Members to do the right thing by opposing discrimination in our education system.
Mr McNulty: I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Final Stage of the Integrated Education Bill and thank the Bill sponsor for bringing the legislation to the Assembly. I also thank the many hundreds of parents, teachers and principals who contacted me with their views and concerns. I hope that the assiduous efforts that our party has made to amend the Bill have gone some way to assuage their concerns.
It has been a very difficult and complicated process. If we had had a full year at Committee Stage, we would not have addressed all the concerns relating to some elements of the Bill's drafting, legal competence and unintended consequences. Various sectors clearly outlined their concerns about the impact of the Bill and the lack of proper consultation with organisations. Problems and concerns were raised by the Irish-medium sector and, more surprisingly, by some integrated schools. I do not want to break confidentiality, but two separate legal advisers pointed to the multitude of complex legal ramifications of the Bill as drafted.
The short Bill has been subjected to over 100 amendments, some of which were tabled by the Bill sponsor herself at the earliest possible stage as a result of concerns raised at the Education Committee. The SDLP tabled 25 positive amendments, 18 of which were moved. Those have brought greater clarity and equity to certain clauses, some of which will help to avoid the potential for judicial reviews. The SDLP brought a measure of protection to Irish-medium schools
[Irish text to be inserted.]
and to the vital shared education programme, which promotes peace and reconciliation among 100% of our schoolchildren. Our amendments were vital and covered significant gaps in the legislation.
The SDLP is in favour of parental choice. That is why we have always sought to support integrated education. The SDLP also recognises the vital role that other sectors have played in educating our children and promoting peace and reconciliation.
Throughout the process, I was made to feel like the Catholic education that I received was bigoted and sectarian. I can assure you that that is far from the reality. My education at St Malachy's Primary School, Coláiste Bhlinne Camloch and Scoil na Mainistreach, Iúr Cinn Trá — the Abbey Grammar School in Newry — promoted tolerance, peace, reconciliation and respect for other people's viewpoints.
Mr McNulty: Sorry, not yet.
I had friends such as Lawrence Wong from Malaysia and Davy Lo from Hong Kong. Through Aidan O'Rourke, our outside-the-box-thinking English teacher, the Abbey played sporting contests versus Newry High School at Newry Olympic Hockey Club's pitch: one half GAA and one half hockey. I will not tell you who won the GAA and who won the hockey, but I can say that the Abbey won on aggregate score. I will give way.
Ms Armstrong: Will the Member clarify whether he is accusing me of making him out to be something less, given that I have exactly the same educational background and come from the same background as him?
Mr McNulty: I am not sure how the Member can draw that assertion. I am telling you how I was made to feel throughout the process. That is how I feel, and nobody can deny that.
I tell that story about my education because it is vital that the Assembly does not lose sight of the fact that it is not all about integrated education but rather integrating our children together in the maintained, controlled, Irish-medium and integrated sectors. That is already happening organically in many schools across the North, and long may that continue.
We in the SDLP want to see our children being educated together. We all want to see our children being educated together. However, the process has been fraught with turmoil, because of the way that it was handled by the Alliance Party. The process could and should have been much better. The SDLP has been the bridge-builder in the whole process. We have put enormous effort into making the defective Bill better. We were determined and worked diligently to make the Bill a workable piece of legislation that will not disadvantage other sectors.
Mr McNulty: Sorry, no.
The SDLP believes that what parents want is not a legal definition but their children being educated together, and there are many schools out there that are not integrated formally but that are brilliantly successful at bringing children together. I will tell you what parents want: good schools. The SDLP will always be fully supportive of children being educated together. The SDLP will always be, and always has been, fully supportive of tolerance, equality, fairness and respect for diversity being promoted in all schools. The SDLP wants the child to be back at the centre of our education system. We will continue to spill our sweat for that.
Mr Butler: I feel, from listening to the debate, and given the length of time that we have spent talking about the Bill, that we are all pretty much well over its provisions. That is evident from not just the breadth and depth of the debate on the Bill in the Chamber but the overwhelming levels of correspondence that we have all received from those in the education sector and many families.
The Ulster Unionist Party has been clear: our priority has always been that Northern Ireland should have a single education system that is organically integrated. I am not naive enough to think that we can achieve that through the single stroke of a pen — it certainly does not fit into a private Member's Bill — but we aspire to that and aim to move closer to it in a way in which everyone can move forward together. The Bill does not achieve that. It does not even attempt to move us towards that goal.
I have stated previously that the Bill further reinforces a sectoral approach to education. That was my point in the previous debates, and it remains my position. Whereas our aspiration is for organic integration for all of our schools, the Bill seeks to mandate a preferential position for grant-maintained integrated schools, with very real budgetary impacts on the controlled, maintained and voluntary sectors. That is some people's preference and priority, but it is not ours.
I have been clear throughout every stage of the Bill that the Ulster Unionist Party wanted to work with the Bill's sponsor to improve the Bill so that it would have a meaningful and positive impact, and would be able to be supported by everyone in the Chamber, but we have always maintained that we would not, and could not, support a Bill that promoted one education sector over another. We are now at Final Stage, and the Bill, in its final form, does not do what we need it to do, nor does it pass the Ronseal test: it does not do what it says on the tin. The Bill will not speak to, nor will it deliver, improved educational standards or outcomes. It will not increase levels of integration, as most of us believe integration to be, which is pupils from different community backgrounds being in the same school.
My words today about the Bill will be critical. The reality is that there were many opportunities for the Bill to be improved, with the negative consequences of its original drafting being ironed out. Sadly, that has not happened in all the instances where it needed to.
One of the least mentioned but most significant stumbling blocks in the Bill is the new definition of integrated education. Before the Bill existed, integrated education was defined and assessed by probably 90% of the population of Northern Ireland to be the aspiration of the education together of children from Protestant and Roman Catholic backgrounds. That aspiration has been lost in the Bill, with the changes in clauses 1 and 2. The Bill now seeks to define "integrated education" merely as an ethos, with no measurable ambition or targets for the physical mixing and learning together of our children.
Furthermore, it defines "integrated education" as being possible in only an officially integrated school. That is an affront to the many controlled schools, in particular, that successfully and organically welcome children from all backgrounds to learn together. I support integrated education, at least in the sense of how it has always been defined and how I have assumed it to be, but the new definitions do not do that.
There is also the baseless assumption that integration cannot and does not occur in other schools. I find that quite insulting. Justin McNulty shared how he felt during parts of the consultation on the Bill. My kids went to Friends' School Lisburn, which is a voluntary grammar. I would like to know from anyone who is interested how my kids would have been exposed to a higher level of sectarianism, or how they would have been more likely to be bigoted or sectarian because they did not go to an officially integrated school. In some people's minds, that environment is incongruent with an integrated ethos. I, of course, am painting a caricature, and, perhaps, a parody, but the reality is that integration occurs organically in almost all of our controlled schools, and quite a few maintained schools.
The other major stumbling block in the Bill is that it will elevate the integrated sector at the expense of other educational types. The Bill will codify a bias in the Department. It will require the Department to have an integrated strategy, which will make sweeping provisions of support for integrated schools and, perhaps, will leave other schools scrambling for support from already tight budgets.
The Bill sponsor has repeatedly stated that the aggregated schools budget will not be affected. The aggregated schools budget is the money per pupil that schools receive. However, that is clearly wrong because the aggregated schools budget is calculated when the top-slicing to run education has been made. That means that the aggregated budget is the money that is left over and divided equally per pupil. The strategy alone in the case of this Bill's provisions for the integrated sector will only be part of that top-slicing. Therefore, any non-ring-fenced finances will suffer proportionally. If this Bill were aiming to support and nurture integration across all of our schools, I would be making a different speech today, but, sadly, it does not.
We were told time and again, at all stages of the Bill, that there would not be any detrimental impact to any other school as a result of this Bill. It was raised at each stage. Taking people at their word, I offered an amendment at a previous stage that simply put into the Bill an assurance that no other school type would be detrimentally impacted by the strategy. That seemed like a useful amendment, given the words that have been spoken in this Chamber and in consultation with me that there would be no detriment to any other sector. The fact that that was rejected by the Alliance Party, Sinn Féin and the SDLP is absolutely beyond explanation and should serve as a warning about the lack of fairness and equality in the Bill.
One of the many takeaways and lessons from this Bill's passage is that a failure to engage with affected stakeholders and to take on board their concerns brings fear and division. When we look at the public discourse on this Bill, we see that its provisions and intent bring unnecessary destabilisation when we already know that a wider transformation of education is imminent and is one that all stakeholders can and will contribute to.
I urge Members to look beyond the misleading headlines of what the Bill is about. I urge those who have previously indicated support for the Bill to consider voting against it. You will not be, as has been suggested, voting against an integrated education Bill, but you will be voting against a Bill that would elevate one sector above another and which would direct resources that are required away from school types and educational initiatives.
In conclusion, the Ulster Unionist Party opposes the Bill and commits to redressing, in the next mandate, the imbalances that we have identified in this Bill, by whatever fair legislative measure is possible, if this Bill is passed today.
Mr Lyttle: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Final Stage of this Bill. I think that it is increasingly evident that education reform towards a more integrated and more sustainable education system in Northern Ireland that delivers equal opportunity for every child to achieve their own unique talent and ability will be challenging. It is clear that the status quo is not going to change easily.
However, I ask that, when we are endeavouring to engage with that serious and challenging reform, we do so with as much respect, as much accuracy and as much detail as possible, avoiding misrepresentation, inaccuracy and comments that will generate confusion. I ask that, when we are asked to set out what those concerns are, we actually do so. It is not adequate to refer to concern, frustration or even panic without being able to articulate what you actually mean by that. It is not adequate.
I have engaged with Robbie Butler across a wide range of issues, and I have nothing but respect for and, indeed, friendship with Robbie. I presume that there is a legitimate and fair reason for his being unable to be in the Chamber today, but, given the extent of some of his comments in his contribution, I really regret that he is not in the Chamber so that I could interact with him and engage with him directly.
Mr Nesbitt: I appreciate the Chair of the Committee's giving way on that point. I want to assure him that there is a very good, legitimate reason why Mr Butler is not in the Chamber.
Mr Lyttle: I appreciate the intervention, and I take that as a fair point and wish Robbie well if there is a need to do that. I have interacted with Robbie on a wide range of these issues, and I will continue to do so. I entirely accept that there is a reason why that has not been possible today.
Justin McNulty, another Member with whom I have engaged on a wide range of issues, regrettably referred to an Alliance Party process that had created difficulty with the Bill.
Mr Lyttle: I will make the point first, and then I will gladly give way.
I am an Alliance MLA. I chaired the Committee Stage of the Bill. I did so, I believe, with diligence, impartiality and fairness. The sponsor of the Bill is an Alliance MLA, and she has been referred to across the House on numerous occasions as having engaged widely and substantively and in a way that has resulted in amendments being made that have improved the Bill. I therefore feel it necessary to express regret about some of the comments. I am happy to give way.
Mr McNulty: I understand that you feel regret, but it has to be recognised that the Bill should have united the House. Integrated education should have united the House. Unfortunately, the process undergone to bring the Bill to the House has not united it, and it is obvious that there is division. That is a sad outcome of the way in which the process has been handled. I support integrated education. Our party supports integrated education, and we always have done.
Mr Lyttle: Fair enough.
Change and education reform will not necessarily be easy. It will take courage. I recognise the courage that the Bill sponsor has shown. Private Members' legislation can be challenging. A lot of people support the process, but it takes serious courage and endeavour and really hard work. At times, there is misrepresentation, and dealing with that requires energy, bravery, wherewithal and intelligence. I give credit to my colleague Kellie Armstrong for having been willing to undertake that work and to attempt reform in an area of provision in Northern Ireland that we are all so passionate about but that requires real challenge.
We have had a few firsts today. A DUP MLA, Robin Newton, my constituency colleague, with whom I have worked on a number of issues and whom I respect, expressed sadness that a Sinn Féin MLA, John O'Dowd, had not spoken in the debate. It is welcome to see the DUP wishing that Sinn Féin be fully involved in debates and its view listened to and heard in the Chamber as an important contribution. I welcome that today. To be fair to John O'Dowd, he apologised for what he referred to as his "unfair" remarks at Second Stage. It takes a bit of courage to do that, so it is right to say "Fair play". John has made a vital contribution to improving the Bill.
I will come back to the Bill, Mr Speaker. When we contribute, we need to do so with accuracy and consistency. Doug Beattie spoke in support of integration, which he has done a number of times on social media of late, but he will today vote against the Integrated Education Bill without, in my respectful opinion, setting out a great deal of specific detail as to why. That is regrettable.
We have also heard a narrative of organic, natural integration. There are mixed schools in Northern Ireland. Schools in Northern Ireland promote inclusion and are welcoming. While integration is not just about numbers but about what happens in the school — how we integrate and how inclusive it is of the background of the people attending it — the fact of the matter is that, from my understanding of the statistics, about 80 non-integrated schools out of 1,000 schools in Northern Ireland have at least 10% of their pupils from the other main tradition. That has to be a challenge for inclusion, diversity and the experience of different backgrounds. My understanding is that promoting the option for pupils and parents to access that diverse, inclusive, integrated experience is the motive at the heart of the Bill. It is not to the detriment of the choice of other pupils or parents to apply and gain access to a different type of school. The Bill has been influenced —.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for giving way. We have spoken about the issue on many occasions, so I respectfully ask what he will say to Alison Lindsay, the principal of Carrick Primary School in Lurgan where, out of 500 children, 147 are newcomer children to Northern Ireland. There is a wide mix of religions and languages in the school. Children are prepared for communion and confirmation, but it does not and will not fit with the ethos defined in the Bill as an integrated education. It will not benefit from any of the additional legal duties that are bestowed on the Minister courtesy of the Bill. Surely the children and staff in schools like Carrick Primary School deserve a much more integrated experience than this.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for her intervention. I say, "Thank you": it sounds as if that school shows great leadership in being a welcoming environment for pupils from all backgrounds. The principal deserves our thanks. I reassure the Member that, genuinely, it is not my understanding of the Bill that that school will not be supported to continue to achieve that excellent aim and outcome for its pupils.
Ms Armstrong: I agree absolutely. This is the Integrated Education Bill that talks about the integrated education sector. Of course the principal and the school that Mrs Dodds talks about will be supported. It has the Education Authority as its employing and planning authority. The Bill will not stop the Education Authority supporting that school.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member. I will maybe come to that in other comments. I spoke sincerely. In my roles as spokesperson and Committee Chair, I have had the privilege of engaging with a wide range of schools. As Alliance education spokesperson, I respect, value and have practically supported provision in all sectors and in all types of school. I have assisted integrated schools with funding, Catholic maintained schools with sixth-form provision, controlled primary schools with capital works, non-selective post-primary schools with capital works and voluntary grammar schools with concerns about assessment, and I will continue to do that.
The Bill has been influenced by a range of political parties which have engaged in the Committee Stage and with the Bill's sponsor throughout the legislative process. It has incurred a number of amendments, as Bills do; that is the legislative process. Because of that, I believe that the Assembly will support the Bill.
There are a thousand schools in Northern Ireland but only about 60 integrated schools. The Bill is about identifying, assessing and aiming to meet pupil and parent choice for an integrated school education. It is about facilitating choice. It is a modest step towards delivering on multiple agreements such as the Good Friday Agreement, the tackling paramilitarism action plan, the independent review of integrated education and New Decade, New Approach, all of which tasked the Executive with advancing integrated education.
The Committee Stage of the Bill lasted 20 weeks — five months — from 7 July to 24 November. It included an online public survey that gathered over 500 responses, of which 91% supported the Integrated Education Bill. Notices were placed in newspapers seeking written evidence, and written evidence was received from over 1,000 individuals and organisations. Fourteen oral evidence sessions were conducted that included representatives from all sectors: the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, the Integrated Education Fund, the Northern Ireland Committee, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, CCMS, the Controlled Schools' Support Council, the EA, the Commissioner for Children and Young People and the Northern Ireland Youth Forum. Seventeen formal Education Committee meetings were completed, and the Committee received information from the Assembly's Research and Information Service (RaISe), the Assembly's Legal Services and the Examiner of Statutory Rules. It was my privilege to preside over such an extensive Committee Stage process, and it is my privilege to support the Integrated Education Bill.
The Good Friday Agreement, which is an international peace accord, stated clearly that integrated education is essential to reconciliation. 'The Fresh Start Panel Report on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland' recommended that the Executive set ambitious targets to "measurably reduce segregation in education" as quickly as possible. That was in 2016. In 2018, a poll on education found that good educational standards are the most important factor for many people when choosing a school, followed closely by a desire for children to be educated together. Two thirds of respondents supported their school officially becoming an integrated school, but the overall view was that political leaders had done little or nothing to facilitate and encourage integrated education. Some 60% of respondents felt that politicians held up the accessibility of integrated education. In my constituency of East Belfast, poll results found that a majority of parents support their school becoming integrated. The Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) has established that separation and duplication in our education system could have significant financial costs of upwards of £90 million a year. That is at a time when the Department of Education states that our education system is in financial crisis.
I would be really interested to hear what specific actions the Members who oppose the Bill have taken or will take to support integrated education. What is the Department of Education doing to encourage and facilitate integrated education? How does it identify, assess and meet the demand of pupils and parents for integrated education? What action has the Department taken to implement the recommendations of the comprehensive independent review of integrated education, which reported as long ago as 2017? The lack of information and action on those matters is no small part of the motivation for Kellie Armstrong proposing specific legislation and action towards meeting the pupil and parental demand for access to integrated education in Northern Ireland. It is for that reason that I, as Alliance education spokesperson, support the Integrated Education Bill proposed by Kellie Armstrong MLA and amended by the Assembly.
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Bill sponsor for bringing the Bill to the Assembly. I am pleased to speak at the Final Stage of the Integrated Education Bill and to support its final passage. Before I come to the detail of the Bill, I want to talk about some deeper historical context and backdrop, if you will permit me to do so. I will be brief, but it is important.
Often, when we talk about the Bill and about education here in general, we are, in fact, talking about deeper historical and communal issues. That has been obvious throughout the debate. We are a divided society on a divided island. That division remains the most fundamental and defining fact about this place. That division is why these institutions exist and why we have power-sharing. In many ways, the division has softened over the past two or three decades, particularly since the Good Friday Agreement, which has been mentioned multiple times today. Many more people are crossing boundaries and learning new ways of seeing this place and themselves.
As someone who returned to live here just two years ago, after two decades away, I say that this remains a starkly, markedly and sometimes shockingly divided society in which community background determines a huge amount of how we live and how we see the world around us. Not only are we divided, but we are divided on why we are divided. Is it because of the partition of this island; is it the way in which the new jurisdiction that was created 100 years ago was governed after it was created; or do the roots of the division go back much further in our history? We certainly like to go back much further in our history.
Was it the desire of the Churches — not just the Catholic Church — to retain control over education in both parts of the newly partitioned island?
All those things can be true at the same time, but whether separate education is a cause or symptom of our deeper divide, we are all, as legislators and leaders, still faced with one stark question: are we happy that so many children are educated separately and relaxed about division as some kind of natural and inevitable phenomenon in this place? I cannot be relaxed about division. Whether separate education is a symptom or cause of that division, or both, we have to be willing to do all that we can to educate children together.
Mr O'Toole: I will in a moment. That process will be moved just a little further forward by the Bill. I am pleased to support it as amended. I will give way briefly.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for giving way. He paints a stark picture and indicates that the Bill will go some way to alleviating it. If you want to encourage inclusion, how on earth is a Bill that supports only one sector and gives advantages to one sector over another, which will inevitably divert resources because of the legal duties on the Minister and the Department, the right way in which to do it?
May I also inform the Member that even I went to a school that was integrated. It had pupils from both communities. It was one of the many wonderful grammar schools in Northern Ireland. My children went to the same school. We should be heading towards that kind of inclusion, whereby we go to a school because it is a good school.
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Member for her intervention. There was quite a lot in it, so I will not be able to cover all of it. To answer her first point about how the Bill will move that forward and improve inclusion — with respect to the Bill sponsor, while it will not change the world, it is, from my perspective, a positive, modest step forward — if you believe that integrated education, and, specifically, integrated education with an integrated ethos that celebrates educating children together, diversity of education and people's understanding of the diversity of this place, a Bill that promotes and supports that sector is, by definition, with the amendments — many of which I will come on to talk about — a positive step forward. I will come on to talk about some of the points that the Member raised about natural integration and her school's diversity in having pupils from different backgrounds. I will address those points respectfully. I will not cover everything that was in her intervention, because it was quite long, but I will come on to talk about most of the points that she raised.
In commending the Bill as amended, I want to address some of the concerns that have been expressed about it. Part of the challenge is to reassure parents and children in the controlled, maintained and Irish language sectors about the impacts that the Bill will have on them. First is the substance of the Bill. Many of the substantive concerns around its legal effects on other sectors have been addressed, and, I think, addressed pretty comprehensively through amendment. My colleague Daniel McCrossan has done work on that, often with detailed engagement — possibly, sometimes, too detailed from the perspective of members of the Education Committee. Detailed work has been done, as has been said.
As a strong supporter of integrated education, I have no difficulty saying that there were genuine concerns about the Bill as drafted and introduced. However, the vast majority of those concerns have been ironed out through amendment and extensive debate. I am afraid that, as was said earlier, a significant amount of the continued lobbying around the Bill has been based on incorrect information, or at least references to the Bill as introduced and not as amended. It does not, for example, change the common funding formula, and nor does it affect the means by which existing maintained or controlled schools access funds for new buildings, amalgamations or expansions. Clause 8 is now quite clear about that.
I do have to take issue with the broader point that the Bill elevates the integrated sector above others. The integrated sector represents only 7% of schools here. So, if we are serious about offering choice, when we talk about supremacy and other sectors being disadvantaged, we must accept that a Bill that seeks to give a leg up to one particular sector will, by definition — it is called the Integrated Education Bill — focus on that sector. To me, that seems obvious and axiomatic. Far from being elevated above others, the integrated sector lags behind and is simply not a choice for many parents across the region. Any Bill that seeks to specifically support one sector is, by definition, singling it out for attention. It is worth saying that the Good Friday Agreement, to which most parties in the Chamber are still committed, singled out integrated education as an important sector in need of promotion.
I want to tackle some of the deeper questions of narrative and perception around integrated education. Let us be honest: that is where much of the concern lies. It is important that the supporters of integrated education, its opponents and people who say that they support it but are perhaps less fulsome when it comes to the actuality of supporting integrated education all need to be honest about these things. As we get closer to the practice rather than just the theory of integrated education, sometimes, even the most broad-minded people have their moments of concern and a feeling that they are being judged negatively. As a supporter of integrated education, I think that it is important to address those concerns and not to dismiss them.
In South Belfast, many controlled and maintained schools are already very diverse. Many of them would sincerely argue that they have high levels of integration despite not being formally integrated. I want to come on to talk about the issue of what is called natural integration: being diverse with regard to not only the traditional communities but the new communities that come to South Belfast from all over the world and enrich us. Fane Street Primary School, Holy Rosary Primary School and Botanic Primary School, among many others, are diverse schools. They are full of not just Protestants, Catholics and others but children of colour and children who do not speak English as a foreign language. Technically, however, they are not integrated schools. I would not be representing my constituency if I did not pay tribute to the work that they do.
In recent weeks, I have spoken to other school leaders who stress the diversity of their schools: a controlled primary in Rosetta and a maintained non-selective secondary, St Joseph's College. I want to affirm their work, their leadership and their wonderful schools, but I also have to be honest and say that my constituency and those schools are not representative of the whole of Northern Ireland.
On the deeper historical questions of separate education, we need to be honest. Today, I heard Mr Beattie and others talk about natural integration. As I said in my previous remarks, I have celebrated schools that are diverse and mixed, but that is not the same thing as a school with a truly integrated ethos. I say that in no way to denigrate schools that are not integrated. Mr Beattie talked about schools that are naturally integrated. If I had had a moment to intervene, I would have asked whether those schools offered the Irish language or whether Gaelic games were taught. I would ask people who make the same arguments about maintained schools how history was taught and how religion was treated in those schools, because we have to be honest with one another about what we mean by mixed versus integrated.
I want to talk about the deep historical and communal issues that we have. Let us be honest about them in the Chamber, because, ultimately, those are what we are talking about. Many who support the traditional controlled schools do not feel that, in truth, integration applies to them or their schools, and we have heard that said today. They say that those institutions never discriminated on the basis of religion. They argue that, effectively, they were and are state schools open to all.
Many who support the traditional maintained schools will say that their existence was not simply a product of Church dominance but of the post-partition minority tradition seeing Catholic education as not just a repository of Irish culture and history, which was largely repudiated by a single-party Unionist Government, but a source of solidarity, dignity and advancement at a time when this state did not readily offer those things to the minority Catholic population.
Again, there is truth in all those historical perspectives, and we should acknowledge rather than fudge it, but we are now in 2022, not 1922. Our job is to legislate for a better future, not simply to mitigate a difficult past. Many of us are parents, but all of us were children. Hard though it might be to believe, looking around the Chamber, I know that everyone here went to school once. None of us wants to think that the choices that we make as parents or that our parents made for us were somehow intolerant or divisive. They are not, and they were not. Parents and, indeed, school leaders, can make choices and educate children only inside the education system that they are presented with and only inside the education system that we present them with. Our job, as leaders, is to make the system better. That requires courage and leadership.
By the way, I have not mentioned the other profound injustice in our education system, which is the archaic and unjust testing of children at 10 and 11 and which leaves us with some of the worst educational outcomes and inequalities in these islands. Today, however, we are talking about a modest step forward in one vital area. In 2022, many parents want to make a positive choice in favour of integrated education. I was able to make that choice, as my son goes to an integrated preschool. There were positive choices that I could have made in the nearby schools in the controlled and maintained sectors, but I made that choice, and the important point is that I was able to make that choice because of where I live. The Bill should help to make the choice to go integrated a little bit easier, and that is a good thing.
On Saturday, the Irish rugby team, historically an institution that has brought people on this island together rather than divided them, will be playing England. I am sure that some of us will be watching. They will be kicking, rucking and scrumming to move the ball a little further down the pitch into the English half. There has been a fair bit of rucking and scrumming on the Bill in public and in private. If it passes, however, the Bill will move the ball in this divided society just a little bit further on, so I am pleased to support it.
Mr Nesbitt: Mr Speaker, thank you. Can I begin by commending you for your endurance? I am aware that you were in that Chair on Friday for the Women's Parliament and that you were back on Saturday for the Youth Assembly, so this is the fifth day out of six. That is quite some going.
Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the talks back in 1998 that led to these doors being opened to us, said towards the end that he wanted to come back some day with his son, Andrew, who was born towards the end of the negotiations, and for the two of them to sit up in the Gallery and listen to a tedious debate as Members went through the day-to-day grind of government to the point where young Andrew would say to him, "Dad, I'm bored. Can we go, please?" That was a measure of what would be the success of devolution. He actually did it, I think, in 2012, about 10 years ago.
Let us be in no doubt about this: this is not tedious, mundane debate. This is a very significant Bill that we are debating. This is the first time that I have risen to speak on the Bill. I will begin by declaring an interest as the chair of the board of governors of Movilla High School, and I will explain in a moment why that is important. Movilla is a post-primary, non-selective school, and it is the only one in Newtownards offering education to 11- to 16-year-olds. I am very proud to have been part of the battle against a suggestion from the EA some years ago that the school should close, because it seemed to me that Newtownards, which I think is the seventh-largest town in Northern Ireland, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), had to offer a non-selective, post-primary school to the parents and children of that large town. Since then, the school has absolutely blossomed.
I listened carefully to the Bill sponsor's opening remarks. If I heard her right, she said that integrated education is a "stand-alone concept", which encouraged me to go back to the Bill and to clause 1, which is headed, "Meaning of 'integrated education'" —
Mr Nesbitt: I will give way in a moment. Clause 1(1) defines integrated education as:
"the education together, in an integrated school, of—
(a) those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children or young persons".
That sounds like Movilla to me. It continues that such education is for:
"(b) those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not".
That also sounds like Movilla. The clause continues that integrated education is for:
"(c) those of different abilities."
That is absolutely Movilla High School.
"An "integrated school" is a school which—
(a) intentionally supports, protects and advances an ethos of diversity, respect and understanding between those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none".
And so it goes on.
The last conversation that I had with the senior leadership team at Movilla High School was about how we are progressing UNICEF's Rights Respecting Schools Award. Is it really a stand-alone concept when Movilla High School and so many other schools in the controlled sector are doing it? The point has been made that the controlled sector and CCMS would argue that they deliver integrated education in an organic manner.
Ms Armstrong: I thank my colleague from Strangford for giving way. The words "stand-alone concept" are not mine but those of Mr Justice Treacy, who made it very clear in his decision on Drumragh Integrated College that mixing in schools is not the same as integrated education. He determined that integrated education was a stand-alone concept.
Mr Nesbitt: I appreciate the clarification from the Member, but my point remains.
Effectively, we are debating what sign we put over the entrance to a school. Why are we not focusing on the boys and girls who are walking in and out of the front door? Inside every child, with no exception, there is a spark of ability, creativity and talent. It is the role of schools, parents and the House to create environments where every child can find out where that spark is and what it represents. It might be academic, vocational, artistic or sporting. I will not expand on that, but I encourage Members who have not studied the thinking of the late Professor Sir Ken Robinson to have a look at some of his writings or, indeed, to go online and look at some of his excellent posts about creativity. The important thing is not the sign over the front door; it is the children walking in and out of that door. Yet, effectively, we are having a debate about labels.
The second thing that the Bill sponsor said that struck me was:
"There will always be an option for controlled and maintained schools."
That is absolutely not what I want to see, and it is not what my party supports. As I said in an intervention to Mr Sheehan, we want a single education system. That is not the same as supporting one sector over any other.
At the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, the first Minister of Education, Lord Londonderry, wanted a single education system. Every Ulster Unionist Education Minister up to the last one, Basil McIvor, the Minister of Education in the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive in 1973, wanted a single system. If the electorate ever give us the votes that allow us to take the Department of Education again, we will again promote a single education system.
One of the problems that I have with the debate that we are having is that we are talking about a sector. I think that it was Mr O'Toole who said that it was not unreasonable to look to grow a sector that represents 7% of the whole. However, my aim is not to rebalance the sectors; it is to do away with the sectors and bring in a single education system that takes the best of all the sectors and puts them together in something new and better.
Mr O'Toole: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Would he accept or concede that passing the Bill today will not prevent the creation of a single education system at some point in the future? It is not as if the Bill, which has provisions for one sector, will prevent a UUP Education Minister from progressing a single education system, should the UUP hold that ministry in a few months
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for his intervention. The point stands alone, but it is not the thrust of my argument.
Some years ago — maybe four or five years ago — I was involved, along with representatives of all five of the main parties, in discussions with people who were keen to see the development of the integrated sector.
I will not go further, because all the meetings were under the Chatham House Rule; in other words, I cannot reveal with whom or where the meetings took place. However, I can discuss what was said.
There was, to me, a really surprising level of agreement amongst all five parties that this was the way to go: integrated towards a single system. For example, one contributor said that they absolutely wanted their children brought up to believe in God and with a specific set of religious tenets, but they went on to say, "But that is up to me, my spouse, my family and my church. It is not up to the school to deliver that. That is on me". A representative of another party surprised me by saying that they were pretty much in favour of all this, although the motivation struck me as potentially questionable, because it seemed to me that that party was in some sort of power struggle with a particular denominational church over control of their young people. However, motivation and outcome are two different things, and maybe, if you are getting the outcome that you want, you can live with the fact that you are not that happy with the motivation.
There has been a lot of talk during the debate about what is and is not in the Bill. In this country, during my whole adult life, we have recognised the importance of perception along with fact. Something may not be factually true, but, if people believe that it is true, we have a problem, and that is why the Bill has a problem. The part about consultation in the explanatory and financial memorandum mentions online surveys for adults and school-age children, discussions with educationalists and academics from local universities and a letter to the Minister of Education and the Committee for Education, but there is no mention of the governing bodies.
Mr Beattie referred to the open letter of 2 March that records the opposition to the Bill from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Controlled Schools' Support Council, the Governing Bodies Association Northern Ireland, the Catholic Schools' Trustee Service and the Transferor Representatives' Council. How can you get to this stage and yet have lost the support of so many key stakeholders? I say "lost the support", but maybe you never had their support in the first place. It does not appear that you consulted them. It is not in the Bill's EFM. I will give way if you wish.
Mr Nesbitt: Well, it is not in the Bill's EFM, and you have lost the support of those bodies. I do not believe for one moment that Gerry Campbell, Mark Baker, Nuala O'Neill, Fintan Murphy or Rosemary Rainey do not want the best possible education for every child in this country, yet they are dead set against your Bill. Whether it is perception or fact, they talk about the fact that the Department told the Committee that integrated education:
"would be elevated above all other sectors".
Whether it is perception or fact, they say that the EA called the Bill "ill-timed and unhelpful". They point out that the amendment that:
"The provisions and funding commitments included in the integrated education strategy must be made without detriment to other sectors",
which Mrs Dodds referred to, was rejected. Whether true or false, those are incredibly damaging perceptions.
Mr Nesbitt: I will give way in one second.
It seems to me deeply ironic that the Bill sponsor, who I accept is motivated by trying to bring people together, has effectively split them.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Member for giving way. I met some of those organisations, and it is amazing to see the change between what they said at those meetings and what they then said in public. The Member has again mentioned Mr Butler's amendment about there not being any detriment. Actually, I will take him back to what the amendment was. It was that, following the strategic plan, an integrated school would not create any financial detriment.
When I met Mr Beattie and Mr Butler about that, I said to them that that would mean that, after the strategic plan goes forward, when the first child walks into an integrated school and the school receives the common funding formula, that would be a detriment to the other sectors because that child will be funded. They agreed with me, but they would not change that amendment in order to clarify that they meant additional money. That is why the House voted against that amendment.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for her intervention. All I can say is that I have been approached by many principals who are concerned about the implications of the Bill. I have found them to be absolutely articulate and straight-talking. I note that the Bill sponsor is saying that what they say in public is not what they say in private. That kind of two-faced Janus accusation is from her and not from me. I have found them to be totally straight in their dealings.
I want to deal with the petition of concern. One Member said that Members who do not support it might be deemed to be lacking backbone. I am taking no lessons from the party to my left, which has consistently abused the petition of concern for its own interests. For that party, I have two words: Nelson McCausland. I will also say to that party that it was its leader at the time who persuaded me that it was a good idea to reduce the number of MLAs from 108 to 90 because it would be cost-effective and would lead to more efficient government. He said that there was nothing to worry about because all the big parties would lose out proportionately. We would just go smoothly from 108 to 90 Members. Sinn Féin lost one MLA, and the SDLP lost none, but unionism lost 16 MLAs. If there were 16 more unionist votes in the Chamber today, there would not be a problem.
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has really strayed beyond the debate today. We are fast running out of time for the remainder of the Order Paper for the rest of the day, never mind this particular debate. I ask people to get back to the purpose of this debate. It is not about the whole concept of integrated education or anything else. There is a Bill in front of you which is at Final Stage: please stick to that so that we can finish the business today.
Mr Nesbitt: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Did I not mention how much I admire you for doing five days in a row?
Mr Speaker: You did, but you used up the value of that half an hour ago. [Laughter.]
Mr Buckley: I know that the Member is on the record as saying that the Bill prioritises integrated education and that it is bad legislation. He has said that publicly in the Chamber, as have other Members from other parties privately. He mentioned Movilla High School, which is a very representative example of many schools in the controlled and maintained sectors across Northern Ireland. When he meets that senior leadership team again and they ask, "Mr Nesbitt, what did you do to prevent this bad legislation?", his response will be, "I voted against the Bill". If they ask, "Could you have stopped the Bill?", the answer is yes. The Ulster Unionist MLAs in the Chamber could stop the Bill, but by failing to sign the petition of concern today, you are, effectively, allowing what you deem to be bad and damaging legislation to go through the House. Is that in the best interests of the students of Movilla High School or, indeed, many students across Northern Ireland, including in my constituency, who will pay a heavy price if the Bill goes through today?
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for his brevity. The purpose of a petition of concern is to protect a minority or a single identity. The deployment of the petition of concern against this Bill would be a misuse. That is not just my view: the chief commissioner of the Human Rights Commission has made that clear. I believe in power-sharing and in consociational government, and that means that you accept the will of the House. I think that the House is wrong, but I accept its will.
I want to finish with this, because it is about taking the bigger view. I think it was Mr McCrossan who brought this to mind. I think that what we need to do with education and with the health service is to clear our minds, take a blank map of Northern Ireland and ask ourselves the question: do we want schools? I think that we will all agree that the answer is yes. We will then have a debate about why we want schools: that would be a debate, because there are different views.
We then map out what, we think, would be the ideal school estate for Northern Ireland for the next 20, 30 or 40 years. Finally, we take what we have got and what we want and map out how we get from A to B in affordable steps. We do the same with the health service. That is what I would like us to do and what, I hope, the independent review of education will do. Mr Sheehan said that we may have to wait years for that. I am told, however, that the timeline for reporting is 18 months and the panel is nearly six months in, so we are talking about waiting a year.
A Member: Will the Member give way?
Mr Nesbitt: I am not giving way, because I want to honour the Speaker, who is very good, by the way.
That is where I want the debate to go. It is not about sectors but about a new single education system.
Mr Allister: Particularly when we come to a Bill's Final Stage, it is not the warm, woolly words of the sponsor or any supporter of the Bill that matter. It is not the explanatory memorandum that matters. It is the hard, cold text of the final version of the Bill that matters, and that is what we need to judge today. If we do that honestly, there is no escaping the reality that the Bill is about putting one sector of education above all others and on a different footing. It is about supremacy, because there is no other sector for which there will be a statutory duty "to encourage, facilitate and support". That will be the benchmark against which every action or inaction on integrated education will be judged, and it will be the ripe harvest of judicial review territory. It is unique to one sector. When something like that — a statutory obligation "to encourage, facilitate and support" — is unique to one sector, that sector is placed above all others. That, undoubtedly, is the purpose and intent of the sponsor and of the Bill. Whether it was or was not, that will be the outworking of the Bill.
Those who have tried to gainsay what the controlled sector representative bodies and the CCMS, who were not important enough to be consulted, have to say are trying to kick up dust to conceal the reality that they are absolutely right: there is elevation, there is supremacy and there is preference in the Bill, and it is for one sector and one sector only. If it was not intended to be so, the House had the perfect opportunity at Further Consideration Stage to put in place something that would have stultified and prevented that: Mr Butler's amendment, which was referred to recently. Let us read that amendment:
"The provisions and funding commitments included in the integrated education strategy must be made without detriment to other education sectors."
In voting against that, the House was voting to permit that which causes detriment to other education sectors and rejecting the protection that would have prevented that. No Member can stand to their feet in the House and say that they do not support that which is capable of providing elevation and supremacy to the detriment of others if they voted down the very amendment that would have prevented that.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that the sad reality is that there are Members elected to the House who agree exactly with what he has said but will support and vote for the Bill and those who will vote against it but will not stop it becoming a reality? Is that not a sad reality of this place?
Mr Allister: It is a sad reflection of woke politics.
Let us be clear: the Bill is intended to and will, to the detriment of others, provide privilege. The Alliance Party talks much about equality, yet here it is spawning inequality. Here is that party saying, "We want to create an unequal, uneven playing field, because we want to give a special place — a supreme place — to one sector". That is the purpose, intent and effect of the Bill. The sponsor intervened to say that Mr Butler's amendment would have done more than he claimed. Why, then, did the sponsor not table an amendment to the amendment, if it was going wrong? She had the opportunity to table an amendment to Mr Butler's amendment, but she did not, because she did not want anything that would impede the supremacy, the privilege, the special status, the special advantage. That is why she and others in the House who voted down Mr Butler's amendment are plainly on the side of creating detriment to others. During the various debates on the Bill, that was the test of the question, "Is this about creating detriment to others, or is it not?". By voting down that amendment, the sponsor, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Greens all demonstrated that they were in the business of creating the very detriment that that amendment would have prevented. That is why it can be said with utmost authority that the Bill will create detriment to others and is intended to do so. If it was not, it would have been so amended. The fact that it was not is confirmation of that. That is the purpose. It is about creating a hierarchy in education in which at the top of the pile for preferential treatment and statutory support is one sector and one sector only, and that will feed down into detriment to others. That is the intent; that is the clear purpose of the Bill. I come to Mr Buckley's point: faced with that and knowing that and being unhappy with that direction of travel and knowing that that is the certain destination of the Bill, if there is an emergency cord that you can pull to stop it but you refuse to pull it, there is not much point in talking about being opposed to something. That is what it comes down to.
I say to the House that we are about to take a retrograde step. We will bin any concept of equality in the education sector and replace it with supremacy for one sector. Insult is added by the fact, as has been referred to by others, that schools such as Carrick Primary School in Lurgan and Harryville in Ballymena, which the Minister recently visited, that are supremely integrated but do not have it above the door are second-class citizens. That is the purpose of the Bill — to make them second-class in education — and that is what it will do.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that, when politicians go on the election trail and parents, teaching staff and principals of controlled and maintained sector schools ask them, "Could that bad piece of legislation have been stopped?", the answer will be, "Yes, but some failed to do so"?
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for giving way. I understand him to be a man of principle. Will he tell me which minority or single identity group is impacted by the Bill in a manner that makes a POC legitimate?
Mr Allister: The Ulster Unionist Party and others have used the POC down through the years in many ways where it would be hard to identify that. I am no fan of the POC; I have made that plain to people. There is a sector here, however, that will be discriminated against, and is the petition of concern not meant to provide protection against discrimination? The sector that will be discriminated against is the 93% who do not attend integrated schools.
Let me illustrate that. I have four marvellous post-primary schools and more in Ballymena. One is Slemish College, an integrated college. I have nothing against Slemish College; in fact, I have done many things to help it. Another is Ballymena Academy. Both schools are regularly oversubscribed. Under the Bill, when Slemish College is oversubscribed, the Department will have to provide the spaces that it needs. When Ballymena Academy is oversubscribed, the response will be, "Sorry. You are not in the top tier. You are not the special ones. You will not get the extra places". That is what it comes down to in real terms. When parents and teachers complain about the fact that their sector, be it maintained or controlled, is getting a raw deal and is not getting the privilege and preference that others are, they can ask Members, "Did you do what you could have done to stop it?".
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for giving way. Like many on this side of the House, I have spent many hours debating the Bill and discussing its implications not just in the House but in the community. What will the Members who could have stopped the Bill today say to, for example, the people whom they met in Aughnacloy recently, where, when challenged to say whether they would stop the Bill, they replied, "Trust us"?
Mr Allister: I trust that the people to whom they said that will realise that their trust was misplaced. That is the reality. There is little point in saying, "I am against something, but I will not take every step that I can to prevent it". That is really what it comes down to.
Mr Humphrey: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He and other Members have made the point that the Bill will lead to discrimination. Does the Member agree that there is no such thing as positive discrimination? If Members vote for this, clearly we will have learned nothing from the mess and shambles that unfolded from so-called positive discrimination in policing.
Mr Allister: Positive discrimination translates, on the other side of that formula, into disadvantage to those who do not benefit from the discrimination. Only one sector will benefit from that positive discrimination, and it can do so only to the disadvantage of the other sectors. That is the reality; that is where we are; and that is why I will vote against the Bill today.
Mr Nesbitt: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would it be in order for you to commission from your office a review of how often the petition of concern has been deployed down the years and by whom? I believe that Mr Allister is wrong to suggest that the Ulster Unionist Party has deployed it on multiple occasions.
Mr Speaker: I say this respectfully: the short answer is no. People will have to look at that. The facts are on the record as to by whom and when petitions of concern were used. In the current situation —
Mr Speaker: I am not going to have a whole debate about a POC. I will take your point of order, Mrs Dodds, but I will not take any further points of order after that.
Mrs Dodds: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Is it really in order for the Member to ask for such a thing just to cover his blushes?
Mr Carroll: I am happy to speak at the Final Stage of the Bill. As we waited to hear whether the UUP would throw its weight behind a petition of concern from the DUP, I did not get any sensible justification as to why either party would oppose integrated education and the Bill in that way. No one is really surprised that the DUP would try to block the Bill, of course — I will come on to that — but it is another hit to the progressive facade of the UUP.
To be frank, with respect to the Bill sponsor, the Bill is pretty tame. Its language has even been refined somewhat as it progressed through the House. It is even more baffling why any party that tells the electorate that it wants to see a progressive future here would contemplate blocking or voting against it.
On the contrary, we will support the Bill once again. We thank the Bill sponsor for bringing it. During a period when sectarian tensions have been artificially heightened for months, it could not be clearer why we need an end to division in our schools. The heightened tensions in the run-up to the election have been fuelled from the very top, and I fear that it will potentially get worse as 5 May approaches. That same kind of divisive politics has maintained segregated education, dividing children along religious lines into one camp or the other before they can even understand what camp they are supposed to belong to and why. It is incredible that that continues in 2022, and, frankly, both sides of the Chamber must foster some of the blame for that, whether that is by opposing an end to segregated education or maintaining it by default. It is important to note that, despite claims to the contrary for years about a shared future, both blocs of unionism and nationalism have much to gain from communalism and division.
People Before Profit would prefer to see a wholly secular education system. We have seen the impact of religious influence in schools already, whereby young people are ill-equipped for the formative years of their lives and taught that whom they love is wrong and that abortion is a sin punishable by God. That may chime well with a certain Christian ethos, but, in 2022, it is outdated, ignorant of basic science and outright dangerous, given the danger that the lack of education on consent and safe sex creates for young people. That is in no way to impinge on the rights of people to practise religion, of course, or even to end religious tradition being taught in an academic manner in schools, but it is to say that education through the prism of religion should not be standard. Religious ethos does not belong in a modern education system.
All children, regardless of religion or any other factor, should be welcome to the same standard of education as any other school across the North. It is important that we recognise the growing number of people who do not subscribe to any religion and for whom there is no option for secular or integrated education in their local area at all. Our preference is that academic selection at the age of 11 would be abolished and that children of all religions and abilities should be catered for, ideally in the school that is closest to them or in the one that they should go to, rather than further segregating them on the basis of ability at such a young age.
While we would probably go further than the aims set out in the Bill, we support its going forward, because we agree with promoting and funding integrated education so that we can begin to end the outdated and divisive segregation of children and to educate them alongside their peers, regardless of background or religion.
I am also glad that any reference to the "effective use of resources" has been removed from the Bill. I am well aware that the party bringing the Bill may not agree with me on this, but the only way, or the main way, for integrated education to be delivered is by closing or merging schools. There are areas across the North where schools are oversubscribed, and we do not see closures of schools and integrated education as having the same aim. In attempting to improve education on the whole, integrated education is only one step, and investment is, obviously, another crucial step. Therefore, the reservation that I held previously is gone, and I am happy to endorse the Bill.
Obviously, the Irish-medium sector was not mentioned in the Bill, but it is an important sector that is non-denominational. It is growing, but it faces huge barriers and obstacles. The Minister needs to ensure that it receives all the support and funding that is required. She also needs to ensure that those youth organisations that have been threatened with cuts and closure, like Glór na Móna, get the funding that they deserve. I am happy to support the Bill.
Ms Sugden: I will record an abstention on the Final Stage of the Integrated Education Bill, and I hope that my contribution will go some way to explaining why.
It is important to note that my understanding of the publicised concerns around the Bill is that they are not necessarily related to the principle of whether we support integrated education but to how the Bill will sit in the context of other sectors as part of the wider education system. I think that, if this were a binary debate about being for or against integrated education, the Assembly, in 2022, would be broadly supportive. I am not here too long — eight years this May — but I remember when that would not have been the case, and integrated education would never have been entertained by the House. For the record, I support integrated education as a concept. I declare an interest: I am a governor of an integrated primary school in my constituency. I believe that our children should grow, develop and become the people whom they want to be in an environment that does not discourage who they are or facilitate one way of life above others.
Mr Allister and others described the Bill as creating supremacy for the integrated education sector because it puts integrated education on to a statutory footing that is not available to other sectors. I am sympathetic to that argument, but do he and others recognise that that is consequential to the inability of successive Education Ministers not to protect the integrated sector in line with other sectors?
Mr Allister: If that is so, surely the right approach would have been to await the outcome of the independent review. However, the sponsor and those who support her were prepared to gazump that review by rushing forward. Would that not have been the proper order in which to take these things?
Ms Sugden: I will address that later in my contribution. I appreciate what the Member says.
The inability of successive Ministers to take forward this type of legislation to protect the integrated sector and others has led a private Member to seek legislative provisions for integrated education to fill a void and provide for those who choose official integrated education. I am also sympathetic to that aim.
I do not believe that the Bill's sponsor, as others suggested, was motivated to elevate the integrated education sector above others. Rather, she sought to address something that government had not addressed. If it creates a statutory supremacy for the integrated sector, surely we need to have a conversation about the broken education system, rather than the conversation that we are having about each sector. Maybe it will motivate future Ministers to finally fix it. I appreciate that there is an ongoing review, as Mr Allister pointed out, but we need to get there more quickly. Forgive me, Mr Speaker, for not trusting that the Assembly in the next mandate will be any more successful at doing the job that we were elected to do. Mr Nesbitt said earlier that he has been waiting patiently for education reform and was prepared to wait for a little while longer. I am not, because a generation segregated is a lifetime divided. We know and live that today.
Ultimately, like others have said, I, too, would prefer a single education system in which faith, no-faith and all backgrounds that make Northern Ireland so richly diverse are equally embraced, respected and understood under one roof. It is not about removing faith or any other belief; it is about sharing it. It is not about being neutral; it is about respecting difference and learning from one another.
I recognise that the Bill has unintended consequences, and we should seek to mitigate them. I feel strongly about integrated education, so I am not prepared to directly vote against the Bill. That, in itself, sends a concerning message to the people of Northern Ireland. People want integration. They want consistency, from birth to preschool, to primary, to post-primary, to FE, to higher education and in their lives. They want Northern Ireland to reconcile, and that begins at the earliest opportunity. I will record an abstention because I have taken time to listen to the concerns about the unintended consequences. In fairness, the issues are valid. To give credit to all to whom I have spoken who oppose the Bill, they, too, support integrated education. They have shown me the work in their schools where they have created an inclusive environment that promotes an ethos of diversity, respect and understanding between those of religious beliefs and none in the same school every day. I am deliberately picking the words from clause 1. I understand their frustration that, due to the definition of "integrated school" under the Education Reform Order, they are not officially considered to be integrated. Rather, they are considered to be organically integrated. I ask the Bill's sponsor and the Minister this question: is there an opportunity to build on the Bill and look at the definition of "integrated education" so that schools that describe themselves as "organically integrated" could be seen in that vein? That is where we eventually have to get to: a single education system that is entirely integrated. It would then not be one that we would have to put labels on.
A number of weeks ago, I looked at amending the Bill so that it would include those schools. Although unofficial, that could demonstrate that their integrated ethos is in line with the spirit of the Bill, and, again, I was told that that was not possible because of the Education Reform Order. I will ask the Minister this question: is that possible, and could she or her successor reform that definition so that we have integrated education not just in label but in ethos right across Northern Ireland?
I fully support integrated education, and I am so impressed by all the schools that have taken giant leaps in their environments while these institutions have struggled to get on their feet with the issue. Ultimately, I do not believe that the issue is about integrated education; it is about the wider system, and, in my experience, parents just want good schools with good facilities, good education and an environment where their children can grow to reach their potential and more.
Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): As we come towards the end of the Final Stage of the private Member's Integrated Education Bill, there are a few key points that I feel that I must reiterate. I stand by what I have been saying since the Bill's introduction. I support children being educated together. Opposing the Integrated Education Bill, which is a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation, is not opposing integrated education. It is recognised across the House that the Bill is fundamentally flawed legislation.
Other Members have referenced that, last week, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Controlled Schools' Support Council, the Governing Bodies Association, the Catholic Schools' Trustee Service and the Transferor Representatives' Council issued a joint statement opposing the Bill. That is significant. That the representative bodies felt so strongly about the Bill that they came together to issue such a statement should not be overlooked by those who support the Bill any more than the feelings of practitioners in schools in the other sectors should be overlooked. The Bill's supporters are devaluing the excellent work that the other sectors do with our pupils across Northern Ireland, and that point has been reinforced in comments from Members. I commend Mr McNulty's contribution, as he made that point so well. It cannot be right for us to ignore the very real concerns from the representative bodies or, indeed, those schools. I will take exception on their behalf to the comments that have been presented here today that perhaps they do not understand the Bill. How patronising.
Much has been made of the intention behind the Bill. Rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims have been circulated about how the Bill does not impact on other schools, how it does not elevate integrated education above all other sectors, how it was consulted on and how the new definition of integrated will not cause any problems whatsoever for any integrated school either now or in the future. It is important that I address those claims today with the realities of the outworkings of the Bill.
The Bill sponsor introduced the Bill with no consultation on a draft of it. Her consultation from 2016-17 and the policy intent, which was outlined then and subsequently described in the Second Stage debate, will not be enacted through the Bill, as has been highlighted by legal advice time and time again. In other words, the policy intent as stated is not what the Bill will actually achieve. That was true at the outset of the process —
Miss McIlveen: — and remains the case in the amended Bill that we are voting on today. I will give way, but I will explain what I have said.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for giving way. For the record, can you outline how many times you and your officials engaged with the Bill sponsor to outline your concerns, which you have just explained to the House?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her intervention. I met the Bill sponsor, as did my officials, on a number of occasions.
The Bill sponsor stated that the definition in clause 1 when the Bill was introduced did not cause any issue for existing integrated schools. The definition that was voted through at Consideration Stage was that of the Bill sponsor. I provided an alternative that would have delivered the stated intention of ensuring that other religions and none were part of the legal definition of integrated education. However, that was rejected by the House.
The definition in clause 1 of the final version of the Bill should cause integrated schools great concern.
Let me spell out what the impact will be for existing integrated schools if the Integrated Education Bill becomes law. No Member who has spoken has considered that, other than Mr McNulty, who referred to it in passing. Every existing integrated school will need to analyse the multifaceted pupil mix in every individual class. Every class will need to educate together:
"(a) those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children or young persons;
(b) those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not; and
(c) those of different abilities."
All integrated schools will need to ensure that their admissions criteria can select pupils down to the last available place on the basis of the new definition. If the Bill becomes law, that will affect admissions and admissions criteria for the 2023-24 school year. As soon as the Bill becomes law, all integrated schools will need to provide evidence to demonstrate how every class meets the new definition. Every development proposal for a new integrated school will have to demonstrate that in its case for change.
The Bill sponsor stated at Second Stage that she:
"would rather see academic selection out of schools". — [Official Report (Hansard), 6 July 2021, p98, col 1].
That is lucky because, as I said at Further Consideration Stage, her Bill will prevent integrated schools from streaming their pupils, whether via partial academic selection or after admitting pupils. If they do that, they will be in contravention of the law. The Bill will effectively end post-primary integrated education as it currently operates and make it practically undeliverable at Key Stage 4 and post-16. That is because —.
Miss McIlveen: I would like to elaborate on the point. That is because the overriding legal requirement for integrated schools will not be about education any longer. It will not be about delivering a broad and balanced statutory curriculum. It will not be about meeting the statutory requirements of the entitlement framework. In case any Member is not aware of it, that requires post-primary schools to offer their pupils access to a minimum of 21 courses, of which a third must be general and a third applied, at Key Stage 4 and post-16. If you vote the Integrated Education Bill into law, the overriding legal requirement for integrated schools now and in the future will be to ensure that every class has the required mix of categories and that they are educated together in the classroom. How on earth are integrated schools to provide any meaningful offer at Key Stage 4 and post-16? What parent wishes to limit their child's qualification choice and, therefore, future pathway to such an extent?
Let me be clear: that analysis is based on legal advice.
Miss McIlveen: If the Member does not mind, I will conclude the point.
That is how the Bill will operate in practice, if you vote it through, because it is defective. The Bill is fundamentally flawed. The Education Committee chose not to listen when my officials outlined the problems with the Bill last September. The House has chosen not to take on board the significant concerns about it at Second Stage and every subsequent stage. The House has chosen not to accept the arguments presented when I tabled sensible amendments that would at least have ensured more workable legislation. I was criticised for my decision not to table amendments at Further Consideration Stage.
If the House does not respond to the legal position that I am clearly stating today, you are placing a legally unworkable requirement on every existing integrated school and on every school that may otherwise have sought to transform to integrated status. That is your decision today.
I will give way to the Bill sponsor and then to Mrs Dodds.
Ms Armstrong: Does the Minister recall the declaration of ethos in the statement of principles that was drawn together with her Department's involvement? How, in any way, does the Bill counterbalance that?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Minister for giving way. Those are really interesting points about the impact of the Bill on existing schools. Will the Minister elaborate on how it would impact on a school such as Lagan College that operates academic selection and streaming?
Miss McIlveen: Essentially, it would mean that the school would be acting illegally, unless it could meet the requirements as stated in the Bill.
Ms Armstrong: Can I ask a clarification question? It says "different abilities": can you, please, explain to me why that would mean that children of different abilities would be excluded from an integrated school?
Miss McIlveen: The Member has been clear that she wants all education together, hence it would not work. I have been clear with the Member that I have sought legal advice on the points that are being made.
To go back to the point that I was making, when you look at the impact of the Bill on integrated schools, as well as on every other school in every other sector, it is clear that, ironically, voting against the Bill is the best way to protect integrated education and the overall integrity of our education system. Voting against the Bill is one of the most effective ways to enable the Department of Education to "encourage and facilitate" the development of integrated education.
The Bill sponsor stated at Second Stage that the requirements to create or become an integrated school, as set down in the 1989 Order, would not change. Legal advice confirmed that that assertion by the Bill sponsor was wrong, and amendments were subsequently required. She stated that she did not intend new schools to include amalgamations. Legal advice confirmed that that was wrong, and amendments were subsequently required. The Bill sponsor introduced a Bill that required the Department of Education to consult an integrated education body on every function that it undertook, with no link to integrated education being necessary. Legal advice confirmed that that was wrong, and amendments were required. The Bill sponsor introduced a Bill that placed conflicting duties on bodies such as CCMS and spurious duties on CCEA. Legal advice confirmed that that was wrong, and amendments were required.
The Bill sponsor stated at Second Stage that the drafter managed to convey in legislative language what she hoped to take forward. Given the extent to which legal advice shows that the Bill will not deliver the Bill sponsor's stated intention, on what basis could the Bill that we will vote on represent good law? The House needs to be assured that what we are considering would represent good law. The legal advice that I have received has highlighted time and again the flaws in the legislation. That position has not changed with the amended Bill that we are considering.
I turn to the issue of misinformation and the allegations that have been made in the media, particularly social media, that I am opposed to integrated education. Despite the contention that Hansard will substantiate that claim, I continue to await the evidence. That evidence will not and cannot be produced, because I have never said that I do not support integrated education. I have never said that I do not support integrated schools. I support all types of school. Far from the vested-interest misinformation that has been bandied about, I support true, parental preference, not the often quoted percentage of broad support for broad principles from a good relations indicator and not the often quoted 21% of children not getting a place in their first preference integrated school. The sad reality for some families in every sector is that they do not obtain a place in their first preference grammar, controlled or maintained school. That is why I tabled an amendment at Consideration Stage that was about true parental preference with no other objective than to enable the EA to ascertain it. The Bill sponsor objected to that amendment, and, as Hansard attests, she voted against it. Why? If the objective behind the Bill is to establish parental preference, why vote against an amendment that would deliver it? Clause 6 is the Ronseal approach to ascertaining parental preference, whatever type of educational provision that preference might be for. It does what it says on the tin.
Equally, the Ulster Unionist Party tabled an amendment at Further Consideration Stage to put in some protection that the Bill could not operate without detriment to other sectors. The Bill sponsor objected to that amendment and voted against it. Why? If the myth that the Bill does not elevate integrated education above all other sectors and does not impact on other schools were indeed true, why be so afraid of an amendment that stated that that detriment should not exist? Until this point, the Department of Education has never promoted or supported — different word, same definition — any one sector for the good reason that it supports true parental preference.
Does the Bill have to be considered in the context of sustainable provision? For the sake of the children in the classroom, of course it does. Does it have to be considered in the context of high-quality education and with an awareness of the cost to the public purse? Again, for the sake of the children in our classrooms, of course it does. Reasonable class sizes are needed to assist the learning of all of children in the classroom. That is why, in the area planning priorities, my predecessor and I agree that reviewing composite classes of three year groups or more, reviewing small and unsustainable sixth forms, maintaining high-quality education provision in rural areas and working together to bring forward collaborative area-based solutions are important and necessary steps to protect and enhance the quality of the education that is available for all our children.
The quality of educational provision that our children receive matters. It should matter much more than it does in the Bill. The Bill is silent on educational quality. I can point to many research sources that state that, when a parent chooses a school for their child, the quality of education is, first and foremost, what drives their decision-making. In almost all research, the sector is non-existent or is the least important factor in parents' consideration.
At Second Stage, Mr Sheehan said:
"I am not aware of any real evidence that integration will have longer-term benefits for society." — [Official Report (Hansard), 6 July 2021, p50, col 1].
"The current integrated system is also the lowest-performing when it comes to educational outcomes, whereas the maintained sector is the highest-performing." — [Official Report (Hansard), 6 July 2021, p50, col 2].
Whilst I am sure that the maintained sector appreciates those words, they are not backed up by action, given his party's staunch support for the Integrated Education Bill to date.
Mr O'Dowd started his scrutiny of the Bill at Second Stage by saying that he found clause 1, which is the same clause 1 as he and his party voted through at Consideration Stage, to be offensive to him
"as a parent, a politician, a community leader and as someone who has gone through the Catholic sector." — [Official Report (Hansard), 6 July 2021, p62, col 1].
I have had the ministerial code quoted at me. That code is not in place to have elements picked and chosen depending on the circumstances. It clearly requires every Minister to
"observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity involving impartiality, integrity and objectivity in relationship to the stewardship of public funds".
Putting it frankly, if the Bill passes into law, Members of the House will have removed the ability of any Minister of Education to deploy impartial and objective stewardship of the education budget.
Regardless of party politicking about an extended Committee Stage, the legislation is being rushed through with no regard for the far-reaching consequences that it will have for the entire education system or for the reality of how it will operate to the detriment of integrated schools and the impact that it will have on every other type of school.
To bring the financial argument back to funding following a child, it is disingenuous for every primary or post-primary school to receive the same age-weighted pupil unit per child. If oversubscribed integrated schools were to take everyone who applied to them, even though some of the applications have been driven by the school, such as through the inclusion of a first preference criterion in their admissions criteria, how long would it be before that school's physical infrastructure became insufficient? How long would it be before that school's teaching complement became insufficient? How long would it be before neighbouring schools in other sectors tipped into unsustainability? How long would it be before the educational quality across all schools, including integrated schools, started to deteriorate?
The impact of the Bill comes from, for example, how "support" is defined in the Bill. It sets targets and benchmarks that must then be reported on and monitored but completely ignores outcomes for our children. How the term "aiming to meet the demand" is to be defined or determined is not specified, but the Department and the EA must still aim to meet it.
How can one aim to meet demand in 60% of integrated schools in which there are empty desks and thus no demand?
The Bill requires that sufficient places be provided to aim to meet that unspecified demand and that data be collected on catchment areas, which do not exist in Northern Ireland, but, where school admissions have operated under an open enrolment policy, there is a bizarre range of consultation requirements at various stages outside existing strategic planning for education. The Bill requires an integrated education strategy to include provisions for resources for integrated education and to quantify and identify such resources for integrated education, including resources to establish new integrated schools, to expand integrated schools and to transform schools into integrated schools. Where does the Bill sponsor think that such resources will come from if not the finite Department of Education budget?
Those requirements come at real cost. They come on top of existing legislation that already enables the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education and on top of existing legislation that enables NICIE to promote integrated education. Those resources will come out of an Education budget that, as I have told the House, faces a shortfall of around £735 million over the next three years. I have told the House that the programmes that make a real difference to the lives of children from all sectors and all communities will fall behind the statutory costs of delivering the Bill.
I am not playing around with words here. The pressures that the Bill will bring are real and costly. There is no additional funding coming with it. Voting it through is a dereliction of duty that is in stark contrast to providing proper stewardship of public funding. The Bill seeks to ensure:
"full access ... to training and resources provided by the Education Authority and other services accessible by publicly funded schools".
If we take that to mean that grant-maintained integrated schools should access human resource advice, legal advice etc through the EA, that, at a minimum, requires the factors in the common funding formula that are currently provided to those schools to support such costs to be removed from them. In short, that provision in the Bill removes funding from grant-maintained integrated schools. I hope that the Bill sponsor has made them aware of the outworkings of clause 9(2)(c).
I could make so many more points. The fact is that 3,000 places are available in our integrated schools and that 60% of them are not oversubscribed. The fact is that, over the past 10 years, the vast majority of development proposals for primary and post-primary integrated education have been approved to support the growth of the sector. The fact is that, bar absolutely unsustainable schools, development proposals for transforming schools have been approved. The fact is that, unless there are alternative integrated places available, temporary variations for integrated schools are approved. There is an existing duty on the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education, and that is leading to increased places in the sector, even though 3,000 places remain unfilled. There is a body that has been funded since its inception to promote and encourage integrated education. Why, then, is a pattern emerging of schools seeking to transform to integrated status only after a development proposal for their closure has been published? Some of those schools are enquiring about transformation without even being aware that a full guide, titled 'Integration Works', exists to support transformation. How is that evidence of demand for integrated education?
I ask this again: why are development proposals being championed by the statutory support body that is funded to promote and encourage integrated education focused on preschool instead of on identifying and bringing forward proposals for primary and post-primary provision if such demand is not being met?
If Members have equated voting for the Integrated Education Bill with supporting integrated education, the legal advice that is telling us all what the impact will be for integrated schools shows how wrong that sentiment is. The only way in which to protect integrated education today is, ironically, to vote against the Integrated Education Bill. That is a fact that is based on legal advice. I do not consider that any integrated school will thank you for imposing this legislation on them. I do not see how any integrated school can operate effectively for the benefit of the children in its classrooms if Members vote the Bill through. Choose to listen to the informed argument today or not. That is the legacy that will be felt if the Bill is voted through today.
Mr Humphrey: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I thank her for her candour to the House today in setting out clearly and very explicitly the dangers that this bad, and badly drafted, Bill will have for education in Northern Ireland and the ramifications for our young people. I hope that Members have listened, because they will have to defend their position when people challenge them on it, as they undoubtedly will. The Minister has made a compelling case for Members to go through that Lobby and vote against the Bill. She has also made a very compelling case to me, to those of us sitting on these Benches and to the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party as to why his party should be in a position — indeed, every party in this House should be in a position — to sign a petition of concern, and there is no shame in doing so.
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his intervention. It is not unsubstantiated rhetoric; it is fact based on legal advice. The choice is in the hands of Members in the House today. The legacy of the Bill will not be a positive one for any school in any sector. We have a means of exacting educational change in a cohesive and constructive way where every voice has an equal chance to be heard, and that way is through the independent review of education. That is the alternative that Mr Sheehan is looking for. This Bill is already causing division around the area planning table. Relationships that have been built up over a decade are at risk of being weakened, and that is before the Bill becomes law. Everyone who votes for the Bill today is contributing to that, and it is our children who will be affected. Unfortunately, the Integrated Education Bill should be about bringing people together, but clearly that is not the case as a consequence of what is being presented to us today.
I have been a Member of the House for 15 years, and I would like to think that, during all that time, I have taken my duties as a legislator extremely seriously. It is a privilege to be associated with good law that makes a genuine difference to the lives of those whom we represent. I am astounded to hear contributions from those who plan to go through the Lobby to support the Bill acknowledge its failings. That is quite shameful, and it is an abuse of privilege. I was quite fascinated by Mr Beattie's contribution. He talked about panic in the sectors and about stopping to take time to address the issues. I totally agree with him. He had the opportunity to do that today, and he failed.
Miss McIlveen: The aspiration of many to achieve a single education system will not be achieved by this Bill. This Bill reinforces sectorisation. I strongly encourage Members to vote against it and allow the issues to be considered properly through the independent review of education, as agreed by all parties around the Executive in NDNA, perhaps this time taking proper account of the legal advice that, time after time, has shone a spotlight on the fundamental flaws in the Integrated Education Bill. You will be putting children first if you vote against the Bill. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. I thank the Minister for that contribution. I call Kellie Armstrong to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the Final Stage of the Bill.
Ms Armstrong: I can just hear a whisper across the House of, "Thank goodness for that", because we are finally at the last speech on the Bill. I will not lie; I am absolutely delighted with the amount of debate about integration that has happened because of the Bill. I know that Mrs Dodds seems to think that I have a magic wand and I made this happen, but it is the fortieth year of integrated education. It also happens to be March, which is Integrated Education Month, but, believe me, the timetable of the Bill was not of my making. I wish that I had been able to plan it this well.
I believe that this is progressive, positive legislation. It supports intentional integration where pupils, teaching and non-teaching staff and governors all come from diverse backgrounds and are together every day in the classroom in an integrated school.
Ms Armstrong: My throat is about to go, so, if you do not mind, I will try and keep going here.
I know that the Minister does not agree with the Executive Office report, but the 'Good Relations Indicators' report confirms that one in five pupils who preferred integrated education could not secure a place in an integrated school. On that basis, when I was coming forward with this private Member's Bill, that helped to confirm that I was doing the right thing.
Some Members talked about a single education system. I will be very clear: I agree with you — there should be a single education system, but we do not have one at this stage. Other Members asked, "How long do we have to wait for that?". The independent review of education is something that I and my Alliance colleagues put down, not the DUP, as, it seems, its members would like everybody to believe. We put that in the 'New Decade, New Approach' report and were absolutely amazed when it saw its way through, in the appendix and footnotes, to the end document.
The independent review of education will produce a report, not legislation. The Bill — I make no apologies — is about integrated education. It says it on the Bill. It states clearly on page 1 that it makes:
"provision about integrated education".
It is not about any other sector, because, at this stage, we have four sectors of education. Integrated education makes up 7% of the pupil population. It is a minority within the education system, just as the Irish-medium sector is. I have faced allegations of being sectarian and, by some principals, of being threatened to be excommunicated from the Church. I had people ask me not to return to Mass and had local people say to me that they would rather see me out of my house and out of the area. That is all because of the misinformation that was shared about the Bill.
Some said that I did no consultation. Well, I did. I absolutely did, and the Bill was drafted as an outcome of that consultation. In fact, if anybody wanted to look at the documents that are in this Building, they would see that the original intention of the Bill was changed after consultation and before it got to drafting. I did listen to people, and everyone had the opportunity to contribute to that.
Then, when it came to drafting the Bill, I said that anybody who wanted to work with me on the Bill could do so, and I held to my word. I have to commend Sinn Féin. I did not expect it, but we worked extremely hard, and I have to thank Sinn Féin members and their back office staff, including Patrick, for the work that they did. There were difficult meetings. There were meetings when I came out and said, "Oh, my goodness, are we ever going to see the light of day with this Bill?", but I thank them for that.
I had some quite difficult meetings with the SDLP. I did beg several dozen times for us to have meetings, but we got there, and it tabled amendments, so its fingerprints are on the Bill.
Not every amendment that was proposed by the Ulster Unionists was turned down. The House voted for some of those, so the Ulster Unionists certainly have their fingerprints on the Bill. [Interruption.]
Indeed, one of the clauses was brought forward by the Minister at Further Consideration Stage, so the Department has its fingerprints on the Bill. The Bill has changed and developed. The officials in the Box are having a chat. I can lip-read what you are saying: you did have influence on the Bill. This — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members. Listen, Ms Armstrong, you have to stick to your script for your Bill. Do not be commenting on officials who cannot respond in their favour.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Mr Speaker.
As I said, a single education system is something that we would all like to aspire to. However, we have all seen, through the process of this Bill, how much parties are not ready for a single education system. The fact that the DUP was willing to put down a petition of concern to attack a minority part of education says a lot. [Interruption.]
Organic integration has resulted in 83 schools achieving 10% mixing.
A Member: Will the Member give way?
Ms Armstrong: No, I will not, sorry.
Organic integration is not working. The encouragement and facilitation that has been a duty of the Department for decades has not worked.
I am not saying that schools will heal all ills in society, and I am not saying that schools are the cause of division in society. I am definitely not saying that. I am reflecting the power of schools to bring people together and create a school community that is diverse and inclusive, and integrated schools do that. Others do not seem to appreciate that I am trying to establish equity through the Bill. The integrated education sector within the education sector is a minority. There are a small number of schools. To be fair, the Irish-medium sector is even smaller. So far, the Department has not carried out its duty, so I have asked for support, and I have defined what that support would be. In fact, as Mr Carroll pointed out, what I originally intended in the Bill has been watered down to an "aim to meet" need, not must meet need.
I have been quite careful in the drafting of the Bill. I spoke to professional drafters, and I used the resources of the Bill Office, who are professional people. Yet, all along, all that I heard was that the legislation is flawed.
Mr Carroll: Groan all you want. Does the Member agree with me — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Mr Carroll, resume your seat. Listen, Members, we are doing rightly. We are nearly at the end of the debate. I appeal to Members to maintain order and allow one person to speak at a time. Everybody has to be treated with respect, and everybody has had the opportunity to speak at length. Let us just maintain the best order so that we can finish the debate this afternoon.
Mr Carroll: Thanks, Mr Speaker. Does the Member agree that it is very concerning to hear quotes of legal advice? That certainly has not been presented to me; I do not know about the Member. It is very worrying and suspicious to hide behind that to oppose a vote on a Bill.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Mr Carroll. To be honest, I was not expecting to be provided with the legal advice to which the Minister has access, because her access to legal advice is privileged. As an ordinary Member of the House, I am not entitled to that, and neither is anyone else. Therefore, no one can say what is in that advice or whether what we have been told is right or wrong.
In the Bill, I have tried to support integrated education. As Ms Sugden said — she was right — I have not tried to undermine any other sector. However, the fact that integrated schools comprise 69 of the 1,091 schools in Northern Ireland confirms that, even if their numbers were to double overnight, they would still be a minority in the education system.
I appreciate that the Bill has caused emotional upset to a lot of people. What I heard when I met the CSSC and the CCMS was completely different to what was in the letter that has been circulated by them. I am very disappointed that those with a vested interest would not want integrated education to be supported. It is another education sector and one of the four in Northern Ireland. I have to ask why.
Is it because, instead of supporting parental preference, as we all have done because we know that we have education sectors, those vested interests know that every child or parent who chooses to go to a different type of school than theirs means that an amount of money will go into a different sector? If so, that is very sad. Instead of supporting parental preference, it is seen as competition. That is why we need to move towards a single education system. Far too many sectoral bodies are taking money out of front-line education provision.
Some have said to me that a private Member's Bill should not be so complicated and that I should not have sponsored it. Mr Newton said that the private Member's Bill should not be here. However, if I had sponsored a Bill for a single education system, everyone would have lost their minds. Instead, I tried to protect the integrated education sector.
The integrated education sector is small. It works extremely hard —
Mr Newton: I thank the Member for giving way. The Member quoted me as saying that a private Member's Bill was not the appropriate vehicle for this legislation. However, every member of the Education Committee will be aware that the legal advice was that a private Member's Bill is not a suitable vehicle for this legislation.
Ms Armstrong: Legal advice that is provided to a Committee is privileged, so I did not know that. It is up to you whether you want to quote that in the House.
The Bill does not do what other people claim that it does, which is to erode and take away from other sectors. For instance, the controlled sector has the Education Authority and the maintained sector has CCMS. They are both employing authorities and planning authorities. Where are the employing authorities and planning authorities for integrated education and the Irish-medium sector? Those sectors do not have any. They sit around the area-planning table as one voice in a group of very many who have vested interests.
I respect the different sectors in Northern Ireland. I just wish that they would respect all sectors instead of seeing them as competition. We need a single education system in Northern Ireland. Honestly, going by the debates that I have heard, I would expect the DUP to put in another petition of concern to stop a single education system Bill going through, because the DUP is not ready to have children educated together. [Interruption.]
For now, all I will say is that the democratic process will be followed today: those who support the Bill will vote for it; those who oppose it will not vote for it. I ask Members to agree that the Integrated Education Bill do now pass.
Mr Speaker: I thank all Members for their contributions.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 49; Noes 38
Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Miss Reilly, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Armstrong, Mr Muir
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Erskine, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stewart, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mrs Dodds, Mr Harvey
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Ms Sugden
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Integrated Education Bill [NIA 23/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Speaker: I call Clare Bailey to move the Consideration Stage of the Climate Change Bill.
Mr Speaker: We will move on to the next item of business. Members, please take your ease for a moment or two.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for the debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of 32 amendments, which deal with safe leave, supporting information, guidance, regulations and commencement. I remind Members who intend to speak during the debate on the single group of amendments that they should address all the amendments on which they wish to comment. Once the debate is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Question on stand part will be taken at appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we will proceed.
Clause 1 (Safe leave for victims of domestic abuse)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 32. Within the group, amendment No 4 is consequential to amendment No 1.
I call the Minister for the Economy, Gordon Lyons, to move formally amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.
In page 1, line 9, leave out "safe leave under this Article" and insert—
"leave under this Article for the purpose of dealing with issues related to the domestic abuse (referred to in this Chapter as ‘safe leave’)".
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In page 1, leave out lines 10 to 17 and insert—
"(2) For the purposes of this Chapter, an employee is a victim of domestic abuse if—
(a) the employee is being, or has been, subjected to abusive behaviour by a person to whom the employee is connected, and
(b) such other conditions as may be specified are satisfied.
(3) The regulations must include provision as to the meaning of being subjected to abusive behaviour, and as to the criteria for being connected to another person, for the purposes of paragraph (2); and the regulations may do so by reference to provisions of the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 or by applying other statutory provisions (with or without modifications)." — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 3: In, page 1, leave out lines 18 and 19. — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 4: In page 1, line 20, leave out "(4)" and insert "(1)". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 5: In page 2, line 6, at end insert—
"(f) such other matters as may be specified in the regulations." — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 6: In page 2, leave out lines 8 and 9 and insert—
"the period of safe leave to which an employee who is a victim of domestic abuse is entitled is at least 10 days in each leave year (whether or not taken as a single continuous period), with ‘leave year’ having the meaning given in, and being calculated in accordance with, the regulations." — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 7: In page 2, line 10, leave out from "leave" to "Article" on line 11 and insert "safe leave". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 8: In page 2, line 16, leave out "a day as". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 9: In page 2, line 17, after "conditions" insert—
", or enable an employer to impose conditions,". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 10: In page 2, line 21, leave out "under that Article". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 11: In page 2, line 25, leave out "under that Article". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 12: In page 2, line 30, leave out "under that Article". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 13: In page 2, leave out lines 33 to 36 and insert—
"(2) In paragraph (1)(a), ‘terms and conditions of employment’ includes—
(a) terms and conditions about remuneration, and
(b) any other matters connected with an employee’s employment whether or not they arise under the contract of employment.
(2A) Provision under paragraph (1)(a) must, in particular, provide that it is for the employer of an employee who is absent on safe leave to pay the employee remuneration in respect of the period of safe leave." — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 14: In page 2, line 37, leave out from "under" to "112EA" on line 38. — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 15: In page 2, line 39, leave out "leave under that Article" and insert "safe leave". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 16: In page 3, line 12, leave out "leave under that Article" and insert "safe leave". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 17: In page 3, leave out lines 15 to 17. — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 18: In page 3, line 17, at end insert—
112ECA.—(1) Regulations under Article 112EA may make provision for the consequences of—
(a) the prevention or attempted prevention by an employer of the exercise by an employee of the entitlement to be absent from work on safe leave;
(b) a failure by the employer to comply with the requirement to pay remuneration by virtue of Article 112EB(2A);
(c) a failure to comply with any other provision of the regulations.
(2) Provision under paragraph (1) may, in particular—
(a) enable an employee to present a complaint to an industrial tribunal, and
(b) include provision as to the remedies available to an industrial tribunal where it finds a complaint presented by virtue of this Article to be well-founded.
(3) Provision under paragraph (1) made in connection with provision under Article 112EC(1) may include provision for a dismissal to be treated as unfair for the purposes of Part 11." — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 19: In page 3, line 20, leave out "(as well as employees)" and insert "who are not employees". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 20: In page 3, leave out line 22 and insert—
"(a) may make provision applying, modifying or excluding a provision of the regulations, in such circumstances as may be specified and subject to any conditions specified, in relation to a worker;
(aa) may, so far as is necessary for the purpose of making provision by virtue of sub-paragraph (a), make provision applying, modifying or excluding a provision of this Order; and". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 21: In page 3, leave out lines 29 to 32. — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 22: In page 3, leave out line 33. — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 23: In page 3, line 39, leave out "leave under Article 112EA" and insert "safe leave". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 24: In page 4, line 2, leave out "leave under Article 112EA" and insert "safe leave". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 25: In page 4, line 3, leave out from "(including" to "enactments)" on line 4. — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 26: In clause 2, page 4, line 8, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
"(1) The Department for the Economy must, in so far as it is practicable for the Department to do so, make a report on the operation of regulations under Article 112EA of the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996—
(a) as soon as practicable after the first anniversary of the commencement of the first regulations under that Article, and
(b) at least once in every three years after the making of the previous report on the operation of the regulations.
(1A) The Department must publish each report made under this section and lay a copy of it before the Assembly.
(1B) In making a report under this section, the Department must consult such persons or organisations as it considers appropriate." — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 27: In clause 2, page 4, line 10, leave out subsection (2). — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 28: In clause 3, page 4, line 15, leave out "give" and insert "issue". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 29: In clause 3, page 4, line 16, leave out "this Act" and insert—
"Article 112EA of the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 30: After clause 3 insert—
"Power to make consequential etc. provision
3A.—(1) The Department for the Economy may by regulations make provision in consequence of, or for giving full effect to, this Act.
(2) Regulations under this section may—
(a) amend, repeal, revoke or otherwise modify a provision of the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 (including a provision inserted by this Act) or any other statutory provision (within the meaning of section 1(f) of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954));
(b) include transitional, transitory or saving provision in connection with the coming into operation of provision made by the regulations.
(3) Regulations under this section are subject to negative resolution, except as mentioned in subsection (4).
(4) Regulations under this section which contain (whether alone or with other provision) provision that amends the text of Northern Ireland legislation or an Act of Parliament are not to be made unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, the Assembly.
(5) The power conferred by this section is not restricted by any other provision of this Act." — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 31: In clause 4, page 4, line 20, leave out "Section 1 comes" and insert "Sections 1 to 3 come". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
No 32: In clause 4, page 4, line 22, after "on" insert "the day after". — [Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy).]
Mr Lyons: Before I address the amendments, I will thank the Member once again for her efforts and her work to bring forward this proposal to legislate for leave for the victims of domestic abuse. I commend her for getting the Bill to this stage and for shining a light on a truly horrific situation for those who suffer domestic violence.
The Assembly is united in its agreement that domestic abuse is a blight on our society. As Members, we should do all that we can to aid those who find themselves in such distressing situations. For that reason, I reiterate my firm support for this important Bill. It will provide a valuable space for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. That space may help them to stay in employment at a time when they need it most. With that in mind, I have tabled a series of amendments designed to ensure that the Bill provides the correct legislative framework and enabling powers to allow safe leave to be implemented as quickly and effectively as possible.
The amendments that I have tabled for consideration are technical in nature and are designed to ensure the Bill's operability and readability. I was glad to have the opportunity to discuss the amendments with the Bill sponsor and to explain the rationale behind them. I thank her for taking the time to meet me. We have, I believe, found some common ground.
Whilst I appreciate that there seems to be a large number of amendments, many of them are minor drafting amendments and relate to each other. For ease of reference and scrutiny, I will discuss some amendments and their purpose in smaller groups.
Amendment No 1 proposes a drafting amendment to proposed article 112EA(1) so that the definition of "safe leave" and its purpose are stated at the outset of the Bill. That makes clear what the leave is for and is consistent with other provisions for time off work elsewhere in employment legislation. Amendment No 3 is consequential to amendment No 1; as the definition of safe leave and its purpose will now be clear in the opening provision, it will be unnecessary to repeat it in the same clause. Having introduced a clearer reference to safe leave in article 112EA(1), amendment Nos 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 23 and 24 make further drafting amendments by making reference to "safe leave" rather than "safe leave under article 112EA", throughout the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. While minor in nature, the purpose of those amendments is to make the provisions easier to read and, as a result, more accessible to end users of the legislation.
Amendment Nos 2 and 4 relate to the definition of "domestic abuse". One of the fundamental aspects of the Bill is to have a clear definition of who is entitled to safe leave. Definitions in legislation are always complicated. When the matter is as sensitive as the one that is before us today, refining the definition may be even more complicated, but having the right one becomes even more crucial.
In the Bill as introduced, I have a concern arising from the links to provisions in the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 that relate to behaviour that constitutes an offence. I am aware that the Bill sponsor adjusted the definition to link it to behaviours described in the 2021 Act rather than to the offence itself. If, however, there remains any risk of a situation in which an individual has to await the outcome of court proceedings before begin able to access that leave, I want to make sure that the Department has the ability to deal with that by means of regulations, should it be necessary to do so.
I am certain that the Bill sponsor's intention is not to limit safe leave to those individuals and circumstances where an offence has been proven in a court of law. Although my concern may not be realised, once the Bill becomes law, its integrity hinges on that definition. That is not a matter on which we should take a chance. There is not sufficient time to work through fully all the very complex issues, so amendment No 2 offers an alternative approach that should eliminate that risk.
Amendment No 2 provides an outline definition, but it provides my Department with the ability to develop and expand on that definition further by means of regulations. That would permit my Department to undertake the necessary detailed consideration of the various issues raised at consultation stage. The amendment is not intended to narrow the scope of the Bill by narrowing the definition. Rather, it is about ensuring that the Bill works. Amendment No 2 also provides a clear link to the definition in the 2021 Act, but it does not compel my Department to use it, should it prove to be unworkable in the context of employment law. Amendment No 4 relates to a minor numbering issue. It is consequential to amendment No 2.
Amendment No 5 seeks to address the matter of "issues related to domestic abuse". Under clause 1, proposed new article 112EA(5), to be inserted into the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, provides examples of what may constitute such issues for which safe leave may be used. Amendment No 5 aims to ensure that my Department has the ability to add to the list and specify additional matters, should it be appropriate to do so. The proposed amendment simply makes clear that the list of proposed issues is not to be read as being exhaustive.
Having addressed what may be issues related to domestic abuse, we now move on to the matter of how someone can take safe leave. Amendment Nos 6, 8 and 22 are all concerned with that. Amendment No 6 is a drafting amendment to make clear that safe leave can be taken as either one block or a number of shorter periods. I am sure that Members will agree that we want to allow victims and survivors of domestic abuse to be able to take leave in a way that most benefits them. Amendment No 6 also enables my Department to provide a definition of "leave year", which is not currently defined in the 1996 Order. In subsequent regulations, as well as setting out how a leave year should be calculated, it will be necessary from an operational perspective to have adequate powers to define that term in the regulations, as it will not be sufficient simply to state how a leave year will be calculated.
Amendment No 22 is consequential to amendment No 6 and removes the existing reference to "the calculation of leave years" in proposed new article 112EE(e). That is because amendment No 6, if passed, will provide the necessary provision.
Amendment No 8 is a minor drafting amendment to remove the phrase "a day as" from the reference to an absence on safe leave. As I mentioned, it is important that leave can be taken in either a single block or smaller periods. Amendment No 8 is in keeping with that aim.
Amendment No 9 is about protecting the status of day-1 rights. Proposed new article 112EA(8) prohibits the Department from regulating to:
"impose conditions about length of service for eligibility for safe leave."
It does not, however, explicitly state that the employer may not do so. Amendment No 9 makes clear that neither my Department nor the employer could impose such conditions.
With amendment No 13, my intent is to clarify the responsibilities for any remuneration associated with safe leave.
The Bill's sponsor has been clear in the explanatory and financial memorandum that the intention is that the employer be required to pay remuneration while a worker is on a period of safe leave. I am aware that she has engaged with the Committee in that regard. However, the Bill does not make that intention sufficiently clear. I do not want to risk a scenario in which a worker does not get the remuneration that is owed to them at such an important time because employers are not fully aware of their obligations. Amendment No 13 is designed to provide that clarity by adding new paragraph 2A, which seeks to ensure that employers are fully aware of the responsibilities that are placed on them. That needs to be set out in the Bill in plain and straightforward terms, and I consider that my amendment achieves that aim.
In addition to ensuring that it is clear who will meet the cost of safe leave, it is important to ensure that there are consequences should an employer fail to meet their obligations. Amendment Nos 17, 18 and 21 are drafted with that intent. They are focused on making provision for remedy in the event that a worker's rights are infringed. Although the Bill provides some discretionary powers to provide for the consequences of failure to comply with provisions, they appear to be limited to circumstances in which an employer fails to keep records or give notices, and for failure to comply with any potential regulations relating to redundancy and dismissal. There is no general provision for remedy or enforcement of the other provisions in the Bill. Amendment No 18 therefore proposes to confer a general discretionary power on my Department to provide a remedy or means of enforcement for failure to comply with any provision in the Bill. As the means of enforcement for most aspects of employment law is the right to present a case to an industrial tribunal, this amendment makes clear recourse to permit my Department to make any necessary regulations, should that be considered to be an appropriate course of action after consultation. The absence of an express provision might hinder my Department's ability to do so in future.
Amendment Nos 17 and 21 are consequential; they remove provisions that are more effectively addressed by amendment No 18. Amendment No 19 makes a minor drafting amendment to clarify the descriptions of "workers" and "employees". Members will be aware that the terms "worker" and "employee" have distinct meanings in employment law. An "employee" is defined as anyone who works under a contract of employment. The term "worker" includes those who are employees, but it encompasses a wider set of contractual working arrangements. Effectively, that means that an employee is always considered to be a worker, but not all workers have employee status. Amendment No 19 simply makes it clear that article 112ED refers to workers who are not employees.
I now turn to amendment No 20. Article 112ED states that the Department must make regulations that extend the right to safe leave to workers without employee status, as well as employees. However, it also permits the Department to modify the provisions in respect of workers without employee status. That is important, as the different contractual arrangements for employees and workers mean that it will not be possible for all consequential employment rights to apply in the same way. Amendment No 20 is largely a technical drafting amendment that provides an expanded power to make those adjustments where it is appropriate to do so. That includes the ability to exclude a particular provision.
What does that mean in practice? One such example is that, if any subsequent regulations opt to provide for redundancy or unfair dismissal protections, those could not extend to workers without employee status, as they do not currently have such protections. I want to be very clear that this amendment is about ensuring that there are no unintended consequences across the employment law framework in respect of the complex issue of employment status. The amendment is in no way designed to exclude workers from accessing the right to safe leave. The ability of workers to access that important right is a core aspect of the Bill, and I do not intend for this amendment to change that fundamental principle.
Having addressed the amendments that are relevant to clause 1, I move on to amendment Nos 26 and 27, which are in relation to the reporting requirements that are set out in clause 2. Clause 2 places a duty on the Department to publish an annual report on compliance with the regulations by employers and evidence of the effectiveness of the regulations and their impacts on victims. It is contended that it would be a difficult, if not impossible, task to complete a meaningful report annually in line with the existing clause. That is because there is no obligation on employers to provide information to my Department.
I know that Members here today will agree with me that confidentiality of information is an important issue. That sensitive information should be handled with the utmost care to protect the interests of those who need access to safe leave. Therefore, I do not think that it is appropriate that the Department should have access to such sensitive and personal information. As that would leave the Department unable to comply with the provisions as drafted, my amendments seek to respect the intention that the regulations themselves are subject to regular review but to do that in a different way.
Instead of reporting on compliance, the Department will consult with stakeholders regularly to report on the effectiveness of the regulations. That means that everyone with an interest in the regulations, including employers, workers and specialist organisations that provide support to victims and survivors of domestic abuse, can provide their views to the Department. Crucially, the Department can complete the report without the need for any sensitive personal information.
Given the proposal to consult regularly with stakeholders, amendment No 26 seeks to adjust the reporting requirement so that reports are completed after year 1 and, subsequently, every three years. The amendment also requires that such reports be laid before the Assembly. The amendment would mean that the regulations themselves were subject to continuing assessment, in line with the intention of the Bill. It is considered appropriate that any such report be tabled at the Assembly. Amendment No 27 is consequential to amendment No 26. Amendment Nos 28, 29 and 32 are minor drafting corrections to clause 3.
Amendment No 30 proposes to insert a new clause. Primarily, that clause is to ensure that the Department has the necessary powers to make the required consequential amendments to other relevant legislation upon which the successful implementation of safe leave will depend. While the Bill sponsor has made provision for that, we have concerns that the existing power may not be sufficient for all purposes that may arise. The introduction of the clause is to make sure that we minimise the risk of future legislative hurdles that might delay implementation or impact the effective operation of safe leave.
In addition, while the Bill seeks to give the Department some latitude to determine the detail of regulations, significant further consultation will be required. In light of that requirement for substantive further consultation, amendment No 30 introduces a power to amend primary provision. If aspects prove to be inoperable, amendment No 30 ensures that the use of any such power by the Department will be subject to affirmative resolution procedure. While other regulations in the Bill may be made using the negative resolution procedure, as outlined by the Bill sponsor, it is important that any provisions that would amend primary legislation could be made only once the express approval of the Assembly has been attained. I believe that that is an important safeguard. Amendment No 25 removes text that is no longer required as a consequence of amendment No 30.
I turn to clause 4. It provides that the regulation-making powers may come into operation on such days as the Department may by order appoint. I agree that allowing the Department the flexibility to carry out the consultation and policy development work without an arbitrary deadline is sensible, particularly as there can, on occasion, be issues that arise that are outside the Department's control. However, as Minister for the Economy, it is my intention that work to progress any necessary regulations be given priority in my Department, should the Bill pass into law. My only concern with the clause is that it provides for the clauses relating to guidance and reporting on regulations to come into effect on Royal Assent. That would create an anomaly in that the Department would be compelled to report and produce guidance on regulations that may not yet be in effect. Amendment No 31 therefore makes an adjustment to allow the Department to commence the reporting and guidance clauses at the same time as the regulation-making clauses.
That brings me to the end of my list of amendments. I appreciate that a lot of technical detail was involved, but I hope that Members will understand that all the amendments are aimed at making safe leave work.
I apologise to the House for not being able to be there today to take interventions during my speech. If Members intend to raise issues or questions, I will seek to address them in my winding-up speech. I hope, however, that Members can see that we are trying to progress the Bill and make it as fit for purpose as possible. I therefore hope that Members will support the amendments.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): As the Minister said, he will follow the debate, and he will remain on the screen except when other Members who are speaking remotely have the Floor.
Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I, too, apologise for not being able to be in the Chamber. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on behalf of the Committee. Consideration Stage follows an engaged and in-depth process of scrutiny by the Committee. I will touch briefly on the Committee's analysis of the Bill. At the outset, I thank the Committee team for its help and support. Its assistance has, as always, been invaluable.
The Committee heard evidence from a range of stakeholders and carried out a detailed online survey, to which it received 66 responses from organisations and representative bodies, as well as from a significant number of individuals with personal experience of domestic abuse. I put on record the Committee's appreciation for the evidence that it received from individuals who were impacted by domestic abuse. That evidence was vital in informing the Committee on how safe leave would help domestic abuse victims and survivors.
The Committee explored a wide range of issues raised in the written and oral evidence. The Committee deliberated on the provisions of the Bill, and we concluded our formal clause-by-clause consideration on 26 January. The Committee was unanimous in its support of the Bill without amendment. There was overwhelming support for the introduction of the Bill from the written and oral evidence received. All 66 survey responses were positive about the introduction of a legal entitlement to safe leave and pay, with the expectation that that would be a minimum provision in ensuring that victims and survivors were supported.
There was general recognition that, while most employers may be compassionate in such circumstances, the protections could not and should not be left to individual discretion and that they should be guaranteed statutory rights.
The Committee shares the Bill sponsor's desire to see that support in place, and members understand that much of the detail will be specified in regulations brought forward by the Economy Minister, which will be subject to Committee and Assembly scrutiny. The Committee has not been able to discuss the amendments tabled by the Minister. As the Bill sponsor has not indicated an objection to any of the amendments, the Committee will not object to them.
I will now make some brief remarks on behalf of Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin supports the aim of the Bill, which is to provide paid leave entitlements to workers who suffer domestic abuse. My party colleagues Mary Lou McDonald and Louise O'Reilly have introduced similar legislation in the Dáil. Specifically, we support the introduction of 10 days' paid safe leave for workers and the intention of the Bill sponsor to ensure that that is a day-1 right available to all workers.
I want to make some brief comments on the specific amendments tabled by the Economy Minister, and I acknowledge and thank him for his positive approach. I also thank the departmental officials for their work on the Bill.
The Minister has set out the rationale for his amendments, and we support them. We believe that they will improve the Bill and ensure that it is operable. We had reservations only about amendment No 26, and I will come to that shortly. As the Minister set out, many of the amendments are technical in nature. A few, however, are worth mentioning.
Amendment No 2 clarifies the definition of a victim and allows the Department to further develop that in regulations, ensuring that there is a modern definition of a victim that is consistent with the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act, which was passed last year. Of course, that Act extended the definition of abuse beyond physical to incorporate psychological and emotional abuse. That broader definition is important in ensuring that safe leave is accessible to as many victims as possible.
Amendment No 6 gives the Department the power to define safe leave as 10 days each calendar year. We support this, as it clarifies the period for leave for workers and is in line with the intention of the Bill to provide sufficient leave.
Amendment No 9 prevents employers imposing conditions or qualification periods for leave. That is important: it ensures that leave is a day-1 right, and it prevents unfair conditions and barriers being placed in the way of workers as they try to access safe leave.
Amendment No 13 clarifies the need for employers to provide paid safe leave and pay remuneration to victims. That is important in closing any loopholes that could prevent workers receiving paid time off.
Amendment No 18 gives workers the right to recourse through an industrial tribunal if their employer tries to get around the legislation and refuses to offer paid leave. Those enforcement powers are essential for the Bill to have the desired effect.
I want to mention amendment Nos 26 and 27, which are on reporting. The Minister had set out his intent in relation to reporting, and he intends amendment No 26 to provide for reporting on the effectiveness of regulations that will be brought forward under the Bill. We will not oppose the amendment. Monitoring is, however, important, and we ask the Minister — perhaps the Bill sponsor will also reflect on this — whether it might be necessary to consider at Further Consideration Stage setting out in clause 2 what the reports should include or consider.
It is always worth putting what we are debating into context. According to PSNI figures, reported domestic abuse crimes increased over the pandemic to 19,036 in 2021. That is 52 recorded domestic abuse crimes a day. That is at least 52 victims, but many more when we consider the families affected, and, of course, so many more are unreported. Workers need this support more than ever, and the Bill can give them paid leave to seek refuge and support services without loss of pay.
We commend the positive engagement by all parties to ensure that the Bill is prioritised and that it makes its way through the legislative process in the current mandate in order to ensure that victims of domestic abuse have the right to the support that they need and deserve. It is important that victims know that, in the face of these really difficult circumstances, they have the right to support, rather than, if they are unable to attend work while suffering or recovering from domestic abuse, having to face a potential loss of earnings or even their employment.
Again, it is worth pointing out that the Bill also makes sense from an employer or business perspective. In 2017, the European Institute for Gender Equality estimated that intimate partner violence against women across EU member states cost €109 billion a year. Ultimately, employers and the business sector have to make up the substantial losses caused by the psychological and ill health consequences of violence against women, such as unpredictable absenteeism, reduced productivity, poor concentration and accidents.
The legislation will be beneficial to workers and employers. It is also part of a wider conversation about domestic abuse and the need to destigmatise it. We need to remove the shame and stigma that, far too often, are felt by the victim and not the abuser.
In this mandate, important progress has been made in tackling violence against women and girls, domestic abuse and sexual crime. The Bill would add to that. I hope that all MLAs will support its progress and help to get it over the line in the two weeks left in the mandate.
Mr Dunne: I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Consideration Stage of the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill. During the Committee Stage, we heard from a number of key stakeholders and organisations that are at the front line of supporting those who are impacted by domestic abuse. Those sessions served as very timely reminders to us all about the negative impact that domestic abuse can have across our society, regardless of a person's age, gender or background, and, indeed, about the scourge that domestic abuse is.
I am happy to support the various detailed amendments, which have been tabled by the Minister for the Economy and of which most are centred around clause 1. The amendments build upon the Bill and provide important clarity, flexibility and certainty for employees and employers.
As the Minister outlined, amendment No 1 provides clarity about the purpose of safe leave. It is important that the leave is:
"for the purpose of dealing with issues related to the domestic abuse",
which are detailed in the clause. That could include things like resolving legal issues and dealing with housing matters, financial help, welfare advice and other important issues. It is worth highlighting the fact that many of those things need to be done during daytime office hours. That is the principle of safe leave, and I think that the amendment is clear that it does not just entitle the employee to be absent from work, which is how the Bill as introduced read, but it is primarily for getting targeted support. That is what I think everybody in the House ultimately wants to get from the Bill.
All employees are, rightly, entitled to leave. That should always be respected by employees and employers. Amendment No 2 deals with an issue that came up in our Committee meetings and at Second Stage on the definition of a victim. My colleague from Mid Ulster, Mr Buchanan, took a keen interest in that during a number of the evidence sessions. The amendment will ultimately help to deal with the implementation of and eligibility for safe leave.
Amendment No 6 gives the important clarity that safe leave does not have to be taken as a block of 10 continuous days. That builds in flexibility, which is important for victims of domestic abuse, many of whom are vulnerable. Nobody can predict when exactly they will need the leave. It ties in with what we talked about earlier in relation to professional services and so on. It is important that that agility and flexibility are available. Different companies, organisations, businesses and employers have different leave years. Some work on the basis of financial years, others work on calendar years, and there are other systems. Therefore, it is important that that is clarified, and amendment No 6 also helps with that.
Amendment No 13 helps to spell out the terms and conditions for remuneration and contracts of employment. Again, that is important for the Department and employers. Here in Northern Ireland, we are fortunate to have a vast range of small businesses and microbusinesses. It is therefore essential that the legislation works for them so that they can work with their employees. That highlights the importance of getting the amendments into place. Many of those businesses have limited resources, and it is vital that the legislation is manageable for them.
It is important to point out this fact, which should not be lost in the debate: many employers are sympathetic to sensitive issues such as domestic abuse, and it is hoped that safe leave will not have to be used. Unfortunately, however, given the problems with and the prevalence of domestic abuse, it is important that that tool is there for when it is required.
Amendment No 18 builds in important employee rights regarding industrial tribunals, and I think that we can all support that. Over the past two years, throughout the pandemic, we have seen the need for flexibility. I believe that amendment No 20 allows the Department to be flexible by allowing it to modify regulations, as circumstances may change over time. Indeed, the pandemic reinforced that there is a need to be flexible, because nobody can predict what is coming for us.
Over the COVID pandemic, the various lockdowns and restrictions left many people spending more time at home, feeling more isolated and vulnerable. Unfortunately, as we heard from victims' support groups during the Committee Stage, which the PSNI statistics back up, there has been an alarming rise in domestic abuse over the past two years, reinforcing the need for action to be taken.
Amendment No 26 to clause 2 states that the Department must report on the first anniversary of the commencement of the regulations and at least once every three years thereafter. That is an important step forward for accountability.
Amendment No 30 creates a new clause that, as the Minister mentioned, future-proofs the Bill and gives the Department important powers to change or modify regulations when required.
I am happy to support the tabled amendments, and I believe that they will strengthen this important legislation.
Mr O'Toole: I am pleased to speak in the debate on the Consideration Stage of the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill. As Deputy Chair of the Economy Committee, I echo what the Chair of the Economy Committee said in, first of all, paying tribute to the Bill sponsor for her hard work and the professionalism with which she has brought the Bill forward, and to the Minister for the constructive way in which he has engaged on the Bill and for tabling the amendments, all of which we will support. Hopefully, the Bill is an example of a constructive, progressive piece of draft legislation that can be expedited through in the last days of this mandate and will have an extremely positive impact on workers' rights more generally and, specifically, for people who are in the difficult position of needing to take leave from work in order to deal with domestic abuse.
As has already been said, there is a large number of amendments, but I think that it is fair to say, unless the Bill sponsor wants to correct me, that there is relatively little controversy on any of those amendments. Indeed, there seems to be broad consensus that, in many places, they improve the Bill. The Minister has detailed what his amendments do, so I will not go through them all again in exhaustive detail. I will just touch on a couple of them to highlight why we support them.
Amendment No 2, which the Minister tabled, chimes, in a sense, with the broader principle of flexibility in the Bill. I commend the Bill sponsor for her approach to constructing a flexible Bill, which, since the beginning, has not been rigid. It requires the Department to make regulations, but offers it a degree of flexibility in making them. The Department's amendments add to that and retain that principle of flexibility whilst embedding the core principle of creating a legal right to paid statutory leave for domestic abuse. Amendment No 2 allows the Department flexibility in the future to update the definition of domestic abuse in clause 1, which, I suppose, was more specifically defined in the Bill's original draft, but can evolve as a result of the amendment.
In addition, amendment No 6, as it has been pointed out, including by the previous Member to speak, Mr Dunne, who is not in the Chamber, clarifies that the days of leave to which workers are entitled do not have to be taken consecutively in one block.
There is a whole range of other amendments, all of which are either constructive and helpful in clarifying the Bill's purpose or technical and legal in nature. I will not go through them all.
I thank the Bill sponsor for meeting my researcher and me to talk through her view of what the amendments do. We had a useful conversation on the question of commencement. The commencement part is a really importance principle, because there has been a relatively small amount of commentary about the idea that the Bill might impose a burden on small businesses. I think that one of the trade bodies has written about that. It is important to put on record here that the flexibility that the Bill sponsor has shown on commencement allows us to say clearly in the Chamber that, although we hope to get it on the statute book in the next couple of weeks before we break up for the election, that does not actually mean that it will commence overnight. The purpose of the Bill is to mandate the Department to go away and draft regulations and then consult on them, including with small businesses and microbusinesses, on how they work. Therefore, while we want to get it on the statute book quickly, it does not mean that it will place a new burden on businesses overnight.
It is also important to say that, not only will that not happen overnight, rather than being a burden on businesses, the Bill will provide helpful clarification for them. It will put into statute their obligations and, indeed, their legal rights as employers with regard to providing safe leave for staff who are experiencing domestic abuse. As Caoimhe Archibald, the Committee Chair, pointed out earlier, there is a clear statistical basis for that. Indeed, if you talk to any major employers' group or trade union, they will be able to tell you that the time that is lost through dealing with issues as tragic and awful as domestic abuse is a problem for businesses. The Bill will not just create a new right for workers who are in that terrible situation but clarify the responsibilities and rights for businesses. Fundamentally, that is a good thing for small businesses. As Stephen Dunne mentioned, many of the microbusinesses that we are fortunate to have in Northern Ireland are exactly the kind of employers who want to do right by their employees when something like this happens. The Bill puts those obligations into statute. It provides important new rights for workers and clarifies the obligations for employers. It will allow the Department to go away and draft the regulations. Many of the amendments will give the Department flexibility in how it drafts those regulations and ensure that the Bill is fit for purpose.
Assuming that the Bill sponsor will not raise any particular objections to the amendments, we are happy to support them. I very much look forward to speaking on the Final Stage of the Bill in the next couple of weeks and getting it on to the statute book.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Bill sponsor for bringing this important Bill to the House. I want to pick up on a point, which featured towards the end of Mr O'Toole's remarks, about trying to allay the fears of employers and employer organisations who feel that we are, perhaps, open to the accusation of trying to rush the legislation through. As Mr O'Toole made clear, that is not the end of the process of commencing. We will go into a phase where the Department will look at how it will give effect to the spirit of the Bill's regulations and consult on same.
I imagine that I am not the only Member who received an email earlier today from one employer organisation expressing some concern about the implications of the Bill. To summarise, on the former point, the smaller and more family-orientated the organisation, the more impactful the Bill will be through the obligations that it puts on that organisation. On the latter point about a family-run business, if I can use a euphemism, the more awkward it may be to try to resolve the idea that there is domestic abuse that demands a period of safe leave.
Those are things that we will figure out as we move ahead. They are certainly not obstacles to addressing what is a very important issue. I commend the Bill sponsor for tackling it, because it is easily tucked away, forgotten about, ignored and brushed under the carpet. It is commendable that we are looking at it.
I do not think that I have anything fresh to say about the amendments that has not been said already, so I will not delay the House. The fact that the Bill sponsor appears content with the amendments coming out of the Department is good enough for me.
Mr Dickson: I thank the Bill sponsor for this very important and timely Bill. In Northern Ireland, we have some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in the United Kingdom, with one incident occurring every 17 minutes, equating to around 8,500 domestic abuse incidents since the Second Stage of the Bill. How shocking is that? Domestic abuse has reached terrifying proportions in Northern Ireland. Support in the form of paid leave is crucial to ensuring that victims have the economic flexibility to retain employment while fleeing an abusive relationship.
Having worked for some 30 years in the Labour Relations Agency, I believe that, while the Bill is hugely significant, how it will operationalise is equally essential. Legislation alone is not enough. Training and raising awareness will be vital. As we advance the Bill, I hope that the Department will ensure that employers and employees are educated on the potential impact that water-cooler conversations could have on victims who are in these circumstances.
I certainly hope that, when the Department brings forward guidance with regard to this, it will emphasise the need for confidentiality in HR departments, more so in small businesses where only one or two people would be aware of the circumstances and the need for utter confidentiality. I have concerns about the risks of any breach of confidentiality in those circumstances.
The legislation is an essential step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. Victims and survivors of sexual assault are similarly affected and may need time off work for medical treatment, to attend court or even to meet healthcare professionals. I hope that that is something we can investigate in the next mandate.
Ultimately, the sad truth is that, while domestic abuse is all too common, it is often a hidden problem. It will be difficult for employees to speak to their employers about it — I have absolutely no doubt about that — but we need to create a safe space for that conversation to take place and provide safe space for employees in those circumstances to have paid time off in the sure and certain knowledge that they are secure in their employment while dealing with some of the most traumatic and difficult of circumstances. I hope that the legislation and the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 brought forward by my colleague the Justice Minister Naomi Long will encourage those affected to talk about what is happening and to reach out.
I thank the Minister for the amendments that he has tabled. From the Alliance Party's perspective and having had a brief conversation with the Bill's sponsor, I understand that she is content with the amendments, I thank the Minister for what is appropriate tidying-up of the legislation. I look forward, hopefully in the next mandate, to seeing the legislation come to fruition, being delivered and protecting people in some of the most vulnerable of circumstances.
Ms Dolan: I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Consideration Stage of the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill. I commend the Committee members, the Minister and the Bill sponsor for ensuring that the Bill is prioritised, and I hope that it makes it through this mandate.
Gender-based violence is not confined to the home. It can happen anywhere, and, regardless of where such abuse takes place, the victims carry the mental and physical injuries and scars of such abuse into the world of work. As legislators, we have a role to protect women in the workplace and to ensure that victims' rights and entitlements as employees are enhanced and protected.
Sinn Féin supports the amendments tabled by the Economy Minister, as we believe that they will improve the Bill and ensure that it is operable. As the Minister said, the majority of the amendments are technical. The details of each have been outlined, so I will not repeat the remarks of others.
Financial independence from perpetrators is essential for women experiencing domestic abuse, and employment is a key element of financial independence. Paid domestic violence leave as part of a comprehensive package of workplace measures can play an important role in supporting abused women to remain in employment, thereby expanding their agency and choices.
As the Chair said, our party colleague, Louise O'Reilly TD, brought forward a similar Bill in the Dáil, which, although it has been hindered by the Dublin Government, will, hopefully, become law in the Twenty-six Counties. The significance of having an all-island entitlement to paid leave for domestic abuse victims and survivors would be huge. Sinn Féin will do all that it can in the Assembly and in Leinster House to ensure that that is delivered.
If we are to end the epidemic of domestic abuse, we need a whole-of-society response that supports and protects women. A key element of that is delivering paid domestic violence leave. This is International Women's Week, and we should mark that by taking the opportunity to pass the Bill and support victims of domestic abuse, the majority of whom are women.
I support the Bill and the amendments.
Mr O'Dowd: I do not intend to speak for too long. I just want to reflect on amendment No 18, which ensures that there is recourse through an industrial tribunal. In what, I would hope, would be the rare case of that having to happen, we have to think about the difficulties that it may present to a victim of domestic violence, somebody who has suffered abuse and violence today, having to enter the legal arena of an industrial tribunal.
Taking a case to an industrial tribunal can be an expensive course of action, and it is a daunting one. However, I accept that good legislation should have an enforcement element to it. There is no point in having legislation unless it can be enforced, and, on industrial matters, an industrial tribunal would be the natural route to take.
Without delaying the completion of the Bill, the Department, in its deliberations, has to look at how it will support victims of domestic abuse in industrial tribunals in order to ensure that their rights are protected. There is a challenge there for the Department and for the industrial tribunals going forward. We may want to look at the issue again at Further Consideration Stage, but, certainly, in the next mandate, the Committee that monitors the Department's implementation of the legislation will want to take a look at it.
I fully support all the amendments before the House and welcome the fact that the Bill is making progress through the Assembly.
Miss Woods: At the outset, I thank the Minister and all the Members who spoke to the amendments before the House and made suggestions. I am happy to discuss those suggestions and take them on board between this stage and Further Consideration Stage. I wish the Minister all the best in his recovery. I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber today. I thank the private Members' Bills team and Clerks in the Bill Office and the departmental officials, who have spent considerable time examining the Bill in detail and developing the amendments, most of which, as we have heard, are technical and will ensure that the regulations that introduce safe leave are fit for purpose. I also thank from the bottom of my heart my researcher for his incredible work to get us to this stage. I dedicate the Consideration Stage to every victim of domestic abuse who has ever felt trapped without options and to every person who has had an employee or workmate who was being abused but did not know how to help them.
The details of the amendments that the Minister has tabled have already been discussed in detail. I broadly welcome them, as they will ensure that the Bill is technically sound and can be implemented in full. I want to discuss a few of them, however.
Amendment No 2 will change the definition of a victim of domestic abuse from being explicitly tied to the definition in the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act 2021 to a broader view of an employee who is being subjected to or has been subjected to abusive behaviour by a person to whom the employee is connected. I understand that the amendment is based on some concerns about how the 2021 Act may affect the operation of the regulations, and the amendment appears to give the Department some freedom to expand or modify the definition. I welcome that, so long as it is used to ensure that victims and survivors are not excluded unnecessarily.
Amendment No 5 will simply add clarity by stating that the list of issues related to domestic abuse can be expanded. That is welcome, as it gives the Department explicit powers to specify other matters that may be relevant when safe leave is required.
Amendment No 6 will add clarity to the meaning of the leave year and states that safe leave does not have to be taken as a single continuous period. That was entirely the intention of the Bill at Second Stage.
Amendment No 9 will strengthen the prohibition on length-of-service conditions so that employers are not able to impose any such conditions. I welcome the added clarity brought by amendment No 9 and fully support it. We should be absolutely clear that it would not be appropriate for the Department or an employer to impose such conditions. That also came through loud and clear during our consultation.
Amendment Nos 17 and 18 are connected and provide for more extensive regulation-making powers that cover enforcement, including specific references to seeking recourse through an industrial tribunal. I fully support more comprehensive provisions in that regard and welcome the fact that the Department is taking time to consider the processes involved when an employer fails to comply with the regulations.
Amendment Nos 19 and 20 clarify issues surrounding extending the right to safe leave to workers and expand the power of the Department to modify the application of the regulations to workers, including
"excluding a provision of the regulations ... in relation to a worker".
I understand that that might be necessary when it comes to issues like contracts and that not all aspects of the regulations may apply to workers, but I ask the Minister, when he is summing up, for some further clarity on the kind of provisions from which his Department may look to exclude workers and the thinking behind that.
Amendment No 26 changes the reporting requirement from every financial year to one year after the regulations are commenced and then every three years after that. That report must be laid in the Assembly, and the Department must consult those affected by the legislation. Whilst those changes water down the original wording of the clause, I am content to support the amendment at this stage, based on the logic that the Department will produce more comprehensive data and a better assessment of the operation of the regulations if it is given the time to do so. That is my hope, and I am sure that the Minister will provide an assurance to that effect.
I have concerns about amendment No 27, which removes the duty to include in the report information about compliance and the impact on victims of domestic abuse, but I understand the rationale. The Department cannot compel employers to provide information, and collecting and reporting on very sensitive information provided by victims presents many challenges. Notwithstanding those issues, it is essential that the Department assesses the effectiveness of the regulations, and, again, I am looking for a clear assurance from the Minister that that is provided for in amendment No 26 and that that work will happen. On that basis, I am content to accept amendment No 27.
Amendment No 30 creates new clause 3A to expand the regulation-making powers of the Department to cover modifying provisions of the 1996 Order and any transitional, transitory or savings provisions. It appears to relate to consequential changes to other areas of law as a result of the Act and/or in order to give full effect to the Act. Those regulations will be subject to negative resolution unless they amend primary legislation, which will be subject to a resolution of the Assembly. Again, on that basis, I am content to support the amendment — the new clause — to ensure that the Department has the necessary powers and flexibility to give full effect to the legislation.
Lastly, amendment Nos 31 and 32 change the commencement provisions to capture the reporting requirement and guidance clause, as well as moving the remaining clauses to come into force the day after Royal Assent. I welcome the Minister's commitment in his opening remarks that these regulations will be commenced as quickly as possible. I urge him to ensure that the Department is sufficiently enabled to proceed with this work in the absence of an Executive by writing to declare such to the permanent secretary in the Department for the Economy to provide that necessary cover, should it be required following the election. We cannot have a situation where this becomes law and, because of political instability, the provisions of the Bill are not commenced and victims and survivors of domestic abuse cannot avail themselves of their legal entitlement to safe leave.
In conclusion, this Bill is about saving lives. It provides victims and survivors with a pathway to safety. It protects them in the workplace from the effects of abuse by providing at least 10 days' paid safe leave. It can be used to deal with emergency situations. It can allow victims to get medical care and mental health care. It can be used for moving house, attending legal appointments, going to court, resettling children or other family members, seeking advice and help from support services, sorting out finances, and organising the logistics and transition from an abusive relationship to a place of safety.
I remind Members that the PSNI recorded over 31,000 incidents of domestic abuse in the last year alone, and that is just the tip of the iceberg — those are the ones that were reported. The number of crimes recorded — over 19,000 — is the highest since records began and nearly twice the level recorded in 2005, representing one in five of all crimes recorded in the last year. PSNI figures for my constituency of North Down show that the number of domestic abuse-related crimes recorded jumped from 546 in 2020 to 692 in 2021, which is an increase of 146.
It is our job to ensure that all the protections that we can have in place are in place. I thank the Members who have spoken in favour of this today and thank the Minister for tabling the amendments, which will ensure that the Bill, when it becomes law, is implemented as quickly and comprehensively as possible.
Mr Lyons: I thank all Members for their comments today and for their support for my amendments. I welcome the fact that there was broad and, indeed, unanimous support for those amendments. I do not intend to go through all the commentary from Members at this time. I will, however, pick up on some of it.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy relayed some concerns of hers about reporting requirements in amendment No 26. From my point of view, I want to make sure that any report that is produced by my Department is meaningful and has some impact. We want to have something that will be of use in helping us to understand how the Bill is working out and whether it is doing what it is intended to do. That is why those changes are being proposed.
I thank Stephen Dunne for his support for the Bill. He is absolutely right to raise the issue of small and medium-sized businesses and the potential impact of the Bill on them. It is very much the case that small and medium-sized businesses are good employers and many of them want to do the right thing. They are sensitive to the issues. That is why we will have a consultation period to make sure that we hear their views and that the Bill is implemented in such a way that everybody is aware of their responsibilities and how they can best help their employees.
I note that Matthew O'Toole had some concerns about commencement. The reasons for those amendments are about getting that right and having the right procedures in place so that the legislation can take effect at the right time.
I want to pick up on John O'Dowd's comments as well. I understand his concern, and I hope that we never get to the stage where such issues have to go before an industrial tribunal. I hope that things would be much more straightforward than that. However, it is right that, if employers are not doing what they are meant to do under this legislation, there is recourse and remedy for employees, and an industrial tribunal is the best way for that to happen. Of course, I agree with him that I hope that that will never happen, because that would add a huge burden on those who have already gone through an exceptionally difficult time.
I want to move on to a few of the Bill sponsor's comments. I thank her for the constructive way in which she has engaged with me and for recognising that we are trying to make the Bill as good as it can be, rather than trying to roll back in any way. That is one of the reasons why we tabled amendment No 2. We are not, in any way, seeking to roll back on the definition of domestic abuse or of a domestic abuse victim. The amendment is an extension in order to cover things that might not have been covered in the previous definition.
In amendment No 20, we are certainly not trying to roll back on the support that is available to workers. As I stated, my amendment is about ensuring that there are no unintended consequences across the employment law framework in respect of the complex issue of employment status. It is in no way designed to exclude workers from accessing the right to safe leave: I hope that that provides some comfort to the Member.
I am also happy to provide the assurances that the Member requested in relation to amendment No 26 and what we are trying to do about reporting. She also raised concerns about the regulations. I will certainly do all that I can in my remaining time in office to make sure that the Department is prepared and enabled to take regulations forward so that the Bill can be commenced. I do not want to be in the situation where those regulations cannot come into force. I am more than happy to make sure that the Department has a clear instruction and policy direction from me, as Minister, based on the mandate that I have received from the Assembly in this Bill, to make sure that the regulations are put in place and that the Bill can be commenced.
I hope that that gives the Member the assurances that she asked for. It was not my intent through those regulations to change in any way what she had originally tried to do in her Bill. As a Department, we are trying to tidy up the Bill as best we can so that it operates as well as it can. Ultimately, we want it to operate well for those who find themselves in that situation.
I wish that we were in the position where we did not have to bring in this legislation. I also wish that we were in the position where we did not have the horrendous statistics on the prevalence of domestic abuse in our society, which have already been mentioned today. We have