Official Report: Monday 14 March 2022


The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I inform the Assembly that the Speaker tested positive for COVID-19 at the weekend and is therefore unable to be in the Chamber today. He will continue to undertake such duties as he can do remotely. I am sure that we all wish him a speedy recovery.

The Minister of Education is also unable to be in the Chamber today owing to illness. The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has agreed to respond to questions for oral answer on her behalf.

Matter of the Day

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Mr John O'Dowd has been given leave to make a statement on the cost-of-living crisis that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should indicate that by rising in their place and continuing to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes in which to speak on the subject. I remind Members that interventions are not permitted, and I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Mr O'Dowd: I wish the Speaker and the Minister well. I know that a number of other Members are unwell too.

It is no exaggeration to say that there are children who went to school this morning who will have felt heat for the first time since Friday. That is not because they have bad or uncaring parents but because their parents simply cannot afford to heat their home and feed their children. That is the situation that we are in in 2022. Working parents and parents who are, for whatever reason, on benefits are making decisions daily, if not hourly, about how to keep their family warm and fed.

Pensioners spend all day in bed to keep warm.

Students study in cold flats and houses because they cannot afford to turn on the heating. Families that can afford to turn on the gas spend £40 a week to do that for three hours a day. All this goes on while the Executive, if functioning, could immediately issue £300 million into the public's hands, pockets and wallets. Instead, we have Jeffrey's world, where opposition to the protocol is more important than the needs of men, women and children. In Jeffrey's world, you listen more to the Loyalist Communities Council than to the pleas of citizens who are cold in their homes and cannot afford to eat. In that world, where the brigadiers' bellies and oil tanks are full, people grow cold.

What does it take for the DUP to wise up? What does it take to ensure that the £300 million that is available to men, women and children who are cold and hungry is distributed? What does it take for the DUP Members to do their work, go back to the Executive and look after people? I note that the latest recruit to the DUP Benches, Mr Rankin, thinks that he is Clint Eastwood. I saw that on his Twitter account this morning. In my opinion, there are enough cowboys in the DUP without adding another. What we need is a First Minister working along with a deputy First Minister, delivering for the needs of people, and that is what has to happen today. There must be no more hiding, no more antics. Go back to the Executive and look after the people you are here to serve.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member's time is up.

Ms P Bradley: I also give my best wishes to the Speaker and all the other Members who are unwell at present.

The cost-of-living crisis facing the people of Northern Ireland requires parties to make decisions in the interests of all our people, not to peddle division. It requires solutions to be found, not the creation of obstacles through political rhetoric. The simple reality is that, if there is a political will amongst Members, there is a way to deliver much-needed support to those most in need.

To deliver support, you need a plan, and the DUP has one. We have tabled proposals, both in London and here in the Assembly, for support for households, families and communities across Northern Ireland. We have proposed to the Chancellor that he cut duties on petrol and diesel, cut VAT on petrol and diesel, cancel the increase in National Insurance, pause plans to remove the rebate on red diesel and deliver targeted support to households in hardship. We have called on parties here to support our plan to discount rates bills for households, extend eligibility for the energy support scheme and introduce targeted support for households to combat rising prices.

Party leaders have been engaged extensively in finding solutions, and that will be the template for success. The DUP is always prepared to look at all solutions, including legislation here and at Westminster. The problem is not the lack of a First Minister but the lack of political agreement from some to table and support a plan that delivers for hard-pressed households across Northern Ireland. Actions, not words, will help those in need. Decisions, not delays, will provide the mechanisms to deliver this support. A plan, not political positioning, is the basis of moving that forward.

The DUP warned the pro-protocol parties last September that the First Minister would step down if the protocol remained. They ignored the calls from every unionist party. They ignored the fact that the protocol continued to raise prices and inhibited Westminster from delivering support schemes for hard-pressed households on a UK-wide basis. Those parties can continue to ignore the political reality, or they can join us in supporting solutions that get support to those most in need as soon as possible. The people of Northern Ireland need and want us all to move forward together, and we are committed to getting support in place and out to those most in need as soon as possible.

Mr Durkan: What a couple of years this has been. People have come through a global pandemic that has had a devastating impact, physically, mentally and financially. We have lurched straight from that into this cost-of-living crisis, which shows no signs of letting up. With the current events in Ukraine and Russia, people have gone from struggling to struggling and panicking.

People whom I meet have no idea how they will continue to heat their homes and feed their families. People need help now, and our Government are not able to help them now; in fact, we do not have a Government. We have heard from many Ministers about how their hands are tied due to the completely unacceptable, illogical and damaging position of the DUP. Of course, the simplest thing would be for the DUP to put people ahead of politics and nominate a First Minister. If it does not do that, however — we heard again over the weekend that it will not — we cannot just shrug our shoulders and point our fingers.

Ministers have said that they will leave no stone unturned in trying to find a way to help people. We have £300 million that could be used to do just that. Well, the SDLP has found the stone and turned it; we have found a way. It is not an easy way, but it is not an impossible one. On Friday and over the weekend, I engaged with colleagues from the other Executive parties. Today, I will seek out and speak to smaller parties and independent Members to get support for an emergency private Member's Bill that will amend the Financial Assistance Act 2009 to unlock the ability for Ministers to define, design and deliver schemes to help people in the absence of an Executive or First Minister and deputy First Minister.

We have a lot of work to do, and we do not have a lot of time in which to do it. The Bill Office has assured me that it is almost impossible to do it, but, as we know, politics is the art of the possible. I appeal to all of you for support and assistance. For once, let us put politics to the side and put people first.

Mr Allen: The cost-of-living crisis, which is pushing every household across Northern Ireland beyond the brink, is not new. We have known about it for quite some time, and — I will be frank and honest — the response has been inadequate. The Assembly came together in November 2021 to call for an emergency energy payment scheme, and it is only rolling out now. Although that payment is welcome, it excludes a huge number of individuals across our society. Practical and appropriate steps can be taken. Some of those were outlined by the Member to my left, the Chair of the Committee for Communities, who, alongside me and Members from every party, has called on the Communities Minister to do more to provide support and intervention for households and families across Northern Ireland.

We have also collectively called on the Communities Minister to establish a fuel poverty task force. One thing that we do well in Northern Ireland is to put in place short-term measures; short-term measures that do not have long-term outputs. We need a fuel poverty task force that can look at short-, medium- and long-term interventions to support households and families.

The reality is that short-term, sticking-plaster measures without adhesive do not cut it. We can go further, and we need to go further. Yes, the finance is there, but we need to hear about what we will bring forward to address this. We heard about the energy payment support scheme, but we found out only at the eleventh hour that many individuals will be excluded and that HMRC will not take a payment forward. There need to be appropriate measures. My party will not be found wanting when it comes to engaging with colleagues across the House about our response to the cost-of-living crisis.

Mr Dickson: I thank the Member for tabling this Matter of the Day for debate. It is vital that we discuss the current crisis.

Nobody in the Chamber needs £200 to help them to pay their electricity or gas bill. That is the reality. Any money that the Assembly can distribute — it should distribute it — has to go to the people in Northern Ireland who are in the most need. Not everyone in Northern Ireland is in need; we need to recognise that. Schemes that come forward need to be targeted completely at those who are in need.


12.15 pm

Much has been made of the £300 million that seems to be sloshing around in budgets here. Let us not forget that that £300 million will not pay the fuel bills of the people of Northern Ireland. It may make a small contribution to those bills, but it is also there to bail out Departments, which will be struggling to complete their budgets in this financial year and the next.

It is vital that the Assembly rolls out appropriate and targeted schemes. The last thing that we need is another renewable heat incentive (RHI)-type scandal when it comes to legislation in Northern Ireland. That is why we should use and expand existing schemes. Given the number of homes in Northern Ireland that use home heating oil, we must bring it under the control of the regulator in order to allow prices to be regulated. Certain issues need to be raised in Westminster. There needs to be a windfall tax against those who have made large profits, particularly in the fuel industries, and for that money to be redistributed. It is shameful that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is borrowing our money in order to pay us money and that we will have to pay it all back.

We need to look to imaginative schemes that will deliver for people in Northern Ireland. It is vital that no child in Northern Ireland goes to school hungry or cold, as Mr O'Dowd mentioned. That can be resolved by making payments available immediately to those families who are in most need. Unlike the high street scheme, for example, which gave everyone £100, it needs to be targeted. Welcome though that scheme might have been, it was totally useless in targeting the actual needs of people in Northern Ireland. I know people in my constituency who spent their £100 on topping up their electricity and gas. It is now long since gone. There is an urgent need to tackle that problem. I encourage the Assembly to start to think about creative ways in which we can achieve that.

Miss Woods: I am grateful that the Matter of the Day has been allowed to be debated. Today, we are being warned that the cost of living could rise by as much as 10% by the autumn for some of the poorest households in the UK. We have all seen the soaring costs of fuel in our homes and at the pumps, but, as others have said, that does not affect the likes of us who sit here. We have seen the increased costs of food and basic essentials. More and more people are struggling to make ends meet. We have seen an increase in food bank use from already inflated numbers. In 2020-21, 78,000 people in Northern Ireland accessed an emergency food bank. That is an absolute disgrace.

People here are continually being locked into poverty by the failures of the Executive. As people struggle to feed their families and heat their homes, Stormont is allegedly sitting on £300 million of emergency funding that cannot be spent due to the collapse of the Executive and some people's unwillingness to do their jobs. However, as others have said, that is not a silver bullet. There are hundreds of millions of pounds sitting there that could go to people if we were able to make decisions for them based on need.

It is an entirely avoidable situation. One party could change that. It could nominate a First Minister and start to put people's needs and welfare at the centre of our decisions. That goes across the Executive. The suggestion to cut rates is ridiculous. The most vulnerable people in society will not benefit from that at all. Soaring living costs are not being met by increased wages or an uplift in social security payments, with people having nothing left in their household budgets. Then we have the profiteering of fossil fuel companies. Where is the windfall tax? The heightened global insecurity and, now, war in Ukraine cannot be dealt with without addressing our economy's dependence on fossil fuels. We must have a just transition. We must also stop building cold homes.

Last week, the DUP leader had the absolute audacity to call a meeting of Ministers and party leaders to discuss how to spend money in the face of the growing poverty that people in Northern Ireland are facing. It is the job of the Executive whom his party pulled down, yet we have another manufactured crisis, with people having to choose whether to heat or eat. That is the crisis, and that should be the focus.

Mr McCrossan: Clearly, we are not just in a crisis but in an energy emergency that needs to be addressed urgently.

My office, like that of many in the House, has been inundated with people from all walks of life who are very concerned about the impact that the energy crisis is having on them. Working families are struggling. It is costing the carers in our community money to travel to work. They did a fantastic job of supporting our people throughout the pandemic, but they cannot even get to work because they cannot afford to put fuel in their cars.

Others also cannot afford to travel to work because of the cost of fuel. Pensioners are sitting in cold homes. People who have worked their entire lives and contributed to this society are worried about whether they can heat their homes next week.

Even people on universal credit are concerned. We warned the House about that cruel benefit. It has left people living on or below the breadline for some time, and the situation has worsened because there is absolutely no flexibility in the system.

Everybody is struggling. Our businesses are struggling, and our entire community is struggling, but where is the DUP? It is trying to find some quick fix to a problem that it created by abdicating its responsibilities and walking out of the Assembly. I can safely say that the families in its constituencies and in all our constituencies would far rather be able to heat their homes and feed their children today than worry about the distraction over a protocol. That is the reality of the situation.

I hope that the days of the veto over the House are long gone. The messing has to stop. People elect every Member of the House to find solutions to the problems that we face, and there is no greater problem than that of poverty. We are elected to lift people out of poverty and improve their lives, and we could solve the problem today — right now — if the DUP would swallow the lump in its throat and get in and do the job that it has been elected to do.

This is a very serious situation: make no mistake about that. I assure people that, if there is a solution to be found, it can be found in the House. People are furious, and they are disgusted. They want a solution to this, and parties in the House can find it. The SDLP is proposing solutions to the crisis, as are others, but it is very clear that, when the solution is needed, the DUP is sitting on its hands.

Equally, on the other side of the House, we see that Sinn Féin, in the South of this island, has said that the €200 payment is not enough, but, here in the North, that £200 is more than sufficient. That needs to be addressed. We need more money going into people's homes. We need more money now to support people through this crisis so that they can feed their children, feed their families and get some heat and comfort.

It is a good job that we are in the month that we are in — March — and headed for the summer. Imagine if we were headed into the heart of winter when facing this crisis. I would have no confidence that some parties in the House would move too swiftly to resolve it. It is about putting people first. That is why we were elected. Swallow this now, get on with it and put people first.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member's time is up.

Mr McCrossan: Get back into the Executive. Put heat back into people's homes and food on their table.

Mr McNulty: The cost of living is out of control. Hard-working families are really struggling, and we are facing the biggest cost-of-living crisis in a generation. Working families are buckling under the pressure of the exploding cost of heating a home, running a car and putting food on the table. Five hundred litres of oil cost over £600, the price at the pumps in my constituency is among the highest in the North, with some having to pay close to £2·00 for a litre of diesel. That added burden is making it impossible for families to keep their kids in new clothes, make improvements around the house or, God forbid, put a few pounds away for the future.

Sinn Féin has brought the issue before the House today, but the question has to be asked: what has it been doing for the last six months? The Minister of Finance and the Minister for Communities control the purse strings and the allocation of welfare. What have they done?

Universal credit has been cut, emergency winter fuel payments are nowhere to be seen, the £200 fuel payment has been rejected, and what about the £300 million pot on the Executive table? Just point at the DUP. Meanwhile, the SDLP is working to find the stone that can be turned over to unlock that money and give it to the people and families who need it.

The SDLP has called for a cap on the profits of energy companies. That has been dismissed. Families are on their hands and knees. They are in need of urgent and immediate help. The SDLP is driving emergency legislation to unlock that £300 million, as I said, which must be made accessible to the families who need it and to the people on the ground who are struggling, on their hands and knees, and need that money. It has been stopped because of the DUP, which has exonerated itself of all responsibility. The DUP is the despicable unionist party. That is what that action is: despicable.

The big two parties in our Executive twist themselves into all sorts of shapes to change rules and laws when it benefits them and their mates — "themselves alone". However, when it comes to stretching themselves to give breathing space to working families, they sit in silence, point fingers at each other and do not help people who need help now.

Assembly Business

Mr O'Dowd: I beg to move

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 14 March 2022.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 14 March 2022.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

Executive Committee Business

That the Pensions Regulator (Employer Resources Test) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit to the debate. I call on the Minister to open the debate on the motion.

Ms Hargey: The rule that we are considering provides the technical details for the employer resources test that was introduced by the Pension Schemes Act 2021 in connection with changes to the contribution notice regime.

The Pensions (NI) Order 2005 gives the Pensions Regulator powers to issue a contribution notice if certain conditions are met. The regulations provide the technical details that are specific to the employer resources test, which forms part of the Pensions Regulator contribution notice regime. The regime enables the regulator to impose an obligation on the recipient to pay a specified sum of money to a defined benefit pension scheme.

The employer resources test enables the Pensions Regulator to overcome the challenges of assessing an act or a failure to act that has affected the financial strength of the sponsoring employer and, consequently, its ability to support the defined benefit pension scheme rather than damaging the scheme directly. The purpose of the employer resources test is to provide the Pensions Regulator with a tool to simplify the process to make an assessment of the impact of an act or failure to act on the employer at that time.

The regulation sets out how the value of the resources of the employer is determined, calculated and verified. For example, what constitutes the resources of the employer is determined as being the employer's profits before tax. That is a widely known and understood measure that is used by the industry, and it gives the most appropriate picture of the net profits that are available to provide support for a defined benefit pension scheme.

The general approach assesses the annual benefit tax position of the employer had the act or failure to act not occurred, and that is then compared with an assessment, including the act or failure to act.

The Pensions Regulator has issued a code of practice that aims to provide further clarity on how it will interpret and use its powers. In summary, the regulations enhance the regulator's ability to take action to protect pension scheme members.


12.30 pm

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee considered the statutory rule at its meeting on 30 September 2021. It understands that the regulations make provisions for Northern Ireland that correspond to those contained in regulations that were made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

The Committee heard that the statutory rule is set in the context of the Pensions Regulator's anti-avoidance tools, which are used to protect pension scheme members' benefits and include the ability of the regulator to issue contribution notices that require money to be put into pension schemes under certain conditions. The Committee understands the value of the Pensions Regulator in protecting the benefits of members of work-based pensions, reducing the risk of situations arising that may result in calls on the Pension Protection Fund and promoting the good administration of work-based pensions.

The Committee was pleased to hear that the regulations provide the technical details of the employer resources test. That is one of the additional tests provided by the Pensions Scheme Act 2021 to the contribution notice regime, which, if met, would allow the Pensions Regulator to issue a contribution notice when all other requirements have also been met. The regulations set out how the value of the resources of employers are to be determined and calculated by the Pensions Regulator in order to assess any impact of the act or failure to act on an employer's ability to support their defined benefit pension scheme.

As I have said before when speaking about secondary legislation on pensions, vast sums of money are involved in those schemes, and the granting of any additional powers to the regulator is to be welcomed.

In conclusion, the Committee agreed to recommend that the Pensions Regulator (Employer Resources Test) Regulations be confirmed by the Assembly.

Ms Ferguson: I thank the Minister and the Chair of the Committee for their detail and overview.

As we have heard, the regulations are technical and provide the necessary detail on the employer resources test and the purpose for which the Pensions Regulator will utilise it. We are all aware that the growth in occupational pensions is continuing, particularly following the introduction of automatic enrolment. Therefore, it is vital that all steps are taken to minimise any potential risks and provide as much protection as possible for people's savings. I am content to support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Can we bring Kellie Ferguson onto our screens? Sorry, Kellie Armstrong. Apologies, I call Kellie Armstrong.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I forgive you completely.

On behalf of Alliance, I support the passing of the Minister's legislation. The legislation makes technical changes to the contribution notice and provides the Pensions Regulator with the tool to simplify the process to assess employers' resources.

The sponsoring employer of a defined pensions benefits scheme is responsible for ensuring that the scheme is adequately funded to pay members' pensions when they fall due. The Pensions Regulator has oversight of occupational pensions and, where necessary, can take action to safeguard pension scheme members under pensions legislation.

The regulations introduce two additional tests to the contribution notice regime, one of which is the employer resources test. The Pensions Regulator has faced difficulties in forecasting the medium- and long-term performance of businesses for the purposes of the existing material detriment test. That has been because of the need to extrapolate performance into the future amid the uncertainty and challenges that exist. The employer resources test is designed to assess that on the basis of a snapshot, thereby removing the need to forecast how employers might perform in the future, absent to the act or failure to the act. We support the legislation.

Ms Hargey: Thanks very much to the Communities Committee and its Chair. The rule is seeking to combat those who want to avoid their responsibilities to pension schemes, and provides for greater security for members' defined benefits and retirement savings. I commend the motion to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Pensions Regulator (Employer Resources Test) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill.

Moved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): As no amendments have been tabled, there is no opportunity to discuss the Support for Mortgage Interest etc (Security for Loans) Bill today. Members will, of course, be able to have a full debate at Final Stage. The Further Consideration Stage is, therefore, concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

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

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

Mr Swann: Members are considering a single statutory rule that removes the remaining COVID-19 restrictions from regulation. SR 2022/47, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Revocation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 15 February and came into operation at 5.00 pm that day.

It had been the Executive's intention to review the remaining restriction regulations at their meeting on 10 February. Work had been done to assess the options available and the likely impact. In light of the position with the virus, the pressures upon the health service and the Executive's commitment not to have regulations in place any longer than necessary, I concluded that there was a case for ending the remaining legal restrictions. My conclusion also included a determination that the measures contained in the regulations should be the subject of official guidance to the public and to organisations.

It is worth noting the measures. Shop managers and anyone organising gatherings over a certain size should still conduct a risk assessment and take all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission. Managers of hospitality and entertainment venues should still conduct a risk assessment, take all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission and collect visitor information. Managers of tourist accommodation or close-contact services and anyone organising a wedding or civil partnership ceremony should still collect visitor information. Anyone organising a funeral or wake should still comply with Department of Health guidance on funerals. No one should meet indoors in groups of more than 30. COVID certification should still be used in hospitality and entertainment venues. People should wear a face covering in enclosed public areas; in premises such as restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs; on public transport; for driving instruction; and in close-contact service settings.

Due to matters beyond my control or that of my Department, the Executive meeting that was scheduled for 10 February did not take place. That resulted in some uncertainty, as any previous decisions in respect of COVID-19 regulations had been made at Executive level. Having reached my conclusion regarding the removal of restrictions, I sought legal clarity from the Attorney General on whether I could implement this policy and revoke the regulations without seeking a decision from the Executive.

In light of legal advice, I wrote to my fellow Executive Ministers on 10 February, seeking their views. I was pleased to note that my ministerial colleagues supported my approach, enabling me to take the decision. Therefore, I instructed my officials to revoke the remaining restrictions, with the legislation coming into effect on 15 February. However, while the legal restrictions may have come to an end, the pandemic certainly has not, and any measures that were in regulations have moved to guidance.

It is vital that we continue to observe the sensible measures that we have learned to use in order to protect ourselves and others, such as meeting outdoors where possible, good ventilation indoors, the use of high-quality face coverings where appropriate in indoor settings, self-isolation when symptomatic or after a positive test, and uptake of vaccination, including boosters. Those measures form a baseline of good practice for the foreseeable future, and they will contribute to reducing the risk for the most vulnerable members of society.

Furthermore, it is important to retain our ability to make regulations again in case of urgent need. As previously communicated to the Executive, I intend to seek an extension of six months to the powers granted to the Department by the Coronavirus Act 2020. In line with that legislation, I plan to bring those measures before the House in the near future. I sincerely hope that we will not need to use those powers, but I cannot assume that there will be no need to protect the public from a new variant in future. Even with those powers in place, however, it would almost certainly be impossible to introduce new restrictions in the absence of an Executive.

Again, I would like to take this opportunity to urge everyone to continue to make safer choices and follow the public health advice. Doing that will not only help to keep you, your family and others safe but will undoubtedly help to keep our society and economy open and will reduce the pressures on our health system as we aim to return our society to normality. I commend the motion to the Assembly.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I welcome the opportunity to make some brief remarks as Chair of the Health Committee on this matter. The Committee welcomes that we are in a place where we can look at how restrictions can be lifted. We got to this point thanks to the vast majority of the population who have been following the guidance and the rules through very difficult and challenging times. I thank everyone for their patience over that period.

We are also at this point thanks to the vaccination programme. I thank all those who have taken part in that programme, including GPs and their staff, pharmacies, other vaccinators in our centres and mobile teams. I will continue to encourage people to come forward to get their vaccinations and boosters when they can. Most importantly at this point, I wish to acknowledge the absolutely massive contribution of our health and social care staff, who have cared for our most vulnerable, our families and friends when we were unable to and, indeed, provided love and support to them in very difficult times. I thank them for all their work and for the support that they continue to provide to families and communities.

However, while it is welcome that we are considering the easing of restrictions, we are not through this pandemic yet. We consistently have more than 300 people with COVID in our hospitals, and we are seeing COVID-related deaths daily. It is therefore important that we all continue to play our part and follow the guidance, including wearing masks, social distancing and good hand hygiene, as appropriate.

The Committee was briefed on the rules by officials on 3 February and welcomes the clarity that was provided by the amendment to the wearing of face coverings regulations, which removed the requirement to provide proof of exemption and reinstated the reasonable excuse of severe distress. That issue caused the Committee some concern during its consideration of a previous rule and the Committee welcomes the clarity that is provided by this rule. However, I ask the Minister to provide further clarity — I know that he has touched on it — on his intention to extend the underpinning regulations. It will be useful to know whether the Health Minister is able to bring forward further rules if no First Minister and deputy First Minister are in place.

The Committee considered these regulations, and members agreed that they were content that they be approved by the Assembly.


12.45 pm

Mrs Cameron: I support the motion before the House to revoke these health regulations. We have had many such debates in the Chamber, and this is another one. That we are very much heading in the right direction is a good-news story.

I, too, thank all those involved in the incredible efforts against coronavirus, especially the vaccination roll-out, and applaud all those in the health service who, in the past couple of years, have struggled with treating ill patients. Indeed, we think of the families who have lost loved ones throughout the pandemic. We cannot forget their loss. Their grief is still there to be seen.

It is appropriate to support the motion. Like the Chair, I advise people that it is good to adhere to the guidance in place and to take common-sense action to protect themselves and others as we make our way, hopefully, through the final stages of the pandemic.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for bringing forward the regulations. As other Members have said, this is the sort of day that we hoped for when we introduced all those rules two years ago. We hoped that we would get to the stage at which we could start to undo the legislative requirements of people. It is key that we note that we are where we are today because so many people have gone the extra mile and done what they can, be that simply putting on a face mask when going into a shop. That may have helped to stop the virus spreading to all the people in the shop, who could have become very sick and ended up in hospital. We also thank our health service staff, who went the extra mile to do the work that they did. Like everybody else, they had to wear a mask and will still need to do so.

We want to see more of this sort of day, because it speaks to the fact that we are moving away from the virus. It is, however, still here. It is still present, and it therefore has the potential to spread. Some of the simplest methods to stop its spread are good hand hygiene, social distancing and continuing to wear a face mask. I know that many of us will continue to wear one when we are in places where we are in close contact with people. That is the type of intervention that will continue to help. I welcome this important step today, and I am delighted that the SDLP can support it.

Ms Bradshaw: I support the regulation changes today. I appreciate that the Minister was put in a difficult position by the absence of an Executive shortly before announcing the revocation. Nevertheless, I have two specific concerns.

First, I am concerned about the lack of scrutiny afforded to this step. Although the regulations were brought in under emergency legislation, it is unclear why they should be revoked without consultation when the emergency legislation to reinstate them is still in place. A few days before the announcement, it seemed to most of us that the next step in the removal of restrictions would be relatively minor. What was announced, however, was extremely significant: an outright revocation that went well beyond what any of our neighbours was doing at the time. Whatever our views on the rights and wrongs of that, we are left entirely unclear as to what expert advice enabled that step to be taken at the time.

That touches on the other aspect, which, as ever, is communications. Questions on the announcement were taken by a senior official, who was left to reveal that self-isolation after a positive test had never, in fact, been a legal requirement. For some time after the announcement, public signs and announcements in certain locations, such as on trains and buses, still stated that face coverings were mandatory, suggesting that there had been little warning that complete revocation of the regulations was expected across all public services. Of course, face coverings remained mandatory in schools, potentially causing further confusion about exactly on what grounds they were not legally necessary elsewhere.

Notably, while most of us broadly welcomed the move, not just because it enabled us to do more things freely but because it suggested conclusively that the omicron variant was not as severe, others did not see it that way. For some, not least those who are clinically vulnerable, it caused significant anxiety — we have covered that subject many times in the Health Committee in recent months — and there was no clear guidance on what they should do now. Some people were getting quite ill, and others were expressing extreme concern about what would happen if they contracted the virus, given their underlying condition. With daily numbers of infections still running in the thousands amongst a population of under two million, we must do far more to address that anxiety. I commend the many people and organisations who continue to act responsibly, not least on behalf of those clinically vulnerable people. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about guidance for those who are clinically vulnerable and who perhaps remain anxious about a virus that is still out there.

Mr Chambers: This is an occasion to, once again, as others have said, praise the Northern Ireland public for how they have stepped up to the plate to help to curtail the spread of COVID infection. We have asked people to make personal, family and employment sacrifices. Thankfully, the majority of the public did exactly that. At the start of the pandemic, we were fearful about facing the complete collapse of our health service and about hospitals and GP practices collapsing with the sheer volume of people presenting with the infection. Because of all of the sacrifices that the public made and the public compliance, those doomsday scenarios were averted. The guidance in the regulations that were brought to the House definitely contributed to that situation.

The arrival of the vaccine was a game changer. We cannot praise enough or often enough all of the staff who were involved in coordinating that programme. Nearly 4 million doses of COVID vaccine have been administered, and that is on top of the annual routine flu vaccination. Everybody involved in that deserves the highest praise that we can give them.

I have noticed that a lot of people are still comfortable to wear a mask. That is fine. If they feel comfortable doing that, I encourage them to do so. I also encourage people, as others have done, to continue to take the simple, basic precautions that came out at the start: wash your hands, socially distance and do not go into crowded areas. I call on the public to continue to do that. I support the motion.

Mr Frew: I rise to welcome the move by the Health Minister today but also to show concern that he uses this opportunity to slip into the House the fact that he intends to extend his powers for a further six months. Those powers were used to discriminate against people by preventing them from entering premises solely on the basis of their vaccination status, due to the vaccine certification scheme; close down gyms but leave open off-sales; close down businesses providing a service and a living; prevent people from earning a living and going to work; isolate people in care homes, away from their families and their care; and prevent loved ones from even attending vulnerable loved ones in their own homes or providing food and assistance in care. Those powers were also used to fine people who were swimming in the sea or walking along a beach. All of that was done without sufficient evidence, justification, information or data being provided to the population. No transparency or openness was provided to our people. People have suffered; in fact, people will suffer for years on end.

Ms Bradshaw: Will the Member give way?

Mr Frew: Yes, I will.

Ms Bradshaw: I have stood in the Chamber many times and criticised the Minister or challenged him to reveal evidence. On every occasion, he has come back to tell me where that evidence could be found. You have used the word "transparency": that was wrong, in this context. If you had wanted the information, you probably could have found it.

Mr Frew: I thank the Member for her intervention. The people out there have not seen that evidence. When the Minister has mentioned some evidence, on most occasions, it has been outdated and scant. It has not been sufficient for the population out there, yet the Minister wants to extend his powers, in the midst of an election period when there will be no Executive and no Assembly to hold him to account. That is not sufficient or appropriate.

I ask the Minister why he is bringing that information to us on the back of another piece of legislation. Why does he not even make a contribution to the House on its own by making a statement justifying why he needs those powers?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister of Health, Robin Swann, to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the motion.

Mr Swann: I very much welcome today's debate on the regulations to revoke the health protection restrictions regulations and the face covering regulations. I thank Members for their contributions.

I will turn to some of the points that Members made. I thank the Chair and the Deputy Chair for their continuing support, for their encouragement of the vaccine programme and for encouraging people to come forward to get the vaccine. Our vaccine programmes and clinics are still running, so I encourage anyone who can avail themselves of them to come forward and get it.

The Chair asked about who can make the extension in the absence of an Executive, and that touches slightly on Mr Frew's point. The purpose of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) Order (Northern Ireland) is to extend the expiry date of section 48 and the provisions in schedule 18 to the Coronavirus Act. Those are due to expire on 24 March 2022. I have written to the Business Committee asking that a debate be held on the extension, Mr Frew, so you will get the opportunity to have your say at that point. That debate will be on a six-month extension.

If an Executive is not formed or in place after the next election, implementation of the regulations will remain the responsibility of those mentioned in the regulations, on the basis that the expiry date of section 48 and schedule 18 will have been extended prior to the Assembly's dissolution. It is not clear whether further regulations could be brought in the absence of a functioning Executive. As I have said, that is because of the likelihood that any such decision would be controversial and cross-cutting, necessitating an Executive decision. Regarding any coronavirus regulations, I have often mentioned the fact that the decisions were taken by the Executive as a whole. I point out that, at one point, I received a message saying that the Executive collectively agreed the emergency procedures, including DUP Ministers: I thanked the leader of the DUP for his message at that point.

Mr McGrath: Will the Minister give way?

Mr McGrath: Does the Minister agree that, while he wants to be able to take decisions that may save lives, for him to be criticised for doing so by people who are in a party that refuses to give us an Executive to take those decisions is downright cheeky? It is absolutely cheeky of people to sit here and say, "We are not going to give you an Executive. If the Executive need to take decisions to save lives, how dare anybody else do that?". It is the ultimate act of cheek. I wish that Members of certain parties would reflect on what they are depriving people of.

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his intervention. I will not expand on that, because I do not think that Members want to be here for as long as I could take. I note, however, that not all Members of a single party hold that position.

I have been supported in the past in statements made not just by ministerial colleagues and Health Committee members but, on a number of occasions, by the party leader. I thank the Member for his points about utilisation and the fact that, as we move from regulation to guidance, those baseline measures are in place. I encourage people to continue to follow them.


1.00 pm

In an intervention, Ms Bradshaw talked about her ability to challenge and ask questions about the regulations. All members of the Health Committee have done that on all occasions on which my officials or I have been in front of them. As I have often said, the regulations have always been debated in the House in a way that I have not liked, but I pointed out recently that it has been left solely to me to bring them forward, rather than their being brought forward by the Executive as a collective. Ms Bradshaw made a point about communication on how the change was brought about. As I said in my opening comments, I communicated with all my ministerial colleagues, who said that they supported the step that was being taken and the date on which it was being taken. The Infrastructure, Education and Justice Ministers, and others, supported those steps. They were all aware of my intention, and they all supported it. They were also aware of the fallout for their respective arm's-length bodies and Departments.

Mr Chambers acknowledged the contribution of our healthcare workers and what has been done and brought about. Accusations were made about me slipping something in and not wanting a full debate. I took this opportunity to flag up the fact that the debate was coming. The Chair and members of the Health Committee are aware that that will be brought forward. It has been tabled through the Business Office, and I am seeking for it to be brought to the Business Committee for scheduling. I will be here to have that debate.

I hope that I have answered as many of the Members' queries and questions as was possible. I thank Members for their contributions today and throughout the entirety of the pandemic. I also thank the Health Committee for its invaluable scrutiny of the regulations throughout the process. Once again, I reiterate that, although the legal restrictions have come to an end, the pandemic certainly has not. I implore us all to follow the remaining guidance so that we can protect one another, protect our health service and support society's return to normality. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

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

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The next items of business are two motions from the Committee on Procedures to amend Standing Orders. There will be a single debate on both motions. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion, and I will then call on the Chair of the Committee on Procedures to move it. The Member will then commence the debate on both motions. At the end of the debate, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call the Chair to move it. The Question will be put on that second motion. If that is clear, we will proceed.

In Standing Order 3—

Leave out paragraphs (11)-(13);
Renumber paragraph (14) as paragraph (11); and
Renumber paragraph (15) as paragraph (12).

After Standing Order 3, insert—

"3A. Political Designation
(1) After signing the Roll of Membership, a member may enter in the Roll his or her political designation.
(2) A member’s political designation may be 'Nationalist', 'Unionist' or 'Other'.
(3) A member may change his or her political designation only if—
(a) (being a member of a political party) he or she becomes a member of a different political party or he or she ceases to be a member of any political party;
(b) (not being a member of any political party) he or she becomes a member of a political party.
(4) Any change in political designation takes effect immediately after notification in writing is submitted to the Speaker.
(5) Where the Speaker has received a Notice of Political Designation from any member before the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution, the Speaker shall report the contents of that Notice to the Assembly.
(6) A Notice of Political Designation shall—
(a) be submitted by a member only where exceptional circumstances prevent that member attending in person the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution;
(b) be in writing;
(c) detail the exceptional circumstances which make it necessary for the member to submit the Notice; and
(d) detail that member’s political designation (see paragraph (2)).
(7) A Notice of Political Designation shall have effect only if received by the Speaker before the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution.
(8) Except where paragraph (3) applies, when a Member who has submitted a Notice of Political Designation takes his or her seat, he or she shall enter the designation set out in that Notice in the Roll of Membership.
(9) A member who does not specify a political designation (whether by entering it in the Roll or by submitting a Notice of Political Designation) may be designated 'Other' for the purposes of these Standing Orders and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
(10) In this Standing Order the term 'the Speaker' includes where relevant an outgoing Speaker or Acting Speaker (see Standing Order 3)."

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

In Standing Order 4—

Leave out Standing Order 4(1) and insert—

"(1) When all members have had the opportunity to take their seats and specify a political designation, the Assembly shall proceed to elect a Speaker in the following manner." — [Ms Ní Chuilín (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to 45 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have five minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. I call the Chair to open the debate on both motions.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Today's first motion from the Committee on Procedures is to introduce a new Standing Order 3A, with a consequential amendment to Standing Order 4. The Committee considered the potential for a newly elected Member to be prevented, by exceptional circumstances, from attending the first meeting of a new Assembly. That potential scenario was identified in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and Members having to self-isolate. However, although COVID is currently the most likely reason why a Member may not be able be attend Parliament Buildings, the Committee recognised that there may well be other legitimate, unforeseen situations that could prevent a Member from being able to attend in person the first sitting of the Assembly after an election.

Members will know that the procedure for the first meeting of a new Assembly is set out in Standing Order 3. Amongst other things, Standing Order 3 provides for new Members to take their seats by giving the undertaking and signing the Roll of Membership. A Member may not participate in Assembly proceedings or have title to the privileges of office until she or he has taken her or his seat. Standing Order 3 provides for the separate proceedings of designating. A Member may do this after signing the Roll of Membership by entering in the Roll of Membership a designation of identity as nationalist, unionist or other. The Northern Ireland Act provides that the relevant time for calculating the size of the potential designations is the end of the day on which the Assembly first meets following an election. Essentially, the potential designations given on that day fix the size of the political designations for the entire five-year mandate, whatever changes in political party membership or in the size of designation may occur after that point. Unless a Member has indicated her or his political affiliation by the end of that day, she or he will not be taken into account in calculating the size of the political designation to which she or he belongs.

The political designation of Members is relevant for two purposes: first, for determining the political designation of a party; and, secondly, for determining the size of the political designations of nationalist, unionist or other. The relative size of the political designations at the end of the relevant day therefore has a bearing on the appointment of the First and deputy First Ministers. It determines the provision under which First Ministers are appointed and from which designation the deputy First Minister may be appointed. Under the current arrangements, there is a risk that a Member's inability to attend and designate in person at the first sitting may affect the relative size of the designations and would, therefore, also affect which party gets to nominate for First Ministers. The Committee wishes to remove that risk. To address it, the Committee proposes a new Standing Order 3A, which would allow a Member, in exceptional circumstances, to designate by notice if they are unable to attend the first sitting of the Assembly. New Standing Order 3A introduces a notice of political designation, which may be submitted by a Member only where exceptional circumstances prevent that Member from attending in person the first meeting of an Assembly. Notice must be given in writing and shall have effect only if received by the Speaker before the first meeting.

I wish to highlight that the proposed changes tabled by the Committee relate only to designation. A Member will still be required to take their seat in person, and, if they cannot do that at the first sitting, she or he may do so thereafter by arrangement with the Speaker, in accordance with existing arrangements. As I said at the start, the most likely reason for this to occur is due to the pandemic. There could, however, be other exceptional circumstances such as bereavement or non-pandemic-related sickness. The Committee believes that the change is proportionate and reasonable and that it should be put in place before the end of the mandate. On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I am pleased to move the motion.

Ms S Bradley: On behalf of the SDLP, I support the motion. It is a reasonable adjustment that not just speaks to the times that we are working in but allows democracy to run its course. It is about designation, and it allows for a fair measure to be taken before any systems that are dependent on it can be run. The SDLP supports the motion.

Mrs Barton: The amendment that we are debating is to Standing Order 3, and it covers what happens in the event that a Member cannot attend, whether through illness or for another reason, the first meeting of the Assembly following a dissolution. That Member, therefore, would not be able to declare his or her political designation. That is important, as it may have a knock-on effect on the appointment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, particularly if the numbers are close. That risk needs to be removed. Given the importance of designation on the first day that the Assembly meets, which fixes the sizes of the political designations over the next five years, we had to look at some way of getting rid of the risk. To overcome the issue, a new term, "Notice of Political Designation", will be introduced to allow an absent Member to declare their political designation to the Speaker in writing, including details of the exceptional circumstances for their absence, which will be reported to the Assembly. That will allow for the proceedings for the appointment of a First Minister and deputy First Minister. The change is reasonable and proportionate, and the UUP will support it.

Ms Armstrong: I thank the Chair and the Committee on Procedures for tabling the change. As the Chair has set out, there are changes to Standing Order 3, and the changes to Standing Order 4 are consequential to those. While the Alliance Party supports the change, it does not resolve the big, glaringly obvious issue created by the St Andrews Agreement that designation is fine and dandy if you are a nationalist or a unionist, but, if you are "Other", it does not effect the change that is needed. That is because, should those in the "Other" designation have the numbers to nominate a deputy First Minister, they are barred from doing so because they are not "Nationalist" or "Unionist". That has been an ongoing issue in the Assembly and will continue to be so in the next mandate. It seems unusual that, for those who are "Other", if the numbers are there, you can be a First Minister but not a deputy First Minister. On the first day, when the political designations are counted, it is right and proper, for the reasons that the Chair has pointed out, that, if someone is not available, they can have their designation recorded. However, while we in Alliance accept that change, we are extraordinarily disappointed that, yet again, those who designate as "Other" are being treated as something different and that the issues that were brought forward in the St Andrews Agreement have still not been dealt with.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Deputy Chair of the Committee on Procedures to make a winding-up speech. You have five minutes.

Mr T Buchanan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures): I support the motion to change Standing Order 3 and introduce a new Standing Order 3A with a consequential amendment to Standing Order 4. That is simply a practical solution for an emergency or exceptional situation that could have significant consequences if it is not addressed.

It is fair to say with confidence that not many of us expected to see what we have seen or the changes that have taken place since Standing Order 3 was originally drafted and agreed. Therefore, it is right that we change Standing Orders to respond to changing circumstances. We live in uncertain times, and the lives of elected representatives are no less subject to the unexpected circumstances that arise in the lives of those who elect us.

I agree that the changes that the Committee is proposing to the Standing Orders are reasonable and proportionate and will achieve the intended objective, which is to address the risk of a new Member being unable to give their designation in person at the first meeting of a new Assembly and the further unintended consequences of that.


1.15 pm

I listened to the Members in the Chamber today. Sinéad Bradley made reference to the proposed change being a "reasonable adjustment" that:

"allows democracy to run its course."

Rosemary Barton made reference to it being it being "reasonable and proportionate". Although Kellie Armstrong said that the Alliance Party supported the motion, she raised concerns that it did not address the issue of designation. I think that everyone in the House, regardless of their political opinion, can agree that the first day that a Member reports to the Assembly is important and significant. Therefore, only in exceptional circumstances would someone stop any of us from being here.

During the Committee's consideration of the proposed amendments, it originally discussed temporary measures only in the context of COVID-19 self-isolation requirements and the impact that they might place on Members when the new Assembly sits. However, after reflection and deliberation, it was agreed that a more permanent provision should be made in Standing Orders, owing to the fact that other exceptional and genuine reasons may arise that prevent a Member from attending that first meeting. Therefore, I support today's motions and urge the House to support them.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

In Standing Order 3—

Leave out paragraphs (11)-(13);
Renumber paragraph (14) as paragraph (11); and
Renumber paragraph (15) as paragraph (12).

After Standing Order 3, insert—

"3A. Political Designation
(1) After signing the Roll of Membership, a member may enter in the Roll his or her political designation.
(2) A member’s political designation may be 'Nationalist', 'Unionist' or 'Other'.
(3) A member may change his or her political designation only if—
(a) (being a member of a political party) he or she becomes a member of a different political party or he or she ceases to be a member of any political party;
(b) (not being a member of any political party) he or she becomes a member of a political party.
(4) Any change in political designation takes effect immediately after notification in writing is submitted to the Speaker.
(5) Where the Speaker has received a Notice of Political Designation from any member before the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution, the Speaker shall report the contents of that Notice to the Assembly.
(6) A Notice of Political Designation shall—
(a) be submitted by a member only where exceptional circumstances prevent that member attending in person the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution;
(b) be in writing;
(c) detail the exceptional circumstances which make it necessary for the member to submit the Notice; and
(d) detail that member’s political designation (see paragraph (2)).
(7) A Notice of Political Designation shall have effect only if received by the Speaker before the first meeting of an Assembly after dissolution.
(8) Except where paragraph (3) applies, when a Member who has submitted a Notice of Political Designation takes his or her seat, he or she shall enter the designation set out in that Notice in the Roll of Membership.
(9) A member who does not specify a political designation (whether by entering it in the Roll or by submitting a Notice of Political Designation) may be designated 'Other' for the purposes of these Standing Orders and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
(10) In this Standing Order the term 'the Speaker' includes where relevant an outgoing Speaker or Acting Speaker (see Standing Order 3)." — [Ms Ní Chuilín (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures).]

Resolved (with cross-community support):

In Standing Order 4—

Leave out Standing Order 4(1) and insert—

"(1) When all members have had the opportunity to take their seats and specify a political designation, the Assembly shall proceed to elect a Speaker in the following manner." — [Ms Ní Chuilín (The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The next item of business is a motion from the Committee on Procedures to amend Standing Order 110.

Leave out Standing Order 110(1) and insert—

"(1) Unless the Assembly previously resolves, Standing Orders 110-116 (‘the temporary provisions’) apply in the period from 31 March 2020 to the end of July 2022."

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have five minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am pleased to bring the motion to the House, which proposes to further extend Standing Order 110 until the end of July 2022. Standing Order 110 applies the relevant time frame for all of the temporary provisions in Standing Orders 110A to 116.

As the Assembly knows, Standing Orders 110 to 116 were originally agreed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic back in March 2020. The purpose of those Standing Orders was to allow both plenary and Committee business to continue while adhering to public health advice and keeping Members and staff as safe as possible. Among other things, the temporary provisions provide for Members to participate in plenary proceedings remotely, subject to the Speaker making the appropriate provision; for proxy voting in the Chamber; for alternative quorum arrangements in Committees; for delegated voting in Committees; and for Committees to take decisions outside meetings.

I do not think that any of us could have predicted that, two years on from the start of the temporary provisions, we would need to be here today to consider further extending them.

This is the fourth time in two years that the Committee has tabled a motion to extend the temporary provisions. During that time, the Committee has kept the arrangements under review. We do not take lightly the decision to table a motion to extend them again. The last time that the House agreed to extend them was on 15 June 2021, when it was agreed that they should continue until the end of the mandate. Of course, that is only two weeks away.

Thankfully, the current pandemic situation is not as severe as it has been. The uptake of the vaccine and booster and people's adherence to public health advice have made an incredible impact during these unprecedented times. As milder weather approaches, I hope that we will be able to return to even more normality. The pandemic has not ended, however. There is still a high number of cases. It is still advisable to take precautions to reduce the potential spread of the virus. That is why the Committee proposes to extend the temporary provisions until the end of July 2022.

The Committee considered the risks associated with allowing the provisions to simply lapse at the end of the mandate without knowing what the situation might be in May of this year. The Committee decided against that approach. We did not want to take the decision unilaterally, so the Committee consulted the Business Committee on three options: to do nothing and let the temporary provisions cease to have effect at the end of the mandate; to agree to extend all or some of the temporary provisions to a date in the new mandate; or to consider whether all or some of the temporary provisions should be reviewed and considered for retention in Standing Orders on a permanent basis.

The Business Committee's view was that, owing to the changing circumstances of the pandemic, the temporary provisions should be allowed to roll on to the end of the mandate and beyond. However, it encouraged a review early in the new mandate. The Committee agreed with that approach. We highlight in our legacy report the immediate need for an urgent review of the provisions by the next Procedures Committee. We emphasise that the review should occur as soon as possible after the start of the new mandate.

On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I am pleased to have moved the motion.

Ms S Bradley: On behalf of the SDLP, I welcome the fourth extension of the provisions. I thank the Clerks, of the Committee and elsewhere, who, under stressful circumstances, were tasked with drafting the amendments to Standing Orders. Time has proven them to be successful on many counts, for reasons that should be considered in any future review. There is value in retaining some of the substance of the temporary provisions. It is fitting to thank the officials who stepped up at the time in order to safeguard not only the Members who access the Assembly but the many people who work in the Building.

We welcome the extension. It seems natural to extend the provisions to the end of the mandate, but I urge those tasked with the review to look at it in a wider context and see the many other advantages that have been enabled by the temporary provisions.

Ms Armstrong: I thank the Chair and the Committee on Procedures for taking forward the proposal. As a Member who is using the Standing Orders to attend remotely today, I know that COVID has not gone away. Those of us who catch COVID and are, unfortunately, not able to be in the Chamber can, fortunately, at least take part in proceedings. The Alliance Party will support the extension of Standing Orders 110 to 116 — the temporary provisions — until the end of July 2022.

I noted what the Chair said about the Committee's giving the matter consideration. It is right for the Committee on Procedures to do so. We know from the renewable heat incentive (RHI) inquiry that scrutiny is important.

None of us take it lightly when our vote is exercised by a proxy. When we vote, we ensure that we know what we are voting for and why we vote for it. It is right and proper that the Committee has put it in its legacy report that immediate and urgent consideration of the matters in Standing Orders 110 to 116 are considered as soon as possible in the new mandate.

Mr Allister: This is an unnecessary provision. We are at a stage where we should embrace normality in the House, and the House should not legislate, as it were, for the next mandate. It is a matter for the next mandate to reach a view.

There is some party expediency in the proposals. Proxy voting, in particular, has enabled a lazy and a centralised party approach to the House. Many people vote not knowing, in many instances, I suspect, what they are voting for because they are not even here to listen to the debate. Now, we will compound that by continuing to allow that lazy approach. That approach also allows parties to suppress any notion of dissent in their own ranks.

This is ill advised and is incompatible with the fact that we are approaching normality. It is wrong that the Assembly should make rules for any succeeding Assembly. On that basis, I am opposed to the amendment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Tom Buchanan to wind up on behalf of the Committee.

Mr T Buchanan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures): I thank Members who have contributed to the debate on the motion to amend Standing Order 110 to extend the temporary provisions in Standing Orders 110A to 116 until the end of July 2022. The last time the House agreed an extension was in June last year, when the provisions were extended until the end of the mandate.

While we are all pleased, I am sure, to see that circumstances relating to the pandemic have significantly improved, I do not think that we should completely let our guard down or allow the temporary provisions to dissolve entirely at the end of the mandate. That could put us in a precarious situation, if we were to return after an election and, due to the pandemic, Members still found themselves having to self-isolate.

The temporary provisions have been essential in allowing the Assembly and Committees to continue to undertake their work during what were and continue to be difficult and extraordinary times. They have allowed for remote and hybrid proceedings in the Chamber and have allowed members to attend Committee meetings remotely, vote by proxy and, most importantly, to continue to undertake an important scrutiny role. It is difficult to see how the work could have been undertaken had we been unable to use those arrangements and have them in place. We are fortunate that we have the technology and infrastructure that have allowed work to continue in this way.

I note the remarks of Members. Sinéad Bradley welcomed the extension but said that, in any review, the matter needed to be looked at in a wider context. Kellie Armstrong said that no Member treated the issue of proxy voting lightly and that Members are aware of what is going on, what they are voting on and what their parties were voting for. Jim Allister felt that it was unnecessary to extend the provisions as we are going into the next mandate.

As the Chairperson said, I can attest that the Committee has regularly reviewed the time frames of the provisions and sought views from other stakeholders when considering proposals to extend the provisions. This time, the Business Committee shared the view of the Committee on Procedures that, due to the rapidly changing circumstances with the pandemic, the temporary provisions should be allowed to roll to the end of the mandate and potentially beyond. That is entirely reasonable, and the Committee strongly urges the next Committee on Procedures to undertake an immediate review of the temporary provisions as soon as possible in the next mandate.

On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I commend the motion to the House.


1.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): There were Ayes from all sides of the House and a single dissenting voice from Mr Allister.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

Leave out Standing Order 110(1) and insert—

"(1) Unless the Assembly previously resolves, Standing Orders 110-116 (‘the temporary provisions’) apply in the period from 31 March 2020 to the end of July 2022."

That this Assembly notes the report of the Committee on Procedures on its 'Inquiry into Private Members’ Bills' [NIA 178/17-22]; and approves the Committee's recommendations contained in the report.

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

Ms Ní Chuilín: This is a legislative Assembly, the primary aim of which is to consider, scrutinise and pass legislation. Each of us has the right to propose legislation. I do not need to remind the House how significant and powerful a private Member's Bill (PMB) can in achieving an objective, not just for an individual Member but for the Assembly.

As Members are aware, the process for a Member to bring forward a PMB is set out in guidance from the Speaker. Members can choose either to work through the policy development and drafting phases with the support of the Assembly Bill team prior to the PMB's introduction or to bring a privately drafted Bill straight to the Speaker. The processes have developed incrementally over time, in line with increasing demand for PMBs and the success of a number of high-profile Bills.

When the Assembly resumed in 2020, the Speaker authorised the creation of a dedicated private Member's Bill unit specifically for the purpose of developing and supporting PMBs in the Assembly. The unit was provided with enhanced staffing resources for the remainder of the mandate and was focused on increasing support for Members and the number of PMBs that could be supported.

In 2020, the Speaker asked the Committee on Procedures to consider undertaking a review of PMBs so that any changes or improvements could be in place after the 2022 election. The Committee was able to start its inquiry only in April 2021, because, up until then, it had had to prioritise work on other aspects of Standing Orders as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the inquiry started, however, evidence was forthcoming from MLAs who had direct experience of PMB processes. They provided oral and written evidence to the Committee. I thank all the Members who contributed.

The Committee even gathered evidence from the Ceann Comhairle. That is the first time that a Speaker has provided oral evidence to an inquiry. That is particularly relevant, given his direct role in issuing Members' guidance and in providing the resources to fund the expert drafting of Bills.

The evidence made it clear to the Committee that developing a competent and qualified PMB and introducing it in the Assembly is a complex and sometimes very lengthy process. The Committee did not wish to make the process even more complicated, but it became clear that the current process could benefit from refinement and improvement, with a number of specific requirements being provided for in Standing Orders. The inquiry's findings identified the need for PMBs to have clarity on policy and scope and for consultations on them to be consistent. The findings also identified the need to ensure value for money when supporting Members with legislation.

I will start with recommendation 1, which is:

"In light of the evidence considered, the right of individual members to initiate legislation is a key feature of participation in law-making, and it is unlikely there will be a decline in demand for PMBs in future mandates, the Committee recommends that the PMB Unit is retained in the Assembly and that the Assembly Commission should allocate appropriate resources to sustain and develop the Unit."

The next issue identified was the scale and scope of PMBs. The Committee acknowledged that Departments have both the financial resources and the professional expertise to develop and consider large and complex Bills. With that in mind, the Committee agreed that, to ensure value for money and good legislation, PMBs should aim to be specific and narrow in focus in order to be able to effect the change that the PMB sponsor seeks to achieve.

Recommendation 2 is:

"In accordance with existing guidance and to ensure an effective use of public resources, the Committee recommends that members should ensure that, when bringing forward a PMB, the policy proposals contained therein are sufficiently narrow and specific in focus to effect the change which the PMB sponsor is seeking to achieve."

Recommendation 3 is:

"To address the issue of the high demand for PMBs and to manage expectations, the Committee recommends that the Bill Office should develop revised guidance for the incoming Speaker to approve for Members early in the new mandate."

The Committee further agreed that the guidance should set out clear deadlines and timescales for achieving key milestones in the development process, as well as details on the opening and closing of the PMB submission window and management of deadlines through the PMB development process.

Recommendation 4 of the inquiry report aims:

"to prevent congestion in the later plenary sessions of a mandate"

by setting a final deadline by which PMB should be introduced to the Assembly. The Committee recommends that that deadline should be set out in Standing Orders as the end of June in the penultimate session of the mandate.

Recommendation 5 aims to address what the Committee found to be the lack of parity between the two ways in which a Member can currently bring forward a PMB: either through the PMB support unit or by presenting one that is privately drafted to the Speaker for approval to be introduced in the Assembly. Members will know that privately drafted Bills are not subject to the same criteria or stages of development before submission to the Speaker. They are required only to be within the legislative competence of the Assembly and should come with an accompanying explanatory and financial memorandum (EFM). The Committee did not wish to prohibit PMBs from being introduced via the privately drafted route. It agreed that Bills introduced in that way should not be supported by the unit.

The Committee's recommendation 5 is that all PMBs must meet the minimum procedural requirements for introduction that are set out in Standing Orders, and that any Member who wishes to introduce a privately drafted PMB should be required to:

"a. undertake mandatory public consultation (parameters in similar terms as Bill supported by the Unit); and

b. have communicated the policy objectives and scope of the proposal to the relevant Department before they are submitted to the Speaker for consideration."

Recommendation 6 examined whether the sponsor of a PMB should have ex officio membership of the relevant scrutiny Committee. The Committee heard considerable evidence both for and against that, and, in the end, determined that there would no procedural changes in that regard. Recommendation 6 is:

"Committees will continue to manage the handling of evidence in relation to a PMB and weighing up the most appropriate level of involvement by the sponsor as well as the range of stakeholders for a Bill."

Lastly, recommendation 7 is:

"provision should be made in Standing Orders to implement section 15(3) of The Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016".

Making provision for an annual debate on the Executive legislative timetable in Standing Orders would be a helpful planning tool for the scheduling of plenary business, as well as for the wider scheduling of support by the Bill Office, and proposals to implement that should be brought forward without delay.

I recognise that we are now at the end of the mandate. These recommendations, if approved, will be set out in the Committee's legacy report for urgent action. I am pleased to move the motion and bring the report to the Assembly.

Ms S Bradley: I thank the Chair for presenting the report to the House. I support it on behalf of the SDLP. It was a timely piece of work, given the unusual mandate that it has been. Quite a large amount of work has been done on private Members' Bills across the House. I thank all those Members who fed into the Committee by speaking of their experiences. Most Members will be alert to the fact that, as much as there are plenty of private Members' Bills coming in, there are also a lot of different styles and processes behind each of those Bills.

Unfortunately, it has left some of the Bills quite problematic. There is definitely work to be done, and the report tries to speak to refining the process and bringing things into line.

Nobody wants to prevent any Member from bringing forward a private Member's Bill, but we all recognise that, in resource terms, Departments are the best place to draft Bills. Although private Members can go off, hopefully having exhausted all possibilities of a sponsoring Department taking the lead, and do that piece of work, they work with the unit, which is very able but very stretched, as came to light in our findings for the report. If resource allows, Members, rightly, have access to independent drafters, but we are then met in the House with different styles. Whilst Members may agree on the principle of what a Bill is trying to deliver, there can be complications that, quite frankly, end up eating up time on the Floor and add layers to what is already a very complex situation.

The report goes some way to speak to the difficulties that we found in the process. It speaks to private Members' Bills that make it this far, and many do not. If we have a more streamlined clarity of approach to deadlines and when Members should expect to present Bills to the Business Office and to the Speaker, that will make for better use of time on the Floor. We welcome the report today.

Mrs Barton: Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak on the report 'Inquiry into Private Members' Bills'. First, I thank all those who took part in the review and very honestly expressed their good experiences and those that were more frustrating for them.

It was firmly agreed that it was the right of individuals in this legislative institution to initiate legislation for lawmaking, and, given the number of PMBs that have been brought forward over the past two years, it is unlikely that the demand will decline. Therefore, the Committee agreed that appropriate resources were needed to sustain and develop PMBs in the future.

To prevent a repeat of what is happening at the moment with Bills and having a backlog at the end of a mandate, it was recommended that a final deadline for a PMB to be introduced to the Assembly should be set through Standing Orders and should be for the June of the penultimate session of the mandate.

As Members will be aware, privately drafted legislation does not have to undergo a mandatory public consultation and to have its objectives communicated to the relevant Department before they are submitted to the Speaker. The Committee, however, recommended that there be a mandatory public consultation, along with the submission of objectives to the Department and the Speaker.

The Procedures Committee did not recommend that it was necessary for the Bill sponsor to be invited to the respective Committee. That should remain at the discretion of the Speaker. The appropriate Committee will continue to gather evidence through an appropriate method of collection from the sponsors and stakeholders.

I support the motion and recommend the report.

Ms Armstrong: I thank the Chair and Committee on Procedures for their work on this important matter. Alliance believes passionately in Members being able to introduce legislation and the importance of ensuring good law.

We are incredibly fortunate to have the non-Executive Bills unit in the Assembly as an excellent resource to ensure that robust legislation is proposed. To that end, Alliance supports making it mandatory for all private Members' Bills to go through the supported private Members' Bill service, including privately drafted Bills. That will ensure the drafting of robust legislation with mandatory consultation.

It is vital that the private Members' Bill service enables access to the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) for Bill sponsors. If the OLC is the gold standard of legislative advice and input, why would we not provide access to it for a Bill sponsor? Why does a Bill sponsor have to depend on convention and the will of a Minister to take forward any OLC consequential amendments?


1.45 pm

As part of a consultation exercise, it should be a mandatory requirement for engagement with the Minister and officials of the relevant Department and, where necessary, multiple Ministers and officials should the proposed Bill cross over more than one Department. In addition to that, the consultation should include the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission. If a Bill is to be brought to the Assembly Floor, it is vital that those groups be consulted.

Having been through the private Members' Bill service, I think that it is extremely concerning that some Ministers and parties call Bills flawed and claim that they were not consulted on, even though those Bills went through hours of expensive and extensive private Members' Bill service and were worked on by professional drafters and Assembly staff. Therefore, it is vital that all Members are provided with clear and unambiguous written clarification confirming the processes that any Bill has to go through before it gets to the Floor and while it is going through the legislative process of the Assembly. That is why Alliance absolutely supports recommendation 3.

Much of the time of the Assembly and Committees is taken up amending Bills, especially privately drafted Bills. Alliance supports the recommendation that all private Members' Bills must go through the supported private Members' Bill service, as that will ensure that Assembly and Committee time is used most effectively.

It is vital that all private Members' Bills undertake a period of consultation before being tabled. The supported private Members' Bill service will ensure that that takes place for all private Members' Bills. We advocate that the outcomes of all consultations be formally documented in an agreed manner, detailing feedback and how it was dealt with. We already have Committee reports detailing their scrutiny. It makes sense, therefore, that Bill sponsors should have to produce a report confirming how they completed scrutiny in advance of drafting.

There needs to be clarification if a Bill sponsor has to consult again after a Bill has been drafted and published. My experience was that Bill sponsors are criticised for a consultation stage that some Ministers and Members appear to think is part of a process when it is not. The actual process is that, once a private Member's Bill is published and has been through introduction, it goes through the processes of the House, and the relevant Committee completes scrutiny. A second scrutiny stage is not completed or required to be completed by the Bill sponsor.

With an unlimited number of private Members' Bills available to come before the Assembly, there is the potential for a huge amount of business time to be devoted to this area. We propose that a ballot system, such as in the Welsh Parliament, be introduced but with a more generous allocation than the Senedd, where the Bills ballot permits only 20 Members to bring forward a Bill within a mandate.

Checks and balances should be introduced to ensure that smaller parties and individual Members are not discriminated against — for example, allowing a Member to introduce at least one private Member's Bill per mandate. The capacity and ability for Members to bring forward legislation must be balanced against the need to allocate time for Executive legislation. The lack of such legislation from certain Ministers has been notable in the current and previous mandates; hence, perhaps, the focus on private Members' Bills.

To make the best use of private Members' Bills, it is important that consideration be given to how to differentiate between those seeking to legislate —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Will the Member draw her remarks to a close?

Ms Armstrong: In conclusion, private Members' Bills are important to enable Back-Bench Members to bring forward legislation, but it is not appropriate for Ministers to break with convention because a Bill does not suit their political outlooks.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member's time is up.

I call the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures, Tom Buchanan, to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the debate.

Mr T Buchanan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank all Members who contributed to the debate on the Committee's report on its 'Inquiry into Private Members' Bills' and its recommendations. I appreciated hearing all the comments made by Members from around the Floor as they expressed their views on the review of the process of private Members' Bills. I will focus on some of those comments.

Sinéad Bradley supported the report. She spoke about the large number of private Members' Bills in recent times and the difficulties that there had been with some of them. She also said that this piece of work would need some refinement in the future to support Members.

Rosemary Bradley, sorry Braton, Barton — I will get it right yet — appreciated the resources required for PMBs and said that their further development would require much more resource than they currently get. She spoke about the final deadline for PMBs to be submitted to the Assembly, which was agreed by the Committee.

Kellie Armstrong talked about the PMBs coming through and said that they all need to be supported by the Assembly's PMB services. She spoke about her experience of bringing a private Member's Bill through the House and the checks and balances that are needed for such Bills. That gave us something of a flavour of what other Members said.

I echo what the Chairperson said when she opened the debate. She stated that the primary objective of the Assembly is to "consider, scrutinise and pass legislation" for the people of Northern Ireland. Private Members' Bills are a valued and useful means of bringing about significant legislative change for the people whom we represent.

There was much to be learned from the evidence-gathering stage of the inquiry. It was especially useful to hear directly from the MLAs who had sponsored a private Member's Bill in recent times and to hear their accounts of the process. It was also useful to hear from the Speaker, who articulated his views on the process. I thank the Speaker and all Members who came to speak to the Committee.

Having heard those perspectives, I found it particularly interesting to observe and participate in the debates as a number of private Members' Bills progressed through the House in recent weeks. A private Member's Bill is a valued and powerful means of effecting considerable change, and, because of that, it was important for the Committee to tread a fine line: setting standards and procedural requirements to make the development of legislation rigorous and thorough without restricting Members' rights to develop a Bill's purpose.

All the report's recommendations reflect the Committee's view. All Committee members agreed that the right of a Member to sponsor private legislation is highly valued and should be retained. The Committee agreed that the process of bringing forward or developing a private Member's Bill should not be overly burdensome; rather, it should be transparent, efficient and, very importantly, represent value for money. It also agreed that this mandate has been extraordinary, and, although it should not be used as a model of demand for PMBs in future mandates, it was clear from the figures and statistics that the demand for PMBs has been steadily increasing over recent mandates. As the Chairperson rightly highlighted in her introduction to the debate, Members who bring forward PMBs should be mindful of the policy objectives that they wish to achieve, and they should determine whether they are policy objectives that may be able to be addressed via other means. The point is that private Members' Bills should be viewed as one option to bring about a desired change, not the only solution. Rather than simply introducing a private Member's Bill, there are other ways of bringing about change.

The Committee was very clear that all private Members' Bills should aim to be narrow, specific and focused to effect the change that a Bill sponsor seeks to achieve. A private Member's Bill is not the best route for a large, complex Bill, a view shared by the Speaker when he presented to the Committee.

Another area on which the Committee agreed was the requirement for all private Members' Bills, whether developed through the private Members' Bills unit or privately drafted, to meet a number of minimum requirements.

Although it was acknowledged by the Committee that bringing a privately drafted Bill could be quicker, it was not considered fair or appropriate that privately drafted Bills do not have to meet the same requirements. The need to balance the right to legislate with fairness and value for money was at the forefront of our minds when we concluded that privately drafted Bills should, as a minimum, be accompanied by a robust consultation exercise and consultation with the relevant Department or Departments. Those new procedural requirements are not overly burdensome and still preserve a Member's right to use the option to have a Bill privately drafted.

Those are just some of the main recommendations from the Committee's inquiry, and the Chair has already set out some of the procedural changes that are involved. Like I said, the Committee's goal in making those recommendations was to make the process fair, cost-effective and not overly arduous.

Three of the recommendations involve changes to Standing Orders, should the Assembly agree to the report today, and, given the time that remains in the mandate, the Committee hopes that those recommendations can be implemented as soon as possible in the next mandate in order to assist Members through the private Member's Bill process. I look forward to seeing how those changes will make a difference to such an important process. Therefore, I am pleased to support the report and recommendations that are before the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the report of the Committee on Procedures on its 'Inquiry into Private Members’ Bills' [NIA 178/17-22]; and approves the Committee's recommendations contained in the report.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Question Time is due to commence at 2.00 pm. I suggest that the Assembly take its ease until then.


2.00 pm

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Minister McIlveen is pleased to advise that she has agreed the development and delivery of a platinum jubilee education programme to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s platinum jubilee.

The jubilee education programme will comprise five main projects, including a suite of curriculum resources that are linked to the jubilee; the big NI jubilee message from schools congratulating the Queen on her platinum jubilee; a jubilee poem-writing competition themed on the Queen and the jubilee celebrations; a big jubilee summer fair for schools; and a jubilee bake-off competition for pupils. All the projects link directly to the Northern Ireland curriculum and have the potential to enhance teaching and learning opportunities for all pupils. They will also allow school communities to come together in a spirit of fun and friendship.

The curricular resources will include a history module on the role of the monarchy; an interactive timeline of the Queen’s reign; lessons and resources that focus on the world, society and daily life in the 1950s; and a suite of film-based resources to highlight the Queen’s connection with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, utilising archive materials from the Queen’s visits. In addition, the Department for Education in England has commissioned a commemorative book for primary-school children across the United Kingdom.

Mr Humphrey: On this Commonwealth Day, I commend the Minister, in her absence, for her programme. Earlier today, we planted a tree to mark Her Majesty's platinum jubilee close to Lord Craigavon's tomb. Are there plans for the jubilee celebrations across our education sector to be extended to uniformed organisations?

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question. First, on the tree planting today by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I commend him for his work in ensuring that a very appropriate commemoration took place for that event. That was good work.

Secondly, I know about his interest in uniformed organisations and their importance right across Northern Ireland. In finalising the development of the programme, the Minister has specifically asked her officials to consider how they might work with uniformed organisations and other youth groups on jubilee projects in order to see how they can be involved.

Mr Dickson: Like the Minister, I pay tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the Assembly for planting a tree today to mark Her Majesty's platinum jubilee. Does the Minister — this is probably apposite as he is also the Agriculture Minister — have any plans to provide trees to any school in Northern Ireland that wishes to plant one to mark this year?

Mr Poots: Absolutely. We can give an assurance on that. If any schools require trees for tree planting, we can, given that Forest Service has an ample amount, engage with the Education Department on their distribution.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question. Priory Integrated College was announced as one of the major capital investment projects to advance to planning under the original Fresh Start announcement in March 2016. As Priory Integrated College is a controlled school, the project is being managed by the Education Authority. In common with all the Department of Education's major capital projects, the project follows the Royal Institute of British Architects' (RIBA) plan of work.

In February 2020, the Education Authority successfully completed the appointment of an integrated consultant team (ICT) to carry out the design of the proposed college. Following the completion of a technical feasibility study, a business case was produced, and that was approved by the Department of Finance in August 2020. It identified the preferred option as a new-build school at a site off the Old Holywood Road, close to Redburn Country Park. The new facilities will cater for the school's approved enrolment of 600 pupils. A brand-new handbook-compliant school building, along with indoor and outdoor sports facilities, will be provided.

The RIBA stage 2 concept design was approved by the Department in January 2022. The detailed design of the scheme — RIBA stage 3 — is ongoing, with the integrated consultant team working closely with the school to ensure that the design meets its needs. It is anticipated that a planning application will be submitted later this year.

Mr Chambers: I thank the Minister for that update. Does the Department have any concerns that the increase in buildings costs and potential shortage of materials could have a negative effect on its planned rebuild and refurb of education facilities across the sector?

Mr Poots: The Member raises a very important issue. The construction market has been affected by sustained increases in the cost of materials and uncertainty about the availability of materials. Significant cost increases were noted in early to mid 2021, and those continued throughout the rest of the year. While the rate of cost increases has now slowed, prices remain significantly higher than they were this time last year. As a result of the current conflict, we are in a very uncertain period for both the availability and cost of materials. Consequently, some projects now face costs that are significantly higher than those in the approved business case or, indeed, the tendered costs.

The Department of Finance introduced a procurement advice notice to provide a remedy for contractors who have been subject to significant and unforeseen cost increases. That has been applied to projects across the capital programme, where applicable. Going forward, a specific clause will be included in new contracts that will permit inflationary pressures to be taken into account. Business case addenda will continue to be prepared to take account of increased rates for materials during the life cycle of capital projects.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for the positive update on the much-needed new building at Priory Integrated College for Holywood and the wider North Down area. Can he provide an update on other capital projects in the North Down constituency?

Mr Poots: I can. In Sullivan Upper School, for example, there will be a new classroom block to replace temporary mobiles, a refurbishment of the art and design department and an extension/renovation of the 1938 extension at the main entrance. That is costing around £4 million. The scope of the project at Glencraig Integrated Primary School is yet to be confirmed, but a design team was appointed in August 2021, and a technical feasibility study is under way to scope the project. Some £3 million has been set aside for that project. A design team has been appointed for the project at the St Columbanus' College in Bangor. The RIBA stage 1 is with the Department for review. That will be an investment of around £4 million. The procurement of a design team for Kilcooley Primary School has commenced, and the project will be an investment of £4 million. The appointment of a design team for the project at Clifton School, Bangor, is due this month. Some £4 million will be spent at that facility.

Miss Woods: I apologise because I think the Minister covered this in his original answer, but I could not hear. Will he confirm when a planning application is due to be submitted? Do any time pressures exist by which Fresh Start funding must be spent?

Mr Poots: Fresh Start funding is available. Northern Ireland Water, for example, has advised the ICT that there may be issues with the water network capacity in relation to Priory Integrated College. That is an issue that has arisen on a number of Departments' capital projects. Obviously, it is causing concern to the planning element of the project.

Mr Poots: There has been considerable progress, to date, on the delivery of the actions contained in the report 'A Fair Start'. On 16 December 2021, Minister McIlveen provided an update report to the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly, which outlined the progress. The report is an ambitious, long-term action plan, with 47 actions spread across six years. The focus of the report is very much on early years, and the Minister has been keen to make progress quickly.

Programmes in the North Antrim area related to 'A Fair Start' include the Education Authority's Youth Service Horizon programme. Horizon is a two-year developmental leadership programme that is designed to help address underachievement in 21 areas across the Province based on the Education Authority's Youth Service assessment of relative needs. The programme will target young people aged 15 and over. The northern locality of the Horizon programme is being funded as part of key area 5 of the 'A Fair Start' action plan.

Five Horizon programmes are funded through 'A Fair Start', involving 75 young people in Ballymoney, the Glens, Bushmills/Dervock, Ballymena north and Ballymena south. In addition, Minister McIlveen announced, on 1 March 2022, increases in the total number of nurture groups funded by the Department, which bring the total to 62. The number of funded nurture groups has therefore doubled in the past two years. There are currently three nurture groups in the North Antrim constituency: Ballycraigy Primary School, Ballykeel Primary School and Harryville Primary School. Minister McIlveen's announcement on 1 March included a further three new nurture groups in the North Antrim constituency: Camphill Primary School, St Brigid’s Primary School and St Joseph’s Primary School.

Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for standing in for Minister McIlveen. I ask him to pass on our best wishes. I trust that she will have a speedy recovery. We welcome the response that the Minister has given to us today in relation to the report. However, what concerns are there in the Department, particularly in relation to the unacceptable draft Budget and the impact that that would have on the delivery of these needed interventions? I very much welcome the increase in nurture groups. That is an issue that we have championed over the past number of years.

Mr Poots: On 16 December, the Minister provided an update report to the Executive and Assembly, outlining the progress. The report is an ambitious long-term action plan, with 47 actions across the six years. The focus of the report, as I said, is very much on the early years. The funding for the delivery of the report needs to be in place to ensure that we can deliver it over the six years.

There is no point talking in the Chamber about educational underachievement, about more nurture, about tackling early years issues and about developing a high-quality programme and then starving the Department that has to deliver the programme of the funding that it needs to do so.


2.15 pm

In the past number of days, there has been mention of a mysterious £300 million that has not been spent but that could all be given, in one lot, to people who are in difficulties to run their home. Let us be clear: there is not £300 million of unspent money. The Department of Education was starved of funding by Minister Murphy's Budget. That is why his Budget was not agreed, not just by the Minister of Education. The Minister of Justice did not agree it, because there are big issues about not having enough money to pay police officers. Let us nail the lie that £300 million is available. Some money may be available, but the Department of Education, the Department of Justice and others have not got their requisite funding just to carry out the programmes that they currently have in place.

Mr Lyttle: I extend my good wishes to the Education Minister and reiterate the Education Committee's invitation to meet her before the end of the mandate.

A key action of 'A Fair Start', and, indeed, of New Decade, New Approach and pretty much every Programme for Government since I have been here is the delivery of an early education and childcare strategy. Why has the Education Minister failed to deliver that strategy? How can the Minister support the collapsing of the Executive, which has rendered them powerless to allocate a budget for that much-needed early education and childcare strategy?

Mr Poots: When the Executive were operating, the Finance Minister was not making the funding available to the Department of Education. The Member who posed the question has been a long-term critic of the Minister — on many occasions, very unfairly.

Let us talk about the scheme under 'A Fair Start' that I have brought to the Assembly today. It will deliver for young people, be they preschool children or young people who have fallen out of the loop and need opportunities to address their issues before they reach adulthood. Let us give that scheme a fair chance. The Minister has been excellent in identifying such a scheme to enable us to move forward on some of the issues, and I commend her for it.

Miss Reilly: Does the Minister have an update on the independent review of education? Will the panel undertaking that work draw on 'A Fair Start' during its review?

Mr Poots: No, I do not have an update at this stage. A considerable roll-out of the scheme under 'A Fair Start' is to happen before we get to a review stage. It is important that we give the scheme the opportunity to move forward. Having the funding in place to deliver it is critical. While we all recognise the needs of the Department of Health, let us be clear that they should not be met at the expense of children's futures or their education. Children suffered more than most as a consequence of COVID and the circumstances in which they were not able to attend school or mix with their peers. It is important that children get every opportunity. I impress on everybody in the Assembly to be supportive of the Minister of Education in seeking to get the appropriate budget from the Department of Finance. I hope that Mr Murphy will step up and ensure that children do not suffer further as a consequence of his Budget.

Mr McCrossan: I, too, add my well wishes to the Education Minister for a speedy recovery.

Given the fall of the Executive and the cross-departmental nature of the recommendations in the final report, does the Minister have any concerns that the 47 actions in the report may be delayed or, indeed, not delivered at all?

Mr Poots: We all want to ensure that the fall of the Executive is for as short a period as possible. We all know what the problems are around that, and we need to address those problems. Let us get back to the business that we really need to do. The Ministers have been working extremely hard in each of their Departments, but challenges of a cross-cutting nature will inevitably lead to problems. It is important to ensure that we have a system of governance where people elect people to make their laws, as opposed to one where people make laws for here without having an elected mandate to do so. That is better for all of us. I encourage every Member to support us in seeking to ensure that democratic accountability remains and that laws are not made in Brussels to be applied here with nobody holding Brussels to account for making those laws.

Mr Poots: Now that the House has voted to pass the Integrated Education Bill, the Member's question relates to when, rather than if, the Bill becomes law. The clear answer is that the Minister of Education does not think that equilibrium across the education sectors is possible under the Bill. The Bill places duties on the Department of Education and the Education Authority that do not exist for any other sector. As she stated throughout the debates on the Integrated Education Bill, there is one finite education budget from which all educational provision must be funded.

Due to the way in which "support" is defined in the Bill, the Department and the EA will be required to identify, assess, monitor and provide sufficient places to aim to meet the demand for integrated education. That, in itself, will generate costs. The Department must prepare and maintain an integrated education strategy to include provision for resources to encourage, facilitate and support integrated education and for the protection of the ethos of integrated schools. The EA will have to ascertain parental preference for integrated education in its strategic planning for education provision. It has no such duty for any other sector. The Department must include targets and benchmarks for integrated education and report against them. The Department has no such duty in relation to any other sector; rather, it seeks to ensure as far as is possible, with regard to high-quality, sustainable education and cost to the public purse, that children are educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. To suggest that any of those statutory requirements can be delivered without impact on every other sector is disingenuous. The Minister of Education is clear that the Integrated Education Bill will impact on every other sector and that that will be to the detriment of schools in every other sector. As she stated at Further Consideration Stage and Final Stage, the Integrated Education Bill does no service to integrated schools either. To put it simply, no child, no school and no sector wins under the Integrated Education Bill.

Mr Allister: When I came into the House, I thought for a moment that Minister Poots had changed not just his constituency but his Department, but I am glad that the farmers of South Belfast need not be alarmed.

In respect of the Bill that was passed, is the Minister saying that, given the supremacy that has been bestowed on the integrated sector, it would now be unlawful to restore equilibrium to other sectors? Is that not a dreadful commentary on how audacious and wrong-headed the Integrated Education Bill is? It has created an unlevel playing field on which other sectors will be put to detriment.

Mr Poots: There is no doubt that the impact on integrated schools will be significant in terms of how they can operate and their workload. Of greatest significance is the fact that every integrated school will have to, first and foremost, ensure that every class in every year represents the full range of categories set out in clause 1 of the Bill. That takes priority over the education that is provided, so the ethos of integration takes precedence over the education of children in that respect. I have to say that the impact on the other schools is hugely significant and hugely damaging. Its consequences are that other schools will now be placed on a lower part of the pyramid, with the controlled and maintained sectors at the bottom, the Irish-language sector in the middle and the integrated sector at the top. That is unfairness and discrimination against children, and those who voted for it and those who facilitated it should be ashamed of themselves for allowing it to happen.

Mr Delargy: Will the Minister agree that the demand from parents across the North for integrated education clearly is not being met and that provisions such as those in the Integrated Education Bill are necessary to meet it?

Mr Poots: Currently, around 93% of children are sent to schools that are not integrated. We can have all the surveys that we like, but there is high demand for those schools. Let me say this: a lot of those schools have higher levels of integration than schools that have the title "integrated". Integrated schools need to have more than 10% of children from one community: I can assure you that there are schools that have closer to 30% or 40% of children from a minority community in their area that do not have the title "integrated" but where the parents have chosen that that is the right model of schooling for them.

Let me say this: Members may think that this is a good idea, but, when you try to force people to do things, it often leads to a reaction that you do not want. I do not believe in forcing people into taking decisions against their will. I commend the schools in the maintained sector and in the controlled sector, which have worked so hard over the years to provide quality education, including for most people in the Chamber and for their families. I have nothing against the integrated sector — my daughter attended an integrated school — but putting that sector on a pedestal above all others and then creating an unfairness in the system is damaging to children in that system. The Member and the other Members who supported the Bill have voted to hurt children

[Interruption]

in the controlled sector and in the maintained sector. [Interruption.]

Mr Lyttle: Apologies for that noise, Deputy Speaker. I am not sure what is occurring there.

Would the Minister like to take the opportunity to confirm that the Integrated Education Bill does not change the common funding formula used to allocate funding to all schools in Northern Ireland?

Mr Poots: It is about the consequences of it. Once the Integrated Education Bill becomes law, it will generate a range of costs, both resource and capital, and some of those will become clearer over time. Because of the way that "support" is defined in the Bill, the Department will have to identify, assess and monitor, with reference to catchment and other areas, and provide sufficient places to aim to meet the demand for integrated education. The Bill requires the Department to prepare an integrated education strategy that must include provision for resources, including personnel as well as resources for facilitating the establishment and expansion of integrated schools. It must also include targets and reports on progress towards meeting them. The Bill introduces additional consultation requirements when the Department exercises any function related to integrated education, and that is potentially very wide-ranging, as, arguably, many if not most functions that impact on a school could be said to relate to integrated education. The Education Authority must ascertain the extent to which parents would prefer their children to be educated in integrated schools rather than in those that are not integrated.

If you divert all the funding that is currently in the system and focus it all on one sector, it does not take a rocket scientist, Mr Lyttle, to work out that it will lead to cuts in budgets for the controlled sector and the maintained sector. Again, it shows a reckless disregard for the children in those schools that you are prepared to cut their budgets to that extent.


2.30 pm

Mr Poots: The Department of Education is reviewing the use of restraint and seclusion in educational settings. Interim guidance was issued to educational settings on 10 May 2021 by way of DE circular 2021/13. When the review is complete, a report, including any proposals for change, will be provided to the Minister for consideration.

Ms S Bradley: I thank the Minister for answering the question because some of today's answers have not matched the questions in front of me.

With regard to this question, it would be helpful to have a timeline for that review. Will the Minister give an assurance that school nurture rooms are not used merely as a place to go because there is an absence of tailored SEN provision for many children? Will he also give an assurance that the layout of those nurture rooms will be, at a very minimum, at departmental standards?

Mr Poots: Again, there is a demand for additional funding from the Member, despite the fact that many schools will have less funding as a consequence of the Integrated Education Bill. During 2020, the Minister's predecessor asked officials to consider the issues of restraint and seclusion, including the appropriateness of existing guidance, in partnership with the relevant stakeholders and to report back on those findings and recommendations in due course. When that review is completed, a report, including any proposals for change, will be provided to the Minister for her consideration.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Questions 3 and 9 have been withdrawn.

T1. Mr McNulty asked the Minister of Education whether she respects our teaching workforce and, if so, to state why she has not moved to provide an acceptable pay offer for our teachers, especially in the context of the two years of hell that they have just experienced. (AQT 2141/17-22)

Mr Poots: The first element of the question — whether the Minister respects the education workforce — does not need to be asked because the Minister was a practising teacher and knows first-hand what it is like to be at the coalface of education. Therefore, she will want to do her best to make it a qualitative and rewarding place for teachers and children.

At a meeting with the Northern Ireland Teachers' Council (NITC) on 7 February 2022, management side made a formal offer of a two-year pay deal from 1 September 2021, worth 3·2%, which would have seen the removal of the bottom point of the current teachers' main pay scale and the addition of a further point at the top of the scale, with a similar approach applied to each of the pay ranges for school leaders. As a result, the starting pay for a teacher would have increased from £24,137 to £26,045, and the maximum salary on the main pay scale would have increased from £41,094 to £41,916. That pay offer was unconditional, recognising that overarching commitments still remain from 2017-19 pay and workload agreements to achieve efficiencies, and the offer was made despite a very difficult financial situation. The Minister hoped that that would have led to a completion of pay negotiations for 2021-22 and 2022-23 during the current mandate. At a meeting of the teachers' negotiating committee on 16 February 2022, the NITC advised that it was rejecting the pay offer. Management side engaged with NITC representatives on 3 March 2022 when it restated its commitment to continuing with the progress made to date and to work closely with NITC colleagues to explore what remains possible to secure a positive resolution.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his answer. With regard to teachers being exasperated, St Catherine's College in Armagh has 1,100 students, and it has no green pitches. I was there planting trees with Mr Timlin a number of weeks back for a wonderful scheme called Rewilding the Callan. The teachers are exasperated because there is no green space for the girls on-site. Will the Minister commit to providing a green pitch for St Catherine's College in Armagh?

Mr Poots: I am certain that the Minister will want to ensure that young people in Armagh have as good an opportunity as possible to have the facilities that they need for their education, recreation, sport and training. I know that the Member is keenly into sport and recognises its importance to education, but, again, before that judgement can be made, the consequences of the Integrated Education Bill will have to be taken into account. If there is a greater demand for integrated education in the city of Armagh, for example, that pitch will have to take a step back while the facilities needed to meet that demand are provided first. The Member may be learning only now the consequences of the decision that he and others made last week.

T2. Ms Brogan asked the Minister of Education, who will be aware that rising fuel costs are affecting many families and sectors across the North, including the bus and coach sector and, by extension, the bus operators that are responsible for transporting our children to and from school, how she will support the operators that are struggling to maintain their contracts. (AQT 2142/17-22)

Mr Poots: Outside teaching, school transport is, of course, one of the highest costs to the education sector. It has been challenging for every Education Minister who has come along. The transport sector is facing unprecedented cost rises. Therefore, each and every Department needs to look at that for each sector that it serves. One has to wait and see whether the hikes in fuel costs will be more permanent or whether they are driven by people panic buying, because, at the moment, the price at the pump does not reflect the price of oil. When we see what the more permanent circumstances will be, a decision will need to be taken.

Ms Brogan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire fosta. I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, I have written to the Education Authority outlining those very serious issues and how many contracts will have to be abandoned because the contractors simply cannot afford to run the buses any more. Will Minister Poots tell me whether Minister McIlveen will work with senior management in the Education Authority to find a resolution for those bus operators so that our children can still be transported to school safely?

Mr Poots: The Minister will absolutely work with the Education Authority to ensure that transport is available to children. They will also look at the contracts to ensure that they are upheld by the transport organisations and, if those organisations need assistance, at how that can best be provided.

T4. Ms Sheerin asked the Minister of Education to state what she is doing to tackle consistency in road safety outside rural schools, given that, in different areas, different standards and speed limits apply, which, as a representative from a rural constituency, is an issue that is always raised with her. (AQT 2144/17-22)

Mr Poots: The Department responsible for road safety is the Department for Infrastructure. The setting of speed limits and the implementation of road safety measures are the responsibility of the Minister for Infrastructure, not the Minister of Education.

Ms Sheerin: I thank Minister Poots for that answer. Two years ago, the Department for Infrastructure ran a very successful pilot project in which flashing lights were placed outside schools. A number of schools in my constituency benefited from that. A second tranche has been announced, but other schools in my constituency, such as Bunscoil Naomh Bríd in Tirkane, St Patrick's Primary School in Glen and St Columb's in Cullion, do not have safety measures outside them. I would like to see the Education Minister working alongside the Department for Infrastructure in order to ensure that the pupils who are going into those schools are safe. We see schools that have no room outside them for drop-offs and pickups. We see —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Could we conclude with a question, please?

Ms Sheerin: I want to find out what the Education Minister will do to work with the Infrastructure Minister in order to improve road safety and consistency of approach across the board.

Mr Poots: The Minister of Education will work with all other Ministers where there are cross-cutting issues. We commend the work that has been done thus far on the 20 mph speed limits and flashing signs. If the Member is advocating for schools in her constituency, the Minister is clearly supportive of further roll-out of that scheme, and she would be supportive of other MLAs who also advocate such facilities.

The safety of our children is always paramount. Watching the children in Ukraine causes us all deep anxiety and pain — how fortunate we are — but we need to ensure that, where possible, we provide safety for our own children. Therefore, the Department of Education will welcome any steps to improve safety, including the further roll-out of that scheme.

T5. Miss Woods asked the Minister of Education, who will be aware that the Executive Office is consulting on a violence against women and girls strategy, to state the involvement that the Department of Education has in that process. (AQT 2145/17-22)

Mr Poots: The Department of Justice leads on that strategy, and the Department of Education will have a role, particularly in those schools where many children come from circumstances where they are perhaps vulnerable. We must recognise that around 3,000 children in Northern Ireland are on the at-risk register. That should be of huge concern to every one of us. Not all of them are young women, by the way; many of them are young men and boys. Therefore, Education should do whatever it can to protect children, be they male or female. There are significant courses of work in the education sector, with reporting lines to social care and so forth.

Many children are safeguarded as a consequence of going to school. It was noted during the lockdown period that children were at greater risk because of their inability to attend school. I know that some Members were not that keen on children returning to school. It is a great thing that children returned to school. Those Members advocated against the return to school, maybe on behalf of a relatively small number of people. I can see a couple of Members saying to each other, "I wonder who he is referring to", but maybe that speaks for itself. Having children in school is a huge asset to the women and children's strategy in that the reporting lines are much stronger through it.

Miss Woods: To go back to the Executive Office's violence against women and girls strategy, does the Minister agree that tackling many of the issues that we as a society face with violence, abuse and other treatment of women and girls will necessitate an absolute overhaul of the way in which relationships and sexuality education (RSE) is taught in our schools and a shift in focus towards consent?

Mr Poots: I agree with her about consent. There should always be consent — always — and no one should be forced to do things against their will, just as no one should break the law, of course, which happens in certain circumstances. I have to question her conjoining that issue with RSE. As everything is looked at, you update, but it appears that the Member is writing RSE off as wholly deficient, and I do not think that the Minister or the Department would accept that.


2.45 pm

T6. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Education for an update on the COVID-19 guidance that was issued to schools last week. (AQT 2146/17-22)

Mr Poots: A number of mitigations are specified in the Department's guidance to schools. There is also a range of mitigations that will be put in place at school level to reflect the individual circumstances of each school. The DE guidance allows school leaders to be flexible in how they manage COVID-19 risks in their schools and builds on the learning that they have gained over the course of the pandemic on what works well and what works less well in schools. Schools are encouraged to take a cautious, risk-based approach to their operation.

The Executive decided in August that post-primary children should continue to wear face coverings in post-primary classrooms on the basis of public health advice. That continued to apply until last week, when the Minister announced that it would no longer apply. There continue to be asymptomatic testing programmes for post-primary pupils, special school pupils and all school staff, and the Public Health Agency (PHA) vaccination programme has been rolled out to those aged 12 and over. Schools are advised to maximise ventilation where possible, and the EA is supporting schools that identify issues with that, including the provision of CO2 monitors. Schools are encouraged to maintain pupils in consistent groups, where possible, and promote good hand and respiratory hygiene practices. They are also encouraged to facilitate social distancing where that is possible.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We have time for a quick supplementary question.

Mr Irwin: Will the Minister update the Assembly on the current figures for COVID in schools and the absence statistics?

Mr Poots: We do not have the current figures, but we know that COVID-19 is still prevalent and that there is a lot of it around. However, the strains have become diluted and therefore the impact of it, in terms of the number of people who have to go into hospital because of it and be treated in an intensive care unit, has reduced considerably. Therefore, the decisions made by the Department of Education and all other Departments will reflect that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members, time is up. Please take your ease before we move to the next item of business. Thank you.

Committee Business

That this Assembly notes the report of the Committee on Procedures on its 'Inquiry into Legislative Consent Motions' [NIA 179/17-22]; and approves the Committee's recommendations contained in the report.

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

[Irish text to be inserted.]

I call the Chair to open the debate on the motion.

Ms Ní Chuilín: As Members will know, the existing arrangements to manage legislative consent motions (LCMs) are set out in Standing Order 42A and were originally put in place well over 10 years ago. The Committee hopes that the recommendations made as a result of the inquiry will go some way towards enhancing the arrangements internally in the Assembly and for information-sharing and communication between the British Government, Parliament in Westminster and the devolved legislatures.

I will briefly summarise the main findings and then take each report recommendation in turn. The Committee's inquiry established a number of instances where the Assembly's procedures were not followed or where they were followed but issues arose nonetheless. The Committee noted with concern that there have been instances of legislation dealing with devolved matters passing through Parliament without the relevant Minister being informed or without them informing the Assembly in line with the requirements of Standing Order 42A. There have been instances when Committees have had additional time to carry out their scrutiny but the current provisions of Standing Order 42A have not allowed them to do so. The Committee also noted with concern the practice of the Westminster Government of legislating on devolved matters when the Assembly has not been made aware of the Bill that deals with the devolved matter and/or has not given its consent.

The Committee, therefore, concluded that, overall, there is scope to make amendments both to the practice of and the arrangements for managing LCMs in the Assembly that will hopefully enhance the Assembly's ability to carry out its scrutiny and bring more transparency to the process. Those enhancements include strengthening the arrangements to ensure that the Assembly is made aware in a timely manner of Bills in Westminster that require our legislative consent; improved communication from Ministers to the Assembly when normal timescales cannot be met; flexibility, where possible, to enable Committees to have additional time to carry out scrutiny and report to the Assembly; suggestions about how the Westminster Parliament takes into account the Assembly's position on legislative consent; and increased visibility of Bills that require LCMs and the work undertaken by the Assembly on them.

The inquiry makes seven specific recommendations. The first is that Executive Ministers must improve the timelines of when they lay memoranda under Standing Order 42A(4). Despite existing arrangements, the Committee found, through detailed research, that Ministers routinely did not lay legislative consent memoranda in line with the normal requirements. Having highlighted the evidence for that in the inquiry, we feel that it is essential that Ministers in the Executive proactively lay the memorandum, whether or not they are seeking consent at that specific time. From a procedural perspective, it is the act of laying the memo that is important.

Recommendation 2 goes a wee bit further in making changes to Standing Orders. It recommends that Standing Order 42A should be amended to include an explicit provision for a Minister to lay a memorandum before the Assembly whether or not the Minister has taken a decision to ask the Assembly to give its consent. That will remove any doubt on the part of Ministers that such an approach can and should be taken.

Recommendation 3 adds further detail to recommendation 2 by making it clear that, in the exceptional circumstances in which it is not possible to lay a memorandum within 10 working days, any memorandum should be laid as soon as possible thereafter and should set out the reasons why the normal deadline of 10 working days could not be met.

On recommendation 4, although the inquiry evidenced examples of Ministers failing to notify the Assembly of Bills that required legislative consent, the Committee was offered no explanation of why that was allowed to occur. We believe that one reason may be difficulties in obtaining the required Executive approval. Whatever the reason, it is the Committee's view that that practice is unacceptable.

As a result of that, the Westminster Parliament is legislating on devolved matters without either the Assembly's knowledge or, indeed, its approval. The Committee is against that practice and calls on Ministers to ensure that it never happens again.

With regard to recommendation 5, the Committee wrote to all Statutory Committees to seek their views and experiences of dealing with LCMs. It was clear from the responses that we received that time pressures were a big issue. In response to the challenges around the reasonableness of timescales, as reflected in the responses from Statutory Committees, the Committee recommends:

"Standing Order 42A should be amended to allow for more flexibility in relation to timescales for committees (where this is possible) based on the planned timescale for the passage for the specific Bill through Parliament."

On recommendation 6:

"The Committee notes with concern the practice of the UK Government legislating on devolved matters either when the Assembly has not been made aware of the Bill and / or has not given its consent. The Committee has corresponded with Parliament seeking procedural enhancements and improved communication and transparency in relation to Bills where LCMs are needed."

We also took the opportunity to bring the matter to the attention of MPs in recent meetings with the Westminster House of Commons Procedure Committee. Members of that Committee seemed unaware of how little engagement there can be with devolved legislatures at times, not to speak of the pressures of the time frames associated with carrying out the scrutiny of LCMs. From a Westminster perspective, LCMs are rarely mentioned. The position of devolved legislatures does not appear to be given any significant consideration. I took the opportunity to highlight to those MPs that, from a devolved perspective, the occasional lack of advance information and adequate time for scrutiny is completely unsatisfactory and, indeed, appears disrespectful.

The Committee acknowledged that that particular recommendation is not within its gift to deliver. However, it was clear from the inquiry that procedural enhancements were needed with regard to LCMs, both internally, here in the Assembly, and externally in information and communication between British Government Ministers, Ministers here and other Assembly Members.

Lastly, the Committee makes recommendation 7 for improvements to be made with regard to the overall transparency and openness of the LCM process. During its inquiry, information could be difficult to find and, indeed, track. Therefore, the Committee recommends:

"the Assembly should introduce enhanced recording, reporting and publication arrangements in relation to LCMs."

Given where we are now in the mandate, the Committee acknowledges that the changes to be made to Standing Order 42A cannot be made before the end of the mandate, but, with the Assembly's agreement today, they should be able to be brought forward as soon as possible in the next mandate. Therefore, on behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I am pleased to commend the motion.

Ms S Bradley: On behalf of the SDLP, I thank the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures for bringing forward the report. The SDLP is on record as having said often that LCMs are not the desired way in which to do business. However, we must all acknowledge that there are times when those methods are probably the only ones that will allow important legislation to pass and that it is therefore important that we get this right.

It has to be said that, often, when LCMs are not communicated well or the communication has broken down, it tends to feel disrespectful to Members across the House. I would go so far as to say that, at times, they could be described as nothing other than dysfunctional. It is important, therefore, that we look at this work and see how we can better connect this place to Westminster, which carries those LCMs.

It has become apparent to us that timeliness is probably one of the biggest problems in the system and that Committees in this place are being presented with compressed time, if any at all, to give their consent to issues that can be quite complex and to which they have not had fair time to give due consideration. Members of this place have understandably been left feeling quite angst-ridden at the fact that things are happening elsewhere that relate directly to us and the people whom we serve but that we have been excluded from the conversation. That is simply not good enough.


3.00 pm

The Chairperson spoke about the procedures in Standing Order 42A. We have made proposals in the report that could better bed down the system that is in place for recording the passage of LCMs, because, frankly, although we have been relying on the goodwill of others, very often, what has been done has fallen short. It is therefore time that we start to try to pin down the system better, because we cannot allow this dysfunctionality to continue.

Mrs Barton: When there is an issue involving devolved matters, it is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on those matters. The UK Parliament retains the power to legislate on them, however. Generally, if the UK Parliament wants to legislate on a devolved matter, it will not do so without a legislative consent motion's having been passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The appropriate Executive Minister has a duty to inform the Assembly of any UK Government Bill being introduced and either seeks the Assembly's agreement or explains why an LCM is not sought. Although the general principles of an LCM were found to be acceptable and robust, there are times that the legislation dealing with devolved matters has passed through Westminster without the Assembly's being informed.

A number of strengthening arrangements therefore needed to be considered. There must be an assurance that the Assembly is made aware in a timely manner of those Westminster Bills that require an LCM. There needs to be improved communication from Ministers to the Assembly if normal timescales cannot be met. There also needs to be additional time built in to enable Committees to be permitted to carry out the necessary scrutiny before reporting to the Assembly.

Although Standing Order 42A has worked for a number of years, given the concerns expressed, there now appear to be reasons for amendments to be made to the practice and management of LCMs that would enhance the ability of the Assembly to carry out a scrutiny role. There must be greater adherence to timeliness when it comes to the laying of a legislative consent memorandum. It should be laid within at least 10 working days in normal circumstances. In exceptional circumstances, where it is not possible to lay a memorandum within 10 working days, reasons need to be given. Greater flexibility is needed with timescales in order for Committees to consider memorandums. Standing Order 42A should be amended to include a planned timescale.

Finally, in the interests of improved transparency, Bills that require LCMs should have the Assembly introduce enhanced recording, reporting and publishing arrangements. I commend the report to the House.

Ms Armstrong: Alliance outlined in its submission to the consultation on LCMs that it is supportive of the current procedures in place to deal with normal LCMs. As the Committee report also details, we do not believe that now is the correct time for fundamental reform of the principles that underpin Assembly procedure in that area.

In our party response to the report, we detailed that consideration should be given to the rare occasion on which the Northern Ireland Assembly informs the UK Government of its opposition to an LCM.

Without the statutory footing of the Sewel convention — we recognise the complexities around this — it is important that the democratic will of those elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly is heard, and a level of scrutiny should be applied in terms of openness and transparency. Alliance supports and urges improved communication from Ministers to the Assembly when normal timescales cannot be met, and accountability and explanation from Ministers when they fail to comply with Standing Order 42A.

Alliance is pleased to see the inclusion of recommendation 7, which we fully support, in terms of the introduction of enhanced recording, reporting and publication arrangements in relation to LCMs. Scrutiny is an important part of the role of a legislature. In fact, it goes to the core of the role. The report outlines instances when Committees would have had additional time to carry out their scrutiny of an LCM but the provisions of Standing Order 42A did not allow them to do so. Therefore, I am glad that recommendation 5 allows for more flexibility in relation to timescales for Committees where possible, based on the planned timescale for the passage of the specific Bill through Parliament.

LCMs have become more common in the Chamber due to the pandemic and Brexit. The report details how, in terms of Brexit, this rise is expected to continue as we work through the legislation that follows on from our exit from the EU. It is important that the recommendations in the report are given careful consideration and that work begins swiftly to implement change ahead of the next mandate.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures, Tom Buchanan, to conclude and wind up the debate.

Mr T Buchanan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. I acknowledge that there has already been a lot of business from the Committee on Procedures today, and I appreciate Members' engagement and the points made during all the debates on the Committee's business.

This is yet another report that the Committee has completed, this time on its inquiry into legislative consent motions. The scrutiny of LCMs is sometimes an area of work that does not get the attention it deserves. Therefore, it has been interesting to hear Members' views on the topics that the Committee took a great deal of time to consider, seeking additional research in order to get a real understanding of what exactly the problems and issues were and where they were coming from.

Sinéad Bradley said that LCMs were not a desirable way to do business but there were times when they had to be used. She spoke about the importance of getting it right and said that timeliness was one of the biggest problems. From the Committee and from listening to other views, one of the issues that came through was that there was not enough time for scrutiny by Committees.

Rosemary Barton made mention of the general principle of LCMs and of times when LCMs have come forward without proper notification. She spoke of the need for additional time to be built in to enable Committees to carry out proper scrutiny. So it is back to the same thing again, where Committees do not have the time for the proper scrutiny of LCMs. Kellie Armstrong spoke about the importance of the democratic voice of the Assembly being heard and of the importance of scrutiny.

As the Chair said, the last time LCM procedures were reviewed was over 10 years ago, when the then Committee on Procedures introduced the current Standing Order 42A. Unfortunately, and although it is more than a decade later, it is clear from the Committee's inquiry that some of the same issues remain in terms of openness, transparency and engagement between Ministers and the Assembly.

The Committee was particularly concerned to note examples of when the Assembly was not made aware of Bills that required legislative consent. The question has to be asked: how can we, as a legislative Assembly, find that acceptable? The Committee hoped to hear from the Executive why that occasionally occurred, but we received no explanation. The Committee acknowledges that one reason may be the difficulty of obtaining the required level of Executive approval within the relevant time frame. The Statutory Committees made it clear that they were frequently not given adequate time to undertake the required scrutiny of a devolved matter, particularly due to a lack of advance information and partly due to the tight deadline set out by Standing Orders.

As a result of its inquiry, the Committee made seven recommendations. The small number of changes to existing Standing Order 42A could yield improvements in the Assembly's experience of the reporting of LCMs. Further improvements in making information available and trackable on the Assembly's website would improve transparency and understanding of the processes around LCMs for Members and the public. As the Chair set out, the Committee also sought improvements in information flow and better direct communication with Parliament.

As the mandate will end next week, we will, of course, be unable to make the changes before the end of the mandate. However, that work will be highlighted to the new Committee on Procedures in the Committee's legacy report, and I hope that it will be able to table the proposed amendments as soon as is practicably possible in the new mandate.

I am pleased to support the report and its recommendations. I commend them to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the report of the Committee on Procedures on its 'Inquiry into Legislative Consent Motions' [NIA 179/17-22]; and approves the Committee's recommendations contained in the report.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members, please take your ease while we move to the next item of business.

Private Members' Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call Mr Mike Nesbitt to move the Bill's Further Consideration Stage.

Moved.—[Mr Nesbitt.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments, which contains five amendments that deal with order to remove statement or cease distribution and with commencement.

I remind Members who intend to speak during the debate on the single group of amendments that they should address all the amendments in the group 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. If that is clear, we will proceed.

We come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 5. In the group, amendment No 2 is mutually exclusive to amendment No 1. I call Mr Mike Nesbitt to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Amendment No 1 not moved.

Clause 9 (Order to remove statement or cease distribution etc)

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): As amendment No 1 was not moved, I call Mr Mike Nesbitt to move amendment No 2 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Mr Nesbitt: I beg to move amendment No 2:

Leave out clause 9 and insert—

"Powers of the court
9. This Act does not affect any power of a court that exists apart from this Act."

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 3: In clause 12, page 7, leave out line 11. — [Mr Nesbitt.]

No 4: In clause 14, page 7, leave out clause 14. — [Mr Nesbitt.]

No 5: In clause 15, page 7, line 38, leave out "The provisions of this Act (including this section) come" and insert "This Act comes". — [Mr Nesbitt.]

Mr Nesbitt: I am glad to move amendment Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5. I note that all the amendments are in my name, but they are certainly not entirely of my making, and it is entirely appropriate to thank officials from the Bill Office, the Department of Finance and the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC), whose professionalism and engagement was invaluable to me in trying to tidy up the Bill, which is what the amendments are about. This is a clean-up, and as a man with my background — a former binman of some status — this is my favourite part and I was born to embrace it, eh?

I will go out of sequence, if I may, because amendment No 2 is the one that needs a little bit of explanation. I will deal with amendment Nos 3 and 4. There are two references in the Bill, as currently constituted, to the Department of Finance making regulations. However, the only area where I envisaged the Department making regulations was with regard to the operators of websites, and that was in the old clause 5 at Consideration Stage. That clause did not survive Consideration Stage and no longer stands part of the Bill, and, therefore, I ask the House to join me in removing all references to regulations in order to restore some coherence to the Bill. We leave out line 11 in clause 12 and leave out the entire clause 14.

Amendment No 5 is simply a matter of syntax. The OLC said that the preferred commencement phrasing is "This Act comes into operation". It currently states:

"The provisions of this Act (including this section) come into operation".

That is just a clean-up of the language.

Amendment No 2 deals with clause 9, which is the clause formerly known as clause 13. There was a clear policy intent in having that clause in the Bill at Consideration Stage, which was to close off any potential loopholes with regard to the old clause 5 and the old clause 10, neither of which survived Consideration Stage and neither of which now stand part of the Bill. In consultation, the ideal solution would have been an amendment to leave out clause 9 in its entirety, but it was put to me that that would be to reopen a decision of the House, and it is not for any Bill sponsor, be it a private Member, a Minister or a Department on behalf of the Executive, to try to reverse the will of the House.

The alternative was to bring forward an amendment, because it was put to me that courts can sometimes really push themselves to try to find meaning that may not have been intended, and that takes us into the area of unintended consequences. Therefore, the least risky form of words was that which we have come up with in amendment No 2, so I recommend that to the House. That is all I have to say.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: I just want clarification to make sure that I am following this. What, then, does amendment No 2 add? If you simply exclude clause 9, there would always be the residual powers of the court on this range of issues, so what does amendment No 2 actually add by stating that? Is there a reason for stating it?

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for the point. He is right to say that it does not add anything, but I cannot remove clause 9 because the House has already voted that it stand part of the Bill. It was previously clause 13, and, at Consideration Stage, the House said that it should stand part of the Bill, so I cannot come back and say, "Let us now remove that clause".

Mr Allister: That is what amendment No 2 does.

Mr Nesbitt: No, it amends it. An amendment is an amendment. It does not remove something; it amends it. I recommend the amendment to the House.

Mr McHugh: I thank the Member for tabling the amendments. As there are only five amendments, which are purely technical, I will keep my comments brief.

It is fair to say that the Defamation Bill that is before us today is very different from that originally introduced by the Bill sponsor. Following an interesting debate at Consideration Stage, the majority of Members voted to remove a number of provisions from the Bill as drafted. In particular, Members voted to remove the clause that would have introduced a serious harm test and the clause that had attempted to deal with operators of websites. We in Sinn Féin stated our opposition to those clauses from the outset. So, from our point of view, it is welcome that those have been removed.

We still have some concerns about clause 7, which is to do with the removal of juries from defamation cases. We are not convinced that removing juries will decrease the costs associated with defamation cases, and it may be the case that clause 7 contributes to the loss of confidence in the justice system, given that judge-alone determinations can be perceived to be less credible in the eyes of the public. That said, the Bill in its current form will bring some positive changes.

In particular, we welcome the common-law defence of justification and fair comment being placed on a statutory footing as the defence of truth and honest opinion. We also welcome the statutory defence that relates to matters of public interest. There are additional protections for academics and scientists who publish peer review material and for individuals or organisations involved in the reporting of court proceedings, as long as the report is fair and accurate.

The Bill sponsor's amendments tidy up the Bill, following on from the removal of four clauses at the previous stage. We are happy to support the amendments.

Mr K Buchanan: My comments will be brief. I had a conversation with the Bill sponsor this morning, and he said that his comments would be like a 45-second summing up of a 90-minute football match. I do not know what you will take from that, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I thank the Bill sponsor for his oral briefings and for the information that he provided to the Committee for Finance throughout Committee Stage and more recently. As I previously stated, defamation law needs to balance individual rights to reputation with freedom of expression and effective access to justice.

I will start from the amendment furthest down the Marshalled List and work my way up. We are content with amendment Nos 5, 4 and 3, which are technical, tidying-up amendments.

I should have interjected slightly earlier with a question about amendment No 2. Maybe the Bill sponsor will clarify the issue when he sums up. Effectively, my take is that amendment No 2 leaves clause 9 as it is today: it neither strengthens nor weakens it. My question to the Bill sponsor is this: if clause 9 had stayed as it was, would it have left the Bill stronger than it is today or weaker? The Bill sponsor will perhaps clarify that later. Apart from that little bit of clarity on amendment No 2, we are content to allow the Bill to progress.

Mr O'Toole: I will not speak for very long at all. We support the amendments, most of which are technical or tidying-up, as the Bill sponsor said. I was not aware of his past in refuse collection. However, given his estimable career in journalism, it is good to hear that his CV is as balanced as that. We do not have a problem with any of the amendments, some of which are very technical while others are tidying-up amendments because of the removal of the previous clause 5 around website operators.

As I was not able to stay after finishing my remarks at Consideration Stage, I wanted to say that my party and I are disappointed that the serious harm test was taken out. There were some legitimate questions about the previous clause 5: the potential unintended consequences and, indeed, its potential ambition about website operators and the social media universe. It is a shame, however, that the serious harm test was removed. Nevertheless, I very much hope that the Bill proceeds speedily to Final Stage and that, in the last few days of this Assembly mandate, it passes and goes onto the statute book. Other than saying that we will support the amendments, I have no further comments

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): There being no further notification that Members wish to speak, I call Mr Mike Nesbitt to make his winding-up speech.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the three Members for their support and contributions. I very much accept the legitimacy of Mr McHugh's concern about whether we do or do not have jury trials. I remind him that we now have clause 11, which factors in a review of the Act's operation, so that situation may not be forever. We shall see how it works out.

Mr Buchanan asked whether the amendment to clause 9 strengthens or weakens the Bill. The advice that I have been given from the Department and the Office of the Legislative Counsel is that it is better because it is a better form of words. That is all that I can say to you, sir.

In conclusion, during a conversation with Mr Buchanan, I made the point that my first job in broadcasting was as a sports reporter and that after a match, whether it was Gaelic, rugby or football, you had 45 seconds to sum it all up. When I came here, however, and was going to make a speech, officials in my party said, "Now, remember you have only five minutes", and I thought, "How on earth am I going to fill five minutes of time in that Chamber?". I commend the Further Consideration Stage of the Defamation Bill to the House.

Amendment made:

Leave out clause 9 and insert—

"Powers of the court
9. This Act does not affect any power of a court that exists apart from this Act." — [Mr Nesbitt.]

Clause 12 (Interpretation)

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 7, leave out line 11. — [Mr Nesbitt.]

Clause 14 (Regulations and orders)

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 7, leave out clause 14. — [Mr Nesbitt.]

Clause 15 (Commencement)

Amendment No 5 made:

In page 7, line 38, leave out "The provisions of this Act (including this section) come" and insert "This Act comes". — [Mr Nesbitt.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Defamation Bill. The Bill now stands referred to the Speaker. I ask Members to take their ease before we move to the next item of business.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call Ms Clare Bailey to formally move the Further Consideration Stage of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill.

Moved.—[Ms Bailey.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of five amendments, which deal with the publication of zones and offences, and we will debate the amendments in turn.


3.30 pm

I remind Members who intend to speak that, during the debate on the single group of amendments, they should address all the amendments on which they wish to comment. Once the debate has been 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. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Clause 1 (Premises where abortion treatments are carried out)

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 5. I call Ms Clare Bailey to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Ms Bailey: I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 1, line 8, after second "premises" insert—

"and that notice has not been withdrawn by the operator".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 2, page 2, line 2, after second "premises" insert—

"and that notice has not been withdrawn by the operator". — [Ms Bailey.]

No 3: In clause 4, page 2, line 27, after "1(3)" insert "or section 2(4)". — [Ms Bailey.]

No 4: In clause 5, page 2, line 39, after "act" insert "without reasonable excuse". — [Mr Allister.]

No 5: In clause 7, page 3, line 31, leave out from "maintain" to end of line 35 and insert—

"—
(a) maintain a list of all premises which are for the time being protected premises for the purposes of this Act, together with, in the case of each protected premises, an indication of the extent of the safe access zone established for the premises under section 4;
(b) publish that list in such manner as appears to the Department to be appropriate to bring the existence and extent of safe access zones to the attention of members of the public likely to be affected; and
(c) ensure (so far as its powers extend) that appropriate steps are taken by an operator of protected premises for bringing the existence and extent of the safe access zone for those premises to the attention of members of the public." — [Ms Bailey.]

Ms Bailey: I am very pleased that the Bill has reached this stage of its development. I express my gratitude, again, to the Committee for Health, the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC), the Department of Health and all the other stakeholders who have helped to get us this far. The amendments that we worked on and made at Consideration Stage went some way to getting the Bill to the point where, once passed, it would be effective and workable. However, a number of issues came up at Consideration Stage that meant that further work would be required to fully achieve that.

Amendment Nos 1 and 2 amend clauses 1 and 2 respectively so that it is clearer that the safe access zone will apply only to a premises while it meets the definition of "protected premises". The original provision set out that a safe access zone would only apply to a protected premises. It was not explicit that there was a mechanism for a zone to no longer apply. Amendment Nos 1 and 2 outline how that can occur.

Amendment No 3 tidies up clause 4 following the amendments that were made to it during Consideration Stage. The amendments at Consideration Stage set out how a zone would be established and the role of the Department in that process, but there was an omission in relation to premises where information, advice or counselling about abortion services were provided. Amendment No 3 is a minor change to correct that and ensure that they are included in that section of the Bill.

The Member for North Antrim has tabled amendment No 4 to add a reasonable-excuse defence to the offence outlined at clause 5(2). I understand the concerns that were raised at Consideration Stage that the effect of then amendment No 5 was that the offence could be one of strict liability. While I stand over that amendment to remove that defence, as the PSNI was clear about the impact that it could have on the enforceability of the legislation, it is not, nor has it ever been, my intention for the Bill to unnecessarily criminalise anyone.

The offence outlined in the Bill is narrow in scope, despite what some have alleged. The Bill does not ban protests and it does not ban silent prayer: it simply regulates the behaviours of people who are targeting women and are attempting to stop them accessing lawfully available healthcare and information — that is all — and allows staff to go about their jobs, unimpeded and without impingement. As such, I do not envisage many examples where someone might have a reasonable excuse for engaging in behaviour:

"with the intent of, or reckless as to whether it has the effect of"

influencing, "preventing or impeding access", or:

"causing harassment, alarm or distress to a protected person ... attending protected premises".

Nevertheless, I do not see any issue with including it to give additional reassurance on the operation of the clause. Therefore I support Mr Allister's amendment to ensure that there is not a strict liability offence. I thank him for his assistance and willingness to work with me to get agreement on how to bring that forward. I have no doubt that he will speak to that in great detail.

Amendment No 5 relates to how the safe access zones, once established, will be published in a list and how the public will be made aware of their existence. That has been subject to extensive discussion throughout the passage of the legislation. At Consideration Stage, I proposed some changes to the process, with the assurance that the detail on how they could be implemented would be best dealt with through a policy paper from the Department of Health.

Ms Bradshaw also sought to do that with amendments that she subsequently did not move.

While the policy paper requirement remains in place, amendment No 5 would elaborate on it more clearly in primary legislation for the avoidance of doubt. The amendment expands the requirement to publish a list of protected premises and the extent of their safe access zones so that it is clear that there is a need to ensure that the existence of zones is adequately publicised more generally so that people can be sure of where they stand — literally — in relation to the law.

The amendments are fairly technical in nature and provide a degree of clarity and certainty. I hope that Members can support them. I will support all five.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): As Chair of the Health Committee, I advise the Assembly that the Committee has not had an opportunity to consider the amendments before us in the Bill sponsor's name or that in the name of Jim Allister. The Committee, therefore, has no position on the amendments.

As Sinn Féin spokesperson, I indicate that we will support the amendments in Clare Bailey's name and will oppose that in Jim Allister's name.

Mrs Cameron: I do not intend to speak for too long on the amendments. My party's position is clear, and our concerns about the Bill's legal implications remain unaddressed. At the outset, I reiterate that patients, staff and visitors to health service premises should never be subject to acts of abuse or intimidation, nor should anyone else in society, for that matter. The Bill will not have the impact that its supporters believe. It will almost certainly result in protracted legal action.

Amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3 are technical amendments that attempt to clarify aspects relating to the premises and their notification to become registered, protected premises. The premises retain all power to self-notify or reverse a notification. The process for doing that remains vague. The amendments do nothing to alleviate the concerns about the lack of accountability in the process; there are no additional powers or oversight for the Department; and the Department still has no authority to reject a notification.

My party supports amendment No 4, to clause 5, which has been tabled by Mr Allister. The amendment would give reasonable protection from prosecution for the offence of "influencing" to those who act reasonably within a safe access zone. As we have stated before, "influencing" is a broad and undefined term in the Bill, and the Bill does not distinguish influencing behaviour from harassing, abusive or criminal behaviour. I urge Members to think carefully about the implications of supporting such vague legislation. To criminalise those who are deemed to have a different opinion is a dangerous path to go down. In addition, little consideration has been given to the impact on policing resources, which, going by the so-called draft Budget, will face severe front-line cuts.

Amendment No 5 extends the scope of the requirements for the Department to maintain a register of protected premises. Under that amendment, the Department would have to publish a list of premises in order to bring buffer zones to the attention of members of the public who are likely to be affected. The Department would also have to ensure that the premises themselves bring the zones to the attention of the wider public. There is, again, great ambiguity on what that means. Does it mean that the Department would have to force health premises to display signage against their will? Would it end up with trusts having to write to every pregnant woman who has an appointment? We hold serious concerns about awareness-raising relating to those sites. My fear is that it would, surely, increase the potential for the protests that the Bill sponsor aims to prevent in the zones.

It remains my position that a thorough review of existing harassment laws would have been a more suitable and fair way forward. Others have decided that that is not so and want to push ahead with the Bill despite its many grey areas and ambiguity. The DUP will oppose all the amendments moved by the Bill sponsor and will support Mr Allister's amendment.

Mr McGrath: I welcome the opportunity to speak at Further Consideration Stage, although I will not speak for too long. The SDLP supports the Bill sponsor's amendment Nos 1, 2, 3 and 5. The amendments from the Bill's sponsor further tidy up the legislation, which is to be welcomed. They are mostly technical in nature, with the exception of amendment No 5, which provides further clarity on the need to publish a list of protected premises.

I am a little concerned that the amendment tabled by Mr Allister offers those who would be subject to the legislation a get-out clause, including the defence of "without reasonable excuse".

Ms Dillon: I thank the Member for taking an intervention. Does he agree that that is not in line with previous legislation that is about protecting women, such as the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act 2021? The reasonableness argument is not an argument of defence.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for the intervention. I am not 100% across the Act that she mentioned, but I certainly take the point that, if we leave too vague a definition in legislation, it creates confusion and problems.

I am concerned that the individuals who will be subject to the ramifications of the Bill will, if offered a get-out clause, do their very best to bend those rules and push "reasonable excuse" to its absolute farthest to find some sort of space in the legislation to continue their behaviour. I am afraid that it is just too ambiguous, so we have difficulty with supporting it.

Contrary to some of the emails that we have received over recent weeks, this is not about censorship. In fact, the legislation is not about abortion; it is about the capacity of an individual to enter a building without fear of harassment or intimidation or of someone trying to make them feel ashamed. The SDLP will be —.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGrath: Of course.

Mr Allister: The Member speaks, in respect of amendment No 4, about being fearful of giving some opportunity to people to bend and formulate an excuse: legislation puts that exclusively in the hands of the court. It is for the court to decide whether something is a reasonable excuse. It is not self-certification, as appears in other parts of the Bill, by the accused; it is for the court to decide, so there is the protection of the court having to be persuaded that it is a reasonable excuse. It is not just something that you claim and that is the end of it.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for giving me the opportunity to respond to him. That is after the legislation has been passed. We can provide clarity in the legislation. Providing confusion, which then requires people to go to the courts afterwards, seems to be a clunky way to go about legislating. If we put the clarity in the legislation, there is no need to go to the courts afterwards, but, if you put ambiguity into legislation, it simply creates problems. We are trying to remove those problems by providing the clarity as best we can. To that end, as I said, we support amendment Nos 1, 2, 3 and 5 and oppose amendment No 4.

Ms Bradshaw: I support amendment Nos 1 to 3 and amendment No 5 and oppose amendment No 4. I will focus my remarks mainly on the most detailed amendment, which is amendment No 5. Amendment Nos 1 and 2 are sensible technical additions for clarification, and amendment No 3 is a minor change that will provide more thorough linkage in the Bill.

Amendment No 4 is too wide in scope. It leaves far too much to be determined by the word "reasonable". This is the third time that I have stated that safe access zones exist elsewhere. The Queensland Law Commission states that they are:

"to protect the safety and well-being, and respect the privacy and dignity of, people accessing ... services".

This is not about censoring public protest, as some misleadingly claim; it is about stopping the specific and targeted harassment of people accessing services to which they are entitled.

In supporting amendment No 5, I have mentioned in plenary debates thus far my concern around the clarity of what constitutes a safe access zone. I have raised that several times in Committee.

Additionally, the Bill sponsor brought evidence to the Committee emphasising that there would be a potential defence under the legislation as it stands that those engaging in abuse did not know that the person whom they were approaching was a protected person. For me, that included that they did not know that they were in a zone. I appreciated the clarity given in the Minister's letter and in the Bill sponsor's evidence to the Committee on that.


3.45 pm

It bears re-emphasising that one successful prosecution for harassment outside a clinic was overturned precisely because the judge could not be clear that the unpleasant behaviour constituted criminal harassment. That is exactly why this legislation is necessary and also why it is essential to be as clear as possible about precisely what it entails. That is why I was pushing for an amendment much like amendment No 5. That is not just to do with having a legal defence in the event that an offence has been committed, although we can see from experience that that is an issue, but to do with prevention and knowing when the police should be called. Indeed, it is about providing clarity to prevent offences from occurring in the first place. Initially, my view was that signage may be necessary to accomplish that, but I am happy with proposed new paragraph (c) to be inserted in clause 7. It would allow the operators and, ultimately, the Department to bring the public's attention, as appropriate, to the existence of the safe access zone. That may or may not involve signage.

In conclusion, I hope that the Bill can be strengthened, particularly by amendment No 5, and proceed swiftly to Final Stage. I congratulate all those involved in getting it this far. As an Assembly, we are now making positive steps forward.

Mr Chambers: Over the past number of days, I have received a lot of emails, as have my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party, from pro-life groups and pro-life individuals. My mailbox probably contains the same huge number of emails that I received when debates in here were focused on abortion. It is disappointing that that is the way in which the debate on this legislation is being viewed by some people. Abortion is a matter of conscience for our MLAs in the Ulster Unionist Party. That has not changed; it remains the same. Our position is not influenced by either pro-life or pro-choice arguments.

The Bill, including the amendments before us today, is designed to create a safe environment for vulnerable women who want to visit those clinics to seek advice. It is designed to protect members of the public who may be entering the same buildings on completely unrelated business and who may even be accompanied by children. It is also designed to give some form of protection to staff who work in the clinics.

The main issue here is that people out there do not seem to be listening. They do not seem to be hearing what the thrust of the legislation is. It is not about abortion but about women's health issues. Women are perfectly entitled to have the right to seek advice on that topic and to get the advice that is available in those clinics. A lot of the letters that I received have been copied and pasted, and they seem to paint a completely different picture of the protests that take place outside the clinics. The evidence that we listened to in the Health Committee from trust officials and the police was harrowing. It is unacceptable in a civilised society that people should behave like that. Against that, people should always have the right to protest. It is not a particularly big ask to ask people to take their protest 150 metres away from the front door of these clinics.

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

Today, I will support amendment Nos 1, 2, 3 and 5. I am looking forward to hearing Mr Allister make the case for amendment No 4. At this stage, I am minded not to support it, but I will listen to the arguments.

Ms Kimmins: I support amendment Nos 1, 2, 3 and 5. I will speak against amendment No 4, mainly because I do not think that you can have a reasonable excuse for the harassment of women, whether it is intentional or not. We talked about that at length during the debate on the previous stage of the Bill. I fear that, as other Members have said, amendment No 4 could potentially open the floodgates and, in a sense, put the Bill on its head because there could be so many cases before the courts that the legislation would never have any real impact.

I go back to looking at how intention is so important, because a lot of the people involved in protests do not necessarily intend to cause the harm that is caused by those protests, whether they are standing with a sign, chanting or raising comments to women coming and going. The reason that we are at this stage is that it has had such a huge impact on so many people — as Mr Chambers mentioned, not just women who are trying to access healthcare but staff, members of the public and other patients accessing a range of services within the hospital and healthcare sites. We have to have it nailed down, to an extent, so that there is no ambiguity in the legislation, that it is clear and that the needs and rights of women are protected at every stage.

I look forward to seeing —

Ms Dillon: Will the Member take an intervention?

Ms Kimmins: I will.

Ms Dillon: Does the Member agree that, as I have already said, all the other pieces of legislation that we have taken through the House around protecting women, particularly the domestic abuse Bill, the stalking Bill and other pieces of legislation to protect women, affect some of the most vulnerable women in our society in some of the most vulnerable and harrowing circumstances of their entire life. We need to protect them, and reasonableness must be removed as an excuse.

Ms Kimmins: I agree with the Member. As others have said, and as we talked about during the Consideration Stage of the Bill, this is not about censorship. People can still protest on this issue, just not in the vicinity of where the safe access zones will be. The right to protest is not being taken away from them, but, if we were to allow for a reasonable excuse, it might infringe on the rights of the women who are trying to access the vital healthcare that they need at an important time in their lives. I hope that we can pass this today and get it through to the Final Stage.

Ms McLaughlin: As my colleague Colin McGrath indicated, the SDLP will support amendment Nos 1, 2 3 and 5 but will not support amendment No 4.

I am really pleased that the Bill has been refined in the manner that it has. It has been strengthened during its journey through the legislative process. It is a really good example of how, collectively, we work to deliver for our constituents. I again thank the Bill sponsor, Ms Bailey, for introducing this important piece of legislation. As I said the last time I spoke on the Bill, this is about affording people the right to access healthcare free from harassment and abuse. It will not prohibit prayer or ban protest. People will still be able to do all those things. What will they not be able to do? They will not be able to harass or intimidate patients and staff outside a clinic that has a designated safe access zone. Healthcare centres are not appropriate sites for the kind of language, imagery and behaviour that those protesters display on a weekly basis.

I recently had the privilege of listening to Cara from Supporting Women Newry speak at a Derry International Women's Day rally. In the face of intense harassment at Daisy Hill Hospital, Supporting Women Newry offers support and chaperone services to women. It has taken things into its own hands to protect the community, but it should not have to do that. That is why the Bill is needed and why the amendments must be made.

What else will you no longer be able to do? You will not be able to interfere with women's healthcare choices as they enter a clinic. That is what many of those so-called protesters openly admit to attempting to do. Indeed, I received a letter from one who plainly stated that they see it as their opportunity to force last-minute changes of heart. Yes, everyone has the right to free speech, but no one has the right to obstruct or intervene in a personal healthcare decision. Absolutely no one.

Please, let us trust women with their healthcare choices and afford them the right to access healthcare free from harassment and abuse. It is really not a big ask. I support the Bill at Further Consideration Stage.

Mr Allister: Amendment No 4 is very focused. It focuses on the criminal offence that arises in clause 5 and on introducing a very modest modicum of acceptability and reform to that offence. It is a very wide offence. It ranges from embracing harassment and abuse to the mere issue of influence. As it stands, it is an absolute offence. That is to say, like driving your car with no insurance, there is no answer to it. You cannot ever defend yourself against it. It is an absolute offence.

In the criminal calendar, that is very rare. It is very rare for a very good reason, namely that the basic premise of a criminal offence is that it comprises the actus reus, which relates to doing the act, and the mens rea, which relates to that which is informed by the mind. Within that ambit, it is overwhelmingly the case that our law provides reasonable excuse for someone accused. By putting that into the Bill, we are being entirely compatible with the trend in creating criminal offences. It is not about asking the Assembly to define what a "reasonable excuse" is, because every case is different. It is about saying to the court, "If the defence is raised by the accused, you decide whether what they did or said was reasonable". It is not the House that will decide what is reasonable. Judging by the House, nothing could be reasonable.

Ms Dillon: Will the Member take an intervention?

Mr Allister: I will take an intervention after I develop this point.

We would be in a situation where we are saying that someone accused of that sweeping offence, which includes silent actions designed to influence, should be afforded the basic tenet that applies in respect of virtually every other criminal offence: having a reasonable excuse. A court would then be required to rule on whether that which was done was reasonable.

The alternative is the totalitarianism offered by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance, whereby, under our rule of law, you simply decree that, "It is an absolute offence. You cannot protest. It can never be reasonable to do so", as you would in Russia. There is no comprehension of there being a reasonable excuse for doing that. It so offends the very principle that the House is so intent on defending, namely that of death through abortion, that you can never have a reasonable excuse to dare to breathe opposition to it. That is the ultimate in totalitarianism, and that is what the Alliance Party, Sinn Féin and the SDLP are embracing today.

All they are asked to support is the introduction into the Bill of the very lowest common denominator of criminal defences in respect of an offence: namely, to let the court decide whether what was done was reasonable. That is not by your standards or mine; it is by the standards that the court would set in that respect.


4.00 pm

Why does that offend anyone who believes in "innocent until proven guilty"? Why does that offend anyone who believes that, when criminal prosecutions are brought, someone should have the right to a defence? That offends only if you are an apostle of totalitarianism. That is what absolute offences are about. I welcome the fact that the sponsor — there is no one more enthusiastic about the Bill than the sponsor — has, at Consideration Stage and since, accepted the basic principle that we should create criminal offences that do not expunge that most fundamental tenet of letting a court decide whether or not something is reasonable conduct. To create an absolute offence is a stretch way beyond where the Assembly should wish to go.

Ms Dillon: I thank the Member for taking my intervention. Does he agree that, as we were advised in the Justice Committee when I was on it, not having the reasonableness excuse does not prevent a judge from looking at the particular circumstances of an individual case?

Mr Allister: With respect, the Member is absolutely wrong. Clause 5 utterly excludes a court from looking at whether something reasonable caused it, because clause 5 is drafted in absolutist terms. If the person does any of the things in the Bill, because there is no defence of reasonable excuse, they are automatically guilty as charged. It is absolute. Once you prove the actus reus of the offence, it is the endgame: the offence is proven.

That is why the Member, in previous interventions, attempted to articulate a case against the reasonableness defence. She wants to be totalitarian. She wants to be absolutist. She wants to rob any accused person — sometimes, in other circumstances, she is defensive of accused persons and their rights — of that most fundamental right to say, "But what I did was reasonable", and for the court to decide whether it was reasonable.

Once you exclude that, you rob the court and the accused of the fundamental right to decide whether what was done was reasonable. That is totalitarianism writ large. That is suppression of protest writ large. That is the fundamental denial of a most basic tenet in respect of any offence that arises in the criminal calendar. It is not, as someone said, a get-out clause. It is not simply about the accused saying, "I had a reasonable excuse". No; they can say, "I think that I had a reasonable excuse, but you, the court, decide whether it was a reasonable excuse". That is what this modest amendment is all about.

The one hesitation I had in tabling the amendment was lest it make the Bill human rights-compliant. At the moment, its absolutism stretches its human rights compliance. If it is the will of the House that such an offence exist, it should at least have that basic component that virtually every other offence in the criminal calendar has. We should not be so dogmatic and totalitarian in our approach of refusing even to contemplate a court maybe being able to find that what was done was reasonable.

I gave the example, at Consideration Stage, of the mother of a 14-year-old girl who accompanies her, against the child's will, to the abortion clinic, pleading with her not to have an abortion and giving her motherly advice. I said that clause 5 makes that mother the criminal. If clause 5 were amended in the way that I suggest, it would give that mother a fighting chance of not being a criminal. She could say that it was a reasonable thing to do as a mother. Members, seemingly the majority in the House, want to criminalise that mother and put it beyond doubt that she could never have a reasonable excuse. That seems to be an ultimate exercise in the oppressive totalitarianism that some are so anxious to embrace. Indeed, they may embrace it because of who proposes the amendment, never mind the logic or sense of it. I find in the House a great dearth of understanding of what the criminal law means and what it should mean, and there is a great assault upon its integrity. This is one of the clauses that attacks it most head-on. Therefore, I say this to the House: pause, think and do as the sponsor will do. Support the very basic tenet of introducing into the Bill a reasonable excuse on which the court — not us, not the accused — will decide. Should that not be what our courts are all about?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Clare Bailey to make a winding-up speech.

Ms Bailey: I thank Members for their contributions. There has been an interesting debate on clause 4. Despite that, I thank Members who have supported the Bill so far. In particular, I thank Ms McLaughlin, who, when she speaks, shows that she gets exactly what is happening. I also thank other Members, including those in Sinn Féin and Ms Bradshaw, for their continued work with women on this issue.

The legislation is urgently needed. I hope that those who do not yet realise that can begin to understand it and start to support the Bill's passage. It is vital that the legislation finds the correct balance of competing rights. That was always my intention from the start. Of course, that balance has to be proportionate and justified, and I believe that these final changes and amendments will help to achieve it.

Healthcare staff tell us that they have had to relocate services due to the interference and influence of those seeking to disrupt services and people's access to them. The new locations have had to be kept secret to prevent further interference and targeting. Women have been dissuaded from accessing services while miscarrying, putting themselves at serious and immediate risk, and that is due to the influence of those seeking to interfere with people accessing services. A health and social care trust has, in light of its duty of care to staff and service users, had to install safety glass in windows because of the level of threat from the ongoing behaviours at its doors.

I have watched vulnerable women run into oncoming traffic to avoid being deliberately targeted while accessing services. Whether or not we hold deeply held beliefs, we need to pay attention and do what we can to ensure safe access to abortion services. Deeply held beliefs are no licence to influence others, unabated and unchecked.

The Bill seeks to be a proactive Bill to prevent harm, not a reactive Bill to deal with harm once it has happened. We know that the harm is happening. Let us try to stop that harm from being caused.

I fully accept the debate on adding "without reasonable excuse" to get a balance of competing rights. I looked through other legislation, and it occurs. Section 67 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, explicitly states:

"It is an offence for a person without reasonable excuse—

(a)to do anything that the person is prohibited from doing by a public spaces protection order, or

(b)to fail to comply".

Article 9 — it is not the only article on the matter, but I will use it as an example — protects freedom of thought, belief and religion, but it comes with conditions:

"Public authorities cannot interfere with your right to hold or change your beliefs, but there are some situations in which public authorities can interfere with your right to manifest or show your thoughts, belief and religion. This is only allowed where the authority can show that its action is lawful, necessary and proportionate" —

note the word "proportionate" —

"in order to protect:

• public safety
• public order
• health or morals" —

and the important one —

"the rights and freedoms of other people."

Mr McGrath: Will the Member give way?

Ms Bailey: So there is no absolute right to force the beliefs that you hold on anyone. They have the right and the freedom to not have those beliefs forced upon them. I will give way.

Mr McGrath: I am interested in developing that point. If you include the "reasonable excuse" message and a court decided that there was a reasonable excuse for the behaviour and it continued, would that not make you unhappy and more or less nullify the purpose of the legislation?

Ms Bailey: I thank the Member for that intervention and for allowing me to reiterate this point: under the articles that have caveats, what would be a reasonable excuse? Under this legislation, it is explicit. The offences that are outlined in the Bill are narrow in scope, despite all the debate.

I will go back over this. Pay close attention. The Bill does not ban protest. It does not ban silent prayer. I have given a list of examples of what I have experienced of the impact and outworkings and of what, health trusts say, happens at their doors. I am yet to meet anyone in the situation that Mr Allister keeps talking about of a mother hanging on to a 14-year-old child who is trying to go through the door. I have not met that one yet, but it might happen.

Mr Gildernew: Will the Member give way?

Ms Bailey: Certainly.

Mr Gildernew: The Bill is designed to prevent protests crossing the line into harassment. What possible reasonable excuse could there be for harassing women in those circumstances?

Ms Bailey: I thank the Member for that. That is exactly the point.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: I am surprised that the Chairman has not read clause 5. It begins by indicating that the offence is sufficiently committed if there is merely influence. It does not need to come near to being harassment or abuse: influence is enough.

Ms Bailey: I think that the intervention was for me, Mr Allister, but thanks for your answer.

I will go back. I can accept it because I cannot envisage any situation where someone might have a reasonable excuse for engaging — this is explicitly set out in the Bill — with the behaviours:

"with the intent of, or reckless as to whether"

they are:

"(a) influencing ...
(b) preventing or impeding access ... or
(c) causing harassment, alarm or distress to a protected person ... attending protected premises."

Of course, under enforcement in clause 6(1)(a), the first option for a constable dealing with any incidents is to simply:

"direct the person to leave the safe access zone".

The Bill is not designed to be heavy-handed; it is designed to create a safe space where the protest, if that is what it is, or people holding other views can continue, should they choose to do so, to influence, lobby and behave elsewhere, away from the doors and without impeding access, causing harassment and alarm, making staff fearful or causing health trusts to put on security staff, have safety glass in their windows or move services. It is designed so that women do not run into oncoming traffic, are not splashed with holy water and are not told that they are murderers and that they have blood on their hands when they enter healthcare facilities.

It is so that they can access services unimpeded and without harassment.


4.15 pm

If someone believes that they have a reasonable excuse to do that in a safe access zone, it would take a fair stretch of the imagination to allow a judge to agree with that. For that reason, I wi56tr5ll allow for a reasonable excuse as is provided for in other criminal legislation. In Mattock Lane in the Ealing Council area, a case was taken for such behaviour at a Marie Stopes clinic. In that case, Ealing Council used its powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to establish a public space protection order (PSPO) around the Marie Stopes clinic. That Act makes it an offence for an individual to not comply with the requirements of a PSPO without reasonable excuse. What is a reasonable excuse? Under article 9, there are caveats whereby the state can intervene to ensure the balance of those rights and that people are not unduly interfered with according to someone else's belief system. It is for that reason that I will support the reasonable excuse.

Mr Chambers: Will the Member give way?

Ms Bailey: I will, yes.

Mr Chambers: Having said that, will the Member encourage the other parties in the Chamber that have already nailed their colours to the mast in opposition to amendment No 4 to reflect on their positions?

Ms Bailey: I thank the Member for that. I will say this to those parties, which, I have no doubt, have paid a great deal of attention to the issue: action is proportionate when it is appropriate and no more than is necessary to address the problem concerned. The provisions in the Bill are proportionate and no more than what is necessary to address the problem that we all acknowledge is happening to women and healthcare staff. I see no other healthcare service or facility where such behaviour would continue to be tolerated with the level of ignorance — I do not know whether that is deliberate — of harassment legislation and how it fails to apply or be sufficient in such circumstances. The safe access zone is a preventative measure to stop harm rather than it being done and then addressed. If anyone feels that they have a reasonable excuse to continue with that behaviour, I, for one, would like to hear it.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put again in three minutes.

Before I put the Question again, I remind Members that it would be preferable if we could avoid a Division.

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

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before the Assembly divides, I remind you that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly currently has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I remind Members to maintain social distancing and to leave a 2-metre gap where possible.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 2 (Premises where information, advice or counselling about abortion treatments are provided)

Amendment No 2 proposed:

In page 2, line 2, after second "premises" insert—

"and that notice has not been withdrawn by the operator". — [Ms Bailey.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I think the Ayes have it.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I am hearing Noes from the DUP Benches and Mr Allister. I think the Ayes have it. I think the Ayes have it.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 4 (Establishment of safe access zone)

Amendment No 3 proposed:

In page 2, line 27, after "1(3)" insert "or section 2(4)". — [Ms Bailey.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I think the Ayes have it. I am hearing Noes from the DUP Benches and Mr Allister. I think the Ayes have it.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 5 (Offences in respect of a safe access zone)

Amendment No 4 proposed:

In page 2, line 39, after "act" insert "without reasonable excuse". — [Mr Allister.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

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

I remind Members of the requirement to maintain social distancing whilst the Division takes place. Please maintain a 2-metre gap between yourself and others while moving around the Chamber, and especially in the Lobbies.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 7 (Publication of list of protected premises and safe access zones)

Amendment No 5 proposed:

In page 3, line 31, leave out from "maintain" to end of line 35 and insert—

"—
(a) maintain a list of all premises which are for the time being protected premises for the purposes of this Act, together with, in the case of each protected premises, an indication of the extent of the safe access zone established for the premises under section 4;
(b) publish that list in such manner as appears to the Department to be appropriate to bring the existence and extent of safe access zones to the attention of members of the public likely to be affected; and
(c) ensure (so far as its powers extend) that appropriate steps are taken by an operator of protected premises for bringing the existence and extent of the safe access zone for those premises to the attention of members of the public." — [Ms Bailey.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I think that the Ayes have it. I hear Noes from the DUP Benches and, I think, Mr Allister, but I think that the Ayes have it.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

Mr Chambers: I beg to move

That the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

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

Mr Chambers: Whilst I will leave many of the points of detail to the Second Stage debate, which is scheduled to follow shortly, I hope that all Members will understand why there is an urgency to what the Bill tries to secure. The published research report on mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries was harrowing. It presented a graphic insight into the lived experiences of the many thousands of women, girls and children who suffered such appalling abuse and neglect in those institutions. Of course, those children are now adults, and many of the women who suffered such abuse have, sadly, passed on, but that, rightly, was never considered to be a barrier to the long-overdue uncovering of the truth.

The research study, for which the authors should, once again, be truly commended, examined in detail eight mother-and-baby homes, a number of former workhouses and four Magdalene laundries. It found that around 10,500 women were admitted to mother-and-baby institutions and around 3,000 were admitted to Magdalene laundries. Over recent months, as I read through more of the report, I could not fail to be overcome with a sense of disbelief that such cruelty and indifference to basic human needs could ever be inflicted on so many women and children in our not-so-distant past. Let us remember that the research report investigated the period right up to 1990. Only then did the last mother-and-baby facility close its doors. So, for many of the people involved, we are talking about clear and vivid memories.

One of the clearest findings of the research paper was that many unanswered questions remain. The Executive decision early last year to set up an independent investigation shaped by the views of victims and survivors of those institutions was much welcomed. The Minister of Health, Mr Robin Swann, took forward its delivery by establishing the truth recovery design panel, which comprised the experts Dr Maeve O'Rourke, Professor Phil Scraton and Deirdre Mahon. The panel delivered its report by early October, within the highly challenging six-month time frame. That is testament to the determination with which the panel members approached the issue and the priority that they gave it.

The panel made five core recommendations and explained their interdependencies, stressing the importance of delivering each and every one of them. I welcome the Executive's swift consideration of the report last year and their full acceptance of the findings, not least their agreement to proceed with the establishment of an integrated truth investigation made up of an expert independent panel and a public inquiry. It is in relation to another of the very important recommendations, however — recommendation 4 on access to records — that I hope that my private Member's Bill will be able to deliver.

We should not, for one moment, underestimate how important access to records is. For the people who were robbed of so much, including so many at such a young age, that is the very least that they deserve now. My Bill, as introduced last week, seeks to deliver the key elements in recommendation 4. I fully accept, however, that a Bill as important as this must, first and foremost, always be centred on the views and needs of victims and survivors.

Ordinarily, it would be the Minister of Health bringing forward a Bill such as this, but only after a period of consultation. However, in the current political situation that we find ourselves, Executive legislation was not an option. We need no reminding that the House is in the final weeks of what was already a much-reduced legislative mandate. The legislation is urgent. For every day that passes, with the legal requirement for the preservation of documents not in place, the risk of documents being either destroyed or kept in far-from-suitable conditions increases. It is not only essential that any and all material is kept safe for the future investigations and public inquiry, it is hugely important for all the women and children, now adults, involved. They deserve to know that the records that exist will be kept safe.

That, in a nutshell, explains why the Bill is so important. Some might argue that the Bill could wait until the next mandate. Whilst there could, absolutely, be some validity to that thinking, I do not agree with it. I am very confident that the Bill, as drafted, is no different to one that would be introduced in six, 12 or 24 months' time. We can be sure of one thing, however: if the Bill passes all stages by next Thursday evening, the legal protection of documents will have been secured an awful lot sooner than it would otherwise have been.


5.00 pm

I thank the Department of Health and, especially, a number of its officials; they know who they are. I would not be standing here without their support, or the assistance that they and the Minister provided to me in developing the Bill. Those officials recognise just how important the draft legislation is. It is because of them that I am able to say that I am entirely confident that the Bill delivers for victims and survivors. I also thank each of the party Whips on the Business Committee. I know about the pressures on plenary time that the Assembly was already facing, even before this private Member's Bill. I acknowledge their efforts to facilitate these debates.

I very much welcome the cross-party support that I have received from many across the House in the days since the Bill's introduction last week. Whilst the Bill is in my name, I very much hope that the House will see it as a Bill that all Members equally contribute to and secure. It is clear from the emails that I have received, before and since its introduction last week, that victims and survivors sincerely hope that it will proceed. The Bill, if passed, will be all the stronger if it retains that sense of political unanimity.

I acknowledge that Sinn Féin, through Ms Dillon, originally tabled helpful amendments to the Adoption and Children Bill. Those amendments from Sinn Féin have been incorporated into this private Member's Bill and, indeed, help to strengthen it. I place on record that recognition.

Finally, I thank the Speaker, along with his staff, for agreeing to facilitate the Bill. I do not doubt that, procedurally, all normal processes have been set to the side. Had we had more time, I would, of course, have preferred to follow the time frames that are set out in Standing Orders, including giving the Health Committee time to scrutinise the Bill in detail. Unfortunately, however, time is quickly running out. Securing the Bill in little more than two weeks from its introduction to Final Stage will be a Herculean task, but it might just be possible.

I hope that all Members will be able to agree to my request for accelerated passage for my Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill.

Mr McGrath: I offer our support for the accelerated passage of the Bill. The importance of trying to get it through in the short period that we have left has been eloquently outlined. Hopefully, with the support of the House, accelerated passage will make sure that it becomes a reality.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Paula Bradshaw.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. My comments are similar to those of the SDLP representative.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I invite Alan Chambers to respond to the very brief debate.

Apologies; I see that another Member has indicated that she wishes to speak.

Ms Dillon: I apologise if my name was not on the list; I thought that it was.

I thank the Member for taking forward this private Member's Bill. It is extremely important. I know that the Member met a number of victims and survivors and, as I did, very much listened to what they want and need. I appreciate that the amendments that we tabled have been incorporated into the Bill. That is vital. Everything that we put forward was about the victims and survivors. It all came from their mouths, and their representatives and advocates. That is why we wanted to ensure that it is in the Bill.

The Member is right: we can never overestimate the importance of having access to your records and knowing who you were, because who you were is who you are. I am quite sure that a number of Members in the Chamber have personal experience of that. My extended family have personal experience of it. There can never be any —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I seek to clarify to all Members that this is a debate about accelerated passage. The debate on the legislation will follow. Ms Dillon, do you wish to say anything further?

Ms Dillon: I will abbreviate my comments and say that we absolutely support the accelerated passage.

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I support the motion that the Bill proceed by accelerated passage because I believe that accelerated passage will support the fulfilment of the Executive's agreement to implement the recommendation of the truth recovery design panel on mother-and-baby institutions, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in Northern Ireland that immediate action be taken to create a statutory requirement on all relevant record holders to preserve and not destroy any information relating to those institutions. My colleague Mr Alan Chambers has set out in detail the reasons for seeking accelerated passage and the consequences of it not being granted, and I fully endorse his remarks.

The background of the Bill is well known, as is my attempt to include its provisions in the Adoption and Children Bill by way of amendments at Consideration Stage, so I will not rehearse the details in this debate. Prior to that Consideration Stage, my officials briefed Health Committee members on the nature and purpose of the provisions now contained in this Bill and the reason for the urgency of their enactment. An explanation of the provisions and their purpose was also provided to Executive colleagues in a letter at that time. I support the accelerated passage of this Bill.

Mr Gildernew: I did not intend to speak, but I do so in light of the contribution that Alan made in relation to the Bill. He outlined the difficulties in getting this done and the fact that it would be a stretch. I believe that it is incumbent on the House that we stretch ourselves to support and help these victims and survivors, given what has gone on. I, too, support the Bill's accelerated passage.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I now call Alan Chambers to conclude and wind up the debate.

Mr Chambers: I will be very brief. I welcome the sense of support that I feel from around the House for accelerated passage, and I thank Members for that. I am on record, once or twice, with the statement that the House is at its best when it delivers. There is no doubt that the Bill will deliver for a constituency of people who deserve that delivery. I thank Members for the sense of support that I am getting.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

Mr Chambers: I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill [NIA 56/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has indicated that there will be no time limit for this debate. As the Bill is proceeding via accelerated passage, there will be no limits on individual contributions.

Mr Chambers: I thank the House for allowing the Bill to proceed, and I am very pleased to be able to move it at Second Stage. We have already heard much of the context and rationale for the Bill in the debate that has just concluded, so I do not intend to repeat that. However, I hope to provide an overview of the Bill and explain why it is so important that it delivers the protections that it sets out to provide. As I said earlier, it is imperative that the voices and needs of victims and survivors of the appalling neglect and abuse in these historical institutions are kept to the forefront of what we are all trying, collectively, to achieve with the Bill.

It was abuse that they experienced, and all sorts of appalling abuse. Coming only a few days after the Chamber was home to the delivery of a wide range of apologies for the failings in historical institutions, it is fitting that, so quickly after, the Assembly is debating legislation that serves to enshrine in law the right of victims of historical abuse to access the truth. As we have heard, the joint research from Queen's University and Ulster University was harrowing, but it provided a definitive, evidential basis for what survivors long knew to be the truth. Importantly, the review also included an oral history project that allowed the women, girls and children who experienced the institutions the opportunity to provide their testimony. Thankfully, the Executive agreed to the recommendation of a victim-centred independent investigation, one that, crucially, was co-designed with victims and survivors.

The truth recovery design panel made a number of key recommendations, and, as we know, the Bill seeks to deliver part 1 of recommendation 4. It should be remembered that all the panel's recommendations had the full support of victims and survivors, who worked alongside its members to help formulate them. More than 180 victims and survivors, from as far away as Canada, Australia and the United States of America, worked alongside the panel for six months. Recommendation 4 is their recommendation, and, as a consequence, this Bill is their Bill, because it is intended to give full effect to the first part of recommendation 4.

My Bill has nine clauses. Clause 1 introduces a duty to preserve:

"not alter, destroy or otherwise dispose of"

a relevant document and to:

"take appropriate measures to ensure that the document is not stolen, lost, destroyed or otherwise damaged."

Importantly, it intends to prevent the movement of records out of Northern Ireland and to ensure that records, given their significance, are kept in the safest possible conditions.

Clauses 2 and 3 stipulate the conditions that must be satisfied before a document is considered relevant, and they provide a definition of "relevant document" and of "relevant information". Importantly, I draw Members' attention to the fact that being of interest to the inquiry or investigation makes it relevant. It is also important to note that the duty to preserve and not destroy records applies equally to the institutions to which they relate and the statutory organisations involved in the placement of women and girls, and of their children when they were separated from their mothers.

I also want it noted that the Bill includes, as I said earlier, many of the amendments that a number of Sinn Féin MLAs tabled to clauses in the Adoption and Children Bill, on which this Bill is largely based. I am confident that those amendments strengthen my Bill, in particular by widening its definition of "relevant information" and of "relevant institution". Of course, it is not just for legal or investigatory reasons that documents need to be retained. For a great number of children who are now adults, those documents are the first, and often only, official account of their birth and their earliest weeks and months of life. For some, the documents will contain precious details and information never before revealed. For women and girls, the documents will contain crucial, definitive accounts of their journey into, within and out of such institutions.

Clause 4 provides a definition of "relevant institution" as being a workhouse or:

"an institution in which a voluntary organisation provided residential accommodation for women or children, took decisions about the women or children and—

(a) provided services to the women or children related to pregnancy or
maternity,
(b) provided day-to-day care for the women or children,
(c) required the women or children to work (whether with or without pay), or
(d) provided such other service as may be prescribed."

Importantly, a resident of a "relevant institution" is also defined in the clause as being a person of any age:

"who was provided with residential accommodation in the institution"

and includes periods of absence from the institution. That is important, because it captures the periods when, for example, women were in hospital giving birth or when they were visiting a GP. By now, I sincerely hope that all institutions and the bodies responsible for them recognise the importance of properly retaining and maintaining records.

Just to be sure, clause 5 makes it an offence to not comply with the general duty in clause 1.


5.15 pm

Finally, the only other clause that I will mention at this stage is clause 8. This clause states that the legislation will commence immediately after it receives Royal Assent. The preservation of documents is hugely important, and it cannot happen a day too soon.

Again, I acknowledge the proactive and detailed support that I received from the Department of Health. In more normal circumstances, the Bill would undoubtedly have been introduced as an Executive Bill. However, by working so closely with officials who were already so well informed on the topic, I have been able to introduce a Bill that I am very confident will deliver what we all hope it will. I thank them again, along with the Minister of Health, and I sincerely hope that, over the next 10 days, the House will be able to secure the legal protection of these crucial documents.

Ms Dillon: Again, I thank the Bill sponsor. First of all, I acknowledge the victims, survivors and those who spoke to the Bill sponsor and me. I am certain that they also spoke to representatives from all the parties, and the Minister also met them. It has very much been a victim-centred process, and that is vital, because, if we did everything like that, we would have much better legislation right across the House and in everything that we do. It is important that we keep that to the fore.

I turn to subsections 3(2) and 3(3). I am grateful that, in drafting the Bill, the Bill sponsor has taken on board our recommendations to provide as comprehensive a Bill as possible. We felt that this provision needed to be as robust as possible and to include the details of medical visits to the institutions and any prescriptions, medical tests and vaccines that were provided. We recognise the need for records of any inspections carried out by the state, time spent in hospital by mothers and babies, a person's foster care arrangements, baptism records, parish registry records and personal communications or letters.

It cannot be overstated how important any information that can be recovered from the institutions is for the survivors. Our amendment was also intended to include information about a person's life as a child at an institution; their adoption; any moneys, fees or donations paid for the stay of each resident; full personal records, including passports and visas; and any information regarding transfers to other institutions, including cross-border transfers.

We felt that perhaps the most important things that needed to be included were death and burial records. Some women and girls were buried in graves that do not have their proper names on the headstone, and many children were buried in locations outside graveyards, as the Church would not bury them on consecrated ground. We know that that has been a horrific experience, and we have all heard from those who are looking for the burial sites of the people whom they loved and still love, yet they are not even able to identify where they have been buried. I express my gratitude to the Bill sponsor for taking account of that and incorporating all of that into the Bill.

Subsection 3(5) provides that:

"For the purposes of subsection (4)(b), a mother and child were separated if the child was provided with care and accommodation by a person other than the mother for a period of at least two consecutive months ... this is subject to such exceptions as may be prescribed."

I suggest that we look at the removal of that subsection, as two months in care is a long time, and individuals deserve to know where they were and what care they received for any length of time. There should not be a time limit. Speaking as a mother, I remember, when my child was young, I went away for two days, and, when I came back, she cried when she saw me coming into the room. She was one. I thought that she was making strange, and my mummy said, "She is punishing you. You left her for two days, and she is letting you know by saying, 'Do not do that on me again'". I was distraught, and that was two days. When it comes to any mother or child being separated, they know, and there is an impact. We should consider that.

Additionally, clause 3(6) states that information is not relevant if the accommodation or care was:

"provided to the child by a natural parent or relative of the child."

I suggest that we consider removing that subsection, as, in many cases, when babies were adopted, they were registered to their adoptive parents as their natural child. That was, of course, illegal, and it made tracing the birth parent or adopted child impossible. Furthermore, the care being provided by a relative of the child should not be grounds for exception, as it does not guarantee that the adopted person knows anything about their birth parent or their time in the institution.

All those practices in the mother-and-baby homes were cruel beyond belief. They have had a long-lasting impact on the mothers — the women and girls — and their children. I thank the Member for introducing the Bill. Its importance can never be overstated. The records need to be preserved and protected. People need to have access to them in order to know who they were. They need the records for a multitude of reasons, not least for their health and medical reasons, but mostly just so that they know who they were. That is a very basic human right. I thank the Member again for introducing the Bill.

Mrs Cameron: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important private Member's Bill. Whilst it is a short document, the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill will be of great importance to many people. The Bill is based on proposed departmental amendments to the Adoption and Children Bill that were deemed to be out of scope of that Bill. In its deliberations on the Adoption and Children Bill, the Committee was generally content to support those amendments, and I am glad that, through the private Member's Bill sponsored by Alan Chambers MLA, a mechanism has been found to expedite these important policies.

Just last week, the long-awaited apology to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse was made. The apology rightly stated that victims and survivors had been let down and failed by the state over many years. The apology on its own can never make up for the pain caused, but, at least, it recognises and takes responsibility for that pain.

The purpose and circumstances of the Bill are, of course, motivated by one aspect of the needs of many victims and survivors. The retention of documents has been identified as a significant issue for them in accessing information relating to their lives. The Bill will help to meet the access to records recommendation in the October 2021 report to the Executive by the truth recovery design panel.

Clause 1 introduces a duty to preserve and not to:

"alter, destroy or otherwise dispose of"

a relevant document; not to:

"remove or transfer the document to a place outside of Northern Ireland";

and to "take appropriate measures to ensure" that a relevant document is not:

"stolen, lost, destroyed or otherwise damaged."

The clause is the crux of the Bill, but it goes hand in hand with clause 5, which creates an offence of not complying with the duties created by clause 1 that can be applied to individuals, partnerships, unincorporated associations and corporate bodies. The clause is vital in holding bodies or individuals to account, should they take any action to hinder access to documents as provided for by the Bill.

I thank the sponsor for bringing the Bill to the Floor this evening. It is important that we get this right for all concerned and that the records are protected in law.

Mr McGrath: I likewise support the Bill at Second Stage, and I welcome the opportunity to do so. I do not intend to speak for long, because we had substantial discussions on the clauses in the Health Committee, and we all indicated our support at that stage. It was only because they were ruled to be out of scope of the Adoption and Children Bill that those elements had to fall out of it. None of us wanted to see the clauses lost, because we knew exactly how important they were and that we must try to see them across the finish line. I commend Mr Chambers for introducing his private Member's Bill to do that.

The Bill will ensure that records of people and their backgrounds that were held by institutions and others between 1922 and 1995 are maintained. That is only right and proper.

Many people who were adopted or grew up in institutions many years ago have been left with significant blanks in their history. If such documentation is preserved, it could help to fill in those blanks, which is why the Bill is so important.

All of us have a right to know who we are, where we have come from and who our parents were. While we often debate matters of identity in a very limited way in this place, understanding one's identity in history has a much deeper meaning for those who have come through those institutions. The retention of such information will ensure that anyone who wishes to access that information at a point in the future will know that it has been kept and preserved and has not been destroyed or removed.

How frustrating it must be for somebody who tracks down where they were born or from where they were adopted but finds that the paperwork has not been kept, which does not allow them to make the final connection of being able to work out who their parents were and tracing them. Those people must remain at the forefront of our minds, and the Bill does that.

The SDLP supports the Bill and is content that the scrutiny provided via the Adoption and Children Bill, which, at a time, included these clauses, was sufficient to allow the progression of the present Bill.

I support the Bill at Second Stage and look forward to seeing it progress in the next few days.

Ms Bradshaw: I thank the Bill sponsor for bringing forward this private Member's Bill.

Today is another milestone for birth mothers and adoptee children on their journey towards openness, accountability and redress. I am pleased that all the political parties fully support the presentation of the private Member's Bill at this stage in the Assembly's mandate. All in the Chamber and across the Province recognise the magnitude of what the Bill represents.

I first met Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice in late 2016. We had a lengthy and, at times, heartbreaking meeting when its representatives kindly shared with me their personal circumstances, including their deeply frustrating and painful experiences in trying to find out about their pasts.

In preparation for today's debate, I reread the section of the truth recovery design panel's report on access to records, the presentation of which focused heavily — rightly so — on providing direct quotations from people who engaged with the panel. Those quotations provide the reader with complete clarity and rationale as to why the Bill is necessary.

I am concerned about the full intent of the Bill, however. I may be wrong, but the inclusion of conditions in clause 2 indicates that the relevant documents are to be preserved for:

"a person conducting an inquiry or investigation relating to the implementation of the recommendations made by the Truth Recovery Design Panel".

Of course I support a full public inquiry at the earliest opportunity, but does that mean that there is nothing in the Bill that helps those people who desperately want to access the documents now in advance of the inquiry? Does it prevent them from accessing the documents? We know how deeply frustrating it has been over the years, if not decades, in trying to access the documents to date.

It is unfathomable for those of us sitting in the Chamber to know what it must have been like to give birth to a child, only for him or her to be cruelly taken away without explanation, information or comfort. There are some who try to soften that by pointing to societal, religious or cultural norms at the time.

What the birth mothers and adoptee children want is information about the extant policies and procedures at the time. Should we have to wait for a public inquiry? We talk about information in the public domain that is not included in the Bill, but political representatives know what information there is and how to access it. In some ways, we are making judgements or assuming that everybody has the same access to information that we do.

There are questions about how those policies impacted on birth mothers and adoptee children. Why were they adopted by one family and not another? Why did they spend some time in a children's home away from their mothers before adoption? What considerations were taken into account, and, even more crucially for some, was a payment or donation made to the adoption agency? That is why the records must be provided without redaction. I welcome the fact that that is clearly laid out in the Bill. The birth mothers and adoptee children need to be presented with the information in its entirety, even if some of it is painful, distressing and shocking.

It is our role in the Assembly, and notably in the Executive, to ensure that, when it comes to the inquiry and on into the future, there is funding to provide wrap-around emotional support and therapy to people who access their records. We know that some people have been putting off doing that until an elderly loved one passes away, out of respect for their wishes.


5.30 pm

The other aspect of the Bill that I wonder about is why there is no clause on the establishment of the repository. Maybe that could be introduced at Further Consideration Stage.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Will the Member give way?

Ms Bradshaw: Yes, go ahead.

Ms Ní Chuilín: It is just that the normal repository for public records is a public records building. One of the reasons why Linda and others tried to table amendments was to ensure that those who are responsible for records under the Public Records Act 1923 put them in the public records building so that families and individuals can access them.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you for that clarification. I just wanted to make sure that the institutions and individuals who have that information at present are almost forced to bring it forward at this stage. I appreciate that clarification.

The other aspect of the Bill relates to "relevant information". The truth recovery design panel's report talks about something that is in clause 3(3)(i) of the Bill. Clause 3(3)(g)refers to:

"the birth, death or burial or the resident".

Clause 3(3)(h) talks about:

"the birth, death or burial of the resident's child".

Clause 3(3)(i) mentions "the resident's parents or relatives". The panel report talks about people wanting access to information about their late brother or sister's adoption file. I wonder whether clause 3(3)(i) covers that, because, for some people, that is just as important as finding out information about their mother.

I do not mean to sound negative; I just think that there may be an opportunity to bolster the Bill so that —

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): Will the Member give way?

Ms Bradshaw: Yes, go ahead.

Mr Swann: On that point, my reading is that that is what is meant by clause 3(3)(i), but I am sure that the Member could table amendments to strengthen that.

On another point that the Member made, which was in relation to the condition in clause 2(4), the Bill says:

"conducting an inquiry or investigation relating to the implementation of the recommendations made by the Truth Recovery Design Panel".

The Member will be aware that the recommendations made by the truth recovery design panel go far beyond just a public inquiry. It is about individuals coming forward to seek their own documentation. It is "an inquiry or investigation", not specifically a public inquiry.

Ms Bradshaw: Again, I appreciate the clarification, Minister. You will appreciate that we have just got these documents. I want to make sure that the clauses are as broad as possible.

I was talking about the "resident's parents or relatives". Again, some of the contributors mentioned that their brother or sister was already deceased, so it is about how they would access information about loved ones who are no longer with us.

On that note, I will look at potential amendments as we go forward to the next stage of the Bill, but I certainly do not want to hold the Bill up in this mandate.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Sinead McLaughlin, the Chairperson of the Executive Office Committee.

Ms McLaughlin (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I thank the Bill's sponsor, Mr Alan Chambers, for introducing the Bill, which is absolutely necessary. This has to be done now to ensure that victims and survivors of mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries can access the records that relate to their time in institutions that, rather than caring for them as they should have, harmed and abused them.

For some time, the Committee has been engaging with individuals who have experienced mother-and-baby homes or who are the children or family members of young women who were taken to such institutions.

The truth recovery design panel presented its report to the Committee on 17 November last year, noting that the First Minister and deputy First Minister had committed the Executive to the implementation of its recommendations in full. The Committee heard that an imperative first step is the preservation of records. In fact, of all the issues raised by victims and survivors, full access to complete records was a consistent theme. People want to know how and why such things happened to them. They want to know what happened to their loved ones. They want to know who they are and where they come from. The panel concluded that the denial of access to personal and family records had compounded the long-term pain and suffering inflicted on victims and survivors and their families.

The Committee was privileged to hear from victims and survivors on 24 November at what was a particularly poignant and moving session for members and witnesses alike. We heard about the legacy of what was done to them and their loved ones. One of the key issues was access to information, and one of the key asks was for the immediate preservation of those records.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Will the Member give way?

Ms McLaughlin: Certainly.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Thank you, Sinead. On the point about accessing information, I am sure that, like the rest of us, you watched the apologies that were made here. A lot of the religious orders are all-island in nature. The Irish Government put a seal on those records: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supported that. I assume that you would support the notion that they need to look at that again. We cannot have families getting access to the records on one part of the island when that access is being refused on another part of it. I just want to get that clarity from you.

Ms McLaughlin: I thank the Member for her intervention. I totally agree. We have seen failures in the response from the Irish Government. We want to raise all boats and not look to tread that path, because we can tread our own path in a much better and more

[Inaudible]

way that will respond better to victims and survivors.

On 19 January, departmental officials came before the Committee to update members on the actions to implement the recommendations of the truth recovery design panel's report. The Committee was told that, while most of the actions that required legislation would have to wait for the next mandate, there was an immediate need for legislation on the retention of records. Two weeks later, there was no longer a functioning Executive to approve the introduction of such legislation. I cannot describe the consternation of victims and survivors at the prospect of having no protection for documents. I was resolved that something would have to be done in order to honour the commitment to make the destruction of records illegal.

I have to place on record the Committee's appreciation for the determination and creativity with which the departmental officials have engaged to address that setback. The first attempt, through an amendment to the Adoption and Children Bill, was unsuccessful. This method, through a private Member's Bill, must succeed.

There is a clear need for records to be preserved. There was a promise that legislation would be passed in this mandate to prohibit the destruction of records. The Bill is the vehicle by which that can be accomplished. Let it not be said that the Assembly was found wanting in supporting the needs of victims and survivors of mother-and-baby homes.

Mr Swann: It is with a sense of relief that I express my strong support for the Bill. Its successful passage will serve to honour the Executive's agreement to implement the recommendations of the truth recovery design panel's report on mother-and-baby institutions, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in Northern Ireland. That includes the recommendation to which the Bill specifically relates.

I will not reiterate the purpose and content of the Bill, which has been set out by my colleague Alan Chambers, because, at the heart of the Bill, are the rights and interests of victims and survivors of a number of historical institutions, many of whom have campaigned tirelessly for years in pursuit of truth, justice and accountability about the operation of those institutions. From reading and hearing their testimonies, we know that the impact of the trauma of their experiences has been a constant throughout their lives and, indeed, the lives of their families. It is, therefore, essential that all possible efforts are made to ensure the preservation of records that contain important information about their own or their family member's birth and early years.

The records that are protected by the Bill would provide a significant source of information and evidence for the statutory public inquiry and independent panel that were recommended by the truth recovery design panel. They would also be critical to the establishment of a permanent, comprehensive and independent repository of historical institutional and adoption records and other records that relate to children in state care. Their preservation is urgent because, theoretically at least, with every day that passes, the risk increases of an important record being destroyed or continuing to be held in less-than-satisfactory environmental conditions.

Members will recall that, originally, the provisions of the Bill were contained in amendments that I tabled for Consideration Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. Unfortunately, those amendments were deemed inadmissible on the grounds that they were outside the scope of that Bill. My Department considered alternative options for addressing the urgency of the truth recovery design panel's recommendation on the preservation of records. One option was that I introduced the legislation as Minister of Health. However, that was not possible due to the absence of a functioning Executive, because Executive approval is required to draft a Bill. Executive approval for the introduction of a Bill and for accelerated passage would have been required. I am, therefore, immensely grateful to my colleague Alan Chambers for taking forward this urgent legislation as a private Member and for the cross-party support that the Bill and he have received. Introducing the Bill in the current mandate will give certainty and reassurance to victims and survivors, who deserve the swiftest possible actions on the issue.

Members should be aware that the recommendation of the truth recovery design panel that the Bill would address has already been endorsed by the Executive. Furthermore, on 22 November 2021, I advised the First Minister and deputy First Minister of my intention to address the recommendation by way of the Adoption and Children Bill. On 21 January 2022, Ministers were advised of the amendments that I proposed to make to that Bill and provided with an explanation of what each amendment intended to achieve. Members should also be aware that amendments to that Bill tabled by Ms Dillon are reflected in the text of this Bill. The Health Committee was given sight of the amendments as part of the process and at Consideration Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. I advised Members that the amendments had been ruled out of scope and sought their support to find another way forward. On that basis, it is right and proper that I give my endorsement to the private Member's Bill.

I will close by remarks by reflecting on the voices of victims and survivors, one of whom told the truth recovery design panel:

"I have lived with this silently all my life and have felt like I have carried a heavy guilty burden."

Another said:

"It is time for truth, and I welcome it."

I am confident that the Bill will play a crucial part in securing that truth, along with the accountability and justice that victims, survivors and their relatives have campaigned for for so many years.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Alan Chambers to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the debate.

Mr Chambers: I will refer to some points that have been raised during the debate.

I have been given a reassurance by the Department of Health that the Bill will create no barriers to victims having immediate access to the records now. It is the intention of the Bill that victims and survivors will have access to the records at a time of their choosing. We should understand that, if we did not have the Bill and we did not have the compulsion to retain and preserve the documents, there may well be nothing for victims or survivors to access. We must bear that in mind.

When the documents are drawn together, they will eventually be placed in an independent repository. That is the purpose of the Bill. That is the correct way that they should be preserved in the public domain for access by victims and survivors.

Ms Dillon made the important point about death and burial records, which is a touching element of the situation. She will recognise that the private Member's Bill gives protection for that and rightly so. I welcome her making that point.


5.45 pm

In terms of separation, the time frame of two months in this private Member's Bill is much reduced from the original timescale that was proposed in the Adoption and Children Bill, which was six months. So, we have closed that to a two-month separation.

Clause 3(5) is intended to define what is meant by "separation". There may be well-intentioned reasons for a child being separated from its mother, so it is important that we do not wrongly capture those well-intentioned arrangements, given the offences that are attached to the Bill.

I have certainly listened to and appreciate all the comments that were made. Hopefully, we can work together to ensure that, by Thursday of next week, victims and survivors will have the Bill that they have been crying out to have to preserve the records for them to access.

I thank Members for their cooperation and their goodwill towards the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill [NIA 56/17-22] be agreed.

Adjourned at 5.47 pm.

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