Official Report: Monday 13 October 2014
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 13 October 2014. — [Mr Weir.]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I take this opportunity to extend my personal best wishes to Mr Hay. With the House's indulgence, I would like to say a few words. Members will note that our friend has written to all Members, and I know we share his regret that medical advice does not permit him to be with us today to allow us to pay tribute to him in person. It is probable that most Members will have difficulty remembering the precise circumstances in which he took the Chair and all he had to deal with throughout that period, and he deserves credit for leaving seven years later having retained warm respect throughout the political spectrum represented in the House and beyond.
Hailing from the same city, although he came from Londonderry, William Hay and I were friends for years before we came to the House. All who know him would say that he brought the same natural, pragmatic approach to seek agreement and avoid confrontation, which he used to great effect in Derry, particularly through his essential role in the discussions that delivered the highly successful parades agreement in our native city. He also brought those qualities to the Chamber, and it was absolutely the style that was required at that time.
If some Members think that it is daunting preparing to face the other side of the House during difficult debates, they should consider how it feels to be in the Speaker's Chair on those occasions.
In preparing for predictably difficult debates, he would have had a wise reflection on how best to handle the situation or, in his words, to keep the House between the hedges. For example, if a debate was going to be difficult and he had to take procedural decisions, he personally felt that he should see that through. Even if it meant a marathon session in this Chair, he thought that it would be unfair to ask the Deputy Speakers to carry that particular burden.
William Hay, as we have all found out, is a very difficult man to fall out with, but there were things that clearly vexed him. He would frequently be annoyed if he felt that disrespect was being shown in the House. He would also be annoyed if his efforts to reach agreement to resolve issues were not reciprocated, or if someone clearly was seeking confrontation. Most of all, his sense of fair play would be offended when Members would seek to draw him into party political rows or involve him in issues in which they knew that he either had no responsibility or could not respond to.
We should also mark today the work that William did to have the Assembly reach out and to engage with the wider community. Many of his personal initiatives brought thousands of people through the doors of this Building, and Members know that meeting them was one of the parts of the jobs that he enjoyed best. Every year, he themed his St Patrick's Day dinners, not for Members or the great and the good but for community and voluntary causes. I know that many who came to them had never been here before and deeply appreciated the recognition of their work. Members will know that, in 2012, William hosted an open day to mark 80 years of this Building. Over 5,000 people visited on that one Saturday alone.
Finally, Willie would often sit in this Chair and call for good temper, courtesy and moderation; on occasions, until he was hoarse. These words, ultimately, sum him up as a man: he has served this House magnificently. We wish him a speedy recovery from his illness and a very happy retirement and best wishes for the future.
The Business Committee has allowed up to one hour for the debate, and each Member will have three minutes to speak.
That this Assembly records its appreciation of the great distinction with which Mr William Hay has occupied the office of Speaker; congratulates him on the skilful manner in which he has upheld the dignity of this House; appreciates the wisdom, good humour and patience with which he has presided over its affairs; and expresses its warmest thanks to Mr Hay for his many services to this House; and unites in wishing him a long and happy retirement from the House.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I beg to move the motion in my name and that of other leaders of the House. I want to pay tribute to the work of former Speaker William Hay. I think that all of us will appreciate your comments, as someone who came from a very different background to William. Indeed, I have known William literally for decades, and I was convinced when the late Lord Bannside — Dr Paisley as he then was — appointed William to be our nominee for the post of Speaker that he would do an outstanding job. I also knew that doing that outstanding job, because he would regard it as essential to have an air of neutrality, would take him out of the normal party politics. That, in many ways, was a loss for the DUP but a gain for the Assembly.
He was the first Speaker elected by the Assembly. I think that all the others who sat in that Chair were appointed by the Government. William steered the Assembly through what has been a new era of politics in Northern Ireland, and he did so with skill, with good humour and, at times when it was necessary, with firmness. His door was always open to anyone, and, no matter what political party they supported, he dealt with them on an equal basis. Assembly Members placed their confidence in William the day he was elected as Speaker, and I believe that he repaid that confidence every day he was in office since then. As some of my colleagues have discovered to their cost, William has been scrupulously fair and impartial in his role.
The role of Speaker, of course, goes beyond work in this Chamber. You have pointed out, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, the enormous workload that the occupant of the Chair has outside the sittings of the House, and William's work, I believe, is a service to the community in Northern Ireland and was carried out in an exemplary way.
Indeed, William proved to be a superb ambassador for the Assembly at home and abroad. He has played an essential part in the history of the Assembly. I am certain that everyone in the House wishes him well as he battles to return to full health. We have much to be grateful for, given the manner in which he presided over the House, and we give him our thanks for that role, which is best summed up in the words of the motion, which refers to the "great distinction with which" he carried out that role.
Mr M McGuinness: I, too, rise on behalf of my party to express our deepest thanks and appreciation for the tremendous leadership shown by William in the role of Ceann Comhairle, or Speaker, of the House. I had the privilege of nominating William as Speaker and have never regretted that decision for one minute. He never did anything that would make me regret such a decision, and I think that he has served the House with tremendous distinction, great fairness and incredible impartiality. I think that all of us recall those occasions when he was called on to effectively rebuke members of the party to which he had an allegiance. He was always very approachable, very friendly, very courteous and very civilised, and it was a real honour to do business with him.
Like the Principal Deputy Speaker, I come from the same city as William, and although we had different political allegiances, we always understood that, coming from where we came from, whether we called it Londonderry or Derry, that was our home and the place where we lived. Great efforts were always made by all of us to try to work in the best interests of the city and, generally, when we came to a House like this, in the interests of everybody in the North of Ireland.
Not many people know this, but William worked with my late father in Brown's foundry, an ironworks in Foyle Street in Derry, and the humble beginnings that both he and I came from have stood us in good stead in how we absolutely need to be civilised, courteous and very respectful of everybody in the House. He performed his duties in the House in an exemplary fashion. The way he represented the House outside the workings of the institutions in the Assembly was also exemplary. His contributions to foreign situations, whether in eastern Europe or travelling to represent us in the United States of America, were always done with great distinction. So, I am very proud, on behalf of my party, to say that we have no difficulty whatsoever in endorsing the message of thanks and appreciation to William and to wish him a very speedy recovery from the illness that he is presently battling.
Dr McDonnell: It is without reservation that I, too, on behalf of myself and the SDLP, endorse the motion before us today. I have to admit that it is with some sense of loss that we all approach today's circumstances and feel how unfortunate it is that, due to illness, our beloved Speaker was not able to announce his retirement here in person. We all wish Willie well. We hope and pray that his health improves and that, in due course, his recovery is complete. We want to thank him sincerely for the tremendous job that he did here.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I echo your comments that Willie was a very difficult man to fall out with. He worked with all of us, and, even at times when we were disagreeing, he found civil ways of handling disagreement; perhaps civil ways that the rest of us would not have the patience to pursue.
He was always courteous and helpful. Others have referred to his exemplary chairing of the Assembly and to his efforts to bring consensus and stability, as well as to his carrying out the plethora of other duties that attach themselves to the role of Speaker.
I will leave that and endorse what the two Members who spoke previously said, and, indeed, what you said, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and make a few personal comments. To me, Willie Hay was an honest and honourable man in everything that he did and said in his dealings with all of us. He did an outstanding job as Speaker, in every aspect of the job's responsibilities. He was open, honest and fair to all, and, I hasten to add, he was open, honest and fair even to those who were awkward and, at times, unhelpful and uncooperative. I was amazed continuously at how tolerant he was, and it is important to put that on the record. I certainly would not have had the patience.
He was a listener, and his door was always open to give and take advice. Frequently when I bumped into him in the corridor, he would say, "Why don't you come in and have a cup of tea with me? There are a few things that I want to run past you". That was a unique and very useful characteristic. It meant that, in his running and chairing of the Assembly in his job as Speaker, his antenna was sensitive. He was fully aware of the feelings and needs of everybody. In my conversations with Willie, he had a very clear vision of the Assembly's full potential and the potential of devolution to bring about significant progress and prosperity to all our people, particularly the people of a city called Derry.
He worked to develop a North/South parliamentary assembly —
Dr McDonnell: — against the odds, and he overcame many obstacles. He hosted so many outreach events here to make the Assembly inclusive. His work in Kosovo and the Balkans has already been mentioned. Bringing the experience of the Assembly to that troubled region was very valuable and worthwhile. I wish him a very rapid recovery and a long and peaceful retirement.
Mr Nesbitt: I rise on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party to give thanks to Speaker Hay for his years in the Chair and to express some sadness that those years have come to a premature close.
To some extent, the big challenge of the Speaker is to be the embodiment of the Chamber and to hold up a mirror to the other 107 MLAs and have them, to some extent, say, "Yes, you are a proper and true reflection of what I aspire to as a Member of this legislative Assembly", as well as to be an interface between the Chamber and civic society, and a very public face at that.
That is a measure of the gargantuan challenge of being a successful Speaker. Mr Hay rose to that challenge through maintaining the integrity of the Chair and also through an endless pursuit to establish and cement good relations with all Members. He allowed considerable scope on occasion, but he was equally unafraid to make a stand when a stand were necessary. Those who know Willie Hay will not be overly surprised at that position, because we are talking about a man who does deals — sometimes very difficult deals — honestly and in a manner that allows all the people whom he represents to reap the rewards. I think beyond the Chamber to his key role in the negotiations that made parades disputes a thing of the past in the city that he represented for no fewer than 33 years in council and here at Assembly level.
I had the pleasure of a professional relationship with Mr Hay for many of those years in my former role as a broadcast journalist. He was always an interesting and welcome contributor to television political debates, because he would always try to shift the focus, with the aim of a positive outcome. With the currency of the Chamber at a low, we all have good reason to thank Willie Hay for the dignity that he brought to the position of Speaker. We wish him well. We particularly hope that he recovers sufficiently to be able to take his seat in the House of Lords. I hope that that is a motivator for him as he returns to good health.
At this point, I also want to mention another Member who is resigning through ill health, Sue Ramsey. Ms Ramsey was nothing if not courteous and welcoming when I joined this Chamber in 2011. We both sat on the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, and, in the early years, you could not get a paper between us on what we thought about the importance of the social economy. I know that my colleague Sam Gardiner felt the same about her work on the Health Committee.
The Ulster Unionist Party would like to wish both Sue Ramsey and Willie Hay future good health.
Mr Ford: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, on behalf of my colleagues, I endorse the remarks made, including most particularly those remarks that you have made from the Chair, of good wishes and thanks to your predecessor in the sense of his once occupying that Chair.
There is no doubt that Willie Hay took on a very difficult task when he became the third Speaker of this Assembly. He was our first elected Speaker, but he proved that being elected to office did not stop him carrying out his duties impartially and fairly. He served this House well in the variety of roles that you have talked about. We all saw him in the Chamber as he sought to control us at times when we needed control. He did so generally with good humour and in a way that defused tension when, otherwise, it was quite possible that debates could have become very difficult.
When people had meetings in his office, he was always keen to ensure that things ran smoothly and everybody was treated well. It is perhaps a measure of the success in the period since 2007 that I think that I was in the office less to see Mr Speaker Hay than to see his immediate predecessor during those difficult times of suspension, but it did not mean that there was any less courteous a reception or any less understanding for the points that I wished to raise. Whether it was, "A quick word with David", or a, "Can I have a chat, Minister?", he was always a model of courtesy and of complete propriety in the way that he conducted his office.
He was also an exceptionally good representative of this Chamber. You mentioned the way in which he opened up this Building and ensured that it was seen as welcoming to many people, not just to the great and the good who normally come to events, but he opened it up as widely as he could to the people of Northern Ireland.
He was always courteous in this Chamber, probably courteous to some who did not deserve it. He was always generous of his time, and he was always a man of integrity. Probably, once or twice, he got things wrong, but we knew that he was doing his best to ensure that this Chamber functioned and could be representative. Sadly, 107 of us probably need to learn lessons from him in the way that we conduct ourselves over the coming months.
There is no doubt that his own roots in Donegal and the work that he did in Derry were very significant in the part that he played in producing a better Northern Ireland, because there is no doubt that, as the man who represented Londonderry in talks about parading in Derry, he had a very significant role. Indeed, not that long ago, someone said to me, "What North Belfast needs is a Willie Hay". Sadly, there is only one Willie Hay. He did his job in his city, and he did it to great effect.
Let us remember him and thank him, not just for what he did as Speaker here, but what he also did for the wider community in Northern Ireland; wish him a good recovery; and trust that, at some early stage, the voice of Derry and Londonderry will be heard in the House of Lords.
Mr Campbell: I am very conscious that this is not an obituary piece, because people keep talking in the past tense. I have probably known William Hay personally for longer than anybody in this Chamber. He was my election agent on a number of occasions, and he and I were both elected to the City Council in Londonderry in 1981. In fact, his mother was also a councillor at that stage and, within a year of our being elected, on the weekend before I was to propose his mother for Mayor of Londonderry, she passed away suddenly. Politics may well have been different otherwise, as, a short time after that, Mrs Hay may well have been proposed as a Member in the 1982 Assembly. As it turned out, I was proposed because of her unforeseen death.
William Hay and I were close colleagues for a very long time and continue to be so.
I was with him in hospital a few weeks ago, and, of course, he was his own self. He was still cracking jokes at anybody who crossed his path, and there was a joke to be had at the expense of anybody who came into the ward, who passed him or who said anything.
On his taking the role of Speaker, I knew that he would set aside whatever distinctions he may have had and that he would adopt and adapt to the role with relish. He did that, as many found to their cost. He adopted his position as the Speaker, and, as we have heard in the tributes thus far and as, I am sure, the concluding tributes will attest, he was and is a remarkable man.
We look forward to him making further progress with his health. We also look forward to the progress that he will make into the House of Lords, hopefully in the next few months. We hope that he will continue to make significant and substantial contributions there. This House will be at a loss with his departure, but another House will gain.
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas le William Hay, mar rinne sé obair an-tábhachtach mar Cheann Comhairle an Tionóil seo. I thank and join others in the House in paying tribute to the work that Willie Hay — William Hay; I think of him as Willie — did during his time as Speaker.
I was trying to remember the first time that I met William Hay. I think that it was in 1989, when he was the Mayor of Derry. I had a trade union activist from Nicaragua over at the time, and William Hay met him and very courteous. The next time that I had dealings with William Hay was when I was Minister of Education. He always chaired what were at times very fraught debates fairly and well. I would like to put that on record.
In more recent years, I have worked very closely with him in my position as Whip of my party and as a member of the Assembly Commission, the Business Committee and the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association, meetings of which have taken place in Dublin and here in Stormont. I enjoyed very much the robust debates in all those organisations. Obviously, we have very different political viewpoints, but the debates were always very courteous and there was a respect for listening to the views of others.
I remember travelling with him to a meeting with the Scottish Parliament's assembly commission with other members of the Commission. That was when I really got to see the William Hay with the dry wit. He was really looking forward to getting home after a busy few days. I really enjoyed his company during those few days and I know that others did as well.
I join others in wishing him a very speedy recovery. We look forward to seeing him again in these institutions.
Mr Weir: When a colleague of mine in North Down Borough Council stepped down, I described the occasion as being the closest he would ever get to being at his own funeral and hearing the tributes without actually being dead. There is a bit of an air to this and, to slightly misquote Shakespeare, I come to praise William Hay, not to bury him.
As others have mentioned, William came here with a wealth of experience. I cannot claim to have the same length of knowledge of him as either of the first two Members from our party who have spoken. I have known William since 1998 and served with him, first, as a Back-Bencher for nine years. His unique background has been mentioned. He is a Donegal Protestant whose political life, particularly as a councillor, was that of serving as a unionist in a city with a majority of nationalists. He brought his wealth of experience to the Chair when he took up the role of Speaker.
Mention has been made of the good humour that he brought to the role and the gravitas and the good order that he sought in the Chamber. At times, we have seen other institutions become bear gardens, and, given our past and the fractious nature of some of the issues that confront us, there was always going to be a danger of the Northern Ireland Assembly descending into one. William Hay has very much been the glue that has held us together to ensure that debates were held in good order. As was mentioned, that meant, from time to time, being tough on particular Members. Many of my colleagues behind me at times experienced frustration with the Speaker. In many ways, that is a sign of the strength of the man: he was prepared to be fair and impartial even if it meant annoying those who had been his colleagues.
The role of Speaker is a little like that of a minister of religion. Some people think that the only role a minister performs is on a Sunday morning with the sermon and the service, but a lot of William's work was behind the scenes in the Speaker's office, where he smoothed over issues that arose. That has led to the smooth running of this place.
I have had the honour of serving with William on the Business Committee and the Assembly Commission, on which he gave sterling service in representing the Assembly to the outside world, encouraging people in Northern Ireland to engage with the Assembly and, on a range of difficult issues, always trying to show patience to different political viewpoints and parties and, when possible, trying to reach a situation in which there is consensus.
This is not the burial of William Hay but an au revoir, because he will move from this place to the House of Lords, where he will be able to bring that wealth of experience and make a solid contribution.
Mr P Ramsey: I thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to acknowledge Willie Hay's contribution.
As the SDLP Whip and as a colleague and friend from his constituency, Willie's contribution has been obvious to me. Only for his help, guidance and cooperation, we could not do our job as Whips. As Members said, "honesty" and "honourability" are the key words that the Speaker brings to the table. He brought passion, integrity, dedication and impartiality. As Caitríona Ruane said, he worked tirelessly at times when it was difficult, not only by working at the Assembly Commission and the Business Committee but by helping to bring to the table a working North/South Parliamentary Forum. His relationship with the Ceann Comhairle in Dublin was exceptionally good, and if we did not have that relationship, we would not have the forum. That forum is meeting soon.
There is also no doubt of Willie Hay's immense contribution to his constituency. The last violence in the centre of Derry was in 1999 and caused almost £2 million of damage. At that time, Willie Hay accelerated the process when others were challenging him for what he was doing, namely his engagement with the Apprentice Boys, the loyal orders, other political parties and the community and voluntary sector in the city. That brought reconciliation, resolve and compromise to the parades issue in the city. There is no doubt that Willie Hay will go down in the annals as the one person who inspired and brought people along with him.
I visited Willie at home recently, as other Members have done, and he is not at himself. However, as Gregory said, he still holds the same charm and dry wit. As a good friend, I say to him and Doris, his wife, that I wish him every health and happiness in his retirement. Lord Hay of Ramelton, as he will hopefully be known, will be a champion and advocate for the Derry and north-west areas as he takes up his seat in the House of Lords. On behalf of the SDLP, I wish Willie and his wife, Doris, the very best in the future.
Mr Beggs: I also support the motion. I add my appreciation of the work of Willie Hay not only in the Chamber but, as others said, in the other roles that are outside the administrative aspects of the duties of the Speaker's office. As an Assembly Member and as a Deputy Speaker, I have seen Willie perform those duties, and I have seen things from the other side. We all owe him our gratitude for the work that he carried out when he was in the position of Speaker.
"Due courtesy and moderation" was almost a catchphrase that Willie used frequently and encouraged the Deputy Speakers to use.
They were important because they had a calming role in the Assembly, trying to de-escalate situations for the betterment of the Assembly but also for the rest of the community, because there can be ramifications in the wider community from how we behave in this Chamber.
Willie Hay always tried to resolve issues amicably. Frequently he was successful, but we can be an awkward bunch and it is an impossible task always to do so. But he made every effort to try to do that for the benefit of the Assembly.
As Deputy Speaker, I saw some of the challenges that he faced in the decisions that he had to make. He carried out his duty honourably and wisely. Some Speakers from other devolved Chambers were interested in the different style he used — and, I would argue, the success that that style brought for the benefit of this Assembly. His good humour, as others mentioned, was a key factor. He skilfully managed things and defused situations, avoiding conflict.
I wish Willie Hay a speedy return to good health so that he will be able to enjoy a quality of life and more time with his family, and to contribute elsewhere.
Mr G Robinson: I have had the pleasure of knowing William Hay for over 30 years. Today is a sad day for Northern Ireland politics as William takes a less prominent role in everyday politics. His honesty, integrity, impartiality and humour will be missed by all in this House.
Since I first got to know William, he has never changed from the affable character whose word was his bond and who loved helping others, whether in this Chamber or further afield. Neither he nor I envisaged him taking such a prominent role in Northern Ireland politics, but the challenge came and he successfully stepped up to it.
We are all aware of his reasons for stepping down. I join the chorus of good wishes that follow William into retirement, if we can call it that, as I am sure he will take his seat in the Lords and be an active Member of that place. That does not, however, make up for the loss that this Assembly will suffer as William retires. No offence to whoever will be his successor, but William Hay will be a hard act to follow.
The people of the Foyle constituency have lost a strong and dedicated advocate, but we all acknowledge William's wish to have a slower pace of life. To William, I can honestly say "You will be missed", but I hope his retirement is long as he more than deserves it.
Mrs Cochrane: I echo the comments of those who spoke in acknowledging Willie's role as Speaker. In the Chamber, I always welcomed his fair and balanced approach. Indeed, I had direct of experience of him being politically impartial and dealing firmly with a member of his own party when behaviour had been somewhat unparliamentary.
As a member of the Commission, I had direct experience of the work he did as an ambassador for the Northern Ireland Assembly not just in Northern Ireland but further afield. I travelled with him to Kosovo, along with the late David McClarty, a year or so ago. Once I managed to tune into their particular sense of humour, I had a good relationship on a personal level with them, too. We had a positive trip, and the manner in which he conducted meetings with senior members of the Kosovan Assembly and their Prime Minister could not be faulted.
I take this opportunity to wish him well and a return to good health as soon as possible.
Mrs Foster: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with the greatest respect to you and your Deputy Speakers, I will miss William Hay in this place. William and I had a very good friendship. We represented constituencies from the west of the Province and always worked closely. Very recently, I was in the city at his request to open a flower festival at Clooney Church of Ireland. He used to call on me to come along to a number of things in the city, and I was more than happy to do so.
He represented his constituents tirelessly. Whether it was the Memorial Hall, St Columb's Cathedral or some small issue up in Irish Street, Willie was there, always making sure that his constituents' voices were heard.
As a Minister, I will, of course, miss William's friendship and guidance. He was, as we heard, a fixer of problems who looked for solutions, and that should not be underestimated. The House will miss that.
As we heard, he had international standing. He went to Kosovo, chaired the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, had many events here and many people visited this House of ours. Indeed, he opened it in a way that had never been achieved before. A lot of people have been through the doors of Parliament Buildings who would not have been here had it not been for William Hay's insistence that this was to be a place for everybody in Northern Ireland and, indeed, for all our visitors from overseas.
I join colleagues in wishing William, Doris and their family every success. I hope that he has a speedy return to good health, and I am sure that I will still be lobbied effectively, albeit from the House of Lords.
Mr Kennedy: It is an honour and privilege to join others in paying tribute to Speaker Hay. William Hay has had a long and distinguished political career, especially in the north-west, in local government and in the House. I have no doubt that it will continue, hopefully, in the House of Lords.
It would be unwise for anyone to underestimate Willie Hay's political shrewdness and abilities as a political operator. It can honestly and fairly be said that he made a very positive contribution to public life in Northern Ireland, not least as Speaker. We heard about his outreach work. As a Member and a Minister, I found him to be fair, impartial and open-minded. He tried to encourage common sense in the Chamber, which is no mean feat.
He has also been a great ambassador for the Assembly and Northern Ireland, but he was canny. I remember being at a St Patrick's Day White House reception, and Willie and I had sort of manoeuvred into a position close to the podium from which President Obama would address the gathering. Indeed, Willie engaged me as his personal photographer, in the hope that we might get a snap. In the end, we got close enough, and I managed to take a reasonable photograph— I tell the House that it is always advisable to have an alternative career — which Willie, I think, still hangs in his office or home. So, there was that side to him of being politically aware and able to use the situation to not only his advantage but to the advantage of the Assembly.
I thank him for his contribution, wish him well for a speedy recovery and a happy retirement, but I also hope that he makes a positive contribution in the House of Lords.
Mr Allister: My relationship with Speaker Hay had its moments. It was not entirely uneventful, and I do not think for one minute that I was always right and he was always wrong. He had a job to do that was not easy. I, too, had a message to deliver in a cold house for opposition, but I readily acknowledge that William Hay performed the role of Speaker with great sincerity and absolutely to the best of his ability.
I wish to record that, at all times outside the House, whatever had passed within the House, he was courteous and cordial in his dealings with me. That was something of the mark of him.
It is with regret that I learn that ill health has overcome him at this point. I trust that he will make a full recovery and be able to enjoy participation in the House of Lords. I was thinking that it was just over three years ago, on one of those days when Speaker Hay had heard enough from me — you have all been there — that I dared to suggest to him that his peerage was safe, and so it turned out to be. I trust that he will make a worthwhile contribution there.
Given the bizarre governmental arrangements in the House, the role of Speaker in protecting the primacy of and accountability to the House is very important. There were many occasions when, on prompting, Speaker Hay had to remind Ministers that they should make important statements to the House, not to the media, and that they should answer questions within the time limits of Standing Orders, not months, or even years, later. Sadly, the arrogant disrespect from some Ministers continued in spite of those exhortations. A Speaker needs perhaps to show less deference to Ministers and to remind them that the House is the primary elected forum to which statements of importance should be made and that the rules of the House require questions to be answered when tabled. I trust that the markers —
Mr Allister: — that Speaker Hay put down in that regard will be heeded. I wish him well into the future.
Mr Agnew: I always found William Hay to be a very likeable man. I think that that comes across today in the Chamber. It was not his job to be likeable; he was there to tell us off when need be, but the fact is that he was able to do so and still maintain a good personal relationship with Members here. As has been mentioned, whatever went on in the Chamber was set aside when personal contact was made outside it.
I give my particular gratitude to William Hay because I saw him as a friend to the non-Executive parties. He did all he could, within the rules of Standing Orders and legislation, to make sure that our voice was heard. Whatever frustrations many of us may have about the structures of the Assembly and the voice that it gives to opposition and non-Executive Members, he tried to facilitate them where possible. As we are all well aware, he is not responsible for the structures in which we act.
He brought a dignity to the office, which is important because the Speaker is a figurehead for the Assembly, and what he projects to the outside world is a reflection of the Assembly. Much has been made of the many public events that he hosted and the efforts that he made to make this a much more public Building. I particularly respect that, given that I grew up two miles from this place and had never set foot inside it until I worked here. I am delighted that people in the same situation who are growing up now will find this a much more welcoming and hospitable place than perhaps it was in the past. I thank Mr Hay for his role in facilitating that.
Much tribute has been paid to his manner and his way of seeking to bring agreement. That is why it is regrettable that perhaps the Speaker's office will be muddied when we debate the election of a new Speaker. It is important that it is a dignified role, particularly at a time when there is much loss of faith in these institutions. Bringing the Speaker's office into the remit of party political squabbles would be regrettable. I sincerely hope that will not be the case.
If we wish to pay tribute to William Hay and the role that he played here, we should do so by maintaining the dignity of his office. On behalf of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, I wish William Hay happiness and health in his retirement from this place and success in the House of Lords when he takes his seat.
Mr McNarry: On behalf of UKIP, not only do I say thanks to our former Speaker, I wish him a speedy recovery and time to enjoy his retirement from this place and secondment to another place. I also add my compliments to his staff, who served him well and were part of the service that we received from the Speaker's office.
One of the many compliments that one can give Willie Hay is that he will be missed; he was our behaviour controller in an effective and impartial manner. As a referee, I recall him making only one serious mistake, when he red-carded me and ejected me from this place. The fact that he did so in ruling on a Shinner's complaint still irks me, but I bear no lasting grudge against him.
He was ever the diplomat. He perfected that knack of listening to your beef and leaving you knowing fine well that you were going nowhere, but you really did feel better having had the conversation. As a Chief Whip, I found Willie to be wily, in that, on occasions when a Member sailed close to the wind, he would make it clear to me that the offending Member was treading a reprimand. That was a great trick, which meant that the Member in question inevitably fell out with me, the messenger, and thought that the Speaker was a great fellow all round.
He was, we must say, our elected and official Speaker of the Assembly: a real gentleman, a nice guy. He was nobody's fool; he was shrewd and a blooming good negotiator. He will be a very hard act to follow. He carried out his duties with dignity and with pride taken in the high office that he held, an office that we, in this House, elected him to fulfil. He leaves with our full confidence and genuine thanks for representing all our views when he called us to order. So I say good luck to him, and thanks.
Mr B McCrea: I share with Willie a background as a Donegal Protestant. His family and mine came from Manorcunningham, and we occasionally crossed on those paths.
However, my real memory of him comes more from his open-door policy to this place, which has been touched on by a number of Members. However, I am not really sure that people realise what a profound change it was to make this Building open to the public and to invite in people from all quarters — all parts of Northern Ireland — to come and see the Building for themselves. As a newly elected MLA, I just took that more or less for granted and embraced, with some passion, his wish to bring more people into the Buildings.
I remember that one of the first things that I tried to do was to have a gathering for young people that would end up with a fireworks display. It was something that, I thought, would be quite a reasonable thing to do, only to discover that there was something about Parliament Buildings, fireworks and some guy called Guy Fawkes that meant that such a thing was not really possible, never mind legal. The Speaker himself intervened to help to smooth out those issues, get things sorted out, and a good time was had by all. It was a testament to him; it was typical of the man that he would take such an interest.
I also think that part of his contribution, which has been mentioned by others, is that he did a really excellent job in the city of Derry or Londonderry, depending on what you want to call it. He helped to engender things for the Apprentice Boys and to get cultural recognition for all sides. It is a testament to him as a politician that he was able to do that.
I close by saying that there are a number of us who end up speaking last. It is maybe something about those of us who speak last that, from time to time, we have been in what is known as "the naughty corner", and the Speaker has had occasion to remonstrate with all of us. I was struck by Mr McNarry saying that he had been shown the red card. That is something that I never actually achieved myself.
Mr B McCrea: There may well be time yet, but it is testament to the Speaker's good humour that he would occasionally have a word with me and explain that we might do things in a different way. Of course, you would take that guidance and try to work with him for the benefit of the entire Assembly. For that, I am really grateful.
It is a difficult job, and we want to try to give more representation to those who are not from the main parties. Willie did a very good job in very difficult circumstances. I wish him all the best, a speedy return to health and, of course, congratulations on his elevation to the House of Lords.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly records its appreciation of the great distinction with which Mr William Hay has occupied the office of Speaker; congratulates him on the skilful manner in which he has upheld the dignity of this House; appreciates the wisdom, good humour and patience with which he has presided over its affairs; and expresses its warmest thanks to Mr Hay for his many services to this House; and unites in wishing him a long and happy retirement from the House.
The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner) in the Chair.
The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): I know that many Members have had the opportunity to pay tribute to Mr William Hay, but I would like to take this opportunity to pay personal tribute to the retiring Speaker. Speaker Hay has set an excellent example for all future Speakers to follow. His unfailing courtesy, his wisdom in difficult situations and his fairness characterised his Speakership. He will be missed by us all, and I will miss him on a personal level. I wish him a full recovery, good health and happy times in the House of Lords. I am sure that the House will echo my sentiments.
The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Before we commence, I remind Members that the election of the Speaker will be conducted using the procedures set out in Standing Order 4. In accordance with Standing Order 4(2), I have taken the Chair as Acting Speaker and will preside over the election. I will begin by asking for nominations. Any Member may rise to propose that another Member be elected as Speaker. I will then ask for the proposal to be seconded by another Member, as required by Standing Order 14. If that occurs, I will then verify that the Member nominated is willing to accept the nomination. There will not be an opportunity for speeches at that stage.
I will then ask for further proposals and follow the same procedure for each. When it appears that there are no further proposals, I will make it clear that the time for proposals has passed. If Members indicate that they wish to speak, a debate relevant to the election may take place in which no Member may speak more than once.
At the conclusion of the debate, or at the conclusion of nominations if there are no requests to speak, I will put the Question that the Member first proposed be Speaker of the Assembly. The vote can be carried only on a cross-community basis. If the proposal is not carried, I will put the Question in respect of the next nominee, and so on, until all nominations are exhausted. Once a Speaker is elected, all other nominations will fall automatically. If that is clear, we will proceed.
Do I have any proposals for the office of Speaker of this Assembly?
Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, I would like to nominate Mitchel McLaughlin as the new Speaker of the Assembly.
Mr Nesbitt: It is my pleasure to nominate Roy Beggs MLA.
The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): Thank you. Do we have any other proposals, Members? A number of Members have indicated that they may wish to speak. I remind them that they may speak only once in the debate. The Business Committee has agreed to allow each Member wishing to speak up to three minutes.
The time for proposals has expired.
Mr M McGuinness: Go raibh maith agat. Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the nomination of Mitchel McLaughlin as the new Speaker of the Assembly. I do so on the basis that this is consistent with the agreement that was made by my party and the then leader of the DUP and First Minister the late Dr Ian Paisley.
I also note that my nomination of William Hay at the beginning of this term of the Assembly was by agreement between my party and the Democratic Unionist Party that William would be the Speaker. In fact, that was an agreement that saw me nominate William as the Speaker, which was seconded by the First Minister.
Mitchel McLaughlin is well qualified to do this job. In the recording of a vote of thanks and appreciation to William Hay, a number of contributors said that he would be a hard act to follow. Indeed, that is absolutely correct, but if anybody can follow William, I believe that Mitchel McLaughlin is certainly well qualified to do so. He is a man of very high intellect. He is always civil and courteous. He is someone who I think has gained a huge level of acceptance right across the House. I think that he is well qualified to do this job.
I know that the eyes of the world — well, maybe not the eyes of the world, but the eyes of the world that we live in — are watching this House today to see whether we will be able to agree on who will be the Speaker of the Assembly going forward to the next Assembly election. I hope that people will honour their word. I hope that the expressed desire of all of us to recognise that the time has come for there to be someone from the republican tradition in the Chair will see the endorsement of this House in the next few short minutes.
Dr McDonnell: I am privileged to be able to speak on the nomination of John Dallat. I have no doubt that, in the interests of inclusiveness and building trust and confidence, the time has come for a nationalist Member of the House to become Speaker. For too long, the Assembly has not been reflective of the population it serves. But, Mr Acting Speaker, it is unfortunate that, whatever agreements were made, they were made to exclude many of us and did not involve myself or my colleagues in the SDLP.
Colleagues should remember that the three principal roles of the Speaker of the House are representational, corporate and procedural. As a representative of the Assembly, the Speaker will receive visitors on our behalf, promote our work, host events for us and open up the Assembly and its activities to members of the public, just as the recently retired Speaker did. Yet, in all the time that the Assembly has operated, we have been represented by only one community — the unionist community — which is not representative enough of the wider community that we all serve. While I do not think, and would not imply, that anyone in the House would dispute the absolute professionalism of our recently retired and beloved Speaker, Willie Hay, it is evident to me and my colleagues in the SDLP that the time has come for a nationalist Speaker in the Assembly.
When considering who would be best placed to represent the Assembly overall as Speaker, as leader of the SDLP, I am very clear that the outstanding choice is our nominee, John Dallat, MLA for East Derry. As a Deputy Speaker, John has served the Assembly and its Members well over the past seven years, showing leadership, integrity, impartiality and good judgement in all that time, and displaying the ability and capacity to take on the role of Speaker, as and when required. His long and dedicated service to the Assembly has given John Dallat wide and comprehensive experience of all the procedural and corporate functions of the office, which he would now fulfil with ease.
At a time when the Assembly and Executive are in crisis, as we head into talks to determine our future, it is even more crucial to have someone of the calibre of John Dallat as Speaker of the Assembly; someone who is not only eminently qualified for the role but who, as a nationalist representative, would ensure that both traditions in Northern Ireland —
Mr Nesbitt: I recommend to the House Mr Roy Beggs, MLA for East Antrim. In doing so, I have listened carefully and attentively to the powerful arguments made by Members who spoke previously on behalf of their nominees. I hope that, during the debate, all parties will be equally open in presenting their case to the House before inevitably, it would appear, we put matters to the vote.
Roy Beggs is the right man at the right time for the role. The Beggs family, as Members will be aware, have been engaged in public service for a number of decades. Following his father, Roy became an elected representative of the House in the first election in 1998, successfully defending his seat in East Antrim at every election since then. Since the last election, Roy has served as a Deputy Speaker with great distinction. I believe that he has the values and attributes that the House requires at this time, not least an attention to detail and the right temperament; the sort of temperament that we heard described when we were paying tribute to William Hay. That sort of temperament is important. As I said in my previous remarks, we look to a Speaker as somebody who will hold up a mirror in which we will see something of the values that we wish to see expressed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
We talked about William Hay and his role of interfacing with civic society. In that respect, I remind Members of Roy's work, not least as Chair of the all-party group on the community and voluntary sector. He has that engagement already in his DNA, having represented the House in its engagement with broader society. He also has experience of chairing a number of challenging organisations. While a member of Carrickfergus council, he was also chair of the local district policing partnership.
In conclusion, Roy Beggs has the attributes, experience and commitment to take the House through to the end of the term as its principal Speaker.
Mr Ford: We have just paid tribute to our outgoing Speaker, and a key issue that was highlighted is the need for the Speaker to be seen as politically neutral and to distance himself from his previous party connections. There is no doubt that William Hay succeeded in doing that very well. There is also no doubt that, in recent weeks, Mitchel McLaughlin has clearly prepared himself for the role and has sought similarly to distance himself.
I believe that the deal that was struck at the start of this Assembly's mandate should be adhered to because it is the best way to depoliticise the role of the Speaker to ensure a smooth transition from the outgoing independent DUP Speaker to the current, effectively independent Sinn Féin Principal Deputy Speaker. Regardless of what I say to Sinn Féin on issues like welfare reform or the National Crime Agency, I believe that there is a fundamental issue that the House needs to allow people from all parts of the House to take senior responsibilities.
I must say that I was slightly surprised when Dr McDonnell suggested that Speakers had come only from one section of the community. I am not sure whether my colleagues John Alderdice or Eileen Bell would have seen themselves categorised as unionists in quite that way. When we met after the last Assembly election, there was a clear understanding that the post was to move in this Assembly term. Regardless of William Hay's illness, it appeared that he was determined to be a man of principle and honour and to live up to that. I believe that it is incumbent on those of us who remain to follow through and ensure that that deal is carried through.
I have to say to unionists that we are about to go into a series of talks. One of the issues on the agenda is the structural arrangements and whether the precise architecture of the Good Friday Agreement, whether or not modified by the St Andrews Agreement, is what we need going into the future. One issue that concerns me greatly is the blocking mechanism in the House for so-called cross-community votes, which stops movement forward on so many occasions. If I am saying that, and unionists are using very similar language, they need to realise what blocking Mitchel McLaughlin would do today. It would be a clear reinforcement of why nationalism will wish to retain that blocking mechanism. If we are to move forward, to depoliticise the Speaker and to ensure that we get more workable structures for the future, we should accept that the deal made after the last election should stand.
Mr Attwood: I wish former Speaker William Hay the best. At times, I had differences with the former Speaker, one of which was of a fundamental nature, but I wish him a full recovery and hope that he has a full role in the House of Lords in the fullness of time.
The election of the Speaker today can be a watershed moment. We should measure the next 10 minutes against whether or not it is a watershed moment for the Assembly and for politics. A number of candidates have been nominated, all of whom have their particular values and virtues, but, in the view of the SDLP, more than any other candidate, the election of John Dallat as Speaker would represent that watershed moment. The election of John Dallat would be a renewal of integrity and a recognition of a good public servant.
John Dallat has been a political representative for 37 years. There are people in the Chamber who have not been on this earth for 37 years. Over that time, he has shown insight, wisdom, intellect and judgement. We again say to people before they cast their vote in the next matter of minutes, think again about what John Dallat would represent for politics and for the Assembly.
The SDLP also recognises that there will be a watershed moment in the event that Mitchel McLaughlin is elected Speaker. We will first vote for Mitchel McLaughlin, but we believe that, if that does not prevail, the election of John Dallat should prevail. For too long, issue after issue in the Assembly and in Northern Ireland has been reduced to narrow deals. It has been about the division of spoils rather than the full public interest. John Dallat as Speaker would represent something and someone different.
Mr Lunn: I support the comments of my party leader and the nomination of Mitchel McLaughlin to the post of Speaker. In doing so, I mean absolutely no disrespect to Mr Dallat or Mr Beggs. I am sure that both would make excellent Speakers, but it seems logical that the new Speaker should come from the largest nationalist party at this time.
I have been listening for quite some time, and I wonder what advice William Hay would give the House. We talked about his sense of fair play and negotiating skills. I am absolutely certain that William Hay would endorse the nomination of Mitchel McLaughlin, not because they both come from Derry or Londonderry but because it is the right thing to do. I hope that the House will follow that argument. I hope that we will confirm a nationalist, hopefully Mr McLaughlin, in the post. As I said, I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the other candidates. They have both been excellent Deputy Speakers, and I am sure that they will continue to be so, but I think that it is the right thing to do.
Mr P Robinson: Last week, I asked the two colleagues who represent my party on the Business Committee, Lord Morrow and Chief Whip, Peter Weir, to seek support to deal with this issue at a later sitting, but, unfortunately, the Committee determined to proceed today.
For me, the issue is easily defined. After a long period, the DUP and Sinn Féin completed negotiations on welfare reform with a package that respected all our interests. It allowed us to give support to the most vulnerable, who depend on welfare payments, while doing no irreparable damage to our public services by paying unnecessary penalties and operational costs. The deputy First Minister and I were both satisfied with that outcome.
The topic of welfare reform has now been put into the talks process that the Secretary of State is convening. Equally, the arrangements and modalities of devolution are on the talks agenda. The election of Speaker and of Ministers will be part of that negotiation as well. The talks are to begin very shortly, so both of these matters can be dealt with together. As we have already completed negotiations and reached conclusions on both subjects, we can ask the Secretary of State to front-load the talks agenda with these items. We are prepared to honour our existing agreements on both matters. So, hopefully, we can have some early success and come back here, perhaps in a week or two, and go through the Lobbies together on both of these matters.
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. I have to say that it is very disappointing to hear what is being said here today. First, there was never an agreement in relation to the matters outlined by the First Minister and leader of the DUP today. We had an agreement in relation to welfare reform, we had an agreement in relation — Martin McGuinness had an agreement, and it was publicly stated, in relation to Mitchel McLaughlin being elected Speaker.
Trevor Lunn nailed it: what would William Hay think about what is happening here today? The wrong message is being sent out. Even at this stage, I urge the House to think very carefully about what it is doing and what message is being sent out. These are power-sharing institutions and it is very important that we support the power-sharing arrangements. If people vote against Mitchel McLaughlin and against an agreement publicly stated by the leader of the DUP, that will send out the wrong message to the nationalist/republican community. I have to say that it is very disappointing for this side of the House.
Mrs Foster: Thank you very much, Acting Speaker. I listened carefully to the two proposers of the nationalist candidates here today. I am sure that they did not mean this, but what they said was that it was time for a republican or a nationalist Speaker. Of course, the Speaker should not have any affiliations. The Speaker may come from a republican or nationalist background, but, like William Hay, they should leave that at the door of the Speaker's office. However, maybe it portrays more of what they wanted from their candidates today.
Of course, the Member who has just spoken was not at the welfare reform negotiations, so I do not know how she knows what was agreed between the First Minister and deputy First Minister. A clear understanding was reached in those negotiations.
The proposal put this morning, first to the party officers of the Democratic Unionist Party and then to the Assembly team of the DUP, was passed unanimously by all present. I think that the DUP has again shown that our strength and confidence in what we are doing for this country remains very strong. Sinn Féin appears upset that it is not immediately gaining a Speaker in the British devolved Administration, but the leader and First Minister has made it clear that this party will stand by its agreement when the agreements have come to fruition, but that we cannot allow Sinn Féin to break agreements that have been made without sanction or, indeed, to engage in unacceptable behaviour. Every action or inaction will have an opposite reaction or inaction.
People are struggling to understand the morass that Sinn Féin finds itself in in relation to welfare reform, and this morning was another very good example of that. It can be summed up in a simple phrase, "We don't know how much welfare reform costs, and we don't care". That was basically the sum total of a 40-minute interview this morning from Sinn Féin.
Mr Acting Speaker, Northern Ireland deserves better, the House deserves better and the vulnerable people, whom the party opposite says it wants to protect, deserve so much better. So, let us get these issues dealt with. My party, under the leadership of Peter Robinson, will not be found wanting. It is up to others to see whether they will.
Mrs D Kelly: Thank you, Mr Acting Speaker. I had not intended to speak, but, as this afternoon starts to disintegrate, I am left with little choice but to express my dismay and that of my party at what we see as those cobbled-together back-room deals between Sinn Féin and the DUP fall apart so publicly. As we go into talks, there is a warning for anyone in any party who thinks that the two main parties will honour whatever agreements they have made behind doors at the exclusion of all of the parties. However, we can stand, support and hope for a better future. Today, we know that health workers, nurses, midwives and others are on the streets looking to have fulfilled the promises that were made to them in relation to their 1% pay rise, and here we are in the Assembly failing to agree on the appointment of a Speaker.
This is another historic day for Northern Ireland, in the context that so many define it, as a day when we see that the real fault at the heart of the Executive is fractured relationships and back-room and back-door deals. I hope, as we in the SDLP attempt to move society forward to do what is right and best for all the people of the North, that we see an end to the back-room and back-door deals. Let us have some honest engagement and inclusive politics as set out in the spirit and letter of the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Poots: Thank you, Mr Presiding Officer. I think the party leader has set out very clearly the position and Sinn Féin should look at what is being offered to it as an olive branch. We are in a situation where relationships are not as good as they should be, and that is something for us all to take cognisance of because this House needs to give real and true leadership to Northern Ireland.
We look at others who wish to see this place not working because they would like to fill the void, and therefore Sinn Féin in particular, as we seek to move this issue forward, needs to reflect on its behaviour over the course of the last three years since an agreement was made. It needs to reflect on situations like Castlederg and on situations like Flax Street, where it glorifies those who planted the Shankill bomb. It needs to reflect on its management of situations around welfare reform and other circumstances. That is hitting people hard in Northern Ireland today and leading to redundancies, lay-offs and massive cuts.
This is not the way to do government, and we need people to step up to the plate. We are going into negotiations; let us go into negotiations in good faith. Let us hope that we can resolve this issue quickly, that we can resolve the issues around welfare quickly, and that we can look at how we deal with sensitive issues in our communities and which are causing hurt, hardship and misery to innocent victims of the Troubles. Let us see that we can provide real and true leadership in this Assembly as we move things forward.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, Acting Speaker. First, I also send my best wishes to William Hay. I hope that he has a speedy recovery and that he will in the future provide good representation for the people of Derry, which he has done for a long number of years.
I add my words of support for Mitchel McLaughlin. Martin McGuinness outlined very clearly why and how Mitchel McLaughlin would make an excellent Speaker for this Assembly. Of course, I share the disappointment that the Democratic Unionist Party will not honour the public commitment that its party leader made on its behalf. I think that it is very noticeable this morning that not one of the people who was speaking on its behalf in any way suggested that there was not a public commitment. I think that people out there will well remember that commitment, and I think that all that we have heard this afternoon from the Members who have spoken so far was excuse after excuse for a reason for not fulfilling what was a very public commitment.
It is easy to list issues that people feel perhaps should have been delivered that were not. I could mention Long Kesh, which was a Programme for Government commitment, and we could talk about the letter from America. We can all make excuses, but we cannot ignore, nor should we forget, that there was a very public commitment made by the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, recorded and broadcast to those who wished to hear it, in which he said very, very clearly that he would honour the commitment made by Ian Paisley, the then First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, that Mitchel McLaughlin or a Sinn Féin nominee would be the person who would sit in your seat. Therefore, when people leave here today, they should be in no doubt that this was a commitment made and a commitment broken.
Mr Allister: Yesterday marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Brighton bomb, the attempt by the IRA to remove the very top layer of government of this United Kingdom. Today, we have a proposition that a member of a party, Sinn Féin, that, to this day, has not repudiated or condemned but rather has venerated that bombing and that bomber should take the top office in this devolved Assembly within the United Kingdom. Not in my name. That would be utterly offensive and utterly wrong. It would be wrong not just today or next week or the week after that or as some quid pro quo on welfare reform, but wrong per se.
Someone from that ilk, justifying and refusing to condemn that bombing, to name but one, should not hold the post of Speaker in the House. Of course, more than that, the very candidate is someone who notoriously, on an RTÉ programme, when challenged by Michael McDowell, protested that the murder of Jean McConville was not a crime. To think that someone who held the view that the murder of Jean McConville, a lady torn from the bosom of her family to be tortured and butchered and buried in an unmarked grave for years, was not a crime should be elevated to the post of Speaker of the House. I trust that the House will never stoop that low.
Mr Agnew: Sadly, it appears that today will be another marker in the disintegration of these institutions that we have witnessed over recent weeks and months. This should be a formality. When I was first elected and we elected Mr William Hay, it was a formality; instead, we have seen it being thrown in as another negotiating point between two parties in disagreement. It is making the office of Speaker political and does, in my view, bring it into disrepute to do so.
Further, we have heard the idea that this would be the first nationalist Speaker, and I think that the point was made that William Hay was not a unionist Speaker but an independent Speaker from a unionist background. For as long as we continue to insist on putting so much weight on symbols in this society, we will be forever dogged by squabbles over which symbols and whose symbols take precedence. We need to move on from those petty squabbles; we need to give a dignity to the House and to the Speaker's office. It is right that positions such as that of Speaker are rotated among parties, and perhaps we need to formalise it. There has been talk of the negotiations that are to take place on the future of these institutions, but we cannot put a hold on the responsibilities that we have here until those negotiations take place.
We must ensure that we make these institutions work as best we can in the meantime, because we have a responsibility to the people who elected us to do so. In the negotiations that are taking place, we need to learn the lessons, and the lesson here is clearly that deals done behind closed doors are dodgy deals that cannot be enforced and cannot be open to public scrutiny. My call for transparent dialogue and public engagement to decide the future of these institutions, building on what we did in the Good Friday Agreement, has fallen on deaf ears. Again, we enter a process of negotiations behind closed doors exclusive to parties in the Assembly but, more importantly, excluding members of the public. That is a mistake, and I think that today is regrettable. We should be agreeing a Speaker without this level of debate. It should be a non-political post. Nobody has anything to win —
Mr Agnew: — other than a symbolic win in a war.
Mr Campbell: There is no doubt whatever that the House and the Assembly as a whole have made considerable efforts in recent years in terms of job creation and a whole raft of issues that it has not got the credit for achieving.
What it has got is criticism for the growing deadlock that has emerged. Does anybody here think that the election of a Speaker today will do anything to unlock that deadlock? No one believes that; no one is of that opinion. Unfortunately, the deadlock has grown and is growing.
That is why my party believes that the issues as a whole, including agreements reached between my party and Sinn Féin, whether on welfare reform or the election of a Speaker, should be resolved in the discussions that are about to be held. That would give a greater signal to the wider community that we are determined not to allow the deadlock to continue, because, let us be absolutely clear, there are many in our wider community who congratulated the republican movement when it was forced to cease its violence. There are some in our community who refused to recognise that it did it. We acknowledged that it did it. It does not get congratulated for doing it, but neither is it continuing to do it. We acknowledged that they had moved, but we need to have a consensus on how we move on from here.
The issue can, should and must be resolved in the context of the discussions that are about to be held. It is only in that context that we believe that the impasse and deadlock can be broken.
Mr McCallister: The basis of all Western democracies tends to be the separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches, yet the role of the Assembly as a legislature is to hold our executive branch of government to account. When looking for a Speaker, that is the role that we should be looking at. We should not be questioning whether the person is unionist or nationalist or what party he or she comes from. We should be looking for someone who robustly defends the House as an institution and robustly wants the House to hold the executive branch of government to the fullest scrutiny. That is something that we lose when we debate these points and almost throw the issue into the mix of the wider political problems that we face.
There is no doubt that I want to see reform here, and I want to see the structures change to provide for an opposition. I want to make sure that this is the last time that we elect a Speaker in this manner. The DUP probably should follow through on its deal and arrangements on electing the Speaker, but, if Sinn Féin had arranged a deal on welfare reform or the Maze, should those commitments also not have been honoured? I am totally opposed to Sinn Féin's position on welfare reform. It is entirely inconsistent with being in government and with the responsibilities that a Government face, but that should not be part of the scramble to get elected to the Speaker's office.
The Speaker should and must be a gift of the Members of the House. It should not be a gift of the executive arm of government. The Speaker should be a gift, and the individual should be elected in a secret ballot by Members of the Assembly, not given out by the Executive Ministers or in a deal made through the talks process to get over the line on welfare and all the other issues that we face, including problems with the Budget. This is not doing the House any good; it is not building confidence in the community out there, which looks to the House and the Executive to provide leadership; and it is not good for representative democracy.
We need to get a Speaker who has the support of all the House. We need to move away from the language of asking whether he or she is a unionist Speaker or a nationalist Speaker. The Speaker should be a Speaker for the House. The Speaker represents the House on occasions and is the highest office holder in the Assembly. That should reflect the position.
Mr Wilson: Thank you, Mr Presiding Officer or Mr Acting Speaker or whatever your position is.
It is a bit unfortunate that this debate today will probably be presented as another example of the inability of the Assembly to get on with its business. However, I dare say that the decision today not to deal with this particular issue is essential if we want this Assembly to get back on track and do the things that are necessary, because we are at an impasse. We are not doing the business that we should be doing, because we are tied up with a Budget that has now been frozen and is being diminished as a result of inaction by this Assembly.
I want to make some things very clear: first, despite what one Member of Sinn Féin said, we have not pretended that there was no deal on the Speakership. That was admitted and accepted by the First Minister in his speech. Secondly, we have made it quite clear that we will honour any deals that we have made, but that requires all parties in this Assembly to do exactly the same. It is not a case of "You give us one thing and we give you the other". There is no point in our having a Speaker if we cannot resolve the impasse that this Assembly is presently facing. That does not require rewarding Sinn Féin for its intransigence, because this is the unfortunate thing: since this whole process started, Sinn Féin thinks that it can do things without consequence. That may have been the case when it was dealing with the Irish Government, the British Government and the American Government, but it cannot do that here. The real politics of this place is that, unless we work and, when we come to agreements, deliver on them, then this place will not work.
Let me make it quite clear: we will honour whatever deals we have, but that is dependent upon Sinn Féin being prepared to honour the deal that it had — a deal that, in its breaking, has damaged ordinary people in Northern Ireland. The only damage done by our refusal to implement this today is to Mitchel McLaughlin and Sinn Féin's pride. Its breach of agreements is hurting people right across Northern Ireland, and therefore it is essential that we get that sorted out. I trust that we will do that in the talks process.
Question put, That Mr Mitchel McLaughlin be Speaker of this Assembly.
Ayes 47; Noes 12
Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Byrne, Mr Dallat, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Ramsey, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan
Mr Agnew, Mrs Cochrane, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCarthy
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Boylan, Mr McKay
Mr Allister, Mr Beggs, Mr Cree, Mrs Dobson, Mr Elliott, Mr Hussey, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McGimpsey, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Noes: Mrs Overend, Mr Swann
|Total Votes||59||Total Ayes||47||[79.7%]|
|Nationalist Votes||38||Nationalist Ayes||38||[100.0%]|
|Unionist Votes||13||Unionist Ayes||1||[7.7%]|
|Other Votes||8||Other Ayes||8||[100.0%]|
Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).
Question put, That Mr John Dallat be Speaker of this Assembly.
Ayes 27; Noes 30
Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mr Byrne, Mr Dallat, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Mrs D Kelly, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Mr A Maginness, Mr Ramsey, Mr Rogers
Mr Beggs, Mr Cree, Mrs Dobson, Mr Elliott, Mr Hussey, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr McGimpsey, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Eastwood, Mr McKinney
Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan
Mrs Cochrane, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCarthy
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Boylan, Mr McKay
|Total Votes||57||Total Ayes||27||[47.4%]|
|Nationalist Votes||38||Nationalist Ayes||14||[36.8%]|
|Unionist Votes||12||Unionist Ayes||12||[100.0%]|
|Other Votes||7||Other Ayes||1||[14.3%]|
Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).
Question put, That Mr Roy Beggs be Speaker of this Assembly.
Ayes 14; Noes 30
Mr Allister, Mr Beggs, Mr Cree, Mrs Dobson, Mr Elliott, Mr Hussey, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr McGimpsey, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Ayes: Mrs Overend, Mr Swann
Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan
Mrs Cochrane, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCarthy
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Boylan, Mr McKay
|Total Votes||44||Total Ayes||14||[31.8%]|
|Nationalist Votes||24||Nationalist Ayes||0||[0.0%]|
|Unionist Votes||13||Unionist Ayes||13||[100.0%]|
|Other Votes||7||Other Ayes||1||[14.3%]|
Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).
The Acting Speaker (Mr Gardiner): A new Speaker has not been elected, so it will be necessary to return to the matter at a future sitting. The date on which we will return to the matter will be considered by the Business Committee. In the interim, plenary business will continue and will be chaired by the Deputy Speakers in accordance with Standing Order 4(7). The House will take its ease while we change the Table.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair)
Mrs Foster (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Postal services are reserved to Westminster under paragraph 7 of schedule 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and are not therefore the responsibility of my Department. The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to represent consumers on postal issues in Northern Ireland.
Mr F McCann: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she accept that the unacceptably high cost of posting items across the border presents an unwarranted and unwanted tax on cross-border economic development?
Mrs Foster: This is a matter that has been taken up by the Consumer Council. As I understand, it is carrying out work in the context of the fact that it has been given these powers by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Of course, it will respond to its sponsor Department when it has carried out that work. I have no doubt that it will also share its work with me and indeed with the Committee.
Mr Dunne: Can the Minister clarify the new role that the Consumer Council has in relation to postal services in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: I have indicated that, since 1 April 2014, the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland has responsibility for consumer representation on postal services in Northern Ireland. Before that, Consumer Futures was responsible. The Consumer Council has taken on this role. As it is a reserved matter, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is providing funding of £255,000 to the Consumer Council for 2014-15 to undertake its consumer representation role in respect of postal services in Northern Ireland. As I understand it, its work plan for this year broadly covers three main areas: the launch of the council's new role and responsibilities for postal services; the post office network, which is a very important part of rural life in Northern Ireland; and mail and parcels.
Mrs Foster: Whilst I do not have details of English visitors, there were almost 1·2 million visitors from Great Britain in 2013, which was an increase of 13% on 2012. Great British visitors make up 56% of our total external visitors and are therefore a very important market for us.
Tourism Ireland has been highlighting visitor experiences that appeal to families, such as Titanic Belfast, the Giant's Causeway and Causeway coastal route, as well as our unique National Trust properties. It is using a wide variety of marketing tools to get its message through to GB families, including advertising on television, radio, outdoors, in cinemas, and in national and regional newspapers and lifestyle magazines.
It is important that Tourism Ireland, in my opinion, increases its activity, including in England, for us to see further growth in visitor numbers from Great Britain.
Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for a very comprehensive and useful answer and speak well of her for the success that she has had in her own particular office and the contribution that she has made to tourism.
I had hoped that she might mention ferry services. In the light of that, would she consider undertaking a review of ferry services between England and Northern Ireland in tandem with a review of how we are attracting that potentially lucrative market in England, as that may give her the figures that I have been looking for?
Mrs Foster: We undertake cooperative marketing with the airlines and the ferry services. We work very closely with the ferry services that are in Larne and Belfast. I am quite happy to share those details with the Member, if those would be useful to him.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her answer so far. What will be the impact on the Tourism Ireland budget, given the cutbacks in the Department's overall budget?
Mrs Foster: As you can imagine, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I have been looking very closely at the overall budget. As you are aware, we have come to some resolution on the in-year monitoring position. However, we still have to have a draft Budget for 2015-16. Once that happens, I will have more clarity on the issue. Tourism Ireland will face savings and, let us be honest about it, cuts, the same as any other part of my Department. That is done with regret, but it is something that I have to do across the Department.
Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for her reply. I am sure she will agree that the key to attracting more visitors from England, or anywhere else, is to promote a positive image of Northern Ireland. In the light of disappointing visitor numbers, does she agree that we need to review the current arrangements, where Tourism Ireland does not treat us as a distinct tourist destination to be marketed in Great Britain?
Mrs Foster: I am aware that there is some unease around the marketing of Northern Ireland in the Great Britain market by Tourism Ireland. I assure the Member that I am looking into that. Over the coming weeks, I hope to meet the chairman of Tourism Ireland to discuss some of the claims that have been made. With regard to tourism figures, we had a good year in 2013 in relation to visitors from Great Britain. The figures were up and, importantly, the spend was up as well. Not only do we have targets for the number of visitors, we have a very stretching target for spend by those visitors who come to Northern Ireland. It is important that we continue to work with Tourism Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and other partners to ensure that we get the maximum coverage. Our biggest market is GB, and we should not forget that.
Mr Allister: Did the Minister see a recent press article by the much-respected Kate Hoey on Tourism Ireland's efforts, if we could call them that, in GB on behalf of Northern Ireland? The article was particularly critical as to its inactivity. Does she agree that, unless and until we get the promotion of Northern Ireland within the rest of the United Kingdom into the hands of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, we will continue to be plagued with this problem?
Mrs Foster: As I indicated to Ms Dobson, I am very aware not only of the claims made by Ms Hoey — I intend to follow up on that article with Ms Hoey and to talk to her about those claims — but of other claims. The Member will not be surprised to know that Tourism Ireland marketing Northern Ireland in Great Britain is not of my choosing. It is something that I inherited from the Belfast Agreement. Certainly, it is something that, I think, needs very close scrutiny. It is something that I will be looking at.
Mrs Foster: Invest Northern Ireland offers assistance to new investors to support the creation of new jobs, often over a period of three to five years, sometimes longer. It is the responsibility of the company to create the jobs at a schedule that supports their development and growth. Therefore, Invest NI is not able to meaningfully forecast the likely number of jobs to be created in any year. As of 31 March 2014, Invest NI has promoted 9,108 jobs from inward investors since the start of its current corporate plan in 2011.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for that answer. I understand that the rules in respect of state assistance are going to change. Will the Minister comment on what complexities or challenges that might bring about?
Mrs Foster: The rules for selective financial assistance and the amount of funding that we can give have already changed. We are still an assisted area in the European Union, but we are now curtailed as to how much repeat assistance we can give to those companies. As the Member will know, companies often came with 20 or 30 people, realised that we had a very good offering here and decided to expand further. If it is a large company, we will not be able to give that selective financial assistance in the future, but there are other ways in which we can support companies. We can look at skills and training in conjunction with the Department for Employment and Learning. We will look at how we can support people with research, development, innovation and tax credits, depending on the sector that we are talking about. So there are other ways in which we can help, but, if corporation tax were devolved to Northern Ireland, we would automatically have a step change as to what we could do.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí go dtí seo. The Minister took the question in the direction in which I was going to take it: corporation tax. If and, hopefully, when corporation tax enabling powers come to the local Executive, what assessment has the Minister's Department done on the impact that a 12·5% corporation tax level will have on potential foreign direct investment that could come in its wake?
Mrs Foster: A number of studies have been carried out, not least by the Department and by the Department for Employment and Learning. If we are to have a huge spike in the number of companies that will be looking to Northern Ireland, we will want to ensure that the appropriate skills are available to those companies when they come. The economic advisory group, led by Kate Barker, has been doing some work in that area. We will be able to achieve some 50,000 jobs over a relatively short time, all things being equal. We will be able to provide the appropriate young people and skills that those companies will need. There is no doubt that it would be a huge boost to the private sector in Northern Ireland. We want to rebalance and rebuild.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for her responses so far. What jobs have arrived through foreign direct investment since the beginning of August?
Mrs Foster: We have had a particularly good period. Over the past six months, we have had 1,200 new jobs by just 10 new inward investors. We are not talking about indigenous companies that have decided to expand or companies that are already here. They are new inward investors, and those jobs have come from Puppet Labs; Baker and McKenzie; Proofpoint; Alexander Mann Solutions; and Convergys. Those have all been very good announcements for right across Northern Ireland. We are pleased that those new companies continue to look to Northern Ireland for growth and expansion, many of them for the first time, into the European area.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagraí. The Minister may be aware of a recently published DEL report looking into labour mobility. One of the challenges that it identifies is the lack of employment opportunities in rural areas and the move towards jobs in Belfast. How does the Minister intend to reverse that trend and ensure that an adequate number of jobs are created in places like Fermanagh and other rural areas, given the Programme for Government commitment to tackle regional imbalance?
Mrs Foster: I have been very pleased to make a number of job announcements in Fermanagh, most recently in G R White and Son in Tempo and Webtech in Enniskillen just a couple of weeks ago. I hope to make further announcements in the near future. It is about working proactively with those companies in the region to ensure that we portray a positive view of the region so that we are attractive to inward investors when they come to look at the area and to have a good product and available people who are willing to be positive about their areas. All that shows that we are moving forward, in particular in the south-west. I look forward to working with the Member to make sure that Fermanagh and the whole of the south-west is promoted in a very positive way.
Ms Sugden: Minister, how effective has the enterprise zone been in encouraging foreign direct investment in my constituency?
Mrs Foster: The enterprise zone in Coleraine has not yet been confirmed by Her Majesty's Treasury. It has been put forward by the Executive to Treasury for designation as an enterprise zone. So, it is too early to determine its impact in the area, but I am sure that those who have been working for the enterprise zone will want to ensure that it is in place as soon as possible.
Mrs Foster: The working group has prepared a report based on its analysis of the feasibility study meetings with key rugby union officials and other relevant organisations. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and I have received copies of the report and are considering it. In agreeing to bid jointly for the 2023 tournament, I will wish to ensure value for money and be convinced of the economic benefits for Northern Ireland.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for her answer. Given that rugby is a fantastic field sport played on an all-Ireland basis and that Kingspan/Ravenhill in Ulster, Thomond Park in Limerick, the Aviva Stadium in Dublin and the Sportsground in Galway are all dedicated to rugby, does the Minister accept that Ireland now has the infrastructure to make a real bid for the World Cup? What can she do with her counterpart in the Republic to try to advance that case with the rugby authorities?
Mrs Foster: It is on record that I am a supporter of Ulster Rugby. I very much want the Rugby World Cup to come to the island of Ireland in 2023. However, as I am sure that the Member would want me to do, I need to ensure that Northern Ireland gets as much out of this event as it possibly can. I will look at the report given to me in the context of making sure that a number of teams are located and based in Northern Ireland for the Rugby World Cup. We recognise that there are more stadiums available in the Republic of Ireland, but that does not mean that we cannot be creative about what we can do in Northern Ireland. If we are to assist in funding the bid, I certainly want to ensure that we get good value for money.
Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that Kyle Lafferty from Tamlaght in County Fermanagh is a great tourist attraction for Northern Ireland.
I want to ask the Minister about tourist attractions for Northern Ireland in light of recent debate about the tourism events fund. I recently attended Culture Night, which was a fabulous night for Belfast, and the Minister has been to the C S Lewis festival in east Belfast and is a big supporter of EastSide Arts, as is her friend Van Morrison. Will the Minister please give a progress report or an update on the tourism events fund?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member. If Kyle Lafferty is listening to Question Time, I am sure that he is saying, "I have been called many things in my time but never a tourist attraction". Anyway, I congratulate the Northern Ireland football team on being top of their group. It is a very nice place to be, and we look forward to them continuing that success in tomorrow's match in Greece.
Events funding, of course, has caused a lot of angst, and I am the first to acknowledge that. We are facing a very difficult financial time right across government. Given the current budgetary climate and the knowledge that future years will be very difficult, it was necessary to review the position right across the Department. We need to take account of all the circumstances.
Ordinarily, people would be applying for funding at this time. I have heard some of the arts groups say that their funding has been cut. This application had to be made every year, so, in any year, there was no guarantee that these groups would be able to access funding. On every occasion, they had to apply in a competitive process.
At the moment, we do not have an events fund open call for next year. However, let us see what happens in the 2015-16 budgetary discussions over the next period. I would certainly like some sort of an events fund, but we will have to see whether the money is available for it.
Mr Cree: I would welcome the 2023 Rugby World Cup coming to Ireland, North and South. Does the Minister recognise that, with Northern Ireland now having a voice on the working group, there is an opportunity to emphasise that the Irish rugby team represents both jurisdictions and is not the Republic of Ireland's rugby team. That should be reflected in the Irish Rugby Football Union's attention to things such as anthems and flags.
Mrs Foster: I concur with the Member's view on those matters. It is my hope that the Irish Rugby Football Union will acknowledge the contribution that Ulster makes to rugby, because we make an incredible contribution to the Irish rugby scene. I hope that that is acknowledged in Dublin, as it is in Ravenhill, or the Kingspan stadium, which I have difficulty getting used to calling it, but I will have to get used to. It is a rugby team for both jurisdictions. Therefore, I was keen to ensure that we had proper representation on the working group. I am satisfied that we have that now. Once we have had the chance to consider the report, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and I will come together to decide if the current way forward is the best way forward.
Mrs Foster: Advanced, or high-value, manufacturing makes a major contribution to the success of the Northern Ireland economy. My Department encourages and supports businesses that are capable of investing in knowledge-based, innovative technologies and developing capabilities that can ensure they remain internationally competitive and successful, supporting jobs and creating wealth in the economy.
We have many excellent examples of businesses that are investing in world-class facilities to sustain and build on Northern Ireland's strong international reputation and manufacturing heritage. Examples include Bombardier, Schrader Electronics, Magellan Aerospace and Wrightbus.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answer. The Minister mentioned Bombardier. We know that Bombardier announced significant job losses in September. Many of those workers are my neighbours in my community in Newtownabbey. Can the Minister comment on Bombardier and its importance in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: I can indeed. On 10 September, Bombardier announced that it intended to make up to 90 permanent posts and 300 agency-employed staff redundant. That was a huge blow. I do not think that a lot of people realise that the company has six manufacturing sites in Northern Ireland: Airport Road and Airport Road West in Belfast; Dunmurry; Newtownards; Newtownabbey; and Monkstown. Currently, it has a workforce of around 6,300 people, making it the biggest private sector employer in Northern Ireland. It is planned that the redundancies will be implemented by the end of the year.
Despite the impending job losses, it remains encouraging to note that, in the past four years, Bombardier has increased the total workforce by over 1,200 people in Northern Ireland. So, whilst I accept that the announcement that has been made in relation to the restructuring of Bombardier globally is regrettable, Bombardier has a very strong presence in Belfast and continues to play a major role in virtually all the aircraft programmes across the world. I think that that diversity is part of its strength.
Mrs Overend: Has the Minister made any assessment as to how those changes in Bombardier will affect other businesses across Northern Ireland who support Bombardier in the aerospace industry?
Mrs Foster: The Member is absolutely right to reference the supply chain to Bombardier, because Bombardier has 6,300 direct employees, but many, many hundreds of other people are reliant on Bombardier in Belfast. We have a very strong working relationship with Bombardier. Invest Northern Ireland has a client executive embedded with Bombardier, so any changes in relation to Bombardier are fed directly into the system, and we will work with any companies that have difficulties.
I think that around 80 companies, particularly in precision engineering, rely on Bombardier. That is not taking into account the services that are provided to Bombardier; these are just supply chain people. So, yes, any time that there is a reduction in manpower in Bombardier, we look at the wider picture around the supply chain.
Mrs Foster: A new British-Irish visa scheme was launched by the Secretary of State for the Home Office, Theresa May MP, in conjunction with the Republic of Ireland's Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD, on 6 October. This positive development was an action in the G8 economic pact and enables, for the first time, Chinese and Indian visitors to come to Northern Ireland through the Irish Republic on an Irish visa, as well as through Great Britain on a UK visa. This is very welcome news, and Tourism Ireland and Visit Britain will be working very hard to promote the scheme.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for that response. It is certainly welcome news. Minister, can you give an update on what assistance your Department is giving to the international airport to help to encourage the introduction of new routes?
Mrs Foster: As the Member will be aware, direct connectivity into Northern Ireland is one of the priorities for how we grow our tourism numbers, and I am very much committed to increasing Northern Ireland's air connectivity. I have met and continue to meet Northern Ireland airports, and, indeed, I recently met the new managing director of the international airport, Graham Keddie, regarding the airport's route development plans. My officials are also in regular dialogue with our airports and, indeed, last month, we took a Northern Ireland stand at the World Routes conference in Chicago. So, we are out there and looking for new routes. We are trying to be innovative in how we attract those new routes to the international airport and, indeed, routes to the other airports. International connectivity is very much at the top of my agenda.
Mrs D Kelly: Minister, will you join me in welcoming the establishment of a new consul for the Republic of China in Belfast and also in welcoming the fact that the availability and accessibility for visas for travel will be much enhanced for visitors going both ways and, indeed, for the students at our universities?
Mrs Foster: Absolutely. I was unaware that we had a newly appointed consul, so I look forward to meeting him or her in the near future to talk about this because we know that people from China who travel far afield stay for longer and spend a lot of money. Therefore, we want to encourage them to come to Northern Ireland. In the past, there was confusion over whether they could come to Northern Ireland on an Irish visa and what would happen if they had an accident or whatever in Northern Ireland. I think that this clarity is a very strong piece for Tourism Ireland to take forward. If the Member has some knowledge of the consul, I very much look forward to meeting them.
Mr Kinahan: Have studies been done to ensure that, from these visa changes, we will benefit here in the North, especially Belfast International Airport and the city airport, to ensure that we lure people here rather than them always coming via Dublin?
Mrs Foster: I think that it is probably a mixture of both, if you do not mind me saying so, until we get the increased connectivity. Nobody is suggesting at the moment that we will be getting a direct flight from China into the international airport, so we need to work principally with Visit Britain to ensure that we get people to come across and they understand that the visa that they have for the UK covers Northern Ireland or, if they are coming in through Dublin, that they understand that they can come up to Northern Ireland. I think that that is the work that Tourism Ireland has to take forward because, as I said, the Chinese visitors are very important visitors. We want to welcome more of them and hope that they do visit Northern Ireland on their itinerary.
Mrs Foster: Following the successful implementation of new tax incentives under the creative industry tax reliefs, the local film and TV industry can benefit from a group of corporation tax reliefs. These include the film tax relief, introduced in 2007; the high-end television tax relief; the animation tax relief, introduced in April 2013; and the video games tax relief, introduced from 1 April this year. My Department, working closely with Northern Ireland Screen and Invest Northern Ireland, was instrumental in securing these new credits, and I believe that the impetus now exists for a truly export-focused screen industry for Northern Ireland.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. Clearly, this is an area for future development with massive potential. Is there any way in which the industry here could benefit from cooperation with counterparts in the Irish Republic? I think that, in the field of creativity, we have to use all the talents and skills that abound on the island of Ireland.
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his supplementary. Indeed, we will want to work with all countries, wherever the people are, so that we can increase our output. As the Member will know, I have increased the budget for NI Screen substantially so that it can take advantage of what is there at the moment. I had a very useful meeting with the director general of the BBC last week when he was over in Northern Ireland to try to encourage him to do more in relation to national output so that we can see more Northern Ireland productions right across the network, because I think that that is very important, too. Indeed, some colleagues from the Republic of Ireland are investing in Northern Ireland. I am thinking particularly of JAM Media in Murray's Exchange in Sandy Row. It came to do some work there to perhaps take advantage of the very good tax relief schemes that we now have in place for making productions.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That brings us to the end of the period for listed questions, and we now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Ms Caitríona Ruane is not in her place.
T2. Mr Hilditch asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment whether the recent proposed job losses at JTI Gallaher will impact much further afield than the immediate Ballymena area, given that she is very aware of workers in his constituency with the BT38, BT39 and BT40 postcodes of Newtownabbey, Carrick and Larne. (AQT 1582/11-15)
Mrs Foster: I recognise that that is the case. One of those interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster on the day of the announcement was from Carrickfergus, as I recall, and he very clearly said that this is not just an issue for Ballymena but for further afield. The travel-to-work distance means that quite a lot of people will be impacted in a circle, if you like, right across the north-east of Northern Ireland. So, I understand that that is the case.
I further understand, having talked about supply chains earlier during the substantive questions, that many companies rely on JTI Gallaher for their businesses. Those companies will also be impacted. So, I have asked Invest Northern Ireland to do some work in and around that to ensure that we know which companies will be impacted by the closure of JTI.
Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she, along with the Minister for Employment and Learning, do everything to ensure that the skills at JTI are not lost to the Northern Ireland economy?
Mrs Foster: Absolutely. The Member and the House will be aware that the Employment and Learning Minister and I have been asked by the Executive to engage with JTI. We hoped that we would be able to go up early this week. However, the company — we have to respect its processes — has others to consult before it speaks to us, and, therefore, it will be later on in the week. We will certainly go to Ballymena. I think that we very much need to engage in a skills audit as the first piece of work and see what we can do to help those affected.
T3. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment how she can justify her recently announced 100% cut to and complete cessation of the tourism events fund for 2015-16, which threatens around 65 organisations across Northern Ireland that contribute to important events and festivals and do much for our tourism, society and economy. (AQT 1583/11-15)
Mrs Foster: It is not a question of justifying a 100% cut to the fund. I wanted to give clarity to people in the sector that we were in a position where we could not find the funding to give an events fund for 2015-16. If that changes in the near future — I very much hope that it does — we will put out a call. However, this is a time of the year when applications would not ordinarily be forthcoming and, therefore, I wanted to give them clarity in relation to the issue.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for her response. However, she will be aware that this threatens organisations, festivals and events that, for every £1 of funding that they receive, return £3 to our local economy. Can the Minister reassure those organisations that she values and understands the importance of that work to our society and economy and say what specific work she is undertaking to ensure a reinstatement of the fund?
Mrs Foster: The budget discussions will be ongoing from now until the end of October, and, if I can count on the support of my colleagues to put in place, as a priority, the reinstatement of the events funding, then the events funding will be reinstated.
This is about priorities and about making sure that we have the right priorities in place. I will be forwarding the priorities for my Department. I have heard some people say that the international funds should basically be robbed to try to assist the events funding. The first thing to say about that is that the international funds have a letter of offer and contractual commitments, and I am not in the business of breaking contractual commitments. The second thing to say about annual sponsorship is that people apply every year. They apply to the fund, and there is no guarantee of receiving funding every year. Everybody has to apply every year and be assessed alongside all the other applications that come in. So it is a competitive process and while people may say that their funds have been cut, they do not have any funds any year until they apply to the fund.
T4. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what re-profiling she is doing in her Department to assist businesses during this time of uncertainty, given that she may be aware of reports of a slowdown in the recovery of the economy. (AQT 1584/11-15)
Mrs Foster: I read the Ulster Bank monitoring paper this morning as I was coming up in the car. It said that, for the fifteenth month in a row, we are facing into growth, so I am not sure from where the Member is obtaining her information. I cannot say that Richard Ramsey is ordinarily the person who gives good news, but he continues to give good news from the Ulster Bank. Therefore, I can only take it as an objective analysis.
For the record — it is important to say this — the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has fallen by 12,600 over the last 20 months. That is a good-news story. As well as that, for the ninth consecutive month, we have had a rise in the number of jobs being created, so there is good news out there. Sometimes, I wish that people would try to give confidence, because confidence is the important thing to give to our economy so that people will spend to go forward and create more new jobs.
Mrs D Kelly: I assure the Minister that I did not pluck this out of the air, and there was an acknowledgement in the articles that I read that there has been recent growth. However, this is against the backdrop of public sector cuts and the redundancy schemes that are being discussed and the fact that we are still, by and large, a low-wage economy. My question is this: how is the Minister re-profiling the programme of work for the next six months and the next financial year in the light of the cuts that are threatening her Department and others?
Mrs Foster: Nobody can say that I have not been creating jobs in this economy over this last period. We had an Executive meeting on Thursday night to agree a loan from Her Majesty's Government to try to get us out of difficulties so that we can bring some sort of stability to the economy in Northern Ireland and avert crisis, and the SDLP did not support that. The SDLP felt it better that we should go into crisis rather than try to get stability into the Northern Ireland economy. I would rather have stability in the Northern Ireland economy than crisis at any time.
T5. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what level of difficulty she believes high energy costs are causing, particularly for large companies in Northern Ireland. (AQT 1585/11-15)
Mrs Foster: This is a real issue, and one that I know Members from North Antrim are particularly concerned about, given the news from Gallaher over the past week. I have been working with the Utility Regulator to do some work on energy costs. There is a very net area that I can look at. I cannot look at wholesale costs, and I cannot look at a whole range of other issues. However, in the area that I can look at with the Utility Regulator, we are looking at that at present, and I hope to be able to say something on that in the very near future.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for her response. Obviously, we will be coming back to Gallaher with the question for urgent oral answer. What contributory factor did the energy costs have on the Gallaher decision?
Mrs Foster: The Gallaher decision was more about two huge issues: first, the illegal trade in tobacco items; and secondly, the implementation of the European directive, which has had a huge impact. I will return to that during the Urgent Oral Question, because I think that it is important that Members not currently in the House and the wider community outside understand why JTI Gallaher has taken that decision. Of course, it is up to us to try to work through the consultation process to see whether there is anything that we can do about that decision, but those were the two big impacts.
T6. Mr Wilson asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when is she expecting the report from BT that will indicate exactly where £15 million of investment in improving access to fibre broadband networks across east Antrim will be made, given that many people in that area, which has some of the worst provision, welcomed the Minister’s news of that investment. (AQT 1586/11-15)
Mrs Foster: In relation to that fund, we have already received indication that that work will take place in eight phases. I do not have the information in front of me about when east Antrim comes on line, but I am happy to share that with the Member. He is right to say that we have invested hugely in telecoms interventions in the past, and we continue to do so, but, as he will recognise, it becomes more and more difficult to get to those at the edge, if you like, who need help with their broadband.
Mr Wilson: I accept that it is difficult, especially in rural areas, but I trust that investment will be made. Is the Minister aware that there are eight industrial estates across Northern Ireland, two of them in east Antrim, which currently do not have access to fibre-optic broadband? Those are not even being considered in this BT review. Does the Minister think that that is a wise decision in light of her industrial policy?
Mrs Foster: As the Member knows, I can only cajole and try to influence BT on its commercial applications, but he is right to raise the issue of industrial parks. If we are to look at new ways of having inward investors look at industrial parks, then we must have a good offering for them to look at, and that includes having connectivity and broadband accessibility. It is something that I am looking at with Invest Northern Ireland to see whether there are any interventions that we can take.
T7. Miss M McIlveen asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to comment on the current difficulties and challenges facing the Ulster Orchestra, given that she will be aware of the substantial contribution that the orchestra makes to Northern Ireland. (AQT 1587/11-15)
Mrs Foster: Like the Member, I had the great pleasure of listening to the Ulster Orchestra last Wednesday evening at a BBC concert. It makes a substantial investment in Northern Ireland through its cultural grasp. It engages in a wide range of activities. Actually, when I was looking at JTI Gallaher, it did not escape me that it has been the orchestra's principal corporate sponsor in recent years, so, not only is it facing difficulties with its government funding, it is also unfortunately now facing difficulties in its corporate funding. I am a great supporter of the Ulster Orchestra, and I very much want to see it survive.
Miss M McIlveen: I welcome the Minister's comments. I am aware that the funding of the Ulster Orchestra falls outside DETI's remit, but the Minister will agree that the brand of the Ulster Orchestra is important to the marketing of Northern Ireland. Is the Minister in a position to give any assistance to the orchestra at this stage or in the absence of any help coming from DCAL?
Mrs Foster: I am happy to work collaboratively with the Member and with DCAL in looking at some imaginative ways to help, but the principal funding, as she will understand, will still have to reside with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. I hope that its Minister realises the importance of the Ulster Orchestra to Northern Ireland.
T8. Mr Byrne asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what progress is being made in attracting inward investment to the north-west, particularly to Strabane, which has suffered greatly from unemployment over the years, and to Derry city, given that there is great concern about having balanced regional development across Northern Ireland. (AQT 1588/11-15)
Mrs Foster: There is, but, as the Member will know, Convergys has announced 333 new jobs for Londonderry, and I was very pleased to be present for that announcement. We are also engaging with others who are currently assessing the city and region for new inward investment. I hope that a good, positive message comes forward from all the representatives in that area to ensure that we can land that proposition and do not blow it away through negativity.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she accept that it is very important that Invest Northern Ireland gives every encouragement to any would-be investor that may be attracted to Strabane or Derry? Does she also accept that the necessary support and the financial backup is vital for potential job creation projects?
Mrs Foster: I could give a very short answer and say yes. However, I will also say that Invest Northern Ireland offers very attractive figures for those who want to invest outside Belfast. If the Member looks at the figures that we have offered to some of the inward investors, he will see that.
Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): I am extremely concerned by the number of road deaths this year. My sincere sympathy is with all the families and communities affected by those tragedies.
My Department continues to take a range of actions to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads. We focus on the principal collision causation factors and the groups that are over-represented in the casualty figures. Those are a key focus of the road safety strategy to 2020. Over 100 of the 224 action measures in the strategy have been completed, and they address issues including changes to road engineering, changes to the driving test, and the setting up of a PSNI collision investigation unit.
My Department has also completed analysis of the reasons for the fall in road casualties in the period 2009-2012. That work concluded that the effects of the recession played some part, directly or indirectly, in the reductions in NI road fatalities in the period. However, based on the available evidence set out in the paper, the economic situation could not be said to be singly responsible.
The effects of the recession appear to have included more fuel-economic driving, which would have seen a reduction in speeding and an overall reduction in distances travelled. The recession may also have led to a reduction in drink-driving. Economic factors could also account for the reduction in young male drivers. In those indirect ways, the recession may have reduced road fatalities, despite counter-factors such as an increase in the age of the vehicle fleet. Previous recessions in Britain have also seen reductions in road fatalities.
I launched two new road safety campaigns this year, which address cyclist safety and inappropriate speed. We are also developing a strategy to improve motorcyclist safety and are taking forward a fitness-to-drive review to consider the factors that increase risks for older road users. I believe that those measures, along with others that are carried out by my Department and our partners, will help to save lives on our roads.
Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister of his fulsome answer. My supplementary question touches on the recession, but in another way. What implications would cuts in departmental budgets have for measures to improve road safety?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr McKinney for his question and his supplementary question.
As a Budget for 2015-16 has not yet been agreed, I cannot provide a full assessment of how resource pressures will impact on any area of my Department or on my road safety partners. However, I remain fully committed to working with stakeholders to improve road safety and to reduce casualties and, particularly, of course, fatalities.
Reductions in funding will make a number of activities more challenging, including the creating and airing of road safety advertising by DOE, roads maintenance and improvement by DRD and on-the-ground enforcement by the PSNI and the Driver and Vehicle Agency. The financial situation will require us to continue to work in a joined-up way across government and, indeed, society to do things that make us all, as road users, improve our behaviours. That is a challenge to which my officials and their colleagues in other government and community organisations are already rising, with, for instance, extensive engagement on cycling, motorcycling and enforcement.
Ms Lo: There was a recent cut to the road safety grants programme for the voluntary and community sector, even though letters of offer had been sent out to recipients. That grant has been stopped. Does the Minister recognise that his party's position on welfare reform is leading to cuts in vital services such as road safety?
Mr Durkan: I thank Ms Lo for her question, but it is somewhat misdirected. I recognise the value of the work that organisations carry out through the grant to which she refers. However, I fail to see any correlation between welfare reform, and the current impasse around it, and budgetary positions. It has been well publicised — Ms Lo's ministerial colleagues may have shared this with her — that the decision taken by the Executive just last week on the loan has kicked the welfare reform issue down the road. The cuts associated with the impasse on welfare reform have not been seen yet.
We are all seeing cuts, and I am sure that we all regret that we are seeing them. All Ministers regret any cuts that they have to make in their Department, and I particularly regret any cut that might have a detrimental impact on road safety and put people's lives at risk. However, the cuts are the outworkings of a flawed Budget that was voted for in the Assembly almost three and a half years ago. It was a four-year Budget that was not fit for purpose: it is never possible to vote for a four-year Budget that will still be fit for purpose four years later. However, that has nothing to do with welfare reform and my party's position on it.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. In light of the very many fatalities, especially this year, how effective does he deem the very graphic and expensive television adverts, which are part of campaigns to cut road deaths, to be? It is to be seen how effective they are. Does he appreciate that those campaigns can cause families of victims great distress?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mrs Cameron for her question. She correctly referred to the high number of deaths this year, which stands at 62. We must bear in mind that, five years ago, we had 115 deaths in one year. Improvements have been made, and we have reduced the number of lives being lost on our roads, although, sadly, that figure seems to be on the way up again this year. One death on the road is one too many.
The reduction that I spoke about — we have gone from being one of the countries in Europe with the most dangerous roads and the highest rates of fatalities, collisions and casualties to being one of the safer countries — is without doubt attributable in some part to the DOE advertising campaigns. I do not claim that DOE road safety advertising should get sole credit for the reductions, but education, enforcement and engineering have all had a role to play in improving road safety.
Our campaigns have played and will continue to play a significant part in our aspiration to work towards zero road deaths. We have extensive evidence that people watch, are aware of and are influenced by our advertising campaigns. I certainly would not sanction expenditure on something if I was not provided with evidence or was not convinced that it represented value for money. Numerous studies have been done over the years that have shown how many lives have been saved through advertising.
As regards the upset that may be caused to families of victims, that is obviously not the intention behind any advert. However, it is important that the ads are hard-hitting, and the evidence suggests that the more hard-hitting they are, the more impact and influence they have on drivers' behaviour.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his previous answers. Will he outline the extent of the working partnership between his Department and the Road Safety Authority in the South? If there have been any discussions, what were the thematic priorities in addressing road fatalities that arose?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Uasal Ó Baoighealláin as an cheist. I thank Mr Boylan for that question.
There exists a very good working relationship between my officials dealing with road safety and their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. We share the same roads. Daily, many of our drivers use roads in the Republic, and many drivers from the Republic use our roads, so it is only right and sensible that we work closely on issues of road safety.
At North/South Ministerial Council meetings with the Environment Minister from the South, I raise regularly the need to work closely on issues of road safety. Of particular interest to the Member might be the work ongoing, albeit more slowly than we would like, on the mutual recognition of penalty points in both jurisdictions. That will be a vital cog in closing the gaps in the system for bad and irresponsible drivers who float between jurisdictions, putting people's lives, including their own, at risk in doing so.
The Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill is progressing — well, I hope that it is progressing — through Committee Stage, and the Member will be very familiar with that. Through the Bill, we hope to change the drink-drive limits here to bring them into correlation with those in the Republic. That will reduce or eradicate the grey area that some people exploit wittingly or, in many cases, unwittingly.
Mrs Overend: I note the good intentions behind the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, especially to cut the number of young fatalities, but does the Minister accept that what works well in urban areas may not work as well in rural areas? Will the Minister give a commitment that he will listen to the concerns of rural communities about the Bill?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mrs Overend for that question and welcome the fact that she recognises the merits of the Bill as it stands. No doubt, it will retain many merits and, hopefully, contain improvements once it has got through Committee Stage and the other stages that it must go through before it becomes law.
At First Reading, concerns were raised by some representatives about some sort of disproportionate impact that the legislation might have on people living and driving in the countryside. I assure the Member that I will take account of all points raised at any stage throughout this process. However, I must make the point that people from rural areas, particularly young males, are over-represented in the casualty figures — not so much as fatalities but as the cause of fatalities, collisions and casualties. There is a historical over-representation of people from and in rural communities.
It is important, of course, that we listen to the concerns raised. It is important that whatever we end up or come out with is workable and enforceable, and it has to be effective. That is my aim.
Mr Durkan: Le do chead, a PhríomhLeas-Cheann Comhairle, glacfaidh mé bomaite sa bhreis leis an cheist seo a fhreagairt. With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I would like a wee bit of extra time for this answer.
Mr Durkan: I cannot speed.
The Member will be well aware of the background to this issue and that this matter has been subject to considerable examination in the past. As part of the development of planning policy statement (PPS) 21, an independent working group (IWG) was established to consider the issue of non-farming rural dwellers. The group was chaired by Jim Mackinnon, the then chief planner for the Scottish Government, and involved experts from the fields of planning, the environment, rural development and the legal profession, who each brought their individual expertise to the project.
At the time, the IWG reached a number of conclusions, including:
"Planning policy should not create a special category for the non-farming rural dweller. Planning decisions for single houses should not be determined on the basis of kinship, connection or occupation".
The previous Minister of the Environment again considered this issue as part of his review into the operation of PPS 21. That review reported in July 2013. As part of the review, he met former members of the IWG to hear, at first hand, their expert perspectives on the matter. The advice was reiterated that the term "non-farming rural dweller" is difficult to interpret and define and should not, therefore, be used to create a special category of planning policy.
Notwithstanding the above, Members will be aware that my Department recently consulted upon a draft strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) for Northern Ireland. The SPPS consolidates and, where necessary, updates existing policy provisions set out within the current suite of planning policy statements, including those in PPS 21, 'Sustainable Development in the Countryside'. As part of this process, I gave an undertaking to this Chamber that the SPPS should adequately meet the needs of current and future generations of farming and non-farming rural dwellers seeking permission to build in the countryside.
My officials are analysing all the responses, which will be carefully considered, and a synopsis will be made available to the Environment Committee. Once this exercise is complete, I will decide on the final policy direction in respect of non-farming rural dwellers and the SPPS overall.
Mr McElduff: Can I have an additional minute for my supplementary? OK. [Laughter.]
I thank the Minister for his answer and for his agreeing to meet me and a number of architects and planning advisers from County Tyrone in the near future to discuss this. Ahead of that meeting, can I seek a commitment from the Minister that he will approach with an open mind any new ideas, proposed amendments and proposed improvements to PPS 21, especially if they improve the life chances of rural people who want to live and build in the countryside?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the supplementary question. Indeed, I look forward to our meeting on 28 October. I assure the Member that I will approach that meeting, as I do any and every meeting, with an open mind. I am always willing to hear constructive input and ideas from other Members of the Assembly and from experts in their fields, be they architects or planning agents, and, indeed, from members of the public.
Mr Dunne: I, too, thank the Minister for his contribution in relation to PPS 21. Does he fully recognise the need to amend PPS 21 to allow for some flexibility, so that people brought up in the countryside are included in applications under a measured scheme, but one that gives a chance to families to remain in areas where they were brought up?
Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Dunne for his supplementary question. I recognise the needs and desires that people brought up in a particular area have to remain there. Where possible, provision should and could be made in a policy to accommodate the needs of such people. However, it is worth bearing in mind that PPS 21, as it stands, does offer considerable development opportunities for non-farming rural people wishing to live in the countryside and not just to farmers. I expect a couple of supplementaries to say "not even" to farmers.
Those opportunities include replacement dwellings; the conversion and reuse of non-residential buildings as dwellings; new dwellings within an existing cluster or ribbon of buildings; social and affordable housing schemes; development within designated dispersed rural communities; and a dwelling to meet compelling personal or domestic circumstances. There is certainly no moratorium on building in the countryside for non-farming dwellers. Opportunities exist, but evidently, from the contributions of Members not just today — we had a debate a few months ago on this subject — it seems that sufficient ones do not.
Mr Rogers: Minister, we talk about farmers; what discussions has your Department had with DARD with respect to the idea of an active farmer? How will that inform future planning policy?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. My officials work constantly with their counterparts in DARD on many issues. This is certainly one. In particular, representatives from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and DARD have a lot of overlap as regards farms and the designation of areas. The Member will be well aware of that; he speaks to me often enough about it.
The definition of a working farm has caused some consternation and confusion when it comes to the interpretation and application of planning policy. Of late, subsequent to a few decisions by the Planning Appeals Commission, it seems that planners have been assessing applications under PPS 21 CTY10 more strictly. They are looking for more evidence of what constitutes a working farm — sorry, it is not that they are looking for more evidence but that the sources of evidence that they are looking for have been reduced. Now, in all bar the most extreme cases, they will require the DARD active farm user number.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for his answers. Given the recent judicial review (JR) decision on a rural planning application in, I think, the Lisburn council area, will that mean that there will be changes from the Department to Planning Service officers on the ground in relation to dwelling applications, whether for farmers or non-farmers?
Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Elliott for his supplementary question. I indicated in my previous answer that the outcome of JRs or Planning Appeals Commission hearings inevitably has a knock-on impact on the interpretation and analysis or assessment of planning applications. Since a recent ruling, I have seen a tightening of PPS 21. It seems to have become somewhat more rigid. That is evidenced by the number of Members here who have brought constituents to me who, six or eight months ago, might have received permission, but, with the new reading of the rules, unfortunately have not. It is worth bearing in mind that there is a balance to be struck. I do not think that anyone would dispute that PPS 21 is much more permissive than its predecessor, PPS 14. However, it is there for a reason. There have to be rules. Any development anywhere, let alone in the countryside, must be sustainable. It is important that, whatever we arrive at through the SPPS, it recognises that. We have a job to protect the countryside as well.
Mr McCallister: Does the Minister accept that there are inconsistencies in the application of the policy throughout Northern Ireland? Does he also accept that some families who get permission to build on a farm location then struggle to raise finance simply because mortgage providers are nervous about the location if ever repossession became an issue?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr McCallister for his question. I have no doubt that there have been inconsistencies across the North, not only in the implementation of this planning policy but of many others. However, the issue of perceived inconsistencies with PPS 21 has been addressed to some extent by the establishment by my predecessor of a peer review group, which will look at the more contentious or complex PPS 21 applications. That group consists of senior planners from each of the planning divisions. I think that it is a very useful tool for hearing what is going on in different areas and what views planners from those areas bring to the table. It is vital as well that there is consistency right across the board when it comes to the implementation and application of any planning policy.
I have also become aware of difficulties around mortgage applications. Unfortunately, it is not something new. Historically, mortgage lenders have been cautious about things such as occupancy conditions, which are unique, almost, to countryside applications. However, they seem to have got a lot more cautious of late. I have instructed planning officials to intervene or assist applicants, where possible, be it through a letter of comfort or a letter of support to the lending company.
Mr Durkan: Part 9 of the Local Government Act 2014 introduced a new ethical standards framework for councillors. That framework consists of a mandatory code of conduct for councillors, with supporting arrangements for investigation, adjudication and appeals.
Members may recall that, as a result of amendments agreed by the Assembly at the Bill’s Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage, provisions for a High Court appeal mechanism were introduced into the Local Government Bill. That would provide for any person who is subject to further action by the commissioner as a result of their failure to comply with the code of conduct to appeal against the decision of the commissioner to the High Court if the High Court gives the person leave to do so. The ethical standards framework was brought fully into operation on 2 June this year by commencement order.
Members may recall that, in response to concerns raised by the commissioner about the effect that the introduction of a High Court appeal mechanism could have on his constitutional position, I indicated that I was considering bringing forward a further Bill to separate the investigation and adjudication functions of the ethical standards framework. During the debate on the draft code of conduct on 27 May, I informed the Assembly that I was seeking legal advice to assist in determining whether a new adjudication model would be needed. Following my consideration of that legal advice, I take this opportunity to confirm to Members that I am satisfied that the current ethical standards framework can operate without further amendments and — you will be relieved to hear — there is no requirement to bring forward a further Bill. Therefore, the supporting mechanisms of investigation, adjudication and appeals, as currently provided in the 2014 Act, will not be subject to further change.
Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answer up to now. After that explanation, maybe he will tell us how the post of commissioner will be funded. How will the funding be dealt with?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Kelly for that supplementary question. There has been considerable debate, not only about the functions or role of the commissioner but about how the office will be funded from across the councils. Should it be done on a case-by-case basis, according to the number of cases coming to the commissioner from each council and should councils have to pay on that basis? However, it is my opinion that the money should be top-sliced to pay for it before it goes out and becomes a function.
T1. Mr P Ramsey asked the Minister of the Environment, in light of a high-profile campaign by residents in the Dunfield Terrace area of Derry, what the rationale was behind the planners approving that application for housing. (AQT 1591/11-15)
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his question — lots. It is not an approval that was reached lightly by the planners in Derry, particularly given the high volume of objections and, indeed, high level of media interest in the application. I took a personal look at it and toiled with it for some time. However, despite the numerous objections and grounds for objection, the planners have arrived at their decision to approve. In reaching that decision, the Department has taken into account the views of statutory consultees, Derry City Council, objectors and supporters and — the key to this — the planning history on-site. From a planning perspective, the Department considers that the principle of housing development on the site has been long established. Detailed design and roads matters, which historically have been the main impediment to some previous applications on the site, were by and large addressed in the application.
I have received regular correspondence from objectors, both in advance of the decision and subsequent to it. I have to say that I am heartened by the maturity that they have shown and with which they have received the decision. They accept that we were bound by policy and by planning history and that any outcome other than approval was extremely unlikely.
Mr P Ramsey: I thank the Minister for his response. There is clear evidence that it has been one of the most controversial sites, given that it is one of the most beautiful landmarks in the city. Is the Minister aware of proposals tabled via the council or via the residents' group for a land swap that might broker a deal that would enable housing to be built elsewhere so that that land would be retained as the beauty spot that it is?
Mr Durkan: Mr Ramsey quite rightly refers to the importance of the site in the city of Derry and its position as a strategic viewpoint for the city as a whole. As I said, I have been in regular correspondence with objectors to the scheme and have therefore been made aware of negotiations between them, the landowner and statutory agencies such as the council. I am not privy to the full detail of those discussions. However, I am aware that the residents remain hopeful of a positive outcome, and I have offered them my support to achieve one.
Mr Campbell: Thank you, Principal Speaker — Deputy Speaker. That was nearly a Freudian slip there.
T2. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of the Environment — sticking with County Londonderry rather than the city — whether he has anything to report on the planning application at Portstewart’s Strandview, given that he kindly took up my invitation to visit that area, and, in the eight months since he visited the site, there has been no outcome or response from the planners. (AQT 1592/11-15)
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Campbell for that question. I do indeed remember the site visit. I still have the scars.
Subsequent to the meeting that we held with objectors to that development, an approach was made by planning officials back to the developer. It is worth bearing it in mind that the scheme was recommended for approval. However, planners have gone back to the developer to ask him to revisit the scheme, taking into consideration some of the concerns that were raised by objectors. Some of the concerns that they raised were extremely pertinent; some were less so. Bearing it in mind that there are over 6,500 planning applications in the system at a time, as far as I am aware, revised drawings have been submitted. We looked at them and deemed that they were not perhaps sufficiently revised. We are now awaiting or have been in receipt of further revised drawings that will go some way to satisfying residents' concerns.
Mr Campbell: I thank the Minister for his response and his visit on that occasion. It is a picturesque beauty spot, as the Minister knows, given that he has visited the site. Will he ensure that, even with the amended drawings, the capacity for whatever number of dwellings the revised drawings indicate will be looked at in the context of the existing properties that are there and will not run counter to them?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. What I can assure him of — I hope that I already have — is that the concerns of residents were heard that day. As I said, some of the concerns or objections that they raised were more pertinent and had more weight in planning terms than others. Attempts have been made by my Department to, I suppose, get an improved deal for the residents who object to the scheme, but I cannot, at this stage, give the Member any assurances as to how improved that might be.
T3. Mr Flanagan asked the Minister of the Environment to give an assurance that the former MoD site at Grosvenor Barracks in Enniskillen, which is a 17·2 acre site, with plans for 200 houses, and will transfer to the new Fermanagh and Omagh District Council from 1 April, will be used for social housing and will not be sold off to the highest bidder. (AQT 1593/11-15)
Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Flanagan for his question. I have to plead complete ignorance of the application to which he refers. I always think that it is safer to admit when you do not know the answer to something. I am sure that the Member would agree with me on that. Will the site itself be passed to the council?
Mr Durkan: OK. Well, along with the site going to the council, what will go to the council, as the Member will be aware, is the statutory function of planning. Councils will start their own planning processes, that of drawing up their own local development plans. Some councils, while still in shadow form, have commenced that work already. An important part of those area plans will be the designation of sites and zones for social housing. I know that there is acute need for it in many areas across the North, and I am sure that the Member's constituency is no exception to that. The council will have a major if not final say in what that land is zoned for.
Mr Flanagan: I thank the Minister and commend him for his efforts to answer that question blind. I want to tease it out a wee bit further with him. The site is being transferred to the council. Is there any way in which the council can ensure that the site is developed for social housing instead of putting it on the market? For example, will the council be allowed to do a public sector trawl that might include social housing providers? Would they be excluded from a public sector trawl?
Mr Durkan: As I have outlined, the council will ultimately be able to say that that land is zoned for social housing. Unfortunately, it is outside my gift or ability to say that it will ultimately be developed for social housing, though. As the Member rightly identifies, that will require cooperation and collaboration between the council and social housing providers through the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and ultimately the housing builders, which would be housing associations. If the demand exists in that area for social housing — I imagine that it does if it is, in any way, similar to other areas across the North — I cannot think why there would be great difficulty in getting it on to the social housing programme eventually. However, that would be a question for the Minister for Social Development.
T4. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of the Environment for further clarification on the new rates billing system under RPA, given that he will be aware of the scare stories in the media last week on the possibility of significant rates increases due to the variation across the new council areas. (AQT 1594/11-15)
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Dunne for the question. I did indeed see the scare stories, as Mr Dunne quite accurately puts it, in the media last week. I wondered where they had come from and what had prompted them arising just last week, after we have come so far down the road towards local government reform. I would be lying if I said that there will not be or have not been issues around rates convergence, but a lot of work has been done and is being done to ensure that the impact of rates convergence on ratepayers in certain areas across the North is minimised. I know that Fermanagh is one area that could see a jump in its rates, and there are others that will see an equally large jump. My predecessor managed to secure £30 million from the Executive to deal with the issue of rates convergence, and DFP is currently finalising what the scheme that will dish out that £30 million to mitigate any detrimental impact of rates convergence will look like.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree, though, that it is important that there is an increase in public awareness of his transitional arrangements to give some assurance to the public that they are not going to be hit with a massive increase in their bill?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the supplementary question. I believe that we have a responsibility. It is not just for me as Minister of the Environment or Mr Hamilton as Minister of Finance and Personnel, as, ultimately, it will be his transitional rates relief scheme as opposed to mine. All Members — those who voted for the reform of local government and even those who might have voted against it — have a leadership role to play and should be doing more to allay concerns, rather than stir them up.
T5. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister of the Environment to outline the impact and implications of the October monitoring round on his Department. (AQT 1595/11-15)
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his question.
My Department currently has a range of actions to deliver in-year 4·4% baseline reductions. They include the following measures: ceasing to fill vacant posts in my Department, which is 167 full-time equivalent posts; ceasing the use of contract and temporary workers; reductions in general admin expenditure across all business areas of the Department; utilisation of an in-year reduced requirement on the ring-fenced coastal communities fund; postponement of planned procurements; curtailing spend on a number of contracts; reducing grants for a range of programmes, unfortunately; and reducing the number of lower-priority environmental programmes funded. I also, unfortunately, have to stop funding to any new projects or initiatives.
My Department has conducted a review of budgets across all business areas, and the measures identified to deliver the in-year cuts are those deemed to lessen the impact on the Department's ability to deliver public services. However, the impact of the cuts on my Department's programmes is magnified because of the inability of my Department to cut local government grants in-year. That means that the impact of such percentage cuts falls disproportionately and unfairly on core departmental programmes. As part of October monitoring, I put forward a bid of £0·9 million to seek the reinstatement of part of the reductions made in June and requested that the local government grants be excluded from any reductions.
Unfortunately, the issue has not been addressed, which means that funding for core departmental work in my Department has been disproportionately and unfairly reduced.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr David McIlveen has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their places. The Member who tabled the question will automatically be called to ask a supplementary question. I will call Mr Allister, who tabled a similar question, after Mr McIlveen.
Mrs Foster (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): First, I wish to express my sincere sympathy to all those workers who face a very uncertain future over the coming months as a result of JTI's announcement last week. The company has stressed that the decision is in no way a reflection on the manufacturing performance of the local team. In the meantime, Invest Northern Ireland continues to work closely with the company and with the Department for Employment and Learning to ensure that those employees who may be impacted by the outcome of the consultation are offered good advice, help and support at the most appropriate time.
Mr D McIlveen: I appreciate the opportunity to ask this question today, and I thank the Minister for her response. Despite being cheerleaders for the tobacco products directive in the European Parliament, Sinn Féin, locally, appears to be absolving itself of all responsibility for the proposed closure of the factory. Have discussions that you have had with JTI management since the announcement given you any indication as to its exact reasoning behind the proposed closure?
Mrs Foster: I have not had the opportunity to speak to senior management as yet. I indicated to the House earlier that Stephen Farry and I hope to be engaged at the Ballymena plant later this year. The management has said that it has various processes that it needs to go through, so it does not want to break protocol.
I have had the opportunity, as have other Executive Ministers, to speak to the senior trade union people since the announcement. However, I had spoken to management before the announcement, and it indicated two important areas. First, management indicated the growth in illegal trade, which has led to a significant contraction in the tobacco market in a number of key countries, most notably in western Europe.
Secondly, the Member is right to mention the European Union tobacco products directive, which bans the manufacture of all cigarette packs containing fewer than 20 cigarettes and all hand-rolling tobacco pouches of less than 30 grams from May 2016. The reason for that is that 40% of the plant and machinery at Lisnafillan deals with small packs, and they cannot deal with the larger packs that have been imposed from Europe. The company has regrettably taken the decision to move its production to Poland or Romania.
Members and people outside the House will say that Poland and Romania are in Europe as well. Those factories are already equipped with the machinery to be able to deal with the larger packs. They do not have to put in the capital investment that would have been needed at Lisnafillan, so they have decided to move ahead.
Mr Allister: The Minister is doubtless aware of the huge hole that this news will leave in the economy in the Ballymena area and further afield in manufacturing terms, given the significance of Gallaher. As we look forward to try to fill that hole, what assistance can the Minister ensure flows from Invest NI to promoting north Antrim as a site to visit for future potential foreign direct investment, given that the figures to date are quite disappointing, with, in the past half a dozen years, six visits or thereabouts to north Antrim? How can the Minister help to break what seems to be the Belfast-centric monopoly on new foreign direct investment? Can she help in that regard, and will she?
Mrs Foster: Of course, the Member is aware that I was recently on a trade delegation to the Middle East with companies from Northern Ireland, one of which was Wrightbus from north Antrim. Wrightbus has great manufacturing plans for Ballymena. We will continue to support it in that regard. That includes going to areas that the Member may feel that we should not go to, but I make no apologies for going to Saudi Arabia and places like that to try to secure new plans and new programmes for Wrightbus.
The Member mentioned our relationship with north Antrim and Ballymena. There have been significant announcements in north Antrim, not just Wrightbus but Moy Park. Although the Moy Park announcement was made in Dungannon, it has an impact in upper Bann and Ballymena. So, there are announcements being made outside Belfast. I did not think that the Member would join the Sinn Féin chorus for positive discrimination against Belfast, but there we are: we live and learn every day.
Mr Frew: Will the Minister make it a priority, her first objective, to try to persuade JTI Gallaher to retain some of the jobs on the site? We have a very modern, up-to-date cigar factory. We also have a fully refurbished research and development depot that researched tobacco for plants all over the world. Will the Minister reassure the House that she will try everything that she can to retain some jobs and to support the massive pool of subcontractors on the site?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for that supplementary. Let me say to him, first, that we will meet management, hopefully this week. I have said to the unions that I am more than prepared to go to Geneva to speak to the management in headquarters there. I am prepared also to go to Japan, if necessary. As it happens, the British ambassador to Japan was in Northern Ireland just last week. He met our colleague, the Member of Parliament for the area. It is hoped that the ambassador will raise the issue of Lisnafillan with JTI management when he returns to Japan in the near future. There is a little time. During the consultation period, we will meet senior management here, and I think that it is important to go to Geneva and speak to management there as well.
In relation to the subcontractors and the supply chain, I have asked Invest Northern Ireland to find out the specific impact that this will have on local firms. We know that 200 local firms subcontract for, or are in the supply chain of, JTI Gallaher, contributing £20 million to the local economy. It is vital that we find out the impact that this will have on them as well.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Minister, the Gallaher workers are some of the most highly skilled manufacturing workers that we have. I have been speaking to some other major manufacturing firms in recent days. Moving forward, they would obviously have an interest in finding employment solutions for some of those employees. What engagement have you had with those firms and the manufacturing industry to find resolutions to the problems that these workers and their families face?
Mrs Foster: It is important to say that JTI Gallaher placed a very strong emphasis on creating transferable skills, and, because of that, we will, hopefully, be able to find accommodation in other manufacturing companies. As Mr Hilditch pointed out in his question to me during Question Time, we are dealing not just with people in north Antrim but with people in south and east Antrim and probably further afield. We will carry out a skills audit of all the employees and then approach other manufacturing companies to assess their needs so that we can match the skills of the people in Ballymena with the skills required across Northern Ireland.
Mr Swann: Minister, as I am sure you are aware, the announcement on the closure of Gallaher came like a death to the community. Having met with the senior shop stewards on Friday, along with Jim Nicholson, I learned that the main reasons for the factory closure, that they see, are the TPD2 and the illegal trade, as well as the threat of cheaper labour when the production is removed from Ballymena. I may have picked you up wrong earlier, but I will stand corrected. You talked about the removal of the production to Romania or Poland. My understanding, and the understanding of the shop stewards, is that to set up the factory in Poland would take an extensive rebuild. If that is correct, is it not the case that JTI would be breaching European Commission protocols if they have sought state aid? Can the Minister get in contact with our MEPs? I know that she said that she is going to Geneva to meet the management of JTI, but will she also tie in with our MEPs in Brussels?
Mrs Foster: I will certainly tie in with any MEP who is prepared to work for the good of the Gallaher staff in Ballymena and elsewhere. Certainly, some of our MEPs, one in particular, have not been helpful for the future of those Gallaher staff. I think she should join the dots and realise that what she has engaged in has cost those jobs.
As I understood it, the Poland factory has the appropriate machinery to put forward the 40 gram and 30 gram packages that are required under the European directive, as it stands. If I am wrong, I stand corrected, but that is certainly the briefing I was given by the senior shop steward when he came to see us on Thursday. That is the message that I was getting from the MP for the area as well. However, as I say, Stephen Farry and I are hopefully going to meet the management before the end of this week, and we will get complete clarity in relation to those issues.
Mr Wilson: When Caterpillar reduced its workforce in Larne, the Minister gave an undertaking, at that stage, to work with the company to look at its worldwide operations and to find out whether there were things that could be moved to Northern Ireland. Thankfully, employment levels are back at the pre-reduction levels. Has she had any discussions with JTI to see what operations it has worldwide and whether some could be moved to Northern Ireland using, first, the facilities and, secondly, the skills of the workforce here, to at least create some additional employment rather than having the whole place close?
Mrs Foster: Yes, again, those are the sorts of things we will be talking to the management about when we have that meeting later this week and, certainly, when we go to Geneva. To have gone to the parent company to see whether there was anything else we in Northern Ireland could do for the company was a good model. We were able to do work around shared services back offices, for example, with Caterpillar, when they moved to a facility in west Belfast. I think that that is something that we want to explore. A number of staff in Lisnafillan are engaged in research and development. Is there any reason why that could not continue, for example? We will want to have all those discussions, and I look forward to them happening towards the end of this week and, then, further into the next months.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I am disappointed at the stance that the Minister and some in her party have taken to peddle company propaganda and to completely ignore the facts that everybody acknowledges exists by focusing on the two issues of illegal trade and an EU directive, and completely ignoring the high cost of energy and other production costs that exist here. Does the Minister accept that a number of global companies are reviewing their position here because of those high energy and production costs? Can she outline what steps she is taking to reduce those costs to try to retain maximum employment here by reducing globalisation transfers out of this place?
Mrs Foster: Yes, the facts are always very important in anything that we come to the House to discuss. Therefore, I want to tell the Member that the issue of energy has not come up in any discussions that I have had with this company. I accept that other companies have particular issues in relation to energy, and I am working proactively with those companies to give them an answer. It ill behoves the Member to raise an issue about companies and their costs when the Member does all in his power to cause difficulties in relation to energy policy in the House. Then, he cannot join the dots to know that there are continuing difficulties. If we are going to help businesses with their energy costs, somebody has to pay for it. I know that that is a problem for Sinn Féin, because, like with every good socialist, somebody else pays the bill. Somebody has to pay for anything that happens in relation to energy. That is true. The Members across the way, particularly the lady — well, the Member — continue to tut in the corner. Somebody has to pay, and that is the difficulty that Sinn Féin has with every policy initiative that it brings forward.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for her very useful answers. Surely it is futile to argue about whether it is cheap labour, whether it is the illegal tobacco trade or whether it is the European directive. The fact is that this is a tragedy for those 900-odd workers who are going to be made redundant. The Minister has about 18 months to two years for the final run-down of the premises at Lisnafillan. Has the Minister any plans to put in place an intensive and extensive programme for both redeployment and retraining of the workers who are presently employed?
Mrs Foster: I do not necessarily agree with the Member that it is futile to look at the decision as to why JTI Gallaher has taken the decision to go into a 90-day consultation period. It is only by looking at the reasons behind its decision that you can try to deal with what is in front of us. If there are some reasons there that we can try to deal with, we may be able to keep some of these employees here in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is important to look at the reasons behind why it has taken this decision, and that is what I want to explore with the company. Then we will be able to move forward and see whether there is something that we can specifically do in relation to keeping JTI Gallaher here as an entity. It is a very good entity, despite what Sinn Féin would say. It is a very good company to work for. We will see whether we can keep that company here, and, if not, we will see what we can do to help and support those workers in JTI Gallaher, who have, yes, a period of time. There are many other companies throughout Northern Ireland who announced that they were closing on a Friday and people did not have a job on the Monday. These people have at least got some time to try to find new opportunities, and we will do all that we can to assist them.
Ms Lo: Following on from Mr Maginness's question and the Minister's answer, has she any plans to work with my party colleague the Minister for Employment and Learning to see how we can help people to reskill or upskill in order for them to seek employment between now and the closure in 2017?
Mrs Foster: I do not know whether the Member has been in for all my answers, but I have been referencing the Employment and Learning Minister throughout my answers. I said that he and I had been asked by the Executive to go to Lisnafillan to engage with management, unions and staff. We will do that, and, therefore, yes, I do have plans to work with the Employment and Learning Minister.
Before moving to the next item of business —
Ms Ruane: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim mo leithscéal leis an Tionól as gan bheith ann i rith Thráth na gCeisteanna. I apologise to the Assembly because I was not here for one of my topical questions. No disrespect was intended to the Assembly.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have received notification from members of the Business Committee of a motion to extend the sitting past 7.00 pm under Standing Order 10(3A).
That, in accordance with Standing Order 10(3A), the sitting on Monday 13 October 2014 be extended to no later than 10.00 pm.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
That Mr Michael Copeland replace Mr Roy Beggs as a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister — [Mr Swann.]
Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): I wish to present to the Assembly the Executive's conclusions on the resource expenditure element of the October monitoring round. The Executive's consideration of the wider October monitoring round, including the impact on capital budgets, is not yet complete. I will make a separate statement apprising the Assembly on the outcome of the full monitoring round at a later date.
As Members will be well aware, the Executive's resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) budget in this financial year has been confronted with a range of significant pressures. In the June monitoring round, the Executive agreed to reduce departmental resource DEL by 2·1%, or £77·9 million, to address a number of those pressures. That reduction did not address the £87 million reduction to our resource DEL in 2014-15 for not implementing welfare reform in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. However, it was agreed that the Executive must address that issue in the October monitoring round.
Since June, it has become apparent that a number of Departments face inescapable pressures that cannot be addressed from within their existing resource DEL allocations. Those pressures are in addition to the costs of not implementing welfare reform. My officials have scrutinised departmental pressures, and it has been determined that £125 million of those are genuinely inescapable, with many involving legal or contractual commitments. Failure to address those departmental pressures and the cost of not implementing welfare reform through the in-year monitoring process would increase the risk that the Executive would breach its HM Treasury control total on resource expenditure. Given that addressing those pressures would inevitably require further reductions to departmental resource DEL controls, I believed it crucial that those issues should be addressed as soon as practicable to allow Departments sufficient time to manage the impact on their budgets. In view of that, following Executive discussion last Wednesday, I presented a paper to Executive colleagues on Thursday seeking Executive agreement on a way forward. I am pleased to say that the Executive endorsed those proposals.
The Executive agreed resource DEL allocations totalling £125 million, including £8 million to DARD for tuberculosis compensation; £13·8 million to DETI for Invest NI and sporting events; £60 million to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for pressures in the health sector; £29 million to the Department of Justice for PSNI and legal aid pressures; £4·5 million to DRD for concessionary fares; £1·3 million to OFMDFM for the Victims and Survivors Service; £0·8 million to the Northern Ireland Assembly to reinstate its June monitoring reduction; and £7·6 million to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) for equal pay and casework challenges. Full details are set out in the annexes accompanying this statement.
The Executive exited the June monitoring round with a zero overcommitment on resource DEL. Taking account of the allocations totalling £125 million and the £87 million reduction for non-implementation of welfare reform, the Executive were overcommitted by some £212 million. Given that departmental resource expenditure has already been reduced by 2·1% this year, seeking to address that overcommitment entirely through in-year reduction to departmental budgets would have proved very difficult to manage. Therefore, with a view to easing the impact on departmental resource DEL this year, the First Minister and I sought a solution to our in-year problems in conjunction with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
We have, as a result, been able to gain temporary access to the national reserves to draw down £100 million to assist the Executive in 2014-15. That amounts to less than 1% of our resource DEL. The Chancellor's letter to the First Minister makes it clear that access to the national reserve comes with a number of conditions, although those are largely consistent with the Executive's existing plans. This is not a question of the Treasury or Her Majesty's Government stepping in to undermine devolution. Rather, at the request of the First Minister and me, they are providing short-term assistance due to particular one-off difficulties that we have faced this year. I want to put on record my gratitude to the Chancellor for dealing with the matter in such an expeditious manner.
The conditions are, first, that the Executive fully implement the 4·4% baseline reductions as indicated in June monitoring. That has now been agreed. However, as the House will be aware, I would have preferred if those reductions had been agreed during the June monitoring process when there was more time for Departments to plan prudently for reductions. Significantly, no further in-year reductions to departmental budgets are required.
Secondly, the Chancellor fully understands the critical importance of the time constraint confronting the Executive in setting the Budget for 2015-16. The Chancellor requires the Executive to have a credible 2015-16 plan in place before the end of October. Again, I would have preferred if we could have already agreed next year’s Budget, but I trust that we will be able to do so in the coming weeks. I think that the Chancellor is absolutely correct to require the Executive to illustrate how we plan to move forward on the basis of a balanced Budget, taking into account all the pressures that we face and how we believe those can be addressed.
The Chancellor is not, as some might have you believe, seeking to control day-to-day spending decisions in Northern Ireland. He does not wish to dictate to the Executive how much funding health should receive or how much money education should get. He is instead, rightly, as the man responsible for all the UK’s public spending, keenly interested in Northern Ireland having spending plans that ensure that we live within our means. In the light of that, I will be tabling a draft Budget paper to the Executive in the coming days and hope that it will be agreed before the end of this month.
Both those conditions are entirely consistent with the position that my Department has been advocating on October monitoring and the 2015-16 Budget process.
Thirdly, the Chancellor has confirmed that the £87 million welfare reform adjustment due to foregone annually managed expenditure (AME) savings will now be deducted from the Northern Ireland DEL later this year and that the £114 million deduction planned for next year will also go ahead should there be no progress made with Northern Ireland’s welfare reform legislation. That is not actually a condition but a statement of fact from the Chancellor as to the Government’s long-standing position.
The Chancellor also makes clear that repayment of this facility will happen in 2015-16. Whilst I accept that that adds to our challenges next year, the Executive have tasked the head of the Civil Service with beginning work on the development of options for reducing headcount in the public sector and further pay restraint. Along with possible political agreement on shrinking the size of Stormont, the savings that such difficult but necessary steps will realise will greatly assist us not only next year but, critically, on a recurrent basis. It is perhaps worth pointing out that, contrary to what one daily newspaper in Northern Ireland stated erroneously, interest is not payable on the loan.
It is important to stress that the Executive have now agreed to the terms and conditions set out in the Chancellor’s letter. There cannot therefore be any attempt to renege or reinterpret the conditions. I have attached a copy of the Chancellor’s letter to the First Minister to the statement.
The detail of the consequential impact on 2014-15 departmental resource expenditure is set out in the annexes that accompany this statement. As a result, we exit the October monitoring round overcommitted by £25 million on resource DEL. That is a significant level of overcommitment, and I have encouraged all Ministers to make best endeavours to identify reduced requirements in the remaining months of this financial year. That means that it is unlikely that any further bids for funding will be entertained by the Executive in the January monitoring round.
I am pleased to be able to advise the Assembly on what I believe is a workable solution for the challenges facing the Executive’s immediate resource expenditure difficulties. However, it is unfortunate that the full implementation of the 4·4% baseline reduction — brought to the Executive in June — has been delayed to this point. That unwarranted delay has only created a more difficult environment for Departments to plan and deliver public services. We also need to be clear that the use of the £100 million facility is only a short-term fix that provides some chance for the Executive to live within adjusted HM Treasury control totals for this year.
We have needlessly squandered £87 million of funding that could have delivered significant benefits in areas like health care but for the political intransigence of some who have put their political aspirations in another jurisdiction above the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Opposition to passing welfare reform may well be their democratic right. However, it has, in my view, dubious merit whenever refusal to pass welfare reform legislation because you are trying to protect people already in receipt of welfare is putting people on the dole queue and condemning them and their families to a life on welfare.
I freely admit that this path through our present problems is far from perfect. It is not the all-encompassing agreement on the totality of our budget challenges that I would like to present to this House. Some have suggested that what was before the Executive last Thursday should have been rejected simply because it did not address every single issue. Such criticism is short-sighted.
It was never likely that our deliberations last week would end with agreement on dealing with this year’s pressures and next year’s Budget and solve the welfare reform issue. However, it would have been a complete and utter disaster if we had let another week pass without dealing with the most immediate and pressing problem that is this year’s financial position. Every single day that passed was making living within our 2014-15 Budget less and less likely. The consequences of breaching the block grant would have been multiple and grave. Not only would Her Majesty's Treasury have removed the total of our overspend, which would have been in the range of £200 million to £300 million, from next year’s Budget, there was the prospect of an additional penalty being heaped on top.
Issues that are important to this Assembly, such as the ongoing discussions on the devolution of corporation tax powers, would have ceased, and the flexibilities that we are seeking for the continued funding of the proposed community safety college at Desertcreat would not have materialised. It was also possible that HM Treasury would not even have tolerated our heading towards an overspend and could have stepped in before year-end and begun to manage our access to cash on a day-to-day basis. In the inevitable discussions with Treasury that would have followed a breach, I am certain that we would not have escaped without the Treasury's spotlight being shone on our so-called super-parity measures. Each of those possible negative consequences have been avoided as a result of this agreement.
The only alternative to overspend would have been to seek to live within our means by making further, deeper cuts to departmental budgets. Over the past weeks, we have heard loudly and clearly from the likes of the Chief Constable, the Health Minister and other Executive colleagues, about the severe impact that cuts above the 4·4% planned for in June would have had on public services in Northern Ireland. Those additional cuts have now been avoided and a crisis in public services has been averted. In fact, not only have savage cuts been avoided, we have been able to make £125 million in allocations to address many of the most acute pressures in the Departments of Health, Justice, Enterprise and elsewhere.
Those parties who voted against my recommendations last week and who have criticised its contents since need to answer this question: what would they have done instead? Would they breach our Budget and risk the wrath of Treasury, or make cuts of around 8% in-year to departmental budgets and accept the serious consequences that that would have had for public services?
I will not be criticised by those who offer no viable alternative to what is before us today. Nor will I be lectured by Ministers who are so hypocritical that they will welcome additional allocations to their own budgets whilst being absolutely unprepared to vote for the way in which those allocations are funded. That is not fiscally responsible. It is, instead, brazen political opportunism. Will those Ministers who are seemingly so opposed to this deal refuse extra money for their Departments, or will they, as I suspect, be only too happy to benefit from the hard work and courage of others? They can also attempt to explain, if they can, why they voted against £60 million for health, £29 million for justice or £1·3 million for victims' services when each of those areas and others were crying out for help.
To put the matter beyond any doubt, I intend to write to those Ministers who opposed October monitoring at the Executive but were the beneficiaries of allocations last Thursday to confirm that they wish to utilise the loan to ease pressures in their Departments. If they choose not to avail themselves of the benefit that the facility will bring for public services delivered by their Departments, then I will recommend to the Executive in the January monitoring round that those allocations are reversed. Clearly, if they do not wish to take up the allocations made possible by the loan facility, then that pressure on next year’s Budget will be lifted.
We have put out the fire in this financial year. Had we not, I would have feared for the future of public services in Northern Ireland. A serious job of work lies ahead in the coming weeks in order to agree a Budget for next year to deal with the range of pressures that our public finances face. We must now, as one, dedicate ourselves to the huge task of agreeing a draft Budget by the end of October. I am up for that challenge and call on everyone in the Executive to similarly commit themselves. On that note, I commend this statement to the Assembly.
Mr McKay (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement. I certainly welcome the allocations in it, particularly to front line services: £60 million to Health is £60 million well needed.
I am concerned, though, about the number of inescapable pressures coming from Departments. Those from the Department of Justice and the Department of Health alone take up some £89 million of the money allocated in the October monitoring round. I would like to know how the Minister will deal with the bad habit that some Departments have picked up, coming back again and again for significant amounts of money.
The Minister also mentioned corporation tax, and I am sure that he will have picked up some comments from the British Secretary of State about that issue. Does he believe that the British Government are getting cold feet on that?
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Chairman of the Committee for his welcoming of the statement and the agreement it represents. He is right to acknowledge the allocations, and one of the positive points is that we have been able to make allocations of £125 million. I will come on to the point about inescapable pressures in a moment or two, but we have been able to alleviate the worst pressures that face the Department of Health — not all of them. The £60 million will go on top of the £20 million that was allocated and set aside for the Department of Health in the June monitoring round for a total of £80 million. Of course, I would be in a better position as Finance Minister and the whole Executive would be in a better position if we were not losing over £80 million this year — to the tune of £87 million — on top of the £13 million that was lost last year because of the penalties for non-compliance with welfare reform.
The Member and, I hope, the House will appreciate that many of the inescapable pressures are legal and contractual in nature. One of the best examples, although it is not the biggest, is that of his party colleague the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who had a pressure of around £7 million for TB compensation that we cannot legally avoid. Whatever the total is for that in a year, it has to be paid.
I take the Member's point about some Departments always coming back year-on-year with quite large bids. One way that, I hope, we can address that is that, in drafting a Budget in the next number of weeks and agreeing a final Budget, we will have a much more strategic approach to our Budget. Given that next year's Budget will require reductions across the board, we should not fall into our old trap of reducing budgets by an equal percentage but address pressures and seize opportunities where they exist.
I am still hopeful that our negotiations and discussions on corporation tax will bear fruit. We have put forward a very robust case for it — I think that it is a case that has won the argument, in fact — and we are waiting for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make an announcement by the autumn statement, which, I think, is scheduled for 3 December at the latest. That gives us sufficient time to plan for its implementation before the end of this Parliament.
I do not think that the Government are getting cold feet. I think that they were right and were acknowledging the reality, I suppose, that, if the Executive could not deal with the pressures that we were facing in-year, the pressures that we would have to face in taking £200 million or £300 million out of our Budget to pay for corporation tax would be a bridge too far. That is why the in-year position that has been dealt with by this agreement was a test for the Executive, and I hope that we have shown that we have passed that test. We also have to pass the test in agreeing a balanced Budget for next year and getting things back on an even keel. If we can do that, I am hopeful that we will get a positive decision on corporation tax in the coming weeks.
Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his statement. Some of the comments that have had to be made are unfortunate. When and why did he conclude that asking the Chancellor of the Exchequer for a facility of £100 million was the best answer to our current budgetary problems?
Mr Hamilton: I suppose that I would rather not have been in a position where we had to do what we did and ask for access to the national reserve and a loan of £100 million. In an ideal scenario, that would not have happened. Whilst I acknowledge that the forgone savings of £87 million and £114 million for next year on welfare reform are not the totality of our Budget pressures, it would sure make things a lot easier if we were not squandering that money and were not having that self-inflicted wound imposed on us.
Over the last couple of weeks, it has become increasingly clear to some of us, if not everyone, in the House and to a lot of people outside that our pressures were getting worse and worse in-year, as had been predicted. I thought that we faced two likely outcomes, and the First Minister agreed. One was that Departments would significantly overspend. Members will recall that the head of the Civil Service, in a fairly unprecedented act, wrote to the permanent secretary in Treasury about two weeks ago and pointed out that he believed that we were heading for a breach of our Budget in excess of £200 million. As I pointed out in the statement, the conclusion that the First Minister and I came to was that the consequences of that would have been grave. At the very least, that £200 million would be taken off the Budget next year, but there may have been a penalty on top of that, and issues like corporation tax and Desertcreat would have been taken off the table and not discussed at all. I did not think that that was a viable option and nor did the First Minister.
The only alternative was to make further cuts above and beyond the 4·4% that Departments were planning for. That might have meant cuts in-year, with half the financial year gone, of 8% to Departments, which would have been incredibly difficult for them to administer. That would not have eliminated the risk of overspend; it might have exacerbated the likelihood of overspend, so we would have been back to the first consequence. That is when the First Minister and I concluded that something a little different, more imaginative and a bit innovative was required, which is why we sought the permission of the Chancellor to access the loan facility, which ensured that we do not have to administer cuts above and beyond the 4·4% that Departments were planning for. We can still make £125 million of allocations, and, whilst we have to deal with a £100 million facility next year, that gives us the time to agree a balanced Budget and a credible plan for handling it in the next financial year.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas as an deis ceist a chur. I return to inescapable pressures. The Minister's statement tells us that they often involve legal or contractual commitments. In the case of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, tuberculosis compensation is a recurring cost each year. Will the Minister encourage Departments to meet those legal contractual commitments early in the financial year so that they are not dependent on monitoring rounds to meet them?
Mr Hamilton: The Member mentions TB, as I did. My understanding is that the bill for TB compensation this year was in excess of £13 million. That is a lot of money going out the door. Whilst it is necessary to offer some compensation to those whose herds are affected, it is a powerful amount of money to pay in the circumstances, particularly our difficult financial circumstances. It is not the case that we did not expect anything like this to appear: the baseline set for the Department was, I understand, around £5·2 million, so anything over and above that — unfortunately, this was a bad year in the sense that the total bill is around £13 million — meant that the Department was in the terrible position of having to find that money. In more benign financial circumstances, Departments may be able to find that money from within their own budget. A lot of non-inescapable pressures are not being met, and Departments will have to suck it up and deal with that themselves from within their budget. Whilst I would like that to have been the case with many of the pressures that were deemed inescapable, with other pressures that Departments were facing and the fact that there would not be a lot of spare cash lying around this year due to reduced requirements, we had to do something to meet many of the inescapable pressures that were legal or contractual in nature. I can understand that people might feel that we should have had better budgetary management at the start of the year to deal with this. In some cases, there was some budgetary management, but it was not sufficient to cover the totality of the legal or contractual pressure that that Department faced.
At the risk of repeating myself, I hope that in agreeing a draft Budget, if we know that inescapable pressures like that will come up, we deal with those in the baselines of Departments right at the start of the Budget period rather than trying to do that in monitoring rounds and taking money away from other public services.
Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for his statement, which makes for interesting reading. Minister, on the current year — 2013-14 — I was wondering whether you had taken into account or were aware of any accrued or estimated Barnett consequentials that might help the situation. You are talking about hopefully getting the 2015-16 Budget agreed by the end of October: what input will the House have to that Budget and, closely linked to that, to the Programme for Government, which will be different?
Mr Hamilton: We do not anticipate any or many positive Barnett consequentials for the Executive in resource expenditure. It would be nice if there were, and it would help us to a large degree, but I do not anticipate many, and we certainly could not plan on the basis of what decisions might be in the Government's autumn statement. If there were to be any Barnett consequentials, I would expect them, in line with recent Budget and autumn statements, to be more on the capital side. We may get an increase in capital, but that does not help us with the current problems that we face.
In answer to the Member's question on the role of the House in next year's Budget, I do not see that being radically different from its role in the past. Once a draft Budget is agreed and published, which I hope can be done in the next number of weeks — in fact, we have to do it within the next couple of weeks, although I would rather that it had been done several weeks ago, which I pressed for — it will go out to public consultation, and there will, obviously, be a role for the House in that. I am looking at the Chair of the Finance Committee. I hope that the Committee will play the role that it has played in the past of coordinating the response of Committees, particularly on their Department's allocations. In that sense, there will be a role for the House to have an input between the draft and final stages and as a receptacle for the views that will, I am sure, be expressed by many who will be affected negatively or positively by the draft Budget.
Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for his statement. I want to respond to his comments about hypocritical Ministers. Does he not agree that Ministers, whilst receiving resources, still have a right to vote against a process that they do not feel meets the best strategic needs of Northern Ireland, which is similar to DUP Ministers accepting money for their Departments in the first mandate whilst not attending the Executive? Also, looking to the year ahead, can the Minister reassure the people of Northern Ireland that the Executive will be able to make and adopt a strategic approach to the 2015-16 Budget?
Mr Hamilton: Let me pick up the Member's first point on hypocritical Ministers. I think that there are hypocritical Ministers in the Executive, not least some of her party colleagues. Last week, they sat in the Executive and voted against the allocations to their Departments. After crying and crying and crying for weeks for money to meet the very real pressures that their Departments were under, they voted against the way in which the allocations were funded. Not only did they display a degree of hypocrisy in not voting for how the allocations should be funded but they offered no viable alternative. In fact, they offered no alternative at all.
They wanted the money. The Minister of Justice wanted £29 million for his Department. He has received that because of the work, efforts and courage of others. He is, it seems, happy to take that money, but he is not happy with the mechanism to provide that money. That is an unacceptable position for the Minister and others in the Executive to take. That is why I will write to Ministers whose Department has received an allocation in the October monitoring round but who voted against the mechanism by which that money is funded.
If they are so principled and so against the way in which the allocations to their Departments are being funded, it is their right not to take that money. Should they not wish to take up the benefits of the loan facility, I will recommend to the Executive, in January, that the allocations to their Departments are reversed. If they are so principled and do not want to avail themselves of the benefit of the loan facility, they, of course, would not want to take the money that comes from it. I will give them the opportunity not to take the money that the rest of us in the Executive have agreed to allocate and how it should be funded. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I remind Members, just in case things might get out of order, that courtesy, good temper and moderation are the keynotes of the Assembly.
Mr Weir: In light of that, Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you very much for calling me, and I thank the Minister very much for his statement. [Laughter.]
In welcoming this very fine statement, can I ask the Minister whether the Executive are still on course to overspend their Budget this year, please? [Laughter.]
Mr Hamilton: As I mentioned in the statement, there is the more technical side of the monitoring round process to go through, and we will do that. In fact, I will present a paper to the Executive next week to deal with any reduced requirements. I do not expect there to be any. We will do any technical adjustments and transfers between budget lines in the normal fashion next week. However, unless there is a huge surprise between now and then, we will exit the October monitoring round with an overcommitment of £25 million. That is incredibly challenging in the circumstances that we find ourselves in, and is, in part, why we sought a larger facility than we received. That is why I impressed upon all Ministers the need to identify any reduced requirements within their Departments very early. It is also why I said in this statement that, even if there are any reduced requirements, it is very unlikely that we will be able to allocate any more in January monitoring because we will be using them to pay our overcommitment.
I am hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to live within our means. I have to say, though, had we not been able to access this facility, I would not have been so confident; in fact, I would have been pretty confident that we would have breached our Budget. What we worked on over the past couple of days ensures that we will live within our means.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Airgeadais as a ráiteas. I take it that the statement was not agreed by the Executive, because it is one of the most party political statements that I have ever heard, and I thank the Minister for it. On a procedural term, he talks about reducing the headcount in the public sector. Will the Minister detail how that makes financial sense in the short-term, given that people who opt for voluntary redundancy would have to be given an upfront payment? How would that work, given that it takes several years for savings from such a scheme to kick in?
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his initial very complimentary comments about the statement. No plans are in place at the minute in respect of voluntary redundancy schemes or restructuring our broad public sector. The Executive unanimously agreed last Wednesday and ratified on Thursday the decision that the head of the Civil Service and officials go away and look at the range of options that there are for restructuring the public sector. I imagine that that will include — it will include — a voluntary redundancy scheme.
The size and scale of all of that will come out in the wash when the head of the Civil Service and his team do their work on our behalf. It is absolutely the right thing to do. This is not something that we would ordinarily want to be doing, but we are in circumstances of having significantly less public expenditure in Northern Ireland. We all know that, for a host of reasons — real-term cuts in our Budget, the penalties for welfare reform, issues with public sector pensions and so on and so forth — we are already under immense pressure next year. We are looking at a Budget that will be short by several hundred million pounds of what we think is needed. You cannot sustain that, and it looks like that is the way that it will be for a number of years. So, we need to take serious action to live within our means.
One of the ways that you would sensibly do that is by accepting that, if you have less money, you therefore spend less on providing fewer services, which should need fewer people. It is our view that we can save money by having a continued degree of pay restraint and a voluntary redundancy scheme. I particularly welcome the response of the likes of Brian Campfield from NIPSA, who took a very open response to it. He did not rule it out out of hand; he said that it was a good idea in the circumstances. Obviously we will have to engage with the unions and do some work over the next number of months.
The Member is right in terms of benefits accruing over a long period of time. If the Executive can take a decision in respect of a scheme within the next month, it is our view that we can have a scheme in place by roughly this time next year, or maybe a little earlier. That will allow for benefits to accrue next year. One of the conditions that the Chancellor has set down is that we have to have a credible plan to lead towards a balanced Budget. This, obviously, would be part of that credible plan. Once we, as an Executive, have taken a decision on it, I would like to discuss with the Chancellor how such a scheme could be funded so that we can realise the benefits from it as quickly as possible.
Mr I McCrea: Will the Minister outline whether the need for agreement on the draft Budget by the end of this month is an achievable condition for the Executive to meet?
Mr Hamilton: To be perfectly honest, I would have liked to have had a draft Budget out to consultation by this stage. To follow on from the response to Mr Flanagan, there will be very few Departments that will escape next year's Budget without some degree of reduction to their spending position compared with this year. In that sort of scenario, in which Departments are facing quite sizeable reductions, they need the optimum amount of time to plan. I actually submitted a paper to the Executive last December setting out how you would have an ideal Budget process, which would have much broader consultation with the general public and the Assembly. Unfortunately, that was not taken, and we are now in this very shoehorned position. However, I still think that it is achievable.
A lot of work has been undertaken by my Department to hollow out precisely what the situation is in terms of the pressures that we will face next year. That narrows the decisions that we have to take to agree a draft Budget down to some headline issues, such as wanting to protect a Department or some Departments, wanting to take forward a restructuring plan and various other headline issues. The choices that you then have before you are quite limited in terms of how you spend the money that you have. That being said, I am optimistic that, if there is goodwill on all sides, we could have a draft Budget out the door by the end of this month, out to public consultation and agreed in final Budget format at the start of the year. That would give Departments roughly three months to plan for what, in most cases, will be considerable reductions to their baseline.
Mrs Dobson: I also thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the additional allocation of £60 million to health. Thinking ahead, however, not least with the trusts projecting a £130 million deficit for this year and the Health Department forecasting its pressures increasing to £317 million next year, what realistic chance — Ian McCrea touched on this in the previous question — is there of agreeing the required level of funds for 2015-16 in the next three weeks to meet George Osborne's time frame?
Mr Hamilton: At the risk of repeating myself, I am optimistic that we can do it. I will certainly put in every effort required on my part — my Department will do likewise — to ensure that we have a Budget in place by the end of this month that meets that condition. It is a condition, and the letter is now before the House. However, as I said before, it is a least a month, if not six weeks, later than I would have liked to have had a draft Budget agreed and out the door.
I thank the Member for welcoming the allocation of a further £60 million to the Health Department. Unfortunately, her Minister in the Executive, Mr Kennedy, did not see fit to vote for that allocation of £60 million. It is a matter for him to explain why he did not want that much-needed £60 million going to the Department of Health. That is regrettable, and equally regrettable is his failure to vote for £29 million to alleviate the pressures that the Chief Constable and others have been facing and, indeed, for £1·3 million to victims' services.
That is a matter for the Minister and his party to explain. I accept, as well, that the allocation is not everything that the Department of Health would want, could absorb or could spend between now and the end of the financial year.
To go back to the point about the draft Budget, I think that there is a need for a conversation leading up to the draft Budget and, certainly, leading up to agreement on a final Budget, and also leading up to the comprehensive spending review and the next set of Budgets for future years about strategic issues of health and health funding. I see my colleague the former Minister of Health in the House. He and I have spoken frequently about the need for us to decide, as an Assembly and indeed as a society, about how much we want to spend on health. In a situation where pressures rise at 6% each year, it will not be long before health eats up nearly the entire Budget. We need to take very serious decisions, follow through on the reform plan initiated by Mr Poots, and try to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland get the health service that they deserve.
Mr McQuillan: I also thank the Minister for his statement. I certainly welcome it. How do the Executive plan to repay this loan over the next year, given the pressures that you have just enlightened us about?
Mr Hamilton: I do not run away from the fact that the loan facility exacerbates our problems next year. I would be wrong to say otherwise. The money will come off our baseline, and that process will start this year, much as it will in terms of reducing our Budget by the £114 million welfare reform penalty. Again I make the point that, were we able to reach political agreement on moving that forward, it would not alleviate all the problems that we face, but it would make life a lot easier.
It will be a challenge on top of those other pressures that we face, including a real-terms reduction to our starting position for next year. It will be incredibly difficult, and that difficulty is now added to by the need to repay that facility. In response to Mr Flanagan, I touched on the need for a credible plan and how it will be based very much on a restructuring plan and the realisation of some savings by reducing headcount and by some pay restraint. I hope, too, that we can reach political agreement on reducing the size of Stormont as well so that there will be fewer Departments and fewer Assembly Members, taking down some of that "ugly scaffolding" that somebody once talked about and saving some money on a recurring basis through that.
It will be challenging and difficult. Our challenges are added to by this. However, I still think that, in the circumstances, it was much better that we accessed the facility and dealt with our in-year problems, which were extremely pressing. Had we not come up with this idea and accessed the facility, we would now be on the cusp of a real crisis in public services in Northern Ireland.
Mr Spratt: I thank the Minister for his statement to the House. Is it not hypocritical of some parties to bring debates forward to the House that look for more funding for victims and then, in the very same week, have their Minister vote against £1·3 million allocated to victims?
Mr Hamilton: The Member has used the word "hypocritical". I look to the Deputy Speaker; I do not wish to incur his wrath.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I am going to caution Mr Hamilton and, indeed, Members about the little phrase we use: "courtesy, good temper and moderation". "Hypocritical" is just on the balance.
Mr Hamilton: Can I check with you, Mr Deputy Speaker, whether the phrase "two-faced" is OK?
Mr Hamilton: "Double standards" is the tolerable phrase offered. There are certainly double standards in play on a whole range of issues in respect of the response of some parties to this facility, which has got us out of the problems that we face this year. It has done so without the need for further cuts to budgets and the crisis that there would have been in public spending as a result of them. It has allowed us to make £125 million of allocations, including £1·3 million to victims' services. Whilst I did not participate in it, I was aware of and heard part of the debate in the House last Tuesday. The motion was brought to the House by members of the Ulster Unionist Party; I think that the leader of that party proposed the motion. Yet he sent his Minister into the Executive last week to vote against the very allocation that he called for in the House. The Deputy Speaker may or may not allow me to call it certain things, but I do think that it is double standards and two-faced, on the one hand, to call for such an allocation and then, on the other hand, to vote against the very same allocation when it is proposed at the Executive.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his statement, which has revealed to us that the extent of his imaginative approach to the situation is loans, job cuts and pay freezes, and for the imaginative approach of suggesting that we have somehow found ourselves in this situation overnight when asking us what else we would do. When will the Minister and his party show the political maturity to adopt a more strategic approach to the Budget, take difficult decisions and explore and begin to debate fair revenue-raising measures as a way in which to get us out of the financial crisis?
Mr Hamilton: I listen to the Member's comments, and he criticises the way in which we have got ourselves out of the pressing problem that was happening in-year, when we had all the stuff that was being said by the then Health Minister about what would have happened if he had not got the additional £60 million.
I heard the Justice Minister, his party colleague and, more importantly, the Chief Constable talk about how the Police Service of Northern Ireland would be unrecognisable without an allocation of at least £29 million. I am sure that the Minister would have taken more if it had been available. I am not sure whether he is going to take it all or not, given the means by which it has been distributed. I take it very seriously when the Chief Constable talks about the Police Service being unrecognisable as a result of our inability to give him money that he needs.
When I hear that, my response is to come up with a solution to the problem. The Member and his party may not like the solution, but it is a solution. It is a solution that ensures that we do not have to make any more cuts than the 4·4% cuts that were planned for. It is a solution that allows us to make allocations of £125 million to Departments, including his party colleague's Department, the Department of Justice. It is a solution that ensures that we do not breach our Budget and have to deal with the consequences of all of that. I hear the Member criticise, but I do not hear him offering any alternative — none whatsoever. His party leader was quizzed repeatedly yesterday on the BBC about what he would have done instead. He offers no alternative whatsoever.
The Member asks for a more strategic approach. One of the things that sickens me about the discourse around this issue, particularly emanating from the Alliance Party, is the plague-on-all-your-houses argument that the DUP is as bad as Sinn Féin. I put it to the Member, as I said in response to other questions, that I have been pushing for a strategic approach to the Budget from as far back as December last year. That offer was not taken up by Sinn Féin. I have tried, tried and tried again to deal with our in-year problems as early as I possibly can to give Departments, Ministers and officials the certainty that they require. I have been blocked on every occasion by Sinn Féin. Therefore, it is not me and my party that are found wanting when it comes to having a sensible, reasonable, strategic approach to dealing with our financial problems. It is, of course, the fault of the system of government that we have, which is a system of government that, in large measure, we have the Alliance Party to thank for.
Ms P Bradley: I also thank the Minister for his statement, and I especially welcome the £60 million for health. The Minister touched on this in an earlier answer to Mrs Dobson, but will he comment on the extent to which the £60 million allocation, along with the £20 million from the June monitoring round, will deal with the immense pressures faced by the Health Department?
Mr Hamilton: I would never suggest that an allocation of £60 million on top of the £20 million for health — £80 million in total — is going to alleviate all the problems that the Department continues to face in this year. I listened to the previous Minister and I listen to the current Minister, and they have said things to me such as, "If I don't get this allocation, I won't be able to continue to employ locum doctors and locum nurses. The impact of that would be that wards in hospitals would be closed. Indeed, the very viability of some facilities across Northern Ireland would be called into question". When I hear that, I know that we have to act. That is why we came up with the solution that we have before us. It is a good solution in the circumstances that we find ourselves. It allows the Health Minister not to have to proceed with those sorts of drastic, savage, severe cuts in his Department.
I know and accept, and I hope that the whole House appreciates, that the Minister will still have difficult decisions to make because he did not get the full £160 million that he believes is required. He has only roughly half of that. From conversations that I have had with the Minister, I am assured that the worst of those cuts have now been alleviated because of the Executive's decision to allocate a total of £80 million to the Department of Health this year.
Mr Givan: Bearing in mind your ruling about not calling people hypocrites, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Minister of Justice has certainly been acting as a bit of a curmudgeon over the budget. The Chief Constable has been somewhat begrudging of the additional allocation that has been made to the Department of Justice. Can the Finance Minister explain why he believes that the Chief Constable feels that the £29 million may not be sufficient for the Department of Justice to meet the pressures that face the Police Service?
Mr Hamilton: I would not try to speak for the Chief Constable — I shudder at the thought — but I have to say at the outset that I was deeply disappointed by some of comments that he made at the tail end of last week. I felt that some of his comments were political in tone and nature. If I were to stand before this House and make operational comments about the police, I would be told that I was wrong to do so. I think that the same applies to the Chief Constable's making political comments.
That having been said, I cannot explain why he does not think that it is enough. I suppose that, in a broad sense, no Chief Constable or Minister would think that what they get is enough to deal with all of the problems that they have. The Department of Health is a very good example of that, and I am sure that the Department of Justice is exactly the same. My best guess — in fact, it is not a guess but is based on comments that were made by the Justice Minister to the Executive last week — is that the pressures that he is dealing with in his Department do not just emanate from the reductions that are having to be made in year. I think that it would be incredibly churlish if the Minister of Justice did not accept that he is a better position today as a result of this solution than he would otherwise have been. His Department would have faced close to £50 million of in-year reductions if we had applied the 4·4% reductions in June and October. By getting £29 million back, he is better off than he would have been by a considerable amount. He is seeing only £18 million being taken out of his budget as opposed to close to £50 million. The Minister is in a better position.
Quite why the Chief Constable does not think that £29 million is enough, I do not know. I think that it is because the Minister of Justice has, in my estimation, been cross-subsidising pressures elsewhere in his budget, primarily in legal aid, by taking money away from front line police services. When I listen to criticism from the Alliance Party about my predecessor and me mismanaging the Budget, one has only to look at the justice budget, which, of course, as my predecessor would be able to outline better than I can, has a degree of protection that no other Department has and special arrangements put in place. Over the monitoring rounds since 2012, the Department of Justice, even though it has that degree of protection and all of those special measures, has bid for over £225 million more in resources through monitoring rounds, of which £75·9 million — so, one third of that money that was bid for by the Department of Justice — has been for legal aid.
Whilst I accept that there are reductions and they do put pressure on Departments, it is my reading of the situation that the pressures are not coming from the in-year reductions but are there because the Minister has chosen — up to this point anyway, before he got the allocation of £29 million — to cross-subsidise those pressures by taking money from the police and giving it to legal aid. When I hear criticism about my mismanagement of the overall Budget, I think that there are some others who have questions to answer about the management of their budgets.
Mr Ross: The Finance Minister has acknowledged that the loan from Treasury will not solve all of our problems, but he has rightly said that it will, at least, give breathing space to try to find agreement for next year's Budget. Of course, it is necessary because of the economic incompetence on display from Members opposite, which has been so amply displayed on various radio programmes over the past few days. What is the status of the £87 million and £114 million that was to be taken out of our Budget because of the failure to move forward on welfare reform?
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his question. The fifth bullet point in the Chancellor's letter makes it clear that amendments to the Executive's departmental expenditure limit control totals to be processed at the Supplementary Estimates round, which related to foregone AME savings due to the failure to progress welfare reform, remain as set out in the Chief Secretary's earlier correspondence; that is, minus £87 million in this financial year and a planned minus £114 million in the next financial year. Whilst this agreement has, I think, got us through the problems that we have faced this year — problems that have been exacerbated by the failure of some to live up to reality in respect of welfare reform — the reality of the situation, as confirmed by the Chancellor and despite the fact that some thought that they could dream, wish or plead for those penalties to disappear, is that they have not. They are being taken out of our Budget. Whilst, as I said to other Members, getting that £87 million back, if we could — I believe that, if we make progress, we may be able to — would not solve all our problems, it would certainly make things a lot easier and help us with a significant number of the problems that we face. However, as the Member points out, as long as some Members want to bury their head in the sand on the issue, we will face a further £114 million of reductions next year.
Mr Campbell: I congratulate the Minister and First Minister on negotiating a loan that is interest-free, which sometimes people have forgotten. To summarise the Minister, he indicated that SDLP, UUP and Alliance Ministers voted against the package and were critical of it, without coming up with an alternative to it, but are still going to accept it. Is that a fair summary? Additionally, there appears to be criticism that a more comprehensive deal was not negotiated. Will he explain and elaborate on that?
Mr Hamilton: Mr Campbell's summary of the position of some in the Executive — an indefensible position — is right. From what I have heard in part today and certainly over the weekend I know that he is right that some of the criticism is that we did not have a comprehensive solution to all the problems that we face. I have a degree of sympathy for that argument. This is not, as I said in my statement, an all-encompassing, all-embracing, comprehensive settlement of all the budgetary pressures that we face. That is what I would like. That is the ideal position. It is what I have been pressing for over a number of weeks and months. However, it was not possible. Certainly, last week, I did not think that it was possible, and there was no indication from Sinn Féin that it was up for that sort of discussion and up for agreement on a solution of the totality of our Budget problems. To be honest, whilst they are serious problems that we face, the big problem we faced last week, which has now been averted, was either significant overspend in our Budget and all the consequences that flow from that or having to make cuts to budgets, in-year, in the region of 8%. That would have precipitated all the horror stories and nightmare scenarios that various Ministers, the Chief Constable and others painted for us on TV and radio over the last weeks. I thought that neither of those options was viable and that something else needed to be done. Whilst Members are free to criticise the nature of the facility, its repayment and its terms, as is their right, I do not think that any could deny that we have got ourselves out of the problem that we were facing in the short term and given ourselves some time to deal with the more medium- and long-term problems and challenges that we face.
Mr Wilson: The Minister indicated that the £100 million loan was determined partly by a credible 2015-16 plan being in place before the end of October. Could he give us some idea of what he believes would have to be included in such a credible plan? For example, is it credible to ring-fence 62% of the Budget by guaranteeing the budgets for health and education? Will it require acceptance by Sinn Féin and the SDLP that the cost of their stance on welfare reform will have to be taken off Departments? Will it require recognition that IT costs are coming down the road in 2015-16 because of the failure of welfare reform? Does he accept that the promises of long-term change in government structures will not be a credible plan —
Mr Hamilton: I will try my best to answer all those questions. The Member will know better than anybody else in the House that there is an immense challenge in getting a credible plan and a balanced Budget in place by the end of this month. I assure the Member and the House that significant volumes of work have been done by my Department to have a credible plan and a balanced Budget in place, but the difficulty and the sticking point will be getting the agreement of others to that credible plan and balanced Budget. He is right that tough decisions are required to arrive at that point. The idea that we will find a magic hat and pull a rabbit out of it is laughable. Whilst our economy is doing much better, we have turned the corner with public finances and are in a completely different era. If Members thought that the 2011-15 Budget was tight and difficult, they have not seen anything yet. The 2015-16 Budget is not so much the last Budget of the 2011-15 period; it is the beginning of an entirely new era.
Tough, strategic headline decisions are required by Executive parties, and the Member has identified some of them, including the need to tackle welfare. If we do not do that, the problem will only get worse. I believe that we need to look at issues around the protection of Departments, and a conversation at least needs to be had on the totality of protection of Departments. The Member will recall that, in 2011, the protection offered to the Health Department was not total protection; it was to protect what we might describe as the NHS. Similar conversations need to be had in respect of education, which has benefited from a measure of protection over this financial year that I do not think came with any justification. We need to agree the modalities of a restructuring plan that helps us to live within our means. It will not do it in totality. We also have to accept that there will be significant reductions in spending in most Departments. If Members, particularly the Executive Ministers, can start to get their head around those strategic headline issues and where they stand on all those, we have a very good chance of agreeing a credible plan and a balanced Budget for next year that sets us on the right track for future years.
Mr McCarthy: I must say at the outset that I am very disappointed by the tone of the Minister's responses to questions. When you start to use derogatory language and call people names, it seems that the argument has been lost. Perhaps the Minister, along with the First Minister, is now starting to regret taking the £100 million or even asking for it, which will clearly come off next year's allocation. Does the Minister agree that a more sensible approach to borrowing is to make an investment for the future or to create breathing space for reforms? How does the decision that the Executive took to borrow £100 million from the Treasury meet either of those tests?
Mr Hamilton: I regret nothing about what we have done, and I regret nothing about what I have said today. Everything that I have said today is factual. I do not regret having produced, alongside the First Minister and with the agreement of the Executive, a solution to the problems that we faced. I say to the House and to the Member that what he would have regretted —more to the point, what his constituents and my constituents would have regretted — would have been if we had taken no action. If we had lived in the la-la land that the Alliance Party occupies and thought that we could have a big strategic decision about all our problems in-year, we would have had no solution at all. We would either have overspent our Budget, which would have resulted in significant consequences for the Northern Ireland Executive and for public services, or we would have had to implement in-year cuts in the region of 8% to Departments that would have decimated public services in Northern Ireland. The horror stories that we heard from Ministers, from the Chief Constable and from others would have become a reality, and public services would have been in an unrecognisable position before the end of this financial year. If we had not done what we did, we would not have got ourselves out of the very pressing problems that we had in-year.
The Member made a point about borrowing for investment, and I agree. We borrow on the capital side for investment in the future.
However, what we have bought — the Member used this phrase — is breathing space. We have given ourselves breathing space by getting ourselves out of the immediate, pressing problem of this year's situation. We have given ourselves breathing space to produce a credible plan and a balanced Budget for next year that will get us back on the straight and narrow.
Mr Allister: I am almost reluctant to intervene in this blood-letting and feuding within the happy Executive. What assurance has the Minister that, by taking on this extra millstone of £100 million of debt, he will get agreement on the Budget from those who have put him in this position? Should I understand his statement on October monitoring as meaning that Sinn Féin has now accepted £87 million of Tory cuts? Is Sinn Féin now required to accept £114 million of Tory cuts for the next Budget and more besides according to the cyclical reduction that would come anyhow? Just what is the level of Tory cuts, as Sinn Féin likes to call them, that it is required to agree to in order to obtain a Budget?
Mr Hamilton: The first point was about what confidence I have that we will get agreement on next year's Budget. The proposal was put to the parties at the Executive last week. It was made very clear in the proposal, not least because it is clear in the Chancellor's letter, which every Member now has, that we need to agree a balanced Budget and a credible plan for dealing with our problems by the end of this month. It is perhaps styled as a condition. I do not see it as a condition; I see it as entirely consistent with my position over the last number of weeks and months. It is exactly where we should be. We should not wait until after the end of this month to have a draft Budget out to consultation and be working towards agreement on the final Budget by the end of this year or the start of next year.
I have to say that, when it was presented at the Executive, it was accepted in the correct way. Subsequent political comment by Sinn Féin Members, including Sinn Féin Ministers, has been that they are up for the intensive period of work that is required over the next number of weeks to get a draft Budget out the door by the end of this month. So, I remain optimistic. As I said to Mr Wilson, there are significant challenges within that, but I am up for those. I will make every effort I can to deal with them, and I hope that other parties will do likewise.
Some wish to describe these as "Tory cuts". Others might want to describe them as Tory-Liberal cuts. Others in the House have their fingerprints on some of them. Whatever way one wishes to describe them, they are reductions that, as I have described before, are self-inflicted wounds because of welfare reform. The Chancellor's letter makes it incredibly clear that the £87 million of forgone savings that would have been made on our welfare bill have now gone. They are gone. The £114 million will go. Some may want to style those as Tory cuts. However, it is very clear in the agreement that the Executive signed up to that all parties have accepted those conditions in order to access the £100 million facility.
I would rather that they were not there. In some senses, I do not accept them. I wish that we did not have to pay them. They have been accepted by all parties nonetheless. Of course, the parties that stood in front of this Building with placards and banners saying that they opposed Tory cuts have, by their own definition, been implementing Tory cuts since 2011. I hear Sinn Féin spokespeople on TV or radio talking about how our Budget has been going down because less money has been given to us from Westminster: they have been implementing those so-called Tory cuts since 2011 and continue to do so now.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): There are still three Members to ask questions. I would like to fit them all in, so I encourage Members and the Minister to be concise.
Mr Agnew: The Minister referred to the last Budget and said that, if we thought that that was painful, we ain't seen nothing yet. In the same statement, he says that he is still hopeful that discussions on corporation tax will bear fruit. Given that the estimated costs of reducing corporation tax to the level proposed are up to £400 million a year, is this proposal still credible? Is it desirable? Is it sane? How are we supposed to find that extra £400 million, given that we are struggling to balance the books in the current situation?
Mr Hamilton: Of course, the first point in response to the Member is that, even if we get corporation tax powers, as I hope and expect we will by the end of this year — certainly a decision by the end of this year and powers devolved by the end of the Parliament — we will not be implementing the reduction and therefore taking the hit to the block grant immediately. It will be for us to decide when the reduction takes place. In that sense, that aspect of it is within our control. I will still be pursuing aggressively the devolution of corporation tax powers, in so far as we can at the conclusion of negotiations. There will be a cost. Nobody has ever run away or shied away from the fact and the reality that there will be a cost — a sizeable cost — to our block grant. At a future point, a level of maturity on the part of some members of the Executive that, until this point, has not always been on display will be required to deal with that, but I still think it is the best option that we have in transforming our economy. I am the first to praise my colleague the Enterprise Minister for the sterling work that she and Invest Northern Ireland have been doing in attracting jobs to Northern Ireland, but, if we look at how they have attracted and promoted 7,000 jobs in this financial year already, we have to ask what we could do if we had reduced corporation tax? What would be the beneficial impact on not only the economy in Northern Ireland but the whole of society in Northern Ireland? Whilst I know that some in the House are less enthusiastic about it, I do not think any of them have a plan or alternative that would have the transformative effect on our economy that a reduction in corporation tax would have.
I accept entirely the Member's points that there are costs involved and that, if past behaviour is anything to go by, it will be exceptionally difficult to reach agreement on where those commensurate cuts and reductions would have to be made. I think the fact that every party in the Executive is committed to doing it shows that there is at least a willingness to take the power, and there should then be a resultant maturity in making the reductions that, inevitably, will be required.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. We need to reflect on the contradictory nature of some parties voting against vital investment, particularly when we look at the area of health. That said, the Minister alluded to the strategic decisions and direction that were needed on health. How will the £60 million allocation be prioritised in terms of Programme for Government commitments and, indeed, monitored, given the Minister's comments in June around the concern of the management of the current health budget?
Mr Hamilton: The previous Minister and the current Minister have set out the degree of pressures. Nobody will be better placed to understand those than the Chair of the Health Committee. The Health Minister faces pressures in his Department totalling around £160 million. Whilst the allocation of a total of £80 million does not go to deal with all of that, it is fair to say that the worst of those pressures will not materialise. That is certainly what the Health Minister said at the Executive last week when he talked about getting the extra £60 million. Earlier, in response to questions, I mentioned that it would mean that he would be able to continue to employ locum doctors and nurses and therefore not have to close down wards and, perhaps, not have to close down certain health facilities across Northern Ireland. Obviously, the Minister will choose to deploy the £80 million that he now has in other areas to ensure that healthcare in Northern Ireland is not compromised.
I still think that there is a huge challenge in the Department this year. If the 6% inflation figure is right and that is the sort of pressure that the Health Department will face next year and every year thereafter — we all know the reasons behind all that — we are facing into a very difficult scenario in health. That is why the reform plans initiated by my colleague Edwin Poots, when he was Minister, need to be implemented. We also need to have a strategic conversation as an Executive, an Assembly and a society in Northern Ireland about what our priorities in health are, what must be absolutely protected and what can be done, perhaps, in slightly different ways. I am up for that conversation; I think colleagues are up for that conversation; and I hope that others in the Executive will join that conversation, even if it is not between now and the end of October, as we agree a draft Budget. It is a conversation that desperately needs to be had very quickly to inform future budgets as we move forward.
Mr Kennedy (The Minister for Regional Development): I beg to introduce the Off-street Parking (Functions of District Councils) Bill [NIA 40/11-16], which is a Bill to transfer to district councils certain functions in relation to off-street parking places; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
That the Legal Aid and Coroners' Courts Bill [NIA 33/11-15] do now pass.
I start by reminding Members that the Bill includes provision relating to Coroners' Courts and the role of the Lord Chief Justice, which, through the entire passage in the Assembly, attracted no debate previously.
On the important topic of legal aid, the Bill opens a new chapter in the management of legal aid by facilitating the creation of a Legal Services Agency. I believe that legal aid is a cornerstone of the justice system. We need a strong and independent mechanism to take decisions that adhere to the principles behind legal aid but take account of the financial realities. In line with a recommendation from the 2011 access to justice review, I believe that the new arrangements described by the Bill meet those standards.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
As it is making way for the agency, I want to pay tribute to all those who played their part in the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission. That includes board members, senior management, staff and members of the appeals panels. Since the commission was created in 2003, they have done their best to administer the increasing demand for legal aid and to do so in a way that is impartial, fair and reasonable. This has never been easy, and there has been no shortage of criticism of the commission. There will be a challenging period ahead as the commission continues to deliver its targets whilst preparing to make the transition to an agency of the Department of Justice. I want to put on the record now my gratitude to each and every member of staff for their hard work in difficult and often thankless circumstances. Of course, the closure of the commission also marks a new beginning for staff. They will transfer to the new agency, becoming part of the wider Northern Ireland Civil Service. I am confident that they will benefit from the opportunities and the advantages that come from being part of the wider Civil Service. The Civil Service too will benefit from their experience and their knowledge.
Greater flexibility for staff is one benefit of the new agency, but there is a bigger prize. The legal aid budget has been subject to unacceptable overruns for some time. Forecasting has been a real problem. In the current climate, this approach is unsustainable. Bringing legal aid closer to the Department will deliver improvements to budgetary management in line with Civil Service best practice, which I believe will lead to improved control over costs. I want it to be clear that I am only talking about controlling costs, not interfering either in individual cases or in the scope of legal aid. At the core of the Bill are provisions that provide safeguards on the award of civil legal aid. I have made it clear that the Bill does not in any way restrict eligibility for legal aid. Independence in respect of individual decisions is essential. There will be a director of legal aid casework to take decisions on the award of civil legal aid. The Bill contains safeguards to ensure the independence of the director. The safeguards include prohibiting the Department from issuing direction or guidance in respect of individual decisions; requiring any direction or guidance to be published; imposing a duty on the Department to ensure that the director acts independently when deciding an individual case; and the appointment of panels to hear appeals.
The role of director will be a challenging one. As well as decisions on civil legal aid, the director will take over responsibility from me for decision-making on the provision of exceptional legal aid funding in individual cases, for example the representation of next of kin at certain inquests, to comply with article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The post holder will have support from me and the Department but not interference in individual cases or classes of cases. I hope that they will also have the support of the Assembly as they ensure that decisions in that critical area are fair and transparent.
The agency starts a new chapter, but I would like to take this opportunity to look a little further ahead. The agency will put legal aid on a firmer footing in the Department and will allow us to look again at what we want to achieve through legal aid. In the coming months, I will bring forward further reforms to reduce costs. In light of the financial environment, that will inevitably include taking difficult decisions about the scope of legal aid. I have also commissioned the access to justice review part 2, which will help to set the agenda for the future.
There is clearly a need for more rigorous financial control, governance and accountability arrangements in respect of legal aid and a need to bring costs under control, including improving the efficiency of the delivery body. I believe that the creation of the agency will help to improve the governance of public spending and will facilitate the delivery of legal aid reform. Integration with the Northern Ireland Civil Service will allow for access to a wider range of skills and opportunities for staff movement and will provide greater opportunity to share services and make efficiencies through corporate support services. None of the changes will impact on access to justice or in any way restrict eligibility for legal aid, but they will lead to a more efficient and effective service that is in the interests of everyone.
I conclude by thanking those who have contributed to the work on the Bill, most notably the members of the Committee and its staff, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr Givan (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): On behalf of the Justice Committee, I welcome the Final Stage of the Legal Aid and Coroners' Courts Bill. It has been a much simpler one than other justice Bills that have come through the Assembly, and it has passed through the various stages with relatively few amendments.
As I stated previously, the Bill is viewed by the Committee as an essential part of the wider programme to reform the legal aid system in Northern Ireland. It will provide the opportunity to address a range of ongoing issues in relation to legal aid spend that require urgent attention, and the Committee will expect to see improvements in the governance arrangements and increased transparency, accountability and efficiency. That is one of the areas that the legal professions have repeatedly been able to point to as a major problem in tackling the legal aid budget, and I think that it is a step in the right direction to try to get the necessary changes in place. That will go some way to removing the criticism that has been levelled at the Department — at times unfairly — in respect of how the legal aid budget system is administered. It will help to remove the excuse that has been put forward. Given that the accounts of the Legal Services Commission have been qualified every year since it was founded, the change has been necessary and will hopefully address those concerns.
The Committee welcomed the support of the Assembly for the two amendments tabled by the Minister, which were at the instigation of the Committee, as they strengthened the control relating to the delegated powers in the Bill. The amendments ensure that the subordinate legislation to provide the framework for the constitution and procedure of appeals panels that will decide appeals on individual applications for civil legal services will be subject to the draft affirmative resolution procedure on all occasions, as will the rules in respect of the assignment of solicitor and counsel where a criminal aid certificate has been granted. Given the significance of the powers, it was right to ensure that both pieces of subordinate legislation were subject to the appropriate Assembly control at all times.
Issues relating to the requirement in the Bill for the Minister to designate a civil servant in the Department of Justice as the director of legal aid casework and how the recruitment and appointment of the director would take place and whether there are adequate and sufficient safeguards to protect and ensure the independence of decision-making once the executive agency has been established and the director appointed to take decisions, particularly the provision for the Minister to issue directions, were raised and discussed during Committee Stage. While the Committee decided not to table any amendments, some members expressed reservations about both issues. The amendments proposed by Mr Elliott at Consideration Stage and at Further Consideration Stage were helpful in teasing those issues out, and the Committee was clear that the independence of individual decisions on the grant of civil legal aid by the director must be protected. The debates on the amendments were useful and provided further clarification in that area.
I congratulate Mr Elliott on being successful with one of his amendments. I know that he did not, on that occasion, get my support but, nevertheless, he subsequently demonstrated that he did not need it. Obviously, the force of the argument prevailed in the Chamber, and he will be able to speak on how he, in his opinion, has strengthened the Bill. I commend Mr Elliott on navigating an amendment through the House, which is an achievement in and of itself.
Finally, in my role as Chairman of the Justice Committee, I thank its members for their diligence in carrying out the scrutiny of the Bill in a short timescale. We agreed to do that as quickly as we could, but, in doing it speedily, we did not sacrifice any of the scrutiny that the Bill merited. Hopefully, other Committees can look at the Justice Committee and see that you can put legislation through quickly without compromising the scrutiny process. Having said that, we now have the Justice Bill before us, and we will be taking considerably longer than we did when dealing with this Bill. I thank departmental officials for their assistance during Committee Stage and our Committee staff for their support and assistance. I put on record my appreciation to those organisations that contributed to the legislative process by submitting written and oral evidence at Committee Stage.
I will now speak briefly as a private Member. This is a stronger Bill because of the scrutiny process that was applied to it. The Committee demonstrated that, when you go through a process and identity particular issues, and amendments are then brought forward — on this occasion by the Minister — through working together we can get a piece of legislation that, I hope, is fit for purpose, if I can use that phrase.
Other issues that we touched on included the legal aid budget and future legal aid issues. The Minister has highlighted scope, which, up until this point, the Department shied away from. However, having had a number of conversations with the legal profession, there is merit in looking at what aspects should be taken out of scope within legal aid, because we are spreading an ever-increasingly thin budget across a whole series of issues, and we are doing it in a way in which other jurisdictions do not do it. That is not to say that they have got it right, but I think that there is merit in the Department looking at that. I am sure that the Committee will want to consider those issues as well.
There were changes that the Committee supported by a majority vote around the current level for criminal legal aid fees, and I trust that the Minister will bring forward the statutory rules for that. Members will then be able to take a final vote on the issue.
There is also the issue of civil legal aid, and, to date, the Department has failed to bring forward any reform proposals. It brought a raft of recommendations to the Committee back in June 2013 that would have saved in the region of £13 million, but, a year later, it had to come back and say that it had got its methodology wrong and that it was back at the drawing board. A year's time has been wasted, and the Committee is still waiting for recommendations to deal with civil legal aid some 18 months after the issue was first highlighted. That is in a Department in which budget constraints are pretty acute, and the Minister has highlighted those repeatedly over the past number of weeks. Nevertheless, the Department has failed to reform the civil legal aid aspect of the legal aid budget.
We need to get into that area and look closely at it, because there are aspects of it, particularly in family law to do with representation and issues such as non-molestation orders, that will need some scrutiny to make sure that we do the right thing. However, in the absence of the Department bringing forward substantive proposals, we are not able to do our job. I appeal to the Minister to get on with that piece of work and allow members of the Committee to do their job, and together we can try to get a legal aid system in place that is better than it currently is. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
First, we are satisfied with the terms of the Bill to set up an executive agency within the Department of Justice for the delivery of legal aid. Sinn Féin had concerns about the power of the Minister to direct the director of the new agency, but we particularly welcome the increased transparency, accountability, efficiency and independence. We are also satisfied that the Minister is bound by legislation. Any reclassification of cases will be decided on the Floor of the Assembly. We are also satisfied that the Minister has no power to direct any individual cases, as he said at the outset.
We are also supportive of the second aim of the Bill; to appoint the Lord Chief Justice as head of the Coroners' Courts and presiding coroner. It should ensure more efficiency in the Coroners' Courts service, particularly in the field of inquests.
Mr A Maginness: I support the Bill. Along with my colleagues in the SDLP, I think that this is a good and a much-needed Bill in reforming the Legal Services Commission; bringing it closer to the Department; giving it more resources; and making it a much more effective organisation. It has long been criticised, and I think that, in one report, the Criminal Justice Inspection described it as being not fit for purpose. In any event, the reform is overdue and we welcome it. I think that everyone recognises the need for such reform. Those in the legal profession and the stakeholders are all supportive of it.
We, along with colleagues in other parties, expressed concerns about the independence of the director of legal aid casework. My colleagues and I are satisfied that measures have been put in place to guarantee that independence, particularly in relation to the adjudication of individual applications. The Minister has given reassurance to the Assembly on that issue. I think that it is important to maintain that independence and to maintain that independent scrutiny and determination of legal aid applications without fear of ministerial intervention.
Mr Elliott brought forth some interesting amendments, as the Chair of the Committee mentioned. I had great sympathy with the amendments that he brought and, indeed, supported at least one amendment that was successful. It was an important contribution to the overall situation that we find ourselves in here with the Civil Service. We bring people in from outside, where possible, to revitalise it. I think that that is an important measure and should be welcomed by all. I hope that even the Minister, on reflection, may see that as a worthwhile proposition. Mr Elliott showed the House that useful amendments could be made to legislation, and that was an important contribution to the whole process of passing the Bill.
The Committee worked well with the Department on the Bill. There was a degree of cooperation, and I think that the Department took on board quite a number of issues that the Committee raised. I agree with the Minister when he says that we have to improve management, control costs and look at the efficiency of the system. Those are very important aims, and I hope that they will be achieved through the passage of the Bill.
The appeals panel provides an important guarantee for applications for legal aid. Of course, the arrangements for the panel will be determined by secondary legislation and the House will have an opportunity to scrutinise that. It is a very important element, and the fact that the Minister agreed to a three-person panel, albeit that it is as yet undecided whether it will be composed of lawyers, non-lawyers or a combination, nonetheless —
Mr Ford: I am grateful for the Member's positive comments. I just want to inform him that the legislation will require that the chair of the panel is a lawyer. The other two posts will be open to but not necessarily filled by lawyers.
Mr A Maginness: That reflects the concerns that were expressed that those who are involved in the system should be intimately involved in the system of scrutinising applications on appeal. That is important, and I am grateful to the Minister for recognising that in his changes and for pointing out so clearly to the Assembly what he envisages.
The Bill is a good example of Members working together. We may not have got it right earlier today, but we have got it right this afternoon.
Mr Elliott: I am here on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party to support the Bill. It took a long time to get the Bill started, but, as the Chairman of the Committee said, at least we moved on it quickly and got it through its processes in as speedy a fashion as possible.
The purpose of the Bill is obviously to end the Legal Services Commission. That process has had a lot of criticism. The Chair of the Committee indicated that a lot of the criticism that has been directed towards legal aid and the overspend on legal aid has been directed at the Department, maybe unfairly. Obviously, a tightening of the process is required, and I anticipate that the Bill will help with that. There is no doubt that the legal aid bill and its management were rolling out of control, so I hope that this will go some way to resolve that criticism and the issues that are in the public domain.
I had some difficulties with two aspects of the Bill. One of the amendments I tabled that was not supported was about the power of the Department to compel the director of the agency to comply with its directions. I appreciate that Mr Maginness — I think that it was Mr Maginness or Mr Lynch — indicated that the Department cannot compel the director on individual cases. However, there is still that power to compel the director, and I feel uneasy about that. We will see how the outworkings of that go, and, at least, the couple of amendments that I tabled created an open debate about that and allowed the Minister to clarify a number of issues, which, I believe, will be helpful in the long term. What the Minister said in the House has relevance to any case law that may come ahead of us. I hope that it does not get to that point, but at least it is there.
My other amendment, which got approval in the end, concerned the process by which the appointment of the director will take place. I am pleased about that, and I heard the Chair of the Committee, Mr Givan, make a rare comment of praise for me. Mr Givan praising anybody in the House should maybe go down in history. Anyway, thank you very much, Mr Givan. That is appreciated. Even though I did not have his support, I genuinely feel that the amendment was right. I wanted to make the competition and process for that position much more open. The Minister intervened to Mr Maginness earlier and indicated that the chairman of the panel will be a lawyer. Sometimes, you do not want lawyers all over the place or to have footprints all over everything. However, in many areas in Departments, it is important that people have experience and knowledge of the role that they are playing and that they are not just there on the basis that they are good administrators. It is helpful if they have a knowledge of the role. You need an outside pair of eyes looking in, and you certainly need experience.
I thank the Members who supported my amendments, particularly the successful amendment. I know that that was not what the Minister wanted to achieve, but I hope that he will happily work with it in the sense and spirit in which it was meant.
I support the Bill. I thank the Bill Office for its assistance with the amendments that I tabled; I thank the Department, which was always upfront in discussing the issues with the Committee; and I thank the Justice Committee officials for their help and support.
Mr McCarthy: Like others, I welcome the Bill reaching its Final Stage this afternoon. The Bill is yet another stage in the Justice Minister's wide-ranging and far-reaching reforms of our justice system. In an Assembly in which we are often criticised for passing too little legislation, our Justice Minister, as expected, has consistently advanced an ambitious legislative programme.
The new structures should allow more effective financial management and forecasting, providing much-needed confidence that everything that should be done to manage the legal aid budget in a time of severe financial pressure is being done.
In the Bill's early stages, the Assembly debated at length and in detail Members' desire to ensure that, when the Legal Services Commission becomes the legal services agency, the independence of decisions over granting legal aid will be protected.
Members should be well aware of the Justice Minister's determination to respect and protect the structures and procedures of the justice system, which are designed to prevent political interference in what should be independent matters. The Justice Minister repeatedly reminds Members of the importance of his respecting the independence of the judiciary and the Public Prosecution Service, the operational independence of the Chief Constable, the role of the Policing Board and so on.
Members can be confident that the Bill, with all its safeguards and the Minister's record, will ensure that decisions on the granting of legal aid will be taken in the way in which they should be taken: independently and without political interference or influence. Rather than increasing the role of the Minister, the Bill transfers some responsibilities that currently rest with the Minister to the new director of legal aid casework.
In conclusion, the Assembly can vote to pass the Final Stage of the Bill and be confident that it is backing moves to secure and strengthen independent decision-making, to protect access to justice and to improve financial management at a time when it is desperately needed. I support the Bill and commend the Minister for his ongoing programme of work.
Mr Ford: I thank Members for their comments. At this time of the evening, I also thank them for their brevity.
We have an extremely good Bill in so far as it relates to legal aid. The Bill's safeguards demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that legal aid is managed robustly and independently by the new director of legal aid casework. There will be support from the Department, from the Minister and from officials, but individual decisions on legal aid will be a matter for the director. The independence of his role is guaranteed completely, and, as was highlighted in the debate, the role of the appeals panel will ensure that.
We had good proposals regarding independence. I note that Mr Elliott hopes that I will agree with what he has proposed about independence. I always wanted the same level of independence as Mr Elliott. My problem is that I am not quite sure that his wording gives reality to what we all want to see.
The important issue is that we will work to ensure proper independence and accountability.
The issue of directions was highlighted. It is absolutely clear that, first, they will not relate to any individual case; secondly, they will not relate to the scope of cases; and, thirdly, any directions will be published, and there will be complete openness in how that is done, subject to Assembly scrutiny of the proceedings as they go through. So I believe that we have the answered the points raised by a number of Members. The changes made to subordinate legislation, which came through at Consideration Stage after discussion between the Department and the Committee, were significant.
There was a suggestion that the Department was shying away from reforming the scope. That will be considered in the second part of the access to justice review. I am not sure that "shied away from", as opposed to "sought to avert", given the difficulties that have arisen in other jurisdictions, is quite the right phraseology.
On the effectiveness of the commission, it is clear that its current operation suffers because it does not have the advantage of the economies of scale that it would have if it was part of a bigger or wider organisation. Legal aid administration costs have doubled since the Legal Services Commission was set up. That is not sustainable. The agency will be tasked with bringing those administration costs under control.
On the wider issue of costs, let me say in answer to the Chair that the proposals for further reforms to civil legal aid will be with the Committee within weeks. I believe that the revised proposals represent something that is entirely robust and is sustainable in a way that will ensure that we do not continue to have problems in that area.
I am grateful that the Committee last week agreed with a set of proposals for criminal work, although it is unfortunate that it took rather longer than the Chair or I had hoped.
Almost universally, what seems to happen at this stage of any justice legislation is that I praise my officials, Committee staff and Committee members, and we should accept that. I am not sure whether it is pertinent to repeat Alban Maginness's comment about getting things wrong earlier today, but we have certainly got this right. We got things right over the weeks and months that the Committee was carrying out its role. I repeat my thanks to the Committee, its officials and my officials for the constructive way that suggested amendments were dealt with.
The Bill is a major step forward, but it is only another step in a major programme of reform of legal aid. It will provide a firm foundation for the future, and I commend it to the Assembly.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that, as section 84(2)(b) of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 applies, cross-community support is required.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Legal Aid and Coroners' Courts Bill [NIA 33/11-15] do now pass.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): As there are Ayes from all sides of the House and no dissenting voices, I am content that cross-community support has been demonstrated.
I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
That this Assembly welcomes the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety's review of supported living for older people in the context of Transforming Your Care.
In September 2013, the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety agreed that the scrutiny of Transforming Your Care (TYC), the implementation of Transforming Your Care and its impact on older people would be one of our strategic priorities for the 2013-14 Assembly session. The 'Transforming Your Care Strategic Implementation Plan' states that, for older people, one of the significant changes and benefits over the next three to five years will be an increase in community-based alternatives to residential care, which will involve different styles of independent living. The plan then went on to state that, due to the improved availability of these types of community-based alternatives, it is expected that the demand for statutory residential homes will further decline. That, in our view, was quite a bold statement, and the Committee decided that it wanted to drill down further, given that what is being envisioned appears to be quite a radical shift in the types of services being offered to older people.
Furthermore, given that the future of statutory residential homes is a live issue, the Committee believed that it would be a good time to carry out a review into exactly what the supported living options for older people are. The Committee's report, therefore, contains 11 recommendations, some of which my colleagues will cover in some more detail. I wish to focus the remainder of my remarks on three particular recommendations, which all concern the requirement to better forecast and plan the need and the demand for supported living places for our older people.
The first is planning and projections for supported living facilities. One of the issues that the Committee saw as a priority was whether there are, indeed, long-term projections for the need for supported living facilities for older people. When we initially discussed this with the Department, we were somewhat surprised when officials advised that they did not have long-term projections and did not recognise a need for such projections. Officials argued that it was not necessary to have an exact view of how many facilities might be needed, but rather individual choice in terms of care options was more important. Officials also stated that, even though we know the older population is increasing and will increase further, this cannot be used as a basis for working up figures for what the demand or need for supported living might be. The Committee found that quite confusing.
The Committee, therefore, queried this line of reasoning, and we were not alone. The Older People's Commissioner told us of her concern that there does not seem to be any publicly available departmental planning or modelling data for supported living. She argued that planning was essential in the appropriate provision of services for older people. The Older People's Commissioner also made the point that any planning that does exist appears to be short-term in nature. The Federation of Housing Associations also made a similar point and stated that there needs to be more long-term planning around supported living, beyond the current three- to five-year cycle of the Supporting People programme.
Towards the end of its review, the Committee again raised the issue of long-term planning with the Department. This time round, however, the Department argued that long-term modelling was not desirable because there was too much risk of creating overcapacity and potential voids. Officials reasoned that the current planning structure used in the context of the Supporting People programme, whereby plans are made to build specific facilities in specific locations over a three- to five-year period, is sufficient. The Department further advised that, under the Supporting People programme, seven more facilities to cater for 155 tenants will be opened within the next three to five years. This seemed a very modest provision to the Committee. We challenged the Department as to whether the 155 places in the pipeline represent what is required for our ageing population, as opposed to what is required based on need. The Committee also made the point that, given that the majority of current facilities are at full occupancy, the creation of only seven new facilities may not offer all older people a choice of moving into one.
The Department advised us that it needs to plan for nearly full occupancy to make facilities financially viable, and added that people may have to wait for a short time at home for a place to become available. However, of particular note, the Department could not provide figures for how many people were in this position — in other words, how many people receive domiciliary care in their own homes who could also be supported in supported living accommodation. The Committee, therefore, was not convinced of the Department's arguments as to why long-term modelling is currently not being undertaken. We believe that, given the known projections around the ageing population, it should be possible to work up projections around the percentage of older people who could potentially choose to be suitable for supported living.
The Committee does not accept that the current approach of planning for individual facilities over a three-to-five-year period is sufficient. In our view, a more long-term approach is required. The Committee therefore recommends that the Department should begin forecasting the need and demand for supported living places over a 10-year period. The indicative forecasts should be kept under review, and they should be reassessed when decisions are being taken to build new facilities. We also recommend that the Department should begin collecting data on the number of older people supported in their own home through domiciliary care who would be suitable for supported living models, in order to provide a fuller understanding of need and demand.
I will conclude by adding a few remarks of my own as a constituency MLA. I returned last week from a visit to the Scottish communities, health and well-being projects in the greater Glasgow area. It is very apparent that the Scottish Government's focus has been on health inequalities and preventative spend. Communities there have had up to 20% of the budget in terms of delivering and reshaping care for their older people. There are clearly lessons for the North of Ireland in protecting, promoting and enhancing choice for our older people and communities.
This was an important piece of work that the Committee undertook in terms of our scrutiny role in Transforming Your Care. It was very apparent that, whilst we talk about an ageing population and we know the statistics for 2020, we had no clear forecast model or planning in place to deal with that eventuality, now or in the future. I ask the Assembly to support the motion and the recommendations in the report. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs Cameron: As a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I support the motion. I welcome the review of supported living for older people in the context of Transforming Your Care.
The population of Northern Ireland is growing at the fastest rate in the UK. In relation to today's motion, it is worth noting that, by 2020, the number of people over 75 years old is expected to increase by 40% from that in 2009. The number of people aged over 85 is expected to increase by 58%. Whilst longer life expectancy and good health are things to be celebrated, it is clear that a strategic plan for helping our older generation to live as independently as possible for as long as possible is a matter of great urgency.
One of the core principles of Transforming Your Care centres on home being the hub of care for older people. However, we still have an over-reliance on acute and unplanned services to respond to crises. Rather than that firefighting approach, we must move towards a proactive, preventative and holistic service to maintain the health and well-being of older people, rather than