Official Report: Monday 22 September 2014
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I would like to advise Members that I spoke to the Speaker this morning. Members will be glad to know that he is in good spirits, but he is following medical advice and recuperating at home pending further treatment for a heart problem in the weeks to come.
As a result, the initial arrangements from last week continue, as, on 18 September, the Speaker wrote to notify me under Standing Order 5(2) that I have been authorised to exercise all his procedural functions relating to the proceedings of the Assembly. Furthermore, the Speaker has authorised me to oversee the management of engagements relating to the Speaker's representational role, which will be undertaken between me and the Deputy Speakers in line with the normal practice. A copy of this letter will be placed in the library.
I want to make it clear to Members that I will, of course, be exercising these functions from a procedural and impartial perspective in the same way as would be expected of the Speaker. In recognition of that, I am taking steps to withdraw from my roles on Committees for the time being. In addition, I will not be speaking or voting in any plenary business on the Floor of the House until further notice.
The Deputy Speakers and I are grateful for the continuing cooperation of Members during this period. If Members have any issues that they wish to raise or discuss, they should approach the Speaker's Office in the usual manner. I know that Members and staff of the Assembly will join me again in wishing the Speaker well and hoping that his absence from the House is as short as possible.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Speaker has agreed that this matter was brought forward in the appropriate fashion. Mr Mike Nesbitt has been given leave to make a statement on the Scottish referendum result, which fulfils the criteria as set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should indicate that by rising in their places and continuing to do so. All Members called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.
Mr Nesbitt: I begin by repeating this party's best wishes to Speaker Hay for a full and speedy recovery.
I believe that it would be remiss for the House not to mark one of the most important constitutional votes anywhere in these islands in the last 300 years. Obviously, as unionists, we rejoice in and are delighted with the result. The case for Scottish independence was never made, and common sense has prevailed.
The links between Scotland and Northern Ireland cross every strand of our existence: cultural, sporting, political, economic. Earlier today, I was sent a construction assessment that stated that £7 billion of construction contracts were on hold as companies waited for the result of the independence vote, and local construction and engineering companies would no doubt have been among those that would have lost out had the vote been pro-independence.
During the campaign, I was dismayed to hear a leading proponent of independence criticise the Better Together campaign for patronising the Scots. He argued, "Didn't we, the Scots, bring the world the scientific and intellectual liberation called the Enlightenment?" It is a half-truth, and that is a dangerous thing, of course, because the man who inspired the Scottish Enlightenment was not a Scot but was Francis Hutcheson from Saintfield in County Down, who was born in 1694 to a family of Scottish-Irish descent. He was a man of immeasurable influence, counting among his students Adam Smith, who wrote 'The Wealth of Nations', and David Hume, who famously argued that desire rather than reason governed human nature.
Francis Hutcheson makes a case regarding ties that are rooted in that most important of all commodities: blood ties. Scots came to Ireland to become the Ulster Scots. They moved further west to become what the Americans now call the Scots-Irish, and the Scots-Irish have provided no fewer than 17 of the United States' 44 presidents. Admittedly, some may have slightly more tangential links than others, but the point is this: for countries the size of postage stamps on the world stage, Northern Ireland and Scotland together punch very much above their weight.
The United Kingdom is a family of nations. We are united through social, economic and cultural ties. We have a joint history of standing up for the weak and of facing down tyranny. It is a history that can never be erased and that will, I believe, continue to bind us together. Let us now go forward proudly and confidently into the inevitable debate that is coming concerning how we build an even better and greater Britain that is fit for the 21st century and a United Kingdom of which Northern Ireland is more solidly a part than ever before.
Mr Campbell: Like Mr Nesbitt, I join in recognition of the decision by the people of Scotland to vote in the way that they did. That said, I and others made it very clear throughout the campaign and even before it started that it was entirely and exclusively a matter for the people of Scotland to decide on. Now that they have done so, it is appropriate that we should comment on that and, more importantly, outline what we see as our vision for the way forward with Scotland as a part of the United Kingdom.
The voting in the two principal cities is no coincidence in that the relatively more affluent Edinburgh was 61% no and the relatively less affluent Glasgow was 53% yes. The referendum was more to do with disaffection from central government and the sense of economic isolation from the south-east of England, and that can resonate with people in Northern Ireland.
Whatever the reasons, the people of Scotland have spoken and settled the matter. Now that they have, the issue becomes a UK-wide one, and the Prime Minister indicated his intention to proceed with changes throughout the UK. All of us must play our part in that, and, of course, to play our part in those changes, we need to be in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, where the table will be laid out for discussions about how and when changes will happen. Hopefully, everyone can play their part in that, and we will not have the position that some — namely Sinn Féin — adopt in which they complain when decisions are taken and then, when there is an option to try to change them, boycott the place where the changes will occur. So hopefully, we can move on. As I said, the Scotland referendum is now finished. It is done and dusted, and we now get down to the hard work of ensuring that people do not feel disaffected, irrespective of which part of this United Kingdom they live in and belong to.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. All has changed, and changed utterly. I do not think that anybody could not agree that these islands have changed as a result of the result in Scotland.
What happened in Scotland was a true exercise in democracy. We saw 16- and 17-year-olds voting for the first time, and there is absolutely no reason that that franchise cannot be extended to here as well. We also saw a turnout of 85%, which is absolutely extraordinary by modern-day standards. Of course, politics should not be left to just the politicians. In terms of our future on this island and where the North's best interests lie, we should have the same debate. It was a healthy exercise in Scotland. There was some scaremongering, but, across the world, Scotland has been held up as a shining example of how to hold a mature debate about future governance. We should have a poll in Ireland about whether Ireland is better together and, like I said, no scaremongering.
The public in Scotland and the public here do not want their politicians to continue to bend the knee to the Tories and the British Treasury. There is a tendency for politicians here to accept whatever the Treasury says as gospel. If the Treasury says that we owe a certain amount of money, we will not even question it. The Scottish Government did question it and did their own figures, whereas the Department of Finance here does not want to know. That is not acting in our best interests or in the best interests of the public.
Of course, economic report after economic report — I think that there have been about 15 in recent years — shows that the North lacks fiscal levers and that it suffers because of that. Any figures for economic output and growth show that we continue to suffer, whilst the South, even with its difficulties, continues to have greater levels of growth. That is because we do not have the fiscal levers, and our fiscal policies are set at Westminster by the British Government in the interests of the island of Britain. We need to wise up to the fact that we need fiscal levers here. We need those levers to ensure that the policies set here are in the interests of the people in the North and are set with the realisation that we live on a different island and therefore need different policies.
Mr Attwood: We also convey our best wishes to Speaker Hay.
Whatever the different views in the Chamber — that of Mr Nesbitt and others who are for the union and that of I and others who were for Scottish independence — we should first and foremost recognise the people of Scotland, the contribution that they have made and the gratitude that we owe them. The people of Scotland demonstrated the power of the democratic approach — what Alex Salmond referred to as the democratic and consented process. What they have achieved and how far they have travelled puts into sharp relief how little we have travelled because of those in our society on the state and non-state sides who, for many a long year, opposed the democratic approach and used coercion.
The people of Scotland have forever changed the character of politics and the nature of the union. Whether it be devo max, home rule or independence in the future, the people of Scotland, by the decisions that they took and the votes that they cast, have put all of that on the radar. From our point of view, we will argue for the maximisation of devolution here, and it is the people of Scotland who have opened the doors to all of that.
We also recognise the young people of Scotland. If people who are 16 and 17 can be given the opportunity to shape the constitution of their nation, they should also have the opportunity to shape the politics and government of their nation, and that applies to all parts of these islands.
We also owe a debt of gratitude to the SNP. More than any other party or Government, it has demonstrated the difference between being in government and being in power. The vote they got was recognition of that. People in our Government should draw conclusions from the power and success of what they have achieved if we are to follow likewise.
Finally, we should acknowledge Alex Salmond, because he created new standards for democracy, for leadership and for Governments. For all of that and for all of his colleagues in government, I think that we all owe him a lot.
Mr Ford: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, on behalf of my colleagues, I echo your words of good wishes for the Speaker.
As Mr Nesbitt said, there is no doubt that the result of the Scottish referendum was a very significant event, but, by its nature, referenda or referendums, whichever way you put it, in the United Kingdom tend to be about significant matters —
Mr Ford: Try the Greek rather than the Latin, gentlemen.
They are significant issues because they are those that are put to the people, rather than being determined by those in legislatures. However, we also need to be clear that the victory for the Better Together campaign was not actually a victory for unionism over nationalism. It was a victory based on the promise of devo max from the two parties in the current Westminster Government and the party that might or might not be part of or form the next Government. That, because it was devo max and not just unionism and nationalism, is what has fundamentally altered the nature of relationships within these islands in general. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister recognised that at 7.00 am on Friday when he clearly addressed the issue of the English question.
However, it is also clear that it is a major issue for Wales and Northern Ireland. For example, we know that Wales is looking at potentially increasing its powers in the field of devolving justice and extricating itself from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice's responsibilities. However, where are we in Northern Ireland? Unfortunately, in this place, we have a record of failure to deal with those difficult issues. We are currently running through a crisis because of our inabilities and our immaturity, so how could we possibly make a case for suggesting that we should be looking for additional powers until we seek to resolve those problems?
In his contribution, Mr McKay said that it was time that we wised up, which may or may not be parliamentary language. I tend to agree with him, but I do not know that it is in exactly the way in which he would have intended, because it seems to me that, at the moment, we have a complete immaturity on economics, which is matched by an irresponsibility on some of the issues around parades and flags, and we have a group of victims from the past who are utterly let down by our failure in this place to deal with the key issues for us. It is great to talk about what the Scots have achieved, but unless we are prepared to knuckle down and engage in real and meaningful talks here to solve our problems, then we have nothing to say.
There is an issue that will need a proper constitutional convention for the UK at some point. However, it is much more urgent for us to tackle the issues that confront this society, not just the financial issues but those that we failed to deal with at the end of last year, and start to show some leadership in this place.
Mr Allister: I join in the best wishes to Mr Speaker. I trust that his health will radically improve.
I greatly welcome the result in Scotland and, unlike the union-agnostic Mr Ford, I recognise that it was a victory for the union and one that one very much appreciates and supports. It was good to see the canny, wise Scots refuse the invitation to break up the United Kingdom, and I believe that the cause of those who sought to break it up may well now wane in consequence.
The Prime Minister said that, after the referendum, there is a need for constitutional reform. He is probably right, but he would be totally wrong in so far as this House is concerned were he to say that this House, which cannot handle the powers that it has, needs more powers. This House does not need more powers. This House has structures that, in the words of the First Minister, are unfit for purpose, and therefore it is unable to handle even the powers that it has.
What this House needs is parity of democratic rights with the rest of the United Kingdom. There are components of Scotland and Wales's settlements that we take for granted. The very right to have an opposition is taken for granted in Edinburgh and Cardiff; indeed, it is taken for granted across the democratic world. Yet here, even that basic democratic right is denied in these institutions. On top of that, the people of Scotland and Wales have the basic democratic right to change their Government; to vote a party that they are disillusioned with out of government. Of course, because of the import of an unworkable mandatory coalition, we do not even have that right here. If the Prime Minister is talking about constitutional reform, he should start at the point where one infuses the democratic imperatives into the structures that we have in this House.
Mr Allister: Let me be very clear: the enemies of Stormont are those who refuse to contemplate the democratisation of Stormont. That is who they are.
Mr Wilson: I also pass on my best wishes to the Speaker at this time.
I congratulate the people of Scotland for recognising the benefits of the union, despite the tartan terror tactics of the SNP during a very contentious referendum campaign: one that saw academics threatened; civil servants abusing their power; public meetings broken up; businessmen told that there would be consequences if they did not keep their mouths shut; and people afraid even to show their loyalties and where they stood for fear of having their property attacked. It was typical of the nasty face of nationalism. We have seen it in Northern Ireland, and the people of Scotland witnessed it during the referendum campaign.
Despite all of that, the people of Scotland saw the benefits of the union. They saw the security benefits in an unstable world, the economic benefits in a world with increasing globalisation and, of course, the historical benefits that have been reaped over a long period. We, in Northern Ireland, owe to many people in Scotland a great debt of gratitude for the way in which soldiers joined the British Army and defended the people of Northern Ireland against IRA terrorism and sacrificed their lives here. For that reason, we ought to be grateful: first, for the sacrifices made; and secondly, for the fact that the Scottish people have not only recognised in the past the importance of the union through their sacrifices but have voted on the importance of the union.
There is a message for the people of Northern Ireland in this, for those who might be enticed by a border poll. I am surprised that Sinn Féin wishes to have a border poll, given that 25% of its own supporters do not support its idea of a united Ireland. A vast majority of people here are in favour of the union. Of course, Sinn Féin will wish to divert attention away from its incompetence in this place — its economic incompetence, which, despite its hatred of the Tories in Westminster, means that it is happy to hand £9 million of our money back every month, rather than make decisions that have to be made in this House.
To the people of Northern Ireland, I say that the people of Scotland saw the benefits of the union. We in Northern Ireland know the benefits of the union.
Mr Wilson: In any border poll that there might be in the future, should there be one, I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland will make exactly the same decision as the people in Scotland.
Mr Bell: I think that we were right to stay silent as the Scots made probably the most momentous decision of their generation or, as the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, said, a decision that has been made for a lifetime. That does not mask or take away from the fact that many of us were passionately committed to the retention of the Union, but it was for the people of Scotland to decide. The Scots have chosen for their generation, for their lifetime, and I believe that they have chosen wisely.
Our great Union is a benefit for every part of our United Kingdom, and we are a greater place today with Scotland strongly within that Union. I come from a constituency where Ulster Scots has a profoundly deep, long-lasting and positive impact — many of our families, including my own, can trace our ancestry back to there. It is not just a temporal thing; the Union has benefited all of us through not only the generations but the lifetimes.
Like my colleague Mr Wilson, I pay tribute to the Scots who helped to protect democracy here; in particular, three Scottish soldiers who lost their lives when I was just a child, but also the many other Scottish soldiers who live with physical and psychological injury as a result of defeating terrorism and defeating the terrorists of democracy here in this part of the United Kingdom. We owe them a huge debt that we can never repay.
On economic, cultural, social and tourism grounds, the link of our Union is so profound, and it is to be celebrated that the Scots have chosen so wisely.
I listened to the — I would not say incompetent economics; I go a step further and say the incontinent economics of Sinn Féin. I never laughed as hard as when I heard one of its spokesmen talk this morning about how he was going to get £10 billion, which, by the way, is what we get extra from the Treasury compared to what we put into Her Majesty's Treasury. He was going to get that £10 billion back because he was going to cut the Civil List. It was comedy hour and completely economically incompetent, because the House is facing a whole range of Sinn Féin cuts: cuts to vulnerable people, cuts to disabled people, cuts to the National Health Service. These are Sinn Féin cuts that are being driven forward, and still they would like to draw a mask —
Mr Bell: — that they could get some £10 billion back. The Scots have chosen; they have chosen wisely; and we need to continue to proclaim the benefits of the Union, so secure here now in Northern Ireland.
Mr McCallister: I join colleagues in wishing the Speaker a full and speedy recovery.
Like many colleagues here, I welcome Scotland's decision to stay within the United Kingdom. There is a general recognition that the outcome of this campaign has resulted in the Union entering a period of constitutional change. The Prime Minister's timetable for Scottish devolution also brings up the West Lothian question, and it means that this debate is happening now. We must get it right. We cannot act in haste and repent at leisure.
I ask these questions. Are the Northern Ireland Executive ready to participate in such a debate to get the best outcome for our citizens? Have the Executive even agreed any type of joint position on negotiating a new settlement for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom? Were additional fiscal powers to be devolved, are the Northern Ireland Executive fit to deal with them and the responsibility that that would bring?
A little over a year ago, I set out what I called how you might deal with a road map to building a normal society. At the top of that was reforming the Assembly, getting a proper Government and opposition. We are seeing the need for that at the minute, with the paralysis in the Assembly and our Executive. We needed a fiscal powers commission to look at the various powers that we might devolve and their effects. Will the Executive's policy change if Scotland gets corporation tax powers? Where are we down the road, when Scotland and Wales have had Calman and Silk reporting?
Welfare illustrates the changes. Scotland is now looking for welfare to be devolved, and we are talking about not being able to deal with it. The First Minister suggested perhaps giving it back to Westminster. One of his predecessors also suggested that. We are going in the opposite direction with many of these things. Getting beyond tribal politics, how do we move away from the them-and-us politics? Sinn Féin talks about getting a border poll when it is failing even to operate this like a functioning Government and face up to its responsibilities on welfare reform.
The big difference that Scotland has had over the last 15 years of devolution is that it has had a functioning Parliament and Executive. That is in stark contrast to what we have done. At the minute, we look on being part of the Union as a right, not a responsibility. We need to face up to those responsibilities and to what being part of a great and modern United Kingdom means.
Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is in relation to the comments that were made by Mr Wilson, who is on his phone at the moment. If somebody in the Chamber, in the course of a debate, commented on another political party involved in a political campaign in the following terms, referring to the SDLP's "green terror tactics", I would like to think that the Speaker would take action. During the course of the last half an hour, Mr Wilson referred to — Hansard will confirm this — the "tartan terror tactics of the SNP". I ask that you, as a matter of urgency, review the record of Hansard and rule on those comments. Those comments were made about a party that is exclusively democratic, as Mr Wilson knows because he sat in the room with it often enough in relation to issues of government and politics. I ask you, as a matter of urgency, to rule on that matter.
Mr Wilson: Further to that point of order, I hope that, when you are reviewing the comments that I made — let me repeat that it was not "green terror tactics" but "the tartan terror tactics of the SNP" — you will also review the comments that were made afterwards, which illustrated the kinds of tactics that were involved during the campaign and which clearly embarrass another nationalist party that has such great ties with the SNP.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: On this matter, I will consult Hansard and make a decision on that. People should not see it as an opportunity to draw the business of this House into whatever passed in the course of the referendum discussions and remarks or actions by parties that have no part in this Assembly.
Mr Nesbitt: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am satisfied that "referendum" is a gerund of Latin extraction. Therefore, I encourage the Minister to use "referenda" when referring to the plural.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. With your permission, I will make a statement in compliance with section 58 of the 1998 Act regarding the twenty-fifth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in aquaculture and marine sectoral format. The meeting was held in Derry on Friday 27 June 2014. The Executive were represented by Minister Nelson McCausland and me. The Irish Government were represented by Fergus O'Dowd TD, the then Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Minister Rabbitte was unable to attend the meeting. I chaired the meeting.
This statement has been agreed with Minister McCausland, and I am making it on behalf of us both.
Ministers congratulated John Pollock, who was appointed chief executive of the Loughs Agency. The Council received a progress report on the work of the Loughs Agency from its chairperson, Winston Patterson, and the chief executive.
Ministers welcomed progress on the activities of the Loughs Agency, including its ongoing conservation and protection efforts and participation in Operation Salar, which is the result of a multi-agency approach to tackle fish poaching and protect fish stocks. The PSNI is working alongside the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Loughs Agency to enforce fishing regulations and educate the public on fishing and the importance of protecting fish stocks.
We also heard of the agency's participation in the planting of over 5,000 native broadleaf trees of various species in the Glenshane Pass area as part of the climate change adaptation initiative.
The Council welcomed the report on the activities of the Loughs Agency in promoting and marketing Foyle and Carlingford loughs, including the Foyle Maritime Festival 2014, angling development and promotion, the delivery of INTERREG IVa programmes, the provision of a portable event platform for Carlingford lough, various food festivals and other tourism initiatives.
I pay tribute to the Loughs Agency staff, Derry City Council and all those involved in the Maritime Festival 2014, which saw the return of the prestigious Clipper Round the World Yacht Race to the city. That event was an outstanding success.
We were told how the Loughs Agency has developed a number of initiatives to animate the River Foyle and provide local people and visitors with an opportunity to experience the river and learn more about its history and biodiversity. That programme will include education and outreach to local schools in Limavady, Derry and Donegal as well as an adult education programme of lectures, which will be delivered as part of walking, bus and canoe tours.
As part of their joint marketing activities, the Loughs Agency, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and Inland Fisheries Ireland continue to attend a number of trade shows annually, at home and abroad, that are aimed at boosting Irish angling tourism. For 2014-15, a number of shows have been identified as targets, which will see angling promoted in a number of European countries as well as closer to home. We received an update on the drafting of regulations by the Loughs Agency, which will require NSMC approval in late 2014. The draft legislation will also come before the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.
I am also very pleased to report that steady progress has been made on the management agreement between the Loughs Agency and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Loughs Agency chaired a meeting on 29 May with relevant Departments and agencies to start a discussion on the operational issues associated with the development of the management agreement. The interdepartmental group that is examining the long-standing jurisdictional issues and other issues also met on 29 May. The group received an update on the significant challenges being faced in resolving those issues and is considering possible ways to progress matters.
The Loughs Agency is arranging further meetings with the agencies of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in that context and to consider proposals relating to the operational issues that may arise from the transfer of aquaculture licensing and development functions to the agency. Ministers also received an update on the progress of the IBIS research projects, angling development and the very successful recent angling conference.
The Council approved the continuation of the framework designed to support the Loughs Agency in dealing with emergencies, such as a serious pollution incident, for a further period of one year, with effect from 20 July 2014, and agreed to review the operation of this procedure before 20 July 2015.
One of the highlights of the sectoral meeting was the presentation that Ministers received from the Loughs Agency on the Foyle ambassador project. That project brought 12 young people from different communities from across the city together for a 10-week environmental programme, in conjunction with St Columb's Park House. Funding was provided by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and Co-operation Ireland. Loughs Agency staff developed a programme that focused on personal and skills development, with a view to improving the young people's outlook on their future goals. The initiative had a strong environmental theme, with a focus on the River Foyle. The young people received an increased understanding of biodiversity and the value of Lough Foyle in recreation and commercial use. They were involved in water-based activities such as canoeing, angling and power boating as well as leadership and personal development sessions.
I thank and pay tribute to the Loughs Agency staff and the local anglers and others from Lough Foyle who willingly gave of their time to educate and mentor the 12 young people. From the presentation, I know how much the young people got out of this unique and worthwhile project. I congratulate each and every one of them and wish them well in the future.
The Foyle ambassador project shows what can be done to bring young people from different backgrounds and skills together, and the Loughs Agency is looking at ways to roll that very successful project out to other areas.
The Council welcomed the report on the activities of the Loughs Agency in promoting and marketing Foyle and Carlingford loughs, including the Foyle Maritime Festival 2014 and angling development, which I mentioned earlier. Those activities also included the delivery of INTERREG IVa programmes, the provision of a portable event platform for Carlingford lough, food festivals, the greenway project at Carlingford and the Foyle and Carlingford sailability projects. We also heard that arrangements are under way for an all-island aquaculture shellfish conference to take place in June next year.
The NSMC approved the Loughs Agency's corporate plan 2014-16, the business plan 2014 and noted the relevant budget provisions. We also noted the agency's annual report and draft financial statements for 2013 and that, following certification of the financial statements by the Comptrollers and Auditors General, they will be laid before the Assembly and the Oireachtas.
The Council approved the determination made by the Loughs Agency to amend the Foyle Fisheries Commission Pension (Amendment) Scheme 1979. The Council also approved the Loughs Agency (Foyle Fisheries Commission) Pension (Amendment No.3) Scheme 2014, which is to allow for employee contribution rates to be increased, and that this amended scheme shall apply to the body.
Following a request from the Health Minister, I was pleased to present the Food Safety Promotion Board's corporate plan 2014-16 and its business plan for 2014. The Council approved both plans and noted the recommended budget provision and indicative budgets for 2015 and 2016.
The Council agreed to meet again in aquaculture and marine sectoral format in late autumn.
Mr Frew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): The Minister will be aware that I have constantly asked about the lack of a management agreement for the seabed leasing in Lough Foyle and when that issue will be resolved. There are references in the statement, of course, about steady progress. Can the Minister elaborate on that steady progress and give us a likely date for the agreement to be finalised?
Paragraph 14 refers to the drafting of regulations to come to the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development at some stage. Can the Minister be more specific and provide details of what those regulations will legislate for?
Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. I want to reassure the Member and the House that I have given the Loughs Agency my full support as it attempts to finalise the management agreement with the relevant Department in the South. As I said in the statement, I am grateful to Minister Pat Rabbitte and his officials for their effort in helping us to progress the management agreement in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
There has been a lot of significant progress, particularly around the fact that the Loughs Agency chaired a working meeting on 29 May with the relevant Departments, Bord Iascaigh Mhara and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority to start a discussion on the roll-out of the operational issues associated with the development of the management agreement. The interdepartmental group also met on 29 May to discuss other issues.
The agency is proactively arranging other meetings with the relevant agencies to consider the proposals, particularly in relation to operational issues. We are very confident that we are coming to the end of the discussions and will be able to move forward with the final management arrangement, which will be brought back to a future NSMC meeting, perhaps even the next one.
I believe that we will discuss the legislation further at the next NSMC meeting and are looking towards the end of this year for the Committee to discuss the regulations. Obviously, the Committee will be briefed in detail in due course as that comes up.
Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to place on record my appreciation of the work of the Loughs Agency and congratulate the new chief executive on his appointment. The Minister referred to the great work that young people have been doing as part of the Foyle ambassador project. Are there any plans to continue and extend that work?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, and thank you for the words of encouragement. As I said, I congratulate all those involved and those who willingly gave up their time. It really was an effective project.
When I watched the promotional video, which the young people put together themselves, on the outworkings of the project, I could see the benefit of it. These were young people from across the city of Derry who perhaps had never engaged with members of other communities. At the end of the programme, they certainly had got an awful lot out of it, so I hope that it will be rolled out further. I have asked the Loughs Agency to consider all that.
We were fortunate in that we received funding through OFMDFM and Co-operation Ireland. We are looking to them again but also to other funders to allow us to roll out the project on a wider scale and into other areas, because the benefits were clear to be seen.
People got an understanding of themselves through their own personal development, and they also had an education in biodiversity and the environment in a fun way but also in a very practical way because they were out lifting rubbish and taking part in all sorts of activities. I certainly want to see it continued and enhanced and ensure that we can get as many young people as possible on board for future roll-out of it.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for the statement. Can the Minister state what implications there are for the budget of the agency going forward in relation to its activities? Secondly, can the Minister enlighten us on whether it is her intention to broaden the spectrum of opinion on the board so that more of the fishermen who fish with rods or anglers are represented on it?
Mrs O'Neill: On the budget position, as I set out, we had agreed our corporate plan and the business plan, and the draft financial statements were all set out at the last NSMC meeting. The Member will be aware that we have set out very clearly our key objectives around conservation and the protection of the fisheries in the Foyle and Carlingford loughs: licensing and developing aquaculture; developing marine tourism and angling; and effectively and efficiently delivering on its statutory mandate and responsibilities. The NSMC meeting approved the business plan and the spending plan, and both plans were approved by the Finance Ministers, North and South. Obviously, they are now on the public record.
I absolutely appreciate that the Loughs Agency is working within a tight budget, as are all Departments and agencies, so there certainly are financial constraints, particularly as income has dropped for the Loughs Agency due to a shortfall of applications for angling licences. So, the board and the chief executive are looking at how they can make efficiency savings, and they have set out in the corporate plan how they plan to deliver 4% efficiency savings going forward.
On your point around fisheries, such an amount of work has gone into promoting angling and education around angling, so we want to make sure that, in moving forward with the work of the Loughs Agency, fishermen have to be represented on the board. They very much have to be given a voice on decisions moving forward, and I have made that very clear to the Loughs Agency. I know that it has made improvements over the last number of years, particularly in that representation. I am sure that that will continue.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for the update. She talked about an initiative to deal with fish poaching, and I wonder how widespread fish poaching is in the area. Have there been many prosecutions in regard to it in that particular area?
Mrs O'Neill: There have been particular issues down through the years with poaching, and the Member will probably be aware that we have had attacks on staff as well whilst they are out trying to protect the fisheries stock. Thankfully, this year, we have seen a dramatic fall in those numbers. We have had no new cases of attacks on staff this year, which is to be very much welcomed. The operation that I talked about in the statement is called Operation Salar, and it involves cross-agency working. It involves the PSNI, the Loughs Agency, DCAL and the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime all coming together, and that has been very effective in dealing with poaching. I do not have the figures on poaching, but I am very happy to provide them to the Member. As I said, we are absolutely delighted that the number of attacks on staff who are protecting the loughs has decreased.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her statement. Item 29 refers to the relevant budget provisions, and item 33 talks about indicative budget provisions. Can the Minister assure the Assembly that, given the very serious financial situation across the island, there will be sufficient budgets to carry out the duties that the Loughs Agency is set up to do?
Mrs O'Neill: For clarity, point 29 refers to the NSMC's approval of the Loughs Agency corporate plan and business plan, but, in point 33, I presented a paper on behalf of the Health Minister in relation to the Food Safety Promotion Board's corporate plan, which is why it is referred to as indicative. I can assure the Member that, as I said earlier, we have approved a budget, and the chief executive and the board are working to live within their budget. Obviously, it is a difficult financial climate for everybody, but I am confident that it will be able to achieve the savings that it has set out to achieve and that it will have the budget. Of course it would always want more money, and who would not? As I said, for rolling out projects such as the Foyle ambassador project youth scheme, we are looking towards other funding sources that would complement the Loughs Agency budget.
Mr Irwin: Paragraph 13 refers to the joint marketing activities between the Loughs Agency and DCAL, based on boosting angling tourism, which I welcome. Will the Minister outline how much money the Loughs Agency contributes to that, what the outputs of that activity are expected to be and how her Department will evaluate whether that type of marketing activity has a real impact?
Mrs O'Neill: We have a beautiful natural resource, and we are really trying to market it. Loughs Agency staff go to other European countries to promote what we have to offer and to try to encourage anglers to come forward. We have been successful in achieving a number of international angling competitions. All that is very positive, but we need to do more to promote what we have. That is ongoing work. Loughs Agency staff are absolutely committed to making sure that they take forward the promotion of the Foyle and Carlingford areas.
Next year, we have an aquaculture conference, which will be significant in looking at the challenges for growers and what we can do to assist them. There is very positive ongoing work, and that will continue. I do not have a breakdown of the money that we spend on marketing with me, but I am happy to provide it to the Member. As I said, the group is very active in promoting the tourism potential. The fact that we have been involved with the clipper race for a second year is fantastic. It also does great educational work with young people about what they have on their doorstep. There is quite a lot of positive work.
Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister on her statement. Paragraph 15 refers to the management agreement and the steady progress being made. Will you give us more detail on the progress being made?
Mrs O'Neill: As I said, quite a large body of work has been taken forward to make sure that all the partners to the management agreement are on the same page. As I said, I want to reassure Members that we are doing all we can to make sure that I give the Loughs Agency my full support in an attempt to finalise the management agreement. We are hopeful that we will be able to do that towards the end of the year. There is a lot of ongoing work and operational meetings so that we are able to iron out any differences or kinks.
Mr Buchanan: I note from paragraph 12 that the Loughs Agency has developed a number of initiatives along the River Foyle, with an educational programme in schools in places such as Limavady, Londonderry and Donegal. Are there any plans to widen the horizon and extend that programme to schools outside those areas?
Mrs O'Neill: Obviously, we work within the Foyle catchment area. As I said, fantastic educational work is being done, and we often get presentations on its roll-out. The number of people who visit both centres is fantastic. We are always looking at how we can expand it and whom we can reach. Expansion is an ongoing operational issue for the Loughs Agency.
Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her statement. With reference to paragraph 19, Minister, what are the implications for the local aquaculture industry with the transfer of licensing and development functions to the agency? In particular, will we have more consistency on both sides of the lough?
Mrs O'Neill: The aim is to get to that position, and the management agreement will allow us to do that. To make it fair for everybody, there should be only one licensing system. The principle behind taking that forward is to have one consistent system. At next year's aquaculture conference, we will look at, among many other things, disease prevention and control. We need to focus R&D funding. I know that the Member has concerns about oyster growers and the problems that they have suffered, particularly in Carlingford. There is great potential for us to scope things out and improve things for those growers.
Mr Allister: The resource accounts for the Minister's Department for last year show that, on three occasions, the Minister made payments to the Loughs Agency without DFP approval, as is required by the 1999 legislation, and that she therefore made irregular payments amounting to over £1·8 million to the Loughs Agency. Has the Minister desisted from that practice? Is she now committed to complying with the law of the land and to seeking DFP approval for payments to the Loughs Agency and any other cross-border body?
Mrs O'Neill: I am aware that concerns were raised by DFP in terms of the regularity of expenditure incurred since the outset of the Loughs Agency's financial year and the approval of its business plan. Similar concerns were raised with other Departments and, as far as I am aware, the matter is still under consideration and discussion. However, in addition to the 2014 business plan being approved by Finance Ministers and the NSMC in June, a draft 2015 business plan has already been prepared, with a view to having all the necessary approvals in place before the start of the Loughs Agency's financial year, which is 1 January 2015. So, I assure the Member that I am committed to doing things properly.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 27 March 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Justice Bill (NIA 37/11-15).
The Committee Stage of the Justice Bill began on 25 June. The Bill is wide-ranging and diverse, consisting of 92 clauses. There are six schedules to the Bill, which is divided into nine parts. It has three main policy aims, which are to improve services for victims and witnesses; to speed up the justice system; and to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of key aspects of the system.
Some of the key areas covered by the Bill include the creation of violent offences prevention orders; the establishment of victim and witness charters providing statutory entitlements for information provision and treatment; changes to committal proceedings; a single jurisdiction for County Courts and Magistrates' Courts; and streamlined arrangements for the disclosure of criminal records.
As I indicated at Second Stage, the Committee particularly welcomes the provisions relating to victims and witnesses that are as a result of the Committee's inquiry into the criminal justice services available to victims and witnesses of crime and that aim to redress the balance in the system and ensure that improved services are provided for them.
To assist its scrutiny of the Bill, the Committee has sought views from an extensive range of organisations and key stakeholders. It has placed notices in the local newspapers and on the Assembly website. The Committee has also taken the opportunity to seek views on a range of amendments that the Department has indicated that it intends to bring forward at Consideration Stage, including an amendment that Mr Jim Wells MLA advised the Committee at the meeting on 2 July that he intends to move at Consideration Stage and an amendment proposed by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland that the Committee first considered in the context of the Legal Aid and Coroners' Courts Bill. Given that there was not sufficient time to scrutinise it fully, we agreed to return to it at the next legislative opportunity.
The amendments from the Department relate to a range of issues, including the exchange of information between Access NI and the Disclosure and Barring Service in Great Britain; a proposal to introduce a mechanism to enable those whose convictions or diversionary disposals have not been filtered from Access NI checks to ask for a review of such decisions; and providing for the sharing of victim information for the purposes of offering victims access to services.
The Attorney General has the power, under section 14(1) of the Coroners Act (Northern Ireland) 1959, to direct an inquest where he considers it "advisable" to do so but has no powers to obtain papers or information that may be relevant to the exercise of that power. He has experienced some difficulty in recent years in securing access to documents that he has needed, and his proposed amendment to the 1959 Act would confer on him a power to obtain papers and provide a clear statutory basis for disclosure. He has indicated that the principal focus of his concern is deaths that occur in hospital or where there is otherwise a suggestion that medical error may have occurred.
Mr Jim Wells’s amendment is intended to restrict lawful abortions to National Health Service premises, except in cases of urgency when access to such premises is not possible and where no fee is paid. The amendment also provides an additional option to existing legislation for a period of up to 10 years' imprisonment and a fine on conviction upon indictment.
The Committee received 45 submissions, many of which comment on, and raise issues about, the various clauses in, and schedules to, the Bill or the proposed amendments that I have outlined. Several more submissions are due in this week. There have also been a number of petitions and responses from individuals and over 20,000 postcards received supporting Mr Wells's amendment.
Given the level of interest in the Bill and the amendments, members agreed at the meeting on 10 September to seek an extension to the Committee Stage until 27 March 2015.
While the Committee supports the overall aims of the Bill, this extension will provide sufficient time to take oral evidence, which the Committee intends to start in November, carry out robust scrutiny of the detail contained in the clauses and schedules and compile and agree the Committee report as well as enabling the Committee to consider a range of other important justice issues that are not related to the Bill during this time, such as current budget pressures, further reforms to both criminal and civil legal aid and other Bills to be introduced by the Department of Justice. The Committee will report to the Assembly on the Bill as soon as possible within the proposed deadline of 27 March 2015.
I will speak very briefly not as Chair of the Committee. The Committee received an overwhelming response to the amendment that it agreed to consult on, which is the one in the name of Mr Jim Wells. Members will be familiar with the amendment from when Mr Elliott, Mr Maginness, Mr Allister, other members and I brought it forward and a majority in the House supported it. This is now a second opportunity to do so, because a number of people indicated that there was not enough time to scrutinise it. We received over 30,000 responses from the public wanting the amendment to be enacted. The Committee will now have an opportunity to carry out the scrutiny of it, and I trust that the Assembly will then be given the opportunity to consider it once again after we have carried out the scrutiny work. We will take another vote on it. I trust that those Members who opposed it last time, because they did not have enough time, will be able to use the process properly and scrutinise it. Then, we will get another opportunity to take this forward.
I believe that the responses on that particular amendment were singularly the greatest number that any Committee has ever received in the history of the Assembly, so we should not underestimate its importance to the public. Mr Ford, the Minister, indicated at the time of this legislation, over a year ago, that he would consult on that very issue. In over a year — indeed, almost 18 months later — David Ford, the Minister of Justice, has failed to act in any way to deal with what the majority of the Assembly voted for, so this Committee has now decided that we will need to do the work that he should have been doing. I trust that when it comes to the Floor of the Assembly, Members will have had due time to give it proper consideration. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 27 March 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Justice Bill (NIA 37/11-15).
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The next item on the Order Paper is a motion on development proposals from the Western Education and Library Board. 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. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other speakers will have five minutes.
That this Assembly notes development proposals 260, 261 and 262 by the Western Education and Library Board regarding the proposed closure of the Collegiate Grammar School and Portora Royal School; commends the staff and pupils of both schools for the excellent GSCE and A-level results achieved again this year; and requires the Minister of Education to reject the development proposals and seek consensus on the future of these schools with broad community support.
Members will no doubt have noted that the motion refers to development proposals 260, 261 and 262 from the Western Education and Library Board. Those proposals, if carried through, would not only close the Collegiate Grammar School but would have far-reaching implications for the future of post-primary education in the controlled voluntary sector in County Fermanagh as a whole. The establishment of a new co-educational, non-denominational, voluntary grammar school operating on a split site, incorporating Portora Royal School, is envisaged. The proposals are being pushed ahead, sadly, without consensus. Surely, this is something that the Minister wants to divert some of his attention to. I am firmly of the view that such controversial proposals should have, as a starting point, consensus and broad community support.
At this point, I would like to congratulate the Collegiate and the Portora Royal schools on their achievements in providing education in County Fermanagh that is of an excellent standard.
I will lay out the main areas of concern in relation to the process to date. First, the process itself lacks public accountability. That is surely something that the Minister will, I hope, attempt to address when he speaks later. Secondly, the rationale that seeks to underpin the process does not stand up to scrutiny. Thirdly, the proposals seek to close a highly successful, oversubscribed grammar school, which has a reputation that is second to none, and the removal of the Collegiate would result in an inequality of opportunity for the young people of County Fermanagh. Fourthly, the current Programme for Government states that building a united community, improving community relations and promoting shared education are its key proposals. It is my firm view that the process of the Western Education and Library Board's proposals falls far short of all those objectives.
I implore the Minister, before the proposals are adopted, to ensure that careful consideration is given to the expressed will of the boards of governors, staff, parents and pupils and the strong opposition from the community as a whole. It appears that there is a determined attempt to set one school against another. That is a most unfortunate fallout from the whole episode.
In my opinion, the amendment to the motion is, at least, mischievous. An attempt to introduce Devenish College into the debate is, to say the least, unhelpful. To divide and conquer seems to be the motive.
The Western Education and Library Board approved the publication of the proposals in full awareness of the strength of opposition expressed in its own consultation process in March and April this year. One can only ask this question: why the determination to push ahead with proposals that are inherently unpopular and so much out of step with the whole community?
I want to bring to the attention of the Assembly some other issues. There are significant issues of accountability around the Fermanagh Protestant Board of Education (FPBE), which, under the proposals, would be the body that would act as trustee of the new school. A recent open letter in the local press asked a few pertinent questions and asked it to: make public the scheme that sets out such powers and responsibilities; indicate when the current members were elected and the length of time for which they will hold office, in the light of the statement in earlier correspondence in the press from the FPBE that it is made up of people elected through the representative processes of what are called the three traditional Churches, namely the Presbyterian Church, Methodist Church and Church of Ireland; outline the channels of communication between the elected representatives and the church communities from which they come; and indicate whether, at any level, those members consider themselves accountable to the members of their denomination throughout County Fermanagh. That was the content of the open letter, which was, I think, very significant.
What was the reply? Alas, there was no reply. And we have to beg this question: why would that be? Why could that body not stand up and address the questions of concern that were posed not once but twice? We still await a reply.
It is my opinion — I suspect that it is the opinion of many in the House — that the non-negotiable factors in the ongoing process against which any proposals are judged would have to ensure the quality of educational experience in its widest sense for all young people; the quality of curricular provision, which meets the needs of all the young people in the area; and the quality of outcome. I believe that those are the important factors that need to be addressed.
One of the most worrying aspects of these proposals is the fact that, if they were carried through, a highly successful school could be closed against the expressed will of its board of governors, staff, parents, pupils and a very significant section of the wider community. In my opinion, it is quite clear that area planning lacks public confidence. The need of young people should always be the motivating factor. Nothing else can be the issue; and that does not appear to be the case here. The outcome of any process must surely be threefold: the quality of educational experience; the quality of curricular provision; and the quality of outcomes.
It appears to many, particularly in County Fermanagh, that the Western Education and Library Board's proposals 260, 261 and 262 will not be achieved. Some have attempted — this is where we part company with those who support the amendment — to sow seeds of confusion and have introduced Devenish College into the whole debate. I feel that that is unfortunate, and I believe that it has been done deliberately to confuse. The Minister is already on record as saying that, irrespective of the outcome in relation to Portora and the Collegiate, Devenish goes ahead. According to the Minister, that decision has already been made. Today, I would like him to reiterate that and state, quite clearly, as he has done in the past, that Devenish is not part of this debate. It has been agreed that a new school will be provided. We would also like to hear from the Minister today the date for the commencement of the Devenish development. We have asked that question before and have tried to push the Minister on it to give some definitive dates for when that will commence. Today is an opportunity for the Minister to put that one completely to bed and give us a date for when the Devenish project will commence. I believe that, in doing so, the Minister can take a lot of the confusion and discord out of a debate that has been going on for so long.
I ask the Minister to take on board the fact that this is not finding support from across the community, in particular from those who will be affected most by it.
I look forward to hearing what others have to say about the motion. My party will not support the amendment.
Leave out all after "Portora Royal School" and insert
"and the creation of a new school; commends the staff and pupils of both schools for the excellent GCSE and A-level results achieved again this year; and calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that his decision on these development proposals ensures that all the young people served by the controlled sector in Enniskillen are given equality of access to high-quality education, including the provision of a new build for Devenish College."
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I start by thanking the Business Office for accepting the amendment. Unlike the original motion, our amendment is inclusive of all the educational needs of the young people in Fermanagh, not merely a few. Indeed, it reflects the feelings of local people on the ground in Fermanagh who are somewhat disturbed that the interests of the few may marginalise those of the silent majority. That is exactly where the DUP is going wrong.
The DUP needs to answer a few questions here today, starting off with — no less important — this: who did the DUP consult in bringing this motion forward today? Is this simply a hobby horse for Mrs Foster? We keep being reminded when we look at the media that the Collegiate is her old school, as if, for some reason, that nugget of information helps the educational interests of the young people in Fermanagh going forward in the years ahead. It simply does not. That is what the DUP should be doing: examining and championing what is in the educational interests of all the young people in Fermanagh in the years ahead, not the narrow, institutional interests of a particular school or a particular board of governors.
Mrs Foster: Will the Member acknowledge that the email from the email account of Mr Morton, which I assume he is referring to, also refers to the fact that various meetings took place between me, Mr Elliott of the Ulster Unionist Party and all the heads of the boards of governors of the Collegiate, Portora, Devenish and the then Lisnaskea High School, which, as we know, was closed very recently? Because no consensus was found at those meetings, it has been decided that they will go ahead regardless of the fact that there is no consensus. Is the Member saying that we should not continue to find consensus, or is he just saying that, because two schools have decided on a way forward, the other schools should just sit back and say nothing?
Mr Hazzard: I thank the Minister for her intervention. What I would say is —
Mrs Foster: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sitting on the Back Bench for a reason: I am not the Minister in this debate.
Mr Hazzard: I have taken note of the point that has been raised.
Around consensus — this is what the DUP needs to take on board — when you talk about broad community support, it is about engaging with the broad community, not one particular school or one particular board of governors, and that is exactly where it has gone wrong on this.
I will come back to other correspondence, because no doubt the Member has obviously received the correspondence as well. The motion calls on the Minister to:
"seek consensus ... with broad community support".
Yet from what we have heard today and, indeed, from the correspondence that we have received, it is the DUP that appears to be running away from this notion of broad community consensus.
I just want to read from a piece of correspondence that Mrs Foster referred to. It is another piece of correspondence that we received on behalf of the boards of governors of Portora and Devenish College. It reads:
"As the Chairs of the Boards of Governors of Portora Royal School and Devenish College respectively, we have been instructed by our Boards of Governors to make it clear that: the motion relating to Development Proposals 260, 261 and 262 (which Proposals have significant consequences for post-primary education in non-denominational schools in County Fermanagh) has not been discussed with either of our schools by the individuals tabling the motion".
If you are looking for broad consensus and community support, you would think that you would go and talk to the very people who will be affected by a resolution. The DUP has failed to do that, but we should not be surprised that it has failed to do so.
It goes on to say:
"the Development Proposals in question have the unanimous support of both of our Boards of Governors".
I am not going to stand here —
Mr Lynch: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with me that it is important that the educational needs of Devenish College are taken into consideration? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree 100%. This is what area planing is all about. We need to get it into our heads that, when a decision is taken in one particular school, it has an impact on all the schools in the area. Time and time again, the DUP fails to bring that point to the forefront of its mind, so I thank the Member for raising it.
As a Member for South Down, I am not going to stand here and dictate to the people of Fermanagh what is the best way forward for their young people, but one thing is for sure, and that is that, whatever decision is made, it must be made in the interests of all the children. We must cherish all our children, and not simply a few.
So where is the mention of Devenish College in all this? The DUP runs away from it. It thinks that it confuses the matter to raise it and to talk about other children in the education and library board area. Do the pupils at Devenish College not matter to the DUP?
Mr Hazzard: No. We have heard enough from the other side.
The DUP's vision — this is an important point — will do nothing for tackling educational inequality and, indeed, underachievement in the Enniskillen and Fermanagh area. Recently, the Education Committee heard about the differentials in achievement between Protestant boys and Protestant girls, and everything else. What the DUP wants to do today is run away from problems like that. It is not prepared to tackle the causes. The DUP wants to talk about educational underachievement among boys. I am glad that the Member for North Belfast is here, because the Shankill is one of the areas where this is most pertinent. The DUP runs away from reform of the common funding formula, but that is the very same formula that has pumped millions into the Shankill, which we see the DUP welcome.
The DUP needs to decide whether it is going to stand up and show real leadership on an issue.
Mr Hazzard: No, I have heard enough from the other side.
Here is a chance to stand up for all the children in Fermanagh and put down plans that are in their best interests for years to come, and not to get behind what appears to be one particular Member's hobby horse and stand up for one particular school.
I want to turn now to the correspondence received from the principal, which was mentioned by Mrs Foster. I am sure that other Members want to speak about it, but I want to speak about the issue of duplication and replication of resources. In 2012, 20 subjects were accessed by just eight pupils at AS level and 22 subjects were accessed by eight pupils at A2 level. We need to ask ourselves whether that is the best use of educational resources. Are the children who attend those classes getting the best they can from those classrooms?
I want to finish by addressing the notion that we would be losing the Collegiate; that, somehow, the Collegiate will disappear into the ether. This is absolutely not the case because the Collegiate would gain. The bright young minds at the Collegiate now would be challenged by more bright young minds, which can only be good for the educational interests of all the people in Fermanagh.
I ask all the parties to support the amendment.
Mr Rogers: The SDLP strongly believes that parental choice is the cornerstone of an effective education system and it cannot be overlooked. We are committed to the establishment of an education system that will provide an enriching and holistic education for all our young people.
In order to make well-informed decisions on the best educational route for our children, parents must have as diverse a range of schools as possible from which to choose, be they integrated, state, Irish-medium or faith-based schools. Yet, the present development proposals will result in the loss of two single-sex schools in the area. That is an option that a number of parents are passionate about and, evidently, are determined to retain.
A document produced by the Collegiate action group highlighted that the proposal:
"will reduce further the number of post-primary schools in the controlled/voluntary sector in Fermanagh from the original six to two."
Parents would have less choice, which certainly needs to be addressed.
I can only begin to understand this situation if I switch it to a south Down scenario. I will treat all comments with respect but particularly those of Members from Fermanagh, and I look forward to hearing others. However, it is rather disconcerting that other schools that may be affected by these proposals were not consulted by the proposers of the motion beforehand. In fact, I would not have been surprised had the motion been withdrawn. I would have expected the proposers of the motion to have sought consensus from the community. It is certainly worth mentioning that the development proposals have the support of Portora and Devenish.
Irrespective of the motion or the amendment, we need to carefully consider the strategy that benefits all the pupils. Parental choice and the views of the local community should be at the forefront of the Minister's mind when making this decision. Failure to do so will have a negative impact on relationships between the Department of Education and the local community; that would benefit no one.
The Collegiate action group has plainly and repeatedly voiced its concerns about this amalgamation. The 7,000-strong petition that was delivered to the Assembly in June this year clearly demonstrates the depth of local feeling and the clear opposition that exists towards this development.
The Collegiate Grammar School, Portora Royal School and Devenish College have played a key role in the education of the community. Any attempt to diminish or distort this must be handled with extreme caution. Full consideration must be given to the potential detrimental effects across the wider community. I share the concerns of the principal of the Collegiate when she says that the words:
"seek consensus on the future of these schools with broad community support"
have been deleted in the Sinn Féin amendment. That consensus might be difficult, but we need to achieve it.
In providing strong education and future career options for all our young people, we must ensure that the rights and choices of parents and students are not overlooked or dismissed. It is important that, as we move forward, the good work of the Fermanagh learning community, which encourages shared education, is given its rightful place in any plans for the future. The importance of parental choice in this matter cannot be emphasised enough. I urge the Minister to give careful consideration to the genuine concerns that have been raised and to be guided by the experience of local opinion.
While full consensus has not yet been reached, I urge all parties to get back around the table and work with the Western Education and Library Board to ensure a resolution.
Mr Elliott: I welcome the opportunity to discuss and debate this issue. At the outset, I declare an interest, to some degree, as my daughter is a pupil at Devenish College, and I have a son who, I hope, will soon be attending one of the three schools in question.
Obviously, this issue causes a great deal of debate in the Fermanagh area. Indeed, some of that debate maybe goes slightly too far at times. It creates a huge wave of difficulty within not only communities but families. Yesterday, I was at two events and was lobbied very strongly on both sides of the argument. It is an extremely difficult issue, and I have no wish today to make it any worse for any of the groups involved. If I were on the board of governors of any one of those schools, I would want to try to do the best for that school. That is only right. I have no disrespect for any of the boards of governors who wish to take a particular decision and route.
The three development proposals that we are discussing — 260, 261 and 262 — recommend the discontinuance of the Collegiate Grammar School and the Portora Royal School and the establishment of a new single grammar school for Fermanagh. However, the proposal to establish a new single school does not necessarily mean a new build. Effectively, it could result in two schools on two sites with, supposedly, one management structure. I stress that there is no guarantee that a new single school building will be constructed.
We are well aware of the delays in the building of and, in fact, the commencement of the building of, Devenish College. I recall that, in late 2004-05, many of us were lobbying for the retention of Devenish. The old Kesh site, which was the former Duke of Westminster High School, was being closed. At that time, we heard promises of a new construction at Devenish on the Tempo Road in Enniskillen — in fact, the promise was that it would be built by 2008. Now, some six years later, it has not even commenced.
Even though, in the past year and a half, the Minister has linked the outcome of these development proposals with a new build at Devenish, I have continually pressed him to separate the two aspects. The new build of Devenish should not be linked to the amalgamation of Collegiate and Portora. I had a meeting with the Minister less than two weeks ago. In fairness to him, he has said that the Department will build Devenish College, irrespective of the outcome of the development proposals. However, as I understand it, the number of pupils for whom Devenish will be built depends on the proposal for the merger of Portora and Collegiate, or not. If the Minister wants to confirm that or, if I have got that wrong, tell me something different, I am happy to listen to him. We must have equality of —
Mr Flanagan: I thank the Member for giving way. I will not speak for John O'Dowd, because he is more than capable of speaking for himself. The Member mentioned the number of pupils that will be looked at for a future build for Devenish College. Does he accept, as in the Minister's statement, that, if 70 first-years go into both schools, there will be a reduced catchment for Devenish, which means that the numbers will go down? Does the Member accept the fact that demographics in Fermanagh are changing and that, if we continue to allow the two grammar schools to cream off 140 pupils, it will result in a reduced intake to Devenish College?
Mr Elliott: It is not just a matter of me accepting it; it is a matter of fact that, if higher numbers go into the two grammar schools, there will be fewer pupils for other schools, be that Devenish or any other. That is a reality. If there is no merger between Collegiate and Portora, there will, of course, be a reduced number for the construction of Devenish.
Mrs Foster: Yes, it will be quick. In response to Mr Allister, the Minister said that an economic appraisal for the new school at Devenish was based on 800 pupils. That has already been set, so the discussion on the closure of two schools and the building of a new school is not connected with Devenish College at all.
Mr Elliott: To be fair, it is for the Minister to answer about whether he will build it for the 800 or 850 or reduce it if there is no merger.
What I was going to say is that there must be equality of funding between the controlled sector and other sectors. I recently received figures for capital spend on schools in Fermanagh in the past seven years. There was £18·12 million spent on capital projects in the maintained sector and associated voluntary grammar, whereas only £4·5 million was spent in the controlled sector and associated voluntary grammar.
Mr Elliott: More than four times as much was spent on capital projects in the maintained sector.
Finally, I want to wish everybody well with future negotiations and discussions, because we have been at it for over 10 years and have not made huge progress.
Mr Lunn: Mr Elliott has summed up quite well the problems around a proposal like this, particularly in Fermanagh. His last comment that we have been at this for 10 years indicates to me that the possibility of consensus on the issue is probably fairly slim. It really requires a decision to be eventually taken that is the best decision for the young children of Fermanagh and provides the best educational outcome for those children. What that would be is the question.
The motion has certainly produced a different debate from what we normally have around education in this place, because it does not mention religion or selection. We are talking about a brand new voluntary grammar versus the continuation of single-sex education on two sites in Enniskillen. That raises this question: what does the parent of a young girl in Enniskillen do if they would prefer that young girl to be educated on a co-educational basis? There is not that facility. It actually applies in reverse.
Mr Lunn: Dungannon is a bit of a distance from Enniskillen.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. The Member will take his seat. I remind Members that making remarks from a sedentary position is not the practice of the Assembly. Continue.
Mr Lunn: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sorry about that.
There is a big debate going on. I have never had so much correspondence on an issue since I joined the Committee. I must say that I have some sympathy for the Fermanagh Members who have to wrestle with this, because it is a difficult one for them.
On the question of whether girls do better if they are educated in a girls-only school, I see statistics that indicate that that may well be the case; I see other statistics that indicate that it is not the case. There is another question because of the size of these two schools: is big better, or is small better? The folk from the Collegiate have very eloquently described how they think their results are terrific because it is a relatively small grammar school restricted to a female intake. Frankly, that just does not stack up in the real world, nor does the argument that a small school is better than a big school. The bigger grammars across Northern Ireland fare very well in any statistics that you look at, as do co-educational schools.
We are talking about the two smallest grammar schools in Northern Ireland. They both have fewer than 500 pupils. If they remain separate, it seems unlikely that they will be able to deliver the full curriculum when the entitlement framework kicks in next year. That will be a legal requirement, so I really do not know what they will do. One Member mentioned the fact that Portora had over 20 classes with fewer than eight pupils. That is not a sustainable position. The normal solution at the present time, which is very much in vogue, is a shared education scenario. Fermanagh is leading the way in shared education, but it does not seem to apply to these schools because, as far as I am aware — I am happy to be corrected — there is no class-sharing element between Portora and the Collegiate or between the Collegiate and Devenish.
Mrs Foster: The Member is wrong about that. The Collegiate is a member of the Fermanagh Learning Community and avails itself of sharing right across the education sectors in County Fermanagh. That is true of the Collegiate and, as far as I am aware, of Portora, so they do access that. They are the smallest grammar schools in Northern Ireland because their numbers are capped. If they were allowed to develop further, they would be bigger schools.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Member for that clarification. She said "as far as I am aware", and my information is that there is no sharing between the Collegiate Grammar and Portora Royal, but that is for another day.
Mr Lunn: Sorry, I am not giving way. That is the information that I have been given.
Effectively, the proposal is for a shared solution in the short-to-medium term, because the two schools can operate on split sites with a joint board. I suggest that, if they are to proceed with that, the joint board might do well to have an independent chairperson. For now, however, we are not content to support a motion that demands that the Minister refuse this development proposal. We think that it has to be a ministerial decision, and I hope that he makes the right decision. To us, the Sinn Féin amendment looks more sensible for the present. We support the Sinn Féin amendment and, if it does not pass, will oppose the main motion.
Mr Storey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I will commence by saying that we should all be glad, as we meet in the House today, that we are not dealing with fatalities as a result of the bus accident this morning on the Omagh Road in Drumquin. Our thoughts are with everyone involved in that very serious situation. It is ironic that it comes the day before we hold an event in the Assembly on bus safety. Our thoughts are with everyone in that regard.
None of us should be under any illusion that, as the safety of children in regard to transport is an important issue, the safety of our children in regard to the decisions that are made for them is equally important. As you are aware, the Education Committee tends not to comment on individual development proposals. The Committee has taken a significant interest in the overarching area planning policy and the effectiveness or ineffectiveness, as some see it, of the current development proposal process. The Committee has taken the view that the development process is overly complex and is generally poorly explained by the education and library boards. The Committee has also noted apparent inconsistencies in linked proposals such as those identified in today's motion. In fact, in the last session of the Assembly, the Minister said that local area-based proposals of this kind should be subject to a single development proposal, but here we are yet again, back in the same place with the same situation facing us, where the closures and amalgamation from these proposals are subject to three development proposals. The Committee has also argued that the development proposal process needs to better include and to be seen to properly consider the voices of pupils and, indeed, the views of parents.
I will spend a few moments in conclusion speaking as the DUP education spokesperson. I apologise for not being present at the commencement of the debate; I was doing an interview with 'Talkback' on Fleming Fulton School. When I came into the Chamber, we were again being subjected to the same hypocritical arguments from Sinn Féin about having a care for all the children in Fermanagh, as though some of us have never been to Devenish, to the Collegiate, to Portora or to visit all the component parts of our education system in Northern Ireland when that could not be further from the truth. With my colleagues, I have continued to ensure that we keep up to date with all the issues in relation to Fermanagh. The education spokesperson from Sinn Féin persistently refers to equality for all the children, when he had the privilege of having a grammar school education. Of course, he wants to deny that to everyone else.
Mr Storey: No, I will not. That is the height of hypocrisy. That is what it is: hypocrisy.
Let us get to the nub of the issue. Why are we 10 years on and Devenish has not even had a sod cut? Why are we in a position where promise after promise has not been delivered to the children in Fermanagh? For 10 years, we have had Sinn Féin Ministers — McGuinness, Ruane and now O'Dowd. Has one of them progressed the issue of Devenish? Has one of them delivered on the promises? No, they have not. If the failure lies anywhere, it lies with those who have responsibility for the Department of Education. Let me deal with the issue that was mentioned by —
Mr McNarry: I thank the Member for giving way. Would he agree with me that this debate and the area we are talking about resonates across Northern Ireland, no more so — I will be brief — than in my constituency, where this morning over 2,000 children caught a bus to go to the school that their parents wanted them to go to. That is not by choice, but because of its absence in their area. Therefore, the lesson from the debate is that we should take care in every constituency. Those in the Alliance Party who are wavering should take care. What is happening and has been happening in Fermanagh for the past 10 years will happen —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I remind Members that interventions should be direct and relate directly to what is being said. The Member has an extra minute.
Mr Storey: I concur with the Member.
Let me put the House on a warning. Let us remember and be assured that the Minister — he is now in receipt of the transport report — will revisit the issue in relation to the distance travelled by children on the basis of parental choice. We await his comments on that report.
Let me deal with an issue that was raised by Mr Flanagan. It is not the first time that he has come to the House with a different view on issues. He talked about resources, the intake and how it is important that those resources are used appropriately. He was not using those arguments to ensure that Brollagh stayed open. He was not using those issues when —
Mr Flanagan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. For Mervyn's information — he said that he was not here, so maybe he will read Hansard — I never mentioned resources. I mentioned intake, but I never mentioned resources. But I can listen.
Mr Storey: I have heard of dancing on the head of a pin, and, of course, that is probably what the Member is trying to do. The reality is this: you cannot argue —
Mr Storey: Mr Deputy Speaker, is he the Speaker or are you the Speaker?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): — and that is very serious. Before I call the next Member, I remind Members not to make personal remarks about other Members.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. From the outset, I confess that I do not have a lot of local knowledge about these schools, but I can speak on the general principles.
I have noted that Mrs Foster has been very passionate about the issue, although I also noted that I had heard one of the least passionate speeches from Lord Morrow that he has ever given in the House. Maybe that tells us a little about how strongly he feels about it. I see that the Chair of the Committee is shaking his head. Why is he shaking his head? On his own admission, he was not even here.
Mr Sheehan: In the interests of equality, I will not give way, because you would not give way.
As in all these education debates, there may be disagreement about certain issues.
We need to bring one principle to bear that would be our guiding light in all of this. The thing that we should keep front and centre in everything that we say, particularly when these debates are publicised and may be listened to by students, not just in Collegiate but in Portora and Devenish, is what is best for the education of the children in all the schools concerned.
By common consensus here today, Tom Elliott said —
Lord Morrow: I think that the Member maybe missed the point that I tried to make in relation to this, and I see that he is, in some way, either trying to minimise it or remake it. The point was this: we are challenging or asking quite clearly today for one thing, which is for the outcomes to the benefit and well-being of the children and the pupils in County Fermanagh. Does he accept that that should be the overriding factor and that nothing else should dictate the outcome?
Mr Sheehan: Of course, I accept that, but, first, I have to make the point. For instance, when my old primary school closed, which was a school that I had attended, my brother had attended, and my father and all his brothers had attended, it felt like part of the family history had gone. I would have preferred that it had not closed and that it was always there and always part of the family. I can understand why past pupils, in particular, might get passionate about it and why it might cloud their objectivity when it comes to making decisions about this —
Mr Sheehan: No, I am not giving way any more. I have already given way once.
I listened to Tom Elliott say that this has been going on for 10 years now. The debate about all of this has been going on for 10 years in Fermanagh. We all received the email from Rev John McDowell and Mr Alex Baird regarding the motion and the fact that they had not been consulted by the proposers of the motion. The development proposals in question had the unanimous support of both boards of governors in Portora and in Devenish College. It said:
"At least 26 consultation meetings were held between April 2007 and February 2013 involving combinations of principals and representatives of the Board of Governors of the Controlled and Voluntary post-primary schools in Fermanagh together with — variously — MLAs, officers of the Western Education and Library Board and officers from the Department of Education to discuss the future of the sectors. Full consensus could not be reached".
Trevor Lunn is right. We are past the point where we are going to get consensus around this issue. That is why we have a Minister, because, when consensus cannot be reached and when the Minister has all the evidence sitting in front of him, he then can make a decision. That is why he is there. I hope — I am quite sure, in fact — that the Minister will make a decision that is in the best interests of all the children in the education system in Fermanagh.
Mr Byrne: Like Mr Storey, I want to mention the bus accident outside Drumquin this morning and, hopefully, all the children will make a full recovery.
As a Tyrone man, I am hesitant about getting involved in a debate regarding schools in Fermanagh, but I feel that I have an obligation, as a former teacher, to address the issue. This is a hot education issue in Enniskillen, and there are competing views about the Western Board's development proposals for the reorganisation of secondary schools in the controlled voluntary grammar sector in Fermanagh. There would appear to be different views around the nature and the quality of the local area consultation that we conducted prior to the development proposals being finalised.
Last April, I met the principal of the Collegiate school, some governors and some parent representatives, and they certainly felt aggrieved about that. The Collegiate community certainly feels aggrieved that it is being shoehorned into a new co-educational college incorporating the Collegiate and Portora schools. Both of those schools have a very proud education history and legacy going back 100-plus years. The proposed co-educational voluntary grammar school on a split site has generated tensions between the respective school communities in Enniskillen. Area-based planning on education is a difficult exercise at any time in any community; it is certainly so here.
The governors and parents of the Collegiate School feel that the issue of a new Devenish College is being used by the Department as a weapon in this debate. It is obvious that there is a lack of broad community consensus and support between all the existing school communities in the Enniskillen controlled sector on this matter. That is regrettable. I recognise Mr Elliott's pointing out that this debate has gone on for 10 years, but it might take another few years to get the outcome right.
The motion is a blunt instrument at this time, but the principal of the Collegiate is very sincere and dedicated to her school's community. The proposed amendment is regarded as complicating the issue because it invokes the question of the Devenish College. There needs to be more discussion in Enniskillen on the matter in order to gain broader community support for the final proposals, whatever they will be.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. As a member of the Education Committee, I support the proposed amendment. Some Members quite have deliberately attempted to suggest that the wording of the amendment was either mischievous or confusing. It is neither of those things. It simply requires that the development proposals ensure access to high-quality education for all our young people in our communities, as any development proposals should.
The motion rightly commends the excellent exam results this year. I think that we should acknowledge those results and congratulate all the pupils and schools for their hard work and successes. There is no mischievousness, lack of clarity or confusion in the fact that the proposed amendment rightly includes the provision for a new build at Devenish. That is clear. There is no confusion there. As has been pointed out, the board and the CCMS have statutory planning responsibilities, and it is important to reflect that developing sustainable educational provision must involve meeting the needs of all the population, not just one part of it.
As has rightly been pointed out, the WELB has published its development proposals. They would, as has been reflected on, mean the closure of Collegiate Grammar and Portora Schools by September 2015, and they introduce a notion of facilitating the creation of a single, co-educational, non-denominational voluntary school. It is important to note today that the correspondence that we have received indicates that Devenish and the governors of Portora support the amalgamation of the two smallest grammar schools to form that co-educational institution. The assertion that has been made that the Collegiate School is the most oversubscribed school is true of only one of the past five years, which was 2013.
I want to pick up on a comment that Mr Lunn made, suggesting that a fully mixed-gender educational provision would not provide better educational outcomes. I do not know where that has been evidenced anywhere. I know that Mr Lunn has relayed that information, but nothing that I have heard today backs up the claim that any evidence-based approach to this development proposal would produce an inequality. Nothing I have heard today from the Benches opposite backs up the idea that these development proposals would produce that inequality. I ask the DUP this: where are the facts? Its Members have commented that this would produce an inequality. Education must be centred on access for all our young people to high-quality education that is educationally sound and sustainable as well as economically viable. Therefore, decisions around educational changes and choices must continue to be centred on children and not institutions.
Mr Kinahan: I am pleased to get in before we get to questions for oral answer. I am also pleased to speak on the subject. I am not from Fermanagh and thus hesitate to be fully involved, but I am part of the Education Committee and think that it is right that we look at the principles.
When I first looked at the motion, I saw a very different one from what I have heard come from the DUP Benches. I am concerned that we are still getting mixed messages. That is because it looked, to me, to be a motion that was very much taking one side rather than trying to find a solution. As many here will know, I spend my life in the Chamber trying to promote consensus and ways forward.
All of us, of course, agree with commending both schools for their excellent GCSE and A-level results and that we should pour praise on the hard-working teachers and staff in all the schools, just as they should praise pupils who achieve the results and the families who helped them. Here we have two excellent schools pitted against each other, so it seems, and the community divided. However, even that picture is not accurate, as the motion focuses on just those schools and ignores so many other aspects of the picture in Enniskillen. It ignores the other schools, the other education establishments — their teachers, staff, communities, parents and right the way through, even to parents and pupils who were at the schools.
Mr Storey: I know that the Member is trying to sit on the fence, but maybe he can come out and tell us his party's view on the Collegiate. Where does he stand on supporting the Collegiate? Without any ambiguity or doublespeak, just tell us this: where does the Member's party stand on the protection of educational provision for Collegiate pupils?
Mr Kinahan: Thank you. I am very grateful for that, and it will become clear, as he listens to what I say today.
At least the amendment mentions other schools, albeit just Devenish, yet all are important. The amendment too focuses only on the controlled sector. There is no mention of the maintained sector or integrated sector, the latter of which there may be great effects for as well. We long to see the build at Devenish and to see it split away from today's motion. However, where is the shared education drive that everyone talks about? At times, I think that only our party is pushing it. Where is the inclusion of the excellent work that the Fermanagh Trust has done and is doing, showing that schools are and can work well together? That is what the public want to see. I acknowledge that all schools have been and are involved, but that is the leadership that we should be following.
When I looked at today's motion, I found that it looked as though it was trying to divide, when what is really needed is leadership to find a consensus on the way forward in order to try to give Collegiate and Portora what they want and to work with everyone there. I feel that there is an attempt to mislead the public, in that the motion states that the Assembly "requires the Minister". It seems to be trying to tell the public that the Minister has to take on board what is in the motion, when that is not the case and when we have seen most Ministers ignore no-day-named motions all the time.
Quite rightly, though, the motion highlights the abysmal development process, and therein are the failures that relate to Portora and Collegiate. Wherever it is used, this development process fails every community. Whether primary or post-primary, Belfast or Fermanagh, it creates division between schools and, especially, between communities, be they in Newtownbreda, Dundonald, Shankill or, today, Enniskillen.
Mr Elliott: Does the Member accept the difficulties in the piecemeal approach that we have to the closure of schools?
Not long ago, we had the closures of Ballinamallard and Kesh, which were Duke of Westminster schools. Then, there was Lisnaskea, and now there is a proposal to close the Collegiate. There was no pre-planning for any of that.
Mr Kinahan: I fully acknowledge that. Therein lie the problems that we have today. As we heard earlier in the debate, it is because we have not found a whole way forward for the area that you have the motion and the amendment today, which do not suit everybody. If we go back to the numbers that the whole process is based on —
Mr Kinahan: Thank you very much.
I want to see a consensus solution found on the way forward that suits all the schools concerned and causes no division.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Jim Allister. Members will take their ease while we change the top Table.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair)
Mr P Robinson (The First Minister): With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 1 and 8 together. The St Andrews Agreement provided for a number of changes to the institutions, which facilitated the restoration of devolution in May 2007. The St Andrews Agreement also provided that the devolved arrangements would be reviewed, and a Standing Committee has been established by the Assembly to carry that out. The deputy First Minister and I have had discussions on such matters on numerous occasions, including as recently as last week. It is hoped that agreement can be reached between the parties on such matters.
In my capacity as a party leader, I have made my position clear. I have outlined what I believe needs to be done to deliver more effective and efficient institutions. Ultimately, however, it will be for each of the political parties to put forward their own proposals as to the reform of the current structures. It is in everyone's interest to participate in the discussion and deliver the most effective and efficient form of government that we can achieve.
Mr Byrne: I thank the First Minister for his answer. Will he outline whether there is a lack of functionality in the structures, or is there a lack of a professional relationship between the two office holders in OFMDFM? Is there a problem in relation to those relationships in how decisions are made at the highest level of the Executive?
Mr P Robinson: I am pleased to say that relationships in OFMDFM have not descended to the levels of when his party leader and the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party held those positions. This is a matter dealing with the arrangements that govern the modus operandi of the Assembly and Executive. It needs to be borne out by the fact that this was something that was predicted and predictable; we recognised at St Andrews that the unusual arrangements that we were setting up could not be permanent and would need to be reviewed. Therefore, in the St Andrews Agreement and in the subsequent legislation, we made provision for that review.
I do not think that anyone in the Chamber — there are certainly very few outside — believes that things are going so swimmingly in the Assembly and Executive that we are not in need of reform. To some extent, the argument that it is not fit for purpose is one that perhaps even transcends the Northern Ireland Assembly; I could probably make the same case for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Government, the Westminster Parliament and Europe, all of whom are looking at ways to improve the way they operate. What kind of an Assembly would we be if we missed the opportunity to try to improve the way we do business and get a better outcome for the people we represent?
Mr McCarthy: Does the First Minister agree that among the things that make the present arrangements not fit for purpose, as he would say, is the misuse of petitions of concern by him and the DUP? That gives the public reason to be disillusioned with the Assembly in its entirety.
Mr P Robinson: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, you allowed the Member to make those remarks even though they are a criticism of the Chair. If anybody is misusing the procedures of the House, it is the job of the Chair to call them to order. Clearly, the procedures of the House are being used. The Member may not like the way they are used, but that is an entirely different matter.
The use of petitions of concern is one of the many issues that I suspect parties in this House would like to consider further, and some would like to see a review. I am not so tied to any of the procedures in this House that I would stand up and say that they could not be improved. So, I am sure that the Member or his party, in any discussions and negotiations that take place, will raise that if it is one of the key issues for them.
Mr Nesbitt: In light of the First Minister's answers to date, reflecting on the 2011 DUP manifesto, which made the point that petitions of concern should not be used to block motions of no confidence, and considering how the DUP have deployed petitions of concern in this mandate, does he still believe in what he wrote in 2011?
Mr P Robinson: It ill becomes anybody from the Ulster Unionist Party to raise those issues. There are those in this Chamber, and it is regrettable, who put down party political motions of no confidence. Every week, we could be putting down a motion of no confidence in one party or another or their representatives in the Executive. Perhaps we need a bit more mature thinking in the Assembly so that we are not taking up the time of some Committees and taking up time in the Assembly and are getting down to the business that people out there really want us to do: getting more jobs and improving the lot of people who are vulnerable in our society rather than engaging in the party bickering that sometimes goes on in this Chamber.
Mr Campbell: The First Minister referred to his comments about the institutions not being fit for purpose. Many people indicated that that was an accurate summary, but he was criticised by a number of political parties, including Sinn Féin. Yet, over the weekend, the former Minister and current MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew, said that the institutions were untenable. Does he see a distinction between the two comments?
Mr P Robinson: There clearly is a distinction between the two comments. If I am quoting the former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development correctly, she said the situation was:
"perilous — I would actually say untenable".
However, all of us know that we are faced with a set of circumstances that arise from issues relating to welfare reform. We are going to be facing costs that simply cannot be taken into account by our Budget. With a £10 billion Budget to carry out all the programmes and processes of government, we cannot contemplate a reduction of over £1 billion a year. It simply cannot be done. If people want to bury their head in the sand, be in denial about these matters and fool themselves that somehow things could be different if there was another Government at Westminster or that somehow they can put pressure on the coalition Government to change course, they are heading for a set of circumstances that will ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society are worst hit because the health service, the education system, the justice system and all the other elements of government that they need most will not be available to them without very considerable reductions in service.
Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat. Does the First Minister agree that there is a need for wide-ranging negotiations to include flags, parades and the past?
Mr P Robinson: I apologise for the length of the article, which ran into a couple of thousand words.
Those who took the time to read it will have seen that I argued the case that though issues like flags, parades and the past have caused difficulties to our present circumstances, none was capable of endangering the institutions and bringing them down. The matters of urgency are the way that we operate as an Assembly and Executive, and welfare reform.
While there certainly is a case that there are many issues that need to be discussed and where getting agreement is potentially advantageous, it is imperative that we deal with the matters capable of bringing down the Assembly and Executive. Do not fool yourselves about this issue: we simply cannot tolerate a set of circumstances in which £1 billion is to be taken off our Budget.
If anybody wants to say, "These other items are more important or as important", let them tell me where they will make the reductions of £1 billion. It simply cannot be done. This is not away down the road. In the next financial year, almost £200 million will be taken out of our already squeezed Budget as a result of welfare reform issues. We simply cannot dodge it. We must deal with it and deal with it immediately.
Mr Allister: The First Minister is on record as saying that things cannot go on as they are. Does there come a point, therefore, when, if meaningful change is not made, the First Minister will take that advice and cease to sustain the institutions? What are the red-line issues that would take him to that point?
Mr P Robinson: Nobody in the Chamber will be able to withstand the public outcry if we attempt to take £1 billion out of our Budget. The whole lot of us will be swept from office, and we would deserve to be swept from office if we tolerated such a set of circumstances. It is, as the former Minister of Agriculture said, simply not tenable.
Mr McCallister: Reflecting on the First Minister's words about this place not being fit for purpose, how does he perceive that he will achieve a proper Programme for Government and collective Cabinet responsibility when there is nothing to stop any party walking out of the all-party talks process for perceived political gain? Will he now give a commitment to support my private Member's Bill to bring in a government in opposition?
Mr P Robinson: I did not know that the Member had published his Bill, so it would be very rash to support something that I have not even seen, though I am sure that it will be full of improvements. Having talked to him about the issue, I know that some of the issues he mentions are ones that I would readily support, although I have concerns about some that he has talked about.
The fact that he has in preparation a private Member's Bill to improve the way that the Assembly functions is an indicator that there is clearly a need for us to upgrade the Assembly and Executive's functions and arrangements. If we take that as a given, I have had a meeting with, I think, every party and those who are independents in the House. At those meetings, there was a realistic recognition on the part of everybody whom I spoke to that we needed to improve the way that we operate.
Unquestionably, people will come from different angles on what the priorities for change are, but, first, let us all at least accept the need for change. When we accept that, we can start a proper and helpful debate about what those changes can be, how they will impact on the delivery that we have for the public and how we can be sure that we do not end up with deadlock but can get decisions taken in the Assembly and Executive.
Mr P Robinson: The Assembly and Executive Review Committee has a statutory responsibility under section 29A of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to report before 1 May 2015 on the operation of Parts III and IV of that Act, which set out the arrangements for the devolved institutions.
The Committee began its review in 2012, producing separate reports that year on the future size of the Assembly and the number of Departments. It has since produced reports on the d’Hondt arrangements, community designation, provisions for an opposition and, most recently, on petitions of concern. The Committee is currently undertaking further important work regarding the role of women in politics and in the Assembly.
The deputy First Minister and I met the Chair and the Deputy Chair of the Committee on 4 April 2012 at the start of its review. Where appropriate, we may make representations to the Committee as it conducts further work in relation to parts III and IV of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In the past, when there was an agreed position on matters under review by the Committee, representations were made, notably in relation to the devolution of policing and justice. In circumstances where further agreements are reached, we anticipate making further representations to the Committee. We welcome the work of the Committee and the opportunity that its reports present for Assembly plenary debate on our structures of government.
Mr Spratt: In light of the announcement by the Prime Minister following the rejection of the Scottish independence referendum, does the First Minister think that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee could play a useful role in the discussion around devolution for Northern Ireland in the wider United Kingdom context?
Mr P Robinson: In the context of the 1998 Act, there is a requirement for the Assembly and Executive Review Committee to carry out a review before May 2015 on internal Northern Ireland matters. However, there is no exclusion placed on the Assembly or the Committee on looking at wider issues relating to Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom and the structures that would best suit Northern Ireland for our relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. I think that it would be a very useful exercise for the Committee and one that all parties in the Chamber need to consider over the next number of weeks and months.
An important debate has begun in the United Kingdom; it is clear that there are going to be changes in the operation of our constitution as a part of this nation. As parties in the Assembly, we want to be sure that we get the best possible arrangements for Northern Ireland. Already in the economic pact that was signed by the deputy First Minister and me and by the Prime Minister, there is an agreement to look at all the fiscal levers that are at the disposal of the United Kingdom to see whether any of them could be devolved to Northern Ireland. It is much in that same vein that I think the pledge that was made to Scotland was set out. So, that already is an undertaking that we have from the United Kingdom Government and one that we are presently doing work on in the Department of Finance and Personnel on the financial levers. However, there are wider constitutional matters about our place at Westminster, including the role that our MPs would have at Westminster and whether the House of Lords could be a more representative Chamber in relation to the regions. There are a number of different issues that the Committee could and should look at, but it should not be it exclusively that does that. I think that, as political parties, we should be doing it too.
Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the First Minister agree that any review of the Assembly structures must be rooted firmly in the terms of the Good Friday Agreement?
Mr P Robinson: The Belfast Agreement was not like the law of the Medes and Persians which changeth not and was a recognition that there was room for improvement, room for updating and room for upgrading. Indeed, if the Member was right, we would never have had a St Andrews Agreement and we would never have had a Hillsborough Castle Agreement. So, clearly, things do move on, and improvements are made along the way. Certainly, nothing should be done in a new agreement that destabilises political life in Northern Ireland and allows us to go back to the dark days of the past.
Mr Attwood: Can I point out the inconsistency of the First Minister when he says that only welfare could bring down the institutions? It was only a matter of months ago, First Minister, that you threatened these institutions around an issue from the past, so do not be inconsistent in this Chamber today. First Minister, do you believe that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee issues about the institutions, petitions of concern and the rest are part of the negotiations that you have called for, or is the truth of it that you just want a negotiation to break parties on welfare, get corporation tax and put all the other issues like parades and the past into the long grass?
Mr P Robinson: Once again, characteristically, the Member gets it wrong. I never threatened these institutions at all. I indicated that I could not remain in government if there was not a judge-led inquiry into the on-the-runs (OTR) issue. I am glad that there was a judge-led inquiry, that the inquiry made recommendations, that the Government accepted those recommendations and that, as a result of their accepting those recommendations, the validity of the letters has now changed, and the letters will no longer be able to be relied on by anybody whom the police want to deal with.
I have dealt with the Member's inaccuracy rather than my inconsistency, so let me now deal with what would be on the agenda for the modalities of the Assembly and the Executive. I am indicating that I want to improve the arrangements in the Assembly and for the Executive. It would be utter folly, in wanting to improve the modalities of the House, if I were to suggest that people should not be able to raise and seek agreement on issues that are important to them. Of course we will look at all the issues to see how best we can get a properly effective and efficiently running Assembly and Executive so that decisions can be taken and do not lie in deadlock. I would have thought that among those who would be cheering me from the rafters would be the party whose leader recognised a long time ago that the ugly scaffolding of the agreement needed to be removed.
Mr P Robinson: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will ask junior Minister Jonathan Bell to answer the question.
Mr Bell (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): The current Programme for Government sets out our vision for a society in which equality, mutual trust and respect are core values. Achieving that vision requires tackling not just sectarianism and racism but other forms of intolerance. The Together: Building a United Community (T: BUC) strategy recognises the problems that lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people face due to prejudice and intolerance. The specific needs of LGB people were articulated clearly during the public consultation on the draft strategy for cohesion, sharing and integration, which included the commitment to publish the sexual orientation strategy. We remain committed to publishing a sexual orientation strategy, which will be informed by a full public consultation. The intention is that the strategy and the associated action plans will address the issues that impact on the daily lives of LGB people.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for that answer. I welcome the fact that he talks about equality and mutual respect being the core principles and that we have to do away with prejudice and intolerance. Does the Minister agree that that strategy is severely undermined, if not weakened, by the fact that there continues to be a nonsensical ban on gay men giving blood?
Mr Bell: That is a matter for the Department of Health.
Mr Eastwood: I thank the junior Minister for his answers thus far. When was this issue last raised at the Executive, and who raised it?
Mr Bell: If the Member does not know, he should know that I am not permitted to give out the content of Executive business.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the junior Minister for his responses. Will he inform the House whether the consultation responses contained any reference to current legislative protections for the LGB community?
Mr Bell: Yes. We had a wide range of responses, and in discussions that we have had with a range of groups, we have also looked at the existing legislation that seeks to tackle discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Any new strategy can raise awareness and give effect to current legislation. So, in drafting the strategy in OFMDFM, we will highlight that it can help give effect to existing legal protections to ensure that they are properly understood and enacted. It can highlight that the strategy can address issues that are outside the scope of existing legal protection. Everyone in the House has a commitment to supporting good relations and to addressing bullying in any form in which it comes.
Mr P Robinson: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will ask junior Minister Jonathan Bell to answer the question.
Mr Bell: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and OFMDFM officials have been working together to agree how best to take forward the development of an Internet safety strategy for Northern Ireland. Given its statutory duty to work together to safeguard children and young people and to promote their welfare, it was agreed that an approach should be made to the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland to seek its approval in principle to take forward the development of an interagency Internet safety strategy. In June 2014, agreement in principle was obtained from the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland. With the agreement of all Ministers, it is intended that the development of the strategy will be formally commissioned on behalf of the Executive.
Mrs Overend: I thank the junior Minister for his answer. The Department will not be surprised to hear that I am pressing it again on the Internet safety strategy, considering that I have been on its back about it since autumn 2012. Surely the Ministers in OFMDFM and the Minister of Health can come to some sort of agreement sooner rather than later and allocate whatever amount of money needs to be given to the Safeguarding Board for the draft strategy and for it to get on with the job. Can the Minister indicate a time frame, and can he indicate how much money is needed to progress the strategy?
Mr Bell: The Member has been very encouraging in the work that she has done with OFMDFM and the charitable sector. While we look to develop that strategy in the Department of Health, it would be wrong for anybody to go out without an understanding of the work that is under way. I am talking about not just the work that we have done in schools such as St Ita's Primary School and Wellington College but the work that we have done on reaching key players in the European Union, because those major Internet players are the drivers that put the content on to the Internet. We have fully engaged with Facebook. We went to its European headquarters in Dublin to address what it could do and to support the ambassadors against bullying, particularly the young people from our schools in Northern Ireland who are taking a lead role as ambassadors against bullying on the Internet.
OFMDFM has also been part of a major conference with COFACE, the Confederation of Family Organisations in the European Union, which is one of the major charities on the European scene seeking to protect children. A very simple point should go out to all our young people that they should treat their personal information in exactly the same way as they would treat their toothbrush: do not share it, and certainly do not share it over the Internet.
Mr Humphrey: On the theme of working across government, I ask the junior Minister what steps he and his Department have taken in working alongside the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety?
Mr Bell: In recognising the role that has been played by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in child protection, I should also pay tribute to the Member for the work that he has undertaken in north Belfast to keep children safe, particularly from cybercrime and cyberbullying, but we have taken advantage of our own central role in the Executive to help inform the discussions on how we can best protect children from abuse through the Internet. We commissioned research to gain a better understanding of Internet use by P7 pupils. We engaged with the United Kingdom Safer Internet Centre, the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland and many of the relevant stakeholder organisations.
We undertook a review of activity on Internet safety across all the relevant Departments to identify the current actions, where gaps are, and any further actions that need to be taken to address the risks. In addition, we recognised the importance of ensuring that clear messages were provided to parents, children and practitioners. We have been supportive of the recent report from the Safeguarding Board on that issue.
Public awareness is critical to addressing the issue. As Ministers, we will be happy to play our part through the events that give us the platform to do so, such as Safer Internet Day, to ensure that the correct messages are communicated and that children and young people stay safe. We have advised Minister Poots that the cross-departmental structure that we have developed for the Delivering Social Change framework provides the ideal opportunity to coordinate work on Internet safety across the Executive.
1. Mr G Kelly asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they agree that, given the result of the Scottish referendum, we should be arguing for the fullest possible transfer of fiscal powers to the Assembly. (AQT 1461/11-15)
Mr P Robinson: I am sure that the Member will join me in welcoming the outcome of the Scottish referendum and the strong desire to retain the Union with the rest of the United Kingdom. In welcoming that, I recognise that he wants to strengthen the Union by improving the structures in the United Kingdom. In that context, as I indicated earlier in Question Time, we already have a commitment from the United Kingdom Government in the economic pacts that were signed by the deputy First Minister and me with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, that we would consider all the fiscal levers to see what further powers should be devolved.
I do not accept the premise that simply transferring the economic levers into the hands of the Assembly will necessarily transform the social and economic policy of Northern Ireland. There is a limit to the impact that many of those taxes and other arrangements would have to enable the Executive to make real and meaningful change. There is no panacea to be found in that, but there would be a significant cost if we were to take over responsibility for some of those elements and had to operate them ourselves rather than having the economy of scale of the whole of the United Kingdom operating them.
Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chéad-Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the First Minister for his answer up to now. Let me not join him in welcoming the result of the referendum. However, there has been a referendum, and the issue at stake here — and I ask the First Minister again — is that there is certainly an impression that the DUP is not up for more power being brought to the Assembly. Does he not agree that, while Scotland is arguing for more powers, especially in the fiscal area with taxes and other matters, we should get as much power here as possible so that we can have an impact on the economy and the lives of people in the North as opposed to leaving it to the whim of people in London?
Mr P Robinson: The first things that we need to ask ourselves when we look at taking any additional power is whether we can operate it and do we have the cohesion in the Assembly and Executive to be able to take decisions on taxation matters. Secondly, if we had that power, would there be a financial incentive or advantage to us or would it simply be to tax more, which is the answer that some people will give? Thirdly, if we are going to have that power, would there be a cost to us in operating it? I suppose that there is a fourth question, which is this: what social or economic change can we bring about by exercising that power?
Look at some of the taxes that are available. I think that there would be little difficulty in us operating such a scheme as stamp duty land tax. It is doable. I do not think that it would transform the economy in Northern Ireland, and there would be a small cost attached to it. However, it certainly is doable. If VAT was to be considered, there would be some major EU difficulties with Northern Ireland being given those powers. Even if it was being devolved around the United Kingdom, there would be very considerable costs, although, on the upside, it would, for instance, allow you to look at hotels, restaurants and other tourist-led functions and reduce VAT to increase that element of the economy. So there are levers that you could use if you had VAT control. However, I do not think that we would get it, because of Europe, and there would be a cost to us exercising that power. Landfill tax is, again, doable, but is not going to bring the transformative change that the Member is looking for. Corporation tax is, in my view, doable and valuable, and we should continue to seek it. Income tax, which is being offered to the Scots and is up for referendum in Wales, would be a very considerable difficulty and would have a significant cost, as indeed would some of the other elements, such as National Insurance contributions. So it is no panacea. There are problems that need to be thoroughly investigated, and I am glad that the Department of Finance and Personnel is already preparing papers on each of those elements.
2. Mr P Ramsey asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how they view the extension of voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds in light of the Scottish referendum and the clear evidence that there was much greater participation by all generations, not just in the debate but in the vote, which some put down to the extension of those voting rights. (AQT 1462/11-15)
Mr P Robinson: Clearly, if you allow more people to vote, the possibility of increased voting is inevitable. However, participation was so high, right across Scotland, that it indicated that the issues at stake in this election were of such importance to the people of Scotland, of every age group, that we had a massive poll. Unfortunately, when we get around to parliamentary, Assembly or European elections, there are a whole range of issues. The importance of any significant issue does not outweigh your constitutional status. People come out depending on how important they view an election to be. That is the same whether you are 16 and 17 or 60 and 70.
Mr P Ramsey: I thank the First Minister for his response. I think that he may have glossed over the particular point that I was making. Does the First Minister not believe that it is important to hear the views of our young people in particular, who feel marginalised and apathetic towards politics? Will he undertake a review, in conjunction with consulting with young people, of the role that young people should play in future elections?
Mr P Robinson: I am not sure that that is a transferred matter. Nonetheless, no matter what age is stipulated in legislation, a case can always be made for reducing it. If it was 16 and 17, people would come along and tell us that 15-year-olds are now more mature than they have ever been before and they are interested in politics, and we should reduce the voting age. And so it goes on, so that, along with your birth certificate, you will be registering for elections.
We need to recognise that there is an age when we can be certain that people understand the issues, are likely to come out in the appropriate numbers and have had sufficient experience of life to enable them to take key decisions. People are more capable of taking major decisions younger and younger. However, I am not sure that we have reached the stage where such a significant change should be made. Happily, that is a reserved matter for Westminster.
4. Mr Sheehan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they can confirm that stakeholder engagement will formally address or consider all options to deal with any gaps identified in childcare provision following the introduction of a new childcare tax scheme, in the context of the proposed legislative consent motion on the Childcare Payments Bill. (AQT 1464/11-15)
Mr P Robinson: I will ask my colleague Jonathan Bell to answer that question.
Mr Bell: The Member raises a very important point about the replacement of the childcare scheme, which was repealed.
Therefore, if we were to continue with what was previously in existence, we would have to look at a legislative change. For all parents out there, we want to ensure that we have a simplified childcare tax scheme. The previous mechanism, for many parents to whom we have spoken, was cumbersome, difficult, complex and difficult to negotiate. I am sure that all Members' constituency offices, like mine, found it so. Therefore, we should look towards a simplified childcare scheme that looks towards the equivalent in tax and at how we could use that investment.
We want two wins: the first is to ensure that the benefit for those who need childcare increases, if at all possible; and the second is that it is used and taken up by a greater number of people. That will be our focus in the period to come.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. Will the Department invite both Employers For Childcare and the ICTU, among others, to engage on their concerns about the new provision?
Mr Bell: Since taking office, I have been in a number of meetings with Employers For Childcare and with a range of trade union bodies. It is important that we listen to all the views expressed to see what can be done. I am pleased to inform the House that we have pushed ahead, not only in this scheme but in our Bright Start strategy. We have looked at where we can base that strategy in schools and use the existing school estate so that more young people can access the care that is there. We can develop the social enterprises and communities where there is limited childcare. Remember that, with school-age childcare, you can be one of up to 19 competing for a place in certain areas. We are looking at where we can use social enterprise and plough any profits that are made back into the community. We have looked at needs in rural areas, which was raised as an issue to us. I have specifically looked at a childminder scheme for the rural areas. Of most concern for lifting people out of poverty is the issue of deprivation. All of those issues have been tackled in OFMDFM's Bright Start scheme.
5. Mr Eastwood asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for their assessment of the progress of the north-west gateway initiative. (AQT 1465/11-15)
Mr P Robinson: I will ask junior Minister Jonathan Bell to answer the question.
Mr Bell: A number of meetings have taken place, particularly in relation to the One Plan and the interdepartmental working group that exists there. That group provides strategic analysis and advice to the Executive, other Departments and the Londonderry Strategy Board on the most appropriate means through which the Executive's policies, programmes and projects can positively impact on the themes and programmes that are identified in that plan. The group is also monitoring progress and providing a forum for the discussion and resolution of cross-cutting issues that affect more than one Department. The interdepartmental group meets formally twice a year, and the next meeting is scheduled for October. Progress continues to be made on the implementation of the One Plan across each of the catalyst programmes to grow the economy and provide more local jobs.
Mr Eastwood: Given that one of the key catalytic projects within the One Plan was the expansion of Magee, will the Minister or First Minister give their commitment to seeing that happen by 2020?
Mr Bell: The issue of the expansion of the University of Ulster at Magee is important. The Minister for Employment and Learning recognised that the One Plan foresaw the expansion of higher education in Londonderry as key to the city's regeneration. He is committed to the expansion of higher education throughout Northern Ireland.
The One Plan had an additional target of having 1,000 additional undergraduate places by 2015. The Minister for Employment and Learning has been able to increase the number of undergraduate places in the two universities by 1,210. The University of Ulster has received 652, and those have been deployed at Magee. Any expansion of undergraduate numbers beyond what has already been achieved would require additional recurring funding that, I understand, the Department for Employment and Learning currently does not have.
An economic appraisal for the expansion of Magee is being prepared by the Londonderry Strategy Board. The Employment and Learning Minister proposes, if the appraisal makes the case that expansion is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and the city, to submit a bid in the next comprehensive spending review.
Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): Effective enforcement is an integral part of the planning process, and all alleged breaches of planning control are investigated.
My Department has a general discretion to take enforcement action when it regards it as expedient to do so. In determining the most appropriate course of action in response to alleged breaches of planning control, my Department will take into account the extent of the breach and its potential impact on the environment.
Planning enforcement can be a lengthy, protracted and complex process, with many issues and circumstances that may need to be considered. The Department's aim is to rectify the breach, and in many cases the breach is addressed without the need for formal enforcement action. For example, the applicant may submit a retrospective planning application to regularise the situation. In other cases, formal action is necessary. However, it may be held in abeyance until an application is determined or an enforcement notice is appealed, which can add many months on to the time taken to resolve a case. Other Departments and agencies can also have a bearing on the effective enforcement of planning control.
Given those various factors, it is therefore not possible to advise of a definitive timescale for dealing with enforcement investigations and any associated action taken. However, my Department has a business plan target to process to a conclusion 70% of cases within 39 weeks. The most recently published annual stats confirmed that, in 2013-14, 66% of enforcement cases were brought to a conclusion within that time period.
Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his response. What assurances can he give the House today in relation to businesses, some of which are in my constituency, that open up, never apply for planning permission and are allowed to trade, sometimes for years, before any enforcement action is taken?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Moutray for the question and the supplementary question.
As outlined in my initial answer, the Department takes any alleged breach of planning control very seriously. Of course, operating or establishing a business without planning permission or even a planning application is such a breach and is therefore taken seriously. Unfortunately, the complexity of some of the cases, as well as the fact that many out there are willing, ready and able to exploit that complexity for their own ends, means that they can take a long time to pursue and to bring to a satisfactory conclusion.
I am aware of some of the cases in Mr Moutray's constituency to which he, no doubt, refers. Currently there are over 2,800 planning enforcement cases, so I am loath to go into the details of any specific application on the Chamber Floor. As I said, in an ideal world, people would apply for and comply with planning control, and, therefore, the Department and I take this very seriously. In advance of the transfer of the planning function to councils in particular, I am determined to make huge inroads into that frightening figure of 2,800 cases.
Ms Lo: The delay in processing cases is sometimes due to the lack of manpower in the Department. Is the Minister confident that he has enough enforcement officers, particularly with the forthcoming handover of planning powers to councils?
Mr Durkan: I thank Ms Lo for her question. I am certainly confident in the capacity of the officers I have. However, like any Minister, I would certainly welcome more resources, be they financial or human resources, to deal with not just enforcement but a range of issues that fall under the responsibility of my Department.
I mentioned to Mr Moutray the emphasis that I am putting on clearing the backlog of enforcement cases in advance of the transfer of the function to councils. At the point of transfer, councils will be responsible for investigating alleged breaches of planning control. The councils will also determine what action, if any, will be taken. The Department will, however, retain reserved powers to take enforcement action in exceptional circumstances.
It is very alarming — I referred to this in my initial answer — that there are so many people out there who tend to flout planning regulations and have the nous or know-how to play and frustrate the system. It is my aim to strengthen the system so that it is not as exploitable as it currently is.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Following on from his answers, will the Minister assure us that the model he has to deal with enforcement is fit for purpose in transferring to local authorities? Would he consider an extra role for a building control officer in local authorities to assist in the enforcement of cases?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. I thank Mr Boylan for that question. As I said, I am content that my staff are capable. I would very much welcome additional resources, not just for enforcement but right across planning and other departmental functions. Once councils assume planning functions and take responsibility for enforcement, it will be very much a matter for them to deal with. The budget currently associated with that function will transfer in full to councils, as will the staff who currently carry out that function. However, should a council determine that it needs or would like additional resources for enforcement — if, for example, there is a plethora of live cases in a council area that require extra attention — it can by all means proceed to deal with that as it may and allocate resources accordingly.
Mr Agnew: Has the precedent set by the use of retrospective planning permission almost sent a signal to developers that they should act first and get permission later? If so, what will be done to correct that?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Agnew for his question. Like yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker, I had difficulty hearing the start of it. I think I got the gist of it, which is that there seems to be an attitude out there that it is easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I know that Mr Agnew has a particular interest in minerals applications for retrospective approval. His point is a very important one, and I agree with him on it. People need to get things right and do them in the right order.
If someone wants to build something or carry out a business somewhere, they must apply for planning permission, if it is necessary. That should be reflected in the seriousness and severity with which their enforcement cases are dealt.
Mr Durkan: My Department has not given the new councils any branding guidance or advice. There is no legislative requirement for it to do so, nor, I believe, would it be appropriate. The new councils require a strong corporate brand to enable their stakeholders to identify with them. This makes it very much a local matter that councils are best placed to undertake themselves.
My Department does, however, have powers to change the name of a council. Section 1 of the Local Government Act 2014 provides that the name of each council is the name of the local government district followed by the words "district council". Section 1 also allows the Department to make regulations to provide for the name of a council to be other than that provided for by section 1 of the 2014 Act. I stress, however, that regulations of that nature would be made only at the request of a council and would permit the council to decide on a name that does not end in the words "district council".
Section 51 of the Local Government Act 1972 provides that the Department may, by order made on the application of a council, change the name of the district of a council. If a name change order is made under the powers conferred by that provision, the final two words of the council’s name must remain "district council".
Regardless of which power is used to change the name of a council, section 2 of the Local Government Act 1972 provides for a council to be known as a borough council, if it is in possession of a borough charter, or as a city council, if there is a city within the local government district.
Does that clarify it?
Mr I McCrea: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. That is as clear as mud. Nonetheless, I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister will be aware that some councils attempt to use language as an opportunity to get one up on one side of the community by using the Irish language or, indeed, Ulster Scots. Can the Minister ensure that his Department keeps a close eye on councils that introduce languages other than English, to ensure that no minority community is treated unequally?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary. I see where he is coming from: the importance of the need to safeguard the rights and wishes of a minority community, whatever that community may be, in the new council areas. To that effect, I can assure the Member that section 41 of the Local Government Act 2014 provides the call-in mechanism that 15% of the members of a council may present a request for the reconsideration of a decision to the clerk of the council on the grounds that the decision was not arrived at after a proper consideration of the relevant facts and issues and/or on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect adversely any section of the inhabitants of the district. This provision will apply to the majority of council decisions, including any on branding.
Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I hear what the Minister says about branding, but will he look at this again from the point of view that this is consistent with the European Charter for the protection and promotion of languages?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Go raibh maith agat as an cheist. I thank the Member for that question. It is vital and, in my opinion, a fact, that rights should be afforded to all inhabitants of a community or new council district, be they a minority or a majority. That goes as far as the protection of the rights of indigenous language speakers.
I believe that it is in a council's interest to brand itself in a way that best reflects the make-up of that council area. Councils should want everyone in a council area to identify with them as the corporate brand for that area. Therefore, in my opinion, it would be remiss of a council to proceed and ignore the wishes of any section of the community.
Mr Swann: Following the Ulster Unionist Party's addition to clause 125 of the Local Government Act, when will the Minister's Department bring forward regulations on domain names? Will these regulations also ensure that some councillors do not dedicate excessive time in council to such petty battles?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question. Perish the thought that any time in our councils would be wasted on petty battles. That should remain our domain.
Work is ongoing on the domain names subsequent to the successful amendment tabled by the Ulster Unionists during the local government reform debate. My officials are working extensively on this and on a range of other issues. They are doing so not in isolation but in partnership with local government.
Mr Durkan: From 1 April 2015, councils will have a statutory requirement to prepare local development plans for their respective districts. A council plan will be made up of two documents: a plan strategy, which is adopted first and which will set out the council's objectives and strategic policies for the development of its district; and a subsequent local policies plan, which will set out the council's local and site-specific policies and zonings.
In preparing their development plans, councils must take account of central government policies, such as the regional development strategy and the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS), and, indeed, of relevant European directives. All this will be tested at the independent examination of the plan.
However, one of the fundamental reasons for giving these powers to councils is to allow them to bring forward plans that interpret central government policies and strategies in a way that is appropriate for the unique aspects of each council area. This is important because each of our new councils faces different social, environmental and economic issues and each has different topographies, populations and settlement patterns to consider. I firmly believe that local councils will be best placed to take forward this work to shape their local areas for the future.
The power to prepare local development plans will operate in conjunction with the new council powers of community planning and regeneration and with existing council functions. Together, these powers provide district councils with a new and potent opportunity to develop agreed future visions for their areas and to prepare a coordinated and planned approach to delivering this vision.
Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response. Minister, as part of the new area plans, will rural councils have the powers and opportunity to address the housing needs of non-farming rural dwellers?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. I thank Ms Boyle for that supplementary question. As I said in my original answer, in drawing up area plans, there are two things that a new council, working in conjunction with planners, must consider: regional planning policy and the regional development strategy. However, as I have outlined already today, it is my belief that the reform of local government is not just about doing things more cheaply. It is about doing things better. It is about empowering local councils to make decisions for, and that will impact on, their areas. If, for example, in a rural council area, there is a huge demand for rural housing that councillors feel is not adequately served by existing planning policy, they can, by all means, work with planners and within the confines of existing policy to find something that suits them better.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. For clarification: area plans are presumably still confined to the likes of towns and villages, with the constraints that that places on them in the context of policy. What checks and balances will be in place to ensure that, in everyone's interests, the key cornerstones of fairness, equity and equality are there for everyone in local societies?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. The new local development plan system provides a range of measures to ensure that local development plans are fair and meet the needs of the local community. The council's local development plans will be subject to section 75 obligations, and a council must comply with the statutory requirement to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity. The local development plan will, therefore, be subjected to an equality impact assessment by a council.
As I set out previously, councils, in preparing their local development plans, must take account of central government policies such as the regional development strategy and the strategic planning policy statement. The SPPS highlights the Executive's Together: Building a United Community strategy, which is committed to addressing all barriers that prevent or interfere with the creation and maintenance of shared space and ensuring that all individuals can live, learn, work and play wherever they choose. The SPPS also emphasises that councils should utilise development planning, regeneration and development management powers to contribute to the creation of an environment that is accessible to all communities, is socially and religiously mixed, has a high standard of connectivity and supports shared use of the public realm. A local development plan will also be prepared in accordance with a council's statement of community involvement, which is designed to ensure that anyone with an interest in the council's plan is given ample opportunity to become involved in its preparation from the very earliest stage.
Mr Durkan: From 1 April 2015, councils will be the planning authorities responsible for determining the vast majority of planning applications in their district. As Sprucefield is in the new Lisburn City and Castlereagh District Council, any applications in that location will be submitted to the new council unless it is classed as a regionally significant application, in which case it will be submitted directly to the Department. Regionally significant developments will form the top tier of development proposals that will have a critical contribution to make to the economic and social success of Northern Ireland as a whole or to a substantial part of the region. They are likely to be small in number and will raise strategic considerations, with impacts or benefits that extend well beyond the area of an individual district council. Retail development, even large-scale retail proposals, will not generally have a regional impact beyond individual council areas. Therefore, such proposals should properly be dealt with at council level, and, indeed, that is the approach that I recently consulted on for the subordinate legislation that will give effect to the transfer of planning to councils. However, it is important to remember that the Minister, whoever it may be, would retain a call-in power if any applications were to raise issues of regional significance.
Mr Craig: I note with interest that the Minister has definitely been taking lessons on how to give a political answer on what is or is not of regional significance.
I would like a straight answer about the John Lewis application and the restrictions that have been put on it. Will that be the responsibility of the new council, or will it be pulled back in, either by the Minister or held as part of a regional decision-making policy by the Department?
Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Craig for his second question, to which he would like a straight answer. I can give an extremely straight answer. He wants an answer about the John Lewis application: there is no application from John Lewis, there has been no application from John Lewis, and my Department is unaware of any pending application from John Lewis.
Mr Durkan: I have given very careful consideration to Tamboran’s proposal to drill a core of rock from Cleggan quarry near Belcoo and whether that is permitted development under current legislation. I have concluded that it is an environmental impact assessment (EIA) development that requires full planning permission and that permitted development rights do not apply. In making that assessment, I have been mindful of my Department’s responsibility to ensure that the environment is protected at all times and that full consideration is given to any likely significant environmental impacts of such a proposal. I have concerns that it is an existing quarry from which unauthorised extraction has taken place. I believe that there is insufficient information to establish what environmental impacts may have already arisen as a result of those unauthorised activities. Therefore, it is not possible to assess the environmental impact of the drilling cumulatively with other unknown environmental impacts of unregulated activity.
In arriving at the decision, I believe that I must proceed on the basis of a precautionary principle. That principle establishes that a risk exists if it cannot be excluded on the basis of objective information and that, in the case of doubt as to the absence of significant effects, a full environmental assessment should be carried out. I have therefore concluded that it is an EIA development requiring full planning permission and an accompanying environmental statement and that current permitted development rights do not apply.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. Mar atá ráite agam cheana féin, cuirim fáilte roimh an chinneadh a rinne sé i rith an tsamhraidh.
As I have said before, I welcome the decision that the Minister made during the summer. What action does his Department intend to take to explore and deal with previous unauthorised development at the site? That is causing concern in the area.
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist eile sin. I thank Mr Flanagan for that other question. As I outlined in my answer to a supplementary question from Mr Agnew, I believe that the issue of unauthorised work, not just at that quarry but at any quarry or, indeed, any location across the North, should be taken very seriously, Therefore, I currently have officials looking at the prospect of an enforcement case at the site. It is vital that we understand what went on if we are to be in any way assured that what is proposed is safe.
Mr Wilson: Perhaps the Minister will outline how exactly, he believes, drilling on a site where there has been, as he described, unauthorised extraction — the removal of rock — is likely to lead to problems when a firm drills down through the remainder of the rock. Will he accept from me that his decision was not based on any planning reason at all? At Raloo, Larne lough and Inver in east Antrim, similar drilling was allowed without planning permission being granted and was regarded as permitted development. Is this not an example of his prejudice, rather than a professional planning decision, and one that could, should and, hopefully, will be resolved in court?
Mr Durkan: I am not sure which question Mr Wilson wants me to answer, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, but I have a feeling that I might have to use some of that practice in giving political answers at this juncture.
The decision that I made was one that I have the authority to make as Environment Minister. I am responsible not just for planning but for ensuring the protection of our environment. Each application is judged on its merits and assessed in its own right. At no stage have I displayed any prejudice whatsoever, despite the Member's best attempts to get me to do so.
1. Ms Maeve McLaughlin asked the Minister of the Environment to address local concerns on whether the Departments will provide the necessary resources to facilitate the transfer of functions to the new councils. (AQT 1471/11-15)
Mr Durkan: I thank Ms McLaughlin for that question. She is certainly correct in identifying that there are local concerns around the budget that will transfer to local government in association with the functions that will transfer to local government. However, she would be wrong if she were to think that those concerns are only local. I have outlined on the Floor and in other forums my concern that some Departments — well, primarily DSD — have indicated that the transfer of community development will be accompanied by a 4% cut in that budget.
I have outlined time and again that functions that transfer should do so at a point that is rates-neutral, and that has been supported by parties in the Executive and the Assembly. The reform of local government should not cost more money to local government, and that is something that we should be trying to sell to councils and citizens across the North. I do not think that it would go down too well if they see it as trying to pass our cuts on to them, rather than passing our powers on to them.
I have written to the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Minister for Social Development on this issue, outlining my concerns. I have raised the issue on more than one occasion in the Executive. Given that the Executive signed up to it, it is vital that we remain united on it. If local government reform is to work as well as, I am sure, we all want it to work, we need to ensure that any transfer of functions is rates-neutral at the point of transfer.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: I thank the Minister for that response, which specifically points out, quite rightly, that these are not just local concerns but are right across sectors. Is there an update on the progress of the timetable for the transfer of functions?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. By and large, things are going according to plan — I have to touch wood when I say that. However, one issue of concern has been flagged up by local government and to local government and, more recently, to Executive members. It refers specifically to the inability thus far to have the DSD Regeneration and Housing Bill brought to the Floor of the Assembly. I know that the Minister for Social Development is extremely keen to see it here, and he wrote to Executive colleagues last week outlining the importance of it. That function is integral to the success of the reform of local government. I have heard most Members in the House talk about the great potential of community planning, but without the power that would be vested in it with the passage of that Bill it would be very much a toothless tiger.
It is vital that this gets to and through the Assembly.
2. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister of the Environment for his assessment of any potential efficiencies presented by transferring planning powers to local government. (AQT 1472/11-15)
Ms P Bradley: I am sorry, Minister, that my question is in the same vein as most of today's Question Time, which is to do with the transfer of planning powers to local councils.
Mr Durkan: I thank Miss Bradley for her question. Planning belongs in local government, and I know that everyone in this Chamber looks forward to the transfer of planning there, but there are some concerns. Those concerns, particularly around capacity, are shared by those in local government. I am glad to say that an ongoing capacity-building programme is being well participated in by councillors right across the new council areas. I think that it is vital that we build, not just the competence of councillors and staff in and transferring to councils, but their confidence to be able to deal with these often complex and almost always controversial planning decisions.
As regards making efficiencies, I hope that transferring planning powers to local government will allow decisions to be made more efficiently. However, I certainly do not see this as an opportunity for me to make cost efficiencies and save money for the Department. I spoke earlier about the cuts being transferred by another Department, but I assure the House that I will transfer the full budget associated with the planning function to local councils.
It is also worth saying that planning generates income, and, while we are starting to see again an increase in the number of applications, it is thought that more applications will come in with an upturn in the economy and councils will generate even more revenue associated with planning.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. A lot of us are interested in this because a lot of us had a local council background before we became MLAs. I have been speaking to councillors in my area who have been doing their training and have found it extremely worthwhile. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be a certain level of uniformity across all councils in order to avoid any inconsistencies or opportunities for individuals or developers to take advantage in some council areas?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I concur entirely. While it is important that the councils have autonomy, it is vital that we have a degree of uniformity, as the Member put it. It is important to emphasise that the Department will retain an oversight role. I anticipate that, in the formative months and perhaps even years, there will be quite a lot of hand-holding with councils to walk them through planning and other functions until they are able to run with it themselves.
3. Mr Weir asked the Minister of the Environment what plans his Department has to intervene to prevent further destruction to the environment and natural habitat of the second commons in Donaghadee. (AQT 1473/11-15)
Mr Weir: The Minister will be relieved that I am not asking anything on planning or local government, although, as he shakes his head, I am tempted to do so.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for not asking me anything else about local government. However, I kind of now wish that he had. He asked an extremely specific question. I outlined earlier that my role as Minister for the Environment and the Department's role as the Department of the Environment is all about protecting the environment. I assure the Member that, should he furnish me with further detail on the case in Donaghadee to which he refers, I will ensure that the Department takes swift and robust action.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for that response. One concern that is often raised by residents, not just in this case, but in the wider context of where action is being taken that could potentially damage the environment, is that, by the time the Department has been notified and is in a position to take action, developers, or whoever, feel as if they have a window of opportunity to cause whatever destruction they want before there is any intervention. What assurances can the Minister give that the NIEA or, indeed, any other organisation can act fairly much instantaneously to prevent destruction, so that those looking to create that destruction could be stopped without there being any particular delay in the situation?
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. Not too long ago in this Chamber, as part of my root-and-branch review of NIEA, I outlined four new operating principles for the agency. One of those, and possibly the most important, was to make the agency more customer-focused and customer-friendly. When we talk about "customer" — I am not sure that I even like the word, but it is based on a customer service model — we are not talking merely about developers who need NIEA's assistance or consultation responses to get permits; we are also talking about members of a community — people living out there who feel that their environment is being damaged. They should know that they are able to contact the agency and that it will take their report seriously and act upon it.
4. Mr Milne asked the Minister of the Environment to outline the structures in place in local and central government to ensure a smooth transition from 26 to 11 councils. (AQT 1474/11-15)
Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. We are back to local government again, which I am sure that you are glad to hear.
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Milne for the question. I think that you are going to have to stop getting Sean McPeake to do these questions and get someone else instead.
A lot of structures and subgroups and that are in place. Mr Boylan, I am sure, will be able to fill you in on the exact names and functions of all of them, but a lot of work is being done on the reform of local government. I am glad to say that all that work is being done in conjunction with local government. That is vital. It cannot be seen that we are imposing the reform on councils; they have to see the rationale behind it, the reasons for it and, indeed, the advantages of it. Most of that work is being done to good effect.
Now that we are just eight months or so away from "V" day or vesting day, there obviously seems to be a renewed sense of urgency. I believe that we can work well with that sense of urgency but have to work hard to ensure that it does not become a sense of panic.
Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas don Aire go dtí seo. I thank Minister for his answer. Do you see a role for the voluntary and community sectors in helping to design and manage these structural changes?
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist. The voluntary and community sector certainly has an extremely important role to play and will have an extremely important role to play once the new councils are established and up and running. Sorry, I assume that they will: it will very much be a decision for the new councils. However, in my opinion, it would be foolish of them to disregard the undoubted expertise and experience that exist in that field, particularly when they are taking on new functions such as community development and urban regeneration. That is why I am determined that community planning fulfils its potential as such a powerful tool to effect real change in the communities in which we live. If it is to do so, it will need the, I suppose, participation of many sectors, not least the voluntary and community sector.
5. Mr Craig asked the Minister of the Environment to assure him that the appropriate number of staff will be transferred to the new councils to continue to deal with the backlog of enforcement cases, of which there are 350 in the Lagan Valley area, given that, although the Department is working hard to reduce the number, being honest about it, it will not be reduced to an acceptable level prior to the powers being handed over to the new councils. (AQT 1475/11-15)
Mr Craig: Minister, I am keeping on the line of the new councils that are coming in, but I am concentrating on a local issue.
Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his question. I am delighted to be able to give him the assurance that the appropriate staff will be transferred. When we are looking at the transfer of planning staff across the council areas, we look at existing and historical applications in those areas and the volume of current live cases or those that have historically been processed in those areas. The same applies to enforcement. If you see one council area that deals with 10,000 applications and 350 enforcement cases a year, you will obviously allocate more resource to that council area than you will to a council area that deals with 5,000 applications and no enforcement cases because people there play by the rules.
Mr Maskey: On a point of order, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I apologise to you and the House for failing to be in the Chamber last week at the beginning of Question Time, when I missed my question.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you very much. I will try to get over the shock and remorse that I, as Speaker, felt about you not being in your place. Thank you very much for your apology.
The House should take its ease while we change the top Table.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on amendment to motion:
That this Assembly notes development proposals 260, 261 and 262 by the Western Education and Library Board regarding the proposed closure of the Collegiate Grammar School and Portora Royal School; commends the staff and pupils of both schools for the excellent GSCE and A-level results achieved again this year; and requires the Minister of Education to reject the development proposals and seek consensus on the future of these schools with broad community support. — [Lord Morrow.]
Leave out all after "Portora Royal School" and insert
"and the creation of a new school; commends the staff and pupils of both schools for the excellent GCSE and A-level results achieved again this year; and calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that his decision on these development proposals ensures that all the young people served by the controlled sector in Enniskillen are given equality of access to high-quality education, including the provision of a new build for Devenish College." — [Mr Hazzard.]
Mr Allister: When we, as MLAs, are discussing the future or the proposed closure of schools, we are often faced with the difficulties that the school in question has. Perhaps it is underperforming or undersubscribed, and we have all those mountains to climb. However, this case is surely quite exceptional in that we have a proposal to, effectively, close one of the most popular, effective and successful schools in County Fermanagh, namely Collegiate Grammar School. The school is oversubscribed. Indeed, it has the physical capacity to take another 150 pupils, but, by ministerial directive, it is capped at 500 and denied that opportunity. Hence, it is highly oversubscribed. Its output is a school of great achievement and success. It has produced, and is still producing, wonderful results.
I should perhaps confess to a certain degree of bias: my wife is a former pupil of Collegiate Grammar School, and much the better for that. It is a school that anyone would be very proud to have in their constituency and which any MLA worth their salt would fight to keep. To find a proposal that suggests that that school, with all its remarkable history, the unique niche it fills in the education market and its success, should be picked on to be liquidated and merged is quite reckless and perverse. Therefore, I totally oppose that and support the motion.
Let us be very clear: the net outcome of what the board wishes to do will radically decrease the number of grammar school places in County Fermanagh. That probably is the prime motivation of the Minister and board, because, of course, theirs is a dogma of anti-selection.
There is something here very much worth preserving. I hear talk about Devenish. Devenish is the one reason why you should not close the Collegiate. Devenish speaks of broken promises. How many schools were closed, including Lisnaskea recently, on the very promise and premise that there would be Devenish? So, no one should be saying, "Oh, we are jeopardising Devenish if we don't close the Collegiate". Devenish has become synonymous with a failure to deliver, and the Devenish promise has become synonymous with a broken promise on education in County Fermanagh.
Mr McNarry: I thank the Member for giving way. The questions to be asked are surely these: is this school receiving a fair hearing, has it received a fair hearing and is fair action being contemplated by the Department and the Minister? Will the House ever receive in this instance a fair hearing from this Sinn Féin Minister?
Mr Allister: If it had been receiving a fair hearing, we would not be at this point. There would not have been a proposal to tear down that which is working and that which is good. With that precedent, one is fearful of the future and of the Minister's plans in that regard.
It is a very simple matter: as far as grammar school education in Fermanagh is concerned, there are two operating successful schools. Let that which is not broken continue. The Collegiate in particular has been excellent and has excelled in all that it has done. If this House cares anything for education, it will seek to preserve that.
Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an mholadh seo a thabhairt ar aghaidh, agus fáiltím roimh an deis na moltaí seo a phlé mar a thagann siad chun tosaigh agus mar a dhéantar cinntí orthu.
I thank the Members who brought forward the motion and welcome the opportunity to explain once again how proposals are brought forward and decided upon.
The motion concerns Portora Royal School and Collegiate Grammar School and has two parts. First, it commends the staff and pupils of the schools on their excellent exam results this year. I congratulate all those involved across all our schools, especially the young people who are reaping the rewards of years of hard work. Secondly, it calls on me to reject the development proposals to amalgamate Portora Royal School and Collegiate Grammar School and create a co-educational, non-denominational voluntary grammar school in Enniskillen. I cannot comment at this point in the process. The consultation period has ended.
The boards and CCMS have statutory planning responsibilities. In consultation with the other sectors, they are responsible for developing and delivering sustainable education provision that meets the needs of the whole population in their local areas.
The area plans set out how that can best be achieved, using the best data available. The plans are not set in stone; they are living documents that will have to change as circumstances change and more up-to-date data becomes available. Proposals that flow from the plans are taken forward through the statutory development proposal process, and it is a statutory process.
In this case, the proposals were brought forward by the managing authorities, the Western Board and the Fermanagh Protestant Board of Education. Following publication, there is a two-month objection period, during which anyone may forward their comments to the Department. Also, where possible, I meet interested parties to listen to their views.
This gives people in the community the opportunity to have their say on what is proposed before any decision is taken. It is worth noting that some of those who spoke most loudly in the Chamber today have not contacted my Department to make their views known before the decision is taken.
My involvement is as a decision-maker. Following the objection period, my officials collate information on the proposals and the views expressed to inform my decision. Officials are undertaking this work on the proposals to amalgamate Portora and Collegiate. Obviously, points raised by Members today will be reflected on as part of that work.
Ultimately, as decision-maker, I will have to consider the case put forward and take a decision in the best long-term interest of providing quality education for the area and all the pupils who live in that area. As a consequence of being a decision-maker, I will not vote on the proposal or the amendment today. However, until I have the full detail on the proposals, I owe it to all concerned to maintain an open mind. This means that I am not in a position to engage in debate on detailed issues around the specific proposals.
I will touch on the point in the amendment relating to Devenish. A number of Members referred to "broken promises", which, I think, was Mr Allister's term. I challenge him to produce the promise about Devenish that I have broken. I cannot speak for previous Administrations or go back as far as 2004; I can reflect only on the comments, decisions and proposals that I have put forward since I came into office.
I have committed to a new build at Devenish. I stand by that commitment. For the information of the House, the economic appraisal for a new build at Devenish went to the Department of Finance and Personnel on Friday. Economic appraisals usually take between four and six weeks for the Department of Finance to work through. Then the appraisal will be returned to my Department. I hope to be in a position within that time frame — I emphasis "hope" — to have made a decision on the development proposals that are before me today. If DFP approves the economic appraisal, Devenish will move forward, regardless of what decision I make on Portora and Collegiate.
Lord Morrow asked me when work at Devenish would commence: the site where Devenish is to be rebuilt is difficult. The topography is quite challenging for builders, and the site will require significant enabling works before construction can take place. I can inform the House today that I hope that those enabling works will commence in this financial year. It is a significant piece of work, removing a significant part of a drumlin on the site and, most likely, requiring the culverting of a river. I hope that full construction will start on the site by 2016. There is a commencement time for you.
I have emphasised this before: if people are serious about supporting Devenish, why do they come to the House and talk it down? That just bewilders me completely. How and ever, that is the time frame: commencement work starting this financial year and full construction work starting in the summer of 2016. This all depends on the economic appraisal being passed and that time frame working through.
The proposals to amalgamate Portora and Collegiate have raised heated debate in Fermanagh and at times, indeed, in the House. I am under no illusion about the level of interest in the proposals nor the emotion and sensitivities around them. They have generated a substantial public response to the Department of around 700 letters, many strongly opposed and many strongly in support. I have met representatives of the Collegiate, Portora and Devenish College, and I have to acknowledge and put it on record that those meetings were held in a professional, courteous way. Each side was able to put across its points in that manner, and I found the meetings very useful.
I fully understand how much the proposals mean to people and will not take a decision until I have had time to consider the full facts and the range of opinions expressed. What I can say is that my focus will be on the needs of children and young people, not institutions. My vision for education here is that all our young people, regardless of their personal circumstances or whether they attend a grammar or non-selective school, have the opportunity to reach their full potential and are encouraged to do so. That means that we must have a network of schools, sustainable in the long term and capable of providing a quality education across a broad and balanced curriculum. They must be financially viable as well as educationally sound. We must make the best use of the public money entrusted to us. Schools must also be able to provide the environment to support pupils’ personal development. This means providing opportunities for social interaction with their peers, team sports and all the other extra-curricular activities that can add fun and an extra sense of achievement to school life. These are key drivers for area planning.
None of this should surprise anyone here; I have said it numerous times before in and outside the Chamber. I know that there is often a strong emotional attachment to schools that, in many circumstances, have served generations of children. However, as Education Minister, I have a responsibility to consider the best educational interests of all children and young people affected by the proposals going into the future. Is é leas na ndaltaí a mheas a bhéas ag croílár mo chuid breitheanna. The best interests of pupils will be at the very heart of my considerations when I come to make my decision on the matter.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. I thank the Minister for his response to the debate. This has been a useful debate, but, like every other debate that has taken place on the future of these schools, unfortunately it appears that we have not reached consensus. The debate on the future of these two schools has, unfortunately, dominated and divided discussion on the future of post-primary education in County Fermanagh, particularly in the controlled sector. Initially, I want to state that I will not support the motion; in my opinion, it is really flawed. It is ill thought-out, and it is certainly elitist, but that is no real surprise from the party of big house unionism.
This debate must include more than the protection of institutions that some people hold very dear. It is fine that we hold institutions very dear, but, as political representatives, we have to look beyond that. We have to look at the needs of the young people; that has to be at the forefront of our thought. We have to think about the people who use these institutions, but what about the people who were not given the chance to get to these institutions? They were turned down from getting into them at the age of 11 and were deemed failures. There is no reference in the substantive motion to the institutions that do a very good job serving those people. For that reason, we have tabled an amendment. The Minister has set out some of the changes, but it includes a reference to a new build for Devenish College. That is one of the most important things required in the controlled sector in County Fermanagh.
The Members opposite talk about world-class schools, and there is no doubt that the education provided at Collegiate and Portora is excellent and that the people who go there really benefit from it. However, there remains this elitist approach that the people who go to those schools are better than the others, and that is not the case. All our children should be treated equally, regardless of which school they go to, and that is a policy that Sinn Féin will continue to hold as long as we have responsibility for the Ministry of Education. The Members opposite only want to talk about those who have been given preferential status and forget about those who went to Devenish College. When I say the Members opposite, I do not include Tom Elliott, who has spoken about Devenish College. However, the fact remains that the DUP now appears to be opposed to the redevelopment and the new build at Devenish College, which is madness.
Mr Storey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Storey: If the Member is going to use language in the House, then —
Mr Flanagan: I am happy to give way to the Member.
The current situation demonstrates the need for proper area planning. We have heard an awful lot of criticism of John O'Dowd for promises that he apparently made and has not lived up to, but the promises that they are talking about date back to 2004, and it was not this Assembly or this Executive that made those promises. There has not been one bit of criticism from the Benches opposite of the Western Education and Library Board. All the criticism seems to be levelled at the Minister of Education, who, as the Members opposite rightly know, is not driving this forward. Your criticism should be levelled at the Western Education and Library Board. If you have a criticism of the process, bring it there.
The Minister set in train a process through which he wanted the managing authorities to work together and bring forward a joint area planning process. They have failed to do it. Look at the proposals in place, and what have you got? You have proposals to deal with the controlled sector in Fermanagh, and, separately, the CCMS has proposals to deal with the Catholic sector. They have never spoken to each other about how these things can all be brought together to meet the needs of the young people of the county, which is what our priority should be. It should not be about protecting elite mentalities or institutions.
I put it on record that I have full faith in John O'Dowd's ability to make decisions based on the best interests of the children and young people of my county. I know that he will make decisions based on the evidence given to him on the needs of young people, not on protecting institutions. I have met representatives of the Collegiate campaign group. I think that they have put forward a very coherent argument, but it is up to the Minister to make the decision. As one Member said, this is a hot topic, but it has to be about more than just the Collegiate and Portora. At the moment, both schools get 70 pupils each in first year, but the Members opposite and Minister Allister — sorry, Mr Allister; thank God he is not a Minister — have spoken about removing that cap to allow more pupils in.
Mr Flanagan: If they are serious about removing the cap, what does that mean for the other controlled schools in Fermanagh? If we are not talking about elitism here, how come there has been such a kick-up about Portora and the Collegiate? Where was the motion about saving Lisnaskea High School?
Mrs Foster: I will respond to the grammar-school boy's comments later, but I first want to say that the motion contains three proposals and nowhere in those proposals is Devenish mentioned, so the motion is about the Collegiate and Portora. It is about the closure of the Collegiate Grammar School, the closure of Portora Royal School and the creation of a new school. It is not about amalgamation. The word "amalgamation" has been used across the Chamber today, but it is not about that; it is about the closure of two grammar schools and the opening of a new co-ed grammar school.
Mrs Foster: That is not what happens in an amalgamation. I should be surprised at that comment, but I am not, given the level of debate here today. We have had some very personalised attacks, starting with Mr Hazzard's attack on me and running right throughout Sinn Féin's contribution here today. The attacks are not from the Minister, I have to say, but we have had quite personalised attacks from all the other contributors. You know what they say: when you do not have an argument, personalise the attack on the person making the argument on the other side. That is fair enough. That is the level of debate from Sinn Féin.
Through the motion, we want to lift the cloud of uncertainty over the Collegiate Grammar School and Portora Royal School. The Collegiate, in particular, feels it very keenly, because, as we have been reminded, Portora's board of governors has voted in favour of the closure of its school, but the board of the Collegiate Grammar School has vehemently opposed its closure, as have the pupils, the staff and, indeed, the wider public, as shown by the fact that I presented a petition here some time ago with over 7,000 names.
Despite that, both schools continued this year to provide outstanding success at GCSE and A level. Indeed, in the Collegiate, 85% of A-level entries were A* to C, and almost one third of the girls had at least an A* or two As in their results. That is quite incredible, and I hope that the whole House will agree on the part of the motion that states that both schools have provided excellent education for the young people in the grammar school sector in County Fermanagh.
I also pay tribute to the number of past pupils who have raised their voice about the proposals. That might annoy Mr Hazzard, who seems to have a problem with me being a past pupil. Those past pupils were taught that their voice mattered at the Collegiate, and they continue to make their voice heard. I commend them for that.
We have heard quite a lot of false protestations from the Benches opposite about Devenish College. I have never heard them being such proponents of Devenish College before, but there you are. The experience of Devenish College has led the community to a position in which they do not have any confidence in speculative plans. The suck-it-and-see approach did not work for Devenish College. The Duke of Westminster High School was closed, and Lisnaskea High School was closed. And, Mr Flanagan, how dare you challenge me about Lisnaskea High School, when I stood up for it when nobody else was prepared to stand up for it. So, take that back.
Mrs Foster: Through the Chair, in the same way as all remarks from the Sinn Féin Benches are made through the Chair.
There is no public accountability in this process. The community in Fermanagh is not in favour of it, and the petition showed that clearly. One of the schools is vehemently opposed to the process. Mr Flanagan is right in one respect: this is the fault of the Western Education and Library Board. It pushed through the procedure. As I said to the board in correspondence when it was making its decision, it should hang its head in shame over the closure of both schools.
The lack of consensus was, in a bizarre way, underlined by the email that came to us at 5.20 pm on a Friday from the email account of Mr Neil Morton, under the names of the Bishop of Clogher and Councillor Alex Baird, wherein they say that there have been a number of meetings to decide on the way forward that have not succeeded to date. Therefore, they say that their way should be adopted. Well, that is some consensus. It reminded me of a quotation from one Brian Clough, who used to be the manager of Nottingham Forest football team. When he was asked about how he dealt with disagreements, he said:
"We talk about it for 20 minutes, and then we decide I was right."
That is basically the procedure that has happened here. The Western Education and Library Board has singularly failed to find consensus on the matter. Therefore, it will go ahead anyway.
The email from Mr Morton's account makes much of the fact that Lord Morrow and I did not contact him or the board of governors of Devenish about our motion. Lord Morrow and I are fully aware of the views of the boards of governors of Portora Royal School and Devenish College. What they fail to recognise is that their view is patently not the view of the community in County Fermanagh, as the wider public have affirmed in numerous public consultations over the past 10 years, and that has been very clear.
What is particularly sad about the process is that it has pitted schools against each other. The Sinn Féin amendment wants to do that again today. It wants to bring Devenish into the procedure, despite the fact that the development proposals are quite separate from Devenish College. For some inexplicable reason, the board of governors of Devenish College believes that its future is inextricably linked to the closure of the Collegiate and Portora Royal School. How sad that is. Instead of wanting to see all schools flourish in County Fermanagh, the board of governors decides that another school has to close for its school to exist. Of course, that is not what the Minister has said. He has confirmed in the House today — I thank him for it — that Devenish College will go ahead, that it will be a new school on the Tempo Road site and that the economic appraisal is with DFP. We welcome that, but why does Devenish seek to close the Collegiate and Portora and to reduce the numbers at grammar school in Fermanagh? Only Devenish can answer that. I cannot answer that for them.
As for Portora, it is well known that the closure of the Collegiate has been a long-term aim. It was tried in the early 1990s. Mr Elliott referred to it going on for 10 years: it has not; it has been going on for in excess of 20 years. In the early 1990s, it was put forward that Portora Royal School and the Collegiate would amalgamate. Thankfully, it was rejected by the then Education Minister. Instead of focusing on a vision for the future, the board of governors of Portora has decided to retrace old ground and look to close the Collegiate Grammar School. Then again, it is not retracing old ground because this time it is closing the Collegiate and Portora Royal School, a school with over 400 years of history. Yes, we can say, "You are talking only about institutions. You are not talking about the children". Well, I know that the children who attend Portora and the Collegiate are inherently proud of the history of those institutions. It spurs them on into the future, and they should rightly be proud of that history.
Somebody said in relation to the closure of Portora that it was just the beginning of a new chapter. It is not the beginning of a new chapter; it is the end of the book for Portora Royal School. It will be the end of that school. It has been made perfectly clear, for example, that it will be up to the new board of governors to decide on the name and what way it will go forward with regard to academic selection and what have you. Do not be fooled in the House today into thinking that this is an amalgamation. It is not an amalgamation; it is the closure of two oversubscribed, well-performing schools.
Let me say this to the House: if it happens in this case, then the new board for Northern Ireland could decide that other controlled schools should be closed as well. This is not just about Fermanagh or Enniskillen today; there is a wider issue for controlled sector schools across Northern Ireland.
This debate has not been as well informed as we would have liked. Much has been said that has not been correct. Statements have been made that the Collegiate is not sharing —
Mrs Foster: — and that is wrong. The Collegiate is sharing in a very meaningful way in the Fermanagh learning project, which I commend and want to see continuing. I hope that the Minister will recognise the fact that it shares in a meaningful way when he makes his decision.
Mrs Foster: I am glad that I brought this to the House —
Mrs Foster: — because we need to debate the matter. It affects us all as Members.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 43; Noes 47
Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr Brady, Mr Byrne, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Dallat, Mr Dickson, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Ford, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Ramsey, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Hazzard, Mr Sheehan
Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wilson
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan, Mr G Robinson
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mr Agnew
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 47; Noes 32
Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr Wilson
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan, Mr G Robinson
Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr Brady, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Dickson, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Ford, Mr Hazzard, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Hazzard, Mr Sheehan
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mr Agnew, Mr McCallister
Main Question accordingly agreed to.
That this Assembly notes development proposals 260, 261 and 262 by the Western Education and Library Board regarding the proposed closure of the Collegiate Grammar School and Portora Royal School; commends the staff and pupils of both schools for the excellent GSCE and A-level results achieved again this year; and requires the Minister of Education to reject the development proposals and seek consensus on the future of these schools with broad community support.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): 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 in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
That this Assembly recognises that the 2011-2015 Budget settlement is unravelling; expresses concern about the impact that the current funding crisis may have on the sick and the vulnerable across Northern Ireland and how this will be further compounded if penalties are passed down from Westminster; accepts that ongoing implementation of the current four-year Budget is now untenable and calls on the Executive to bring forward a new Budget, accompanied by a revised Programme for Government, which takes account of the new financial environment.
It is my pleasure to move the motion. It is an Ulster Unionist policy, which we have had for some time, that elected Assemblies should determine and decide the Budget for their own mandate. Across the last mandate and the beginning of this, we took three big decisions that dictate how government works. I believe that we did them in reverse order. We began with a Budget, then formed an Executive and, finally, agreed the Programme for Government. I question why we did not start with the Programme for Government, and I make a call that, in the next mandate, we do just that: agree the Programme for Government before running d'Hondt, after which Ministers inevitably retreat into their various silos.
The current Budget was not decided by the current Assembly. The Ulster Unionist Party voted against that Budget on principle, but the Ulster Unionists also voted against it for the very practical reason that it did not add up. The key issue was health. Interestingly, a Member of the former mandate, who voted in favour of the Budget in 2011, now finds himself as Minister of Health arguing that the health budget that he voted for does not add up. This is a man who said on 9 March 2011:
"it is more than likely that the Health Service will thrive, in spite of what Minister McGimpsey has left behind". — [Official Report, Bound Volume 63, p264, col 2].
The current Minister has been in post now for more than three years. Nobody thinks that it is thriving, not even the Minister's colleague the Finance Minister, who said in July that he found it "hugely disappointing" that the Health Department had had more than three years to ensure that it could live within its 2014-15 budget but had failed to do so. The fact is that the former Minister, Michael McGimpsey, identified £4·8 billion as the figure that the Health Service would need in this financial year, 2014-15. If the current Minister got all that he wanted, the budget would be £4·799 billion. So, three years out, Minister McGimpsey was accurate to within three decimal points. Yet, the First Minister dismissed him at the time. On 21 February 2011, Peter Robinson said:
"Frankly, I find it obscene that, instead of the Minister cheering that he has got the best deal in Northern Ireland, we have this kind of political posturing." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 62, p36, col 1].
We now know that it was not posturing; it was pinpoint accuracy. The health budget does not add up, and that is endorsed by Minister Poots.
The current Budget is so far detached from what was originally agreed in 2011 that we believe that it is now beyond recognition. It has so many holes that it is fatally flawed. For instance, the official Budget included an understanding that health would not receive additional money through monitoring rounds. However, over the last number of years, it has received some £300 million.
This is not just about health, nor is it about welfare reform, which is an increasingly convenient excuse for Ministers to seek cover. The 2·1% cut in June monitoring had nothing to do with welfare penalties; it was simply to paper over the cracks in a Budget that does not add up. For example, in education, the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) should be on course to save £40 million by the end of 2015.
Instead, although it never existed in law, it has cost the taxpayer over £18 million, and there was a swing of £58 million in the budget. We could have supported ESA if it was a drive to bring efficiencies to education rather than being a vehicle for the ideological control of the education of our children. In England, for every pound that goes into the education budget there, 81p gets into the school and the classroom. Here, it is less than 50p. So ESA is not coming forward, and the difference in the budget is £58 million.
The social investment fund plan was for £20 million a year for four years. As we stand, only £33 million has been announced, yet, as we all know, deprivation and dereliction remain at distressing levels in our constituencies.
Then there is the cost of local government reform, which the Ulster Unionists warned about frequently in 2011. It was ignored in the Budget, but an emergency £48 million package had to be agreed last year. That is £48 million that other Departments will have been expecting. We also do not believe that £48 million is enough. Once the true cost of rate convergence is calculated, we believe that it will be significantly more.
The construction of social housing is falling way behind what is required, and yet, last year, the Housing Minister handed back £8 million that he had underspent and that had been specifically planned for housebuilding. As disgraceful and abhorrent as that was, we need to ensure that next year's capital figure is increased to reflect what happened there.
The current Budget also includes £20 million per annum being realised from Belfast harbour in years 3 and 4. We are in year 4, and how much has been raised? Zero. That has left a hole in the Department for Regional Development's budget, which again has needed to be filled with money from elsewhere. Why have we not got money out of Belfast harbour? The reason is that we do not have the power to take the money. We might as well have committed to taking £20 million a year from the Sultan of Brunei.
The previous Budget settlement also hoped to retrieve funds from the £250 million-plus reserves that are being held by housing associations. We opposed that, but it does not really matter now anyway because it has not happened either. I think that the case is made that the Budget is a long way from where it should be, and, as we have an extra year coming with no Budget — financial year 2015-16 — we believe that now is the time to address those issues.
We have also called for a review of the Programme for Government. On page 6, under "Our Commitments", the First Minister and deputy First Minister say:
"The primary focus of your Executive for the next four years will be to grow the economy and tackle disadvantage."
Ten years ago, the block grant stood at around £6 billion. Today, it is £10 billion. This is not a good place for our economy to be — dependent on HM Treasury for £10 billion per annum.
A certainty of the legacy of the Scottish independence vote is that we need to work harder to be good corporate citizens of the United Kingdom. Our big idea to grow the private sector and to generate more wealth was corporation tax. The milestone in the Programme for Government for 2012-13 was to:
"Press for a UK government decision".
"Work to ensure that required Westminster and Assembly legislation is in place".
In this financial year, it is to make an:
"announcement of rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland".
We have failed to achieve any of those key goals for that primary objective in the Programme for Government.
The Education and Skills Authority has not come forward; that point has been made.
Another aim was to:
"Fulfil our commitments under the Child Poverty Act to reduce child poverty".
Londonderry and Belfast are ranked in the top five cities in the UK with the worst child poverty.
The Programme for Government also states that we will:
"Substantially complete the construction of the new Police, Prison and Fire Training College".
The earliest possible date for a college would be 2016 if — a big if — the plans go ahead.
Another key commitment is to:
"reform and modernise the delivery of Health and Social care".
Instead of achieving reform and modernisation, waiting lists have increased, and the Minister did a U-turn after attempting to close care homes. Ninety-year-olds were in tears at that prospect.
Another target of the Programme for Government was to:
"improve literacy and numeracy levels among all school leavers, with additional support targeted at underachieving pupils".
The percentage of school leavers who achieve two or more A levels has gone down from 55·6% in 2011-12 to 55·1%.
A further target of the Programme for Government was to:
" develop Maze/Long Kesh as a regeneration site of regional significance".
That was another failure because of intransigence at the heart of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
And so it goes on and on. Rather than dwell on failures —
Mr Nesbitt: — let us focus on doing better. Let us review the Programme for Government, decide what is achievable between now and the end of the mandate and work together to deliver it.
Mr Girvan: I oppose the motion tabled by Mr Mike Nesbitt and Minister Kennedy. As it stands, we are three and half years into our current Budget programme. It seems somewhat ironic that the Executive are being asked to draw up a new Budget to finish the Assembly term. I appreciate that we will have to focus on our 2015-16 Budget, which will require some focusing of minds to ensure that we bring it forward correctly.
Unfortunately, I think that there has been a little bit of political point-scoring going on, or an attempt at it. All the issues raised by Mr Nesbitt were negatives. There were absolutely no positives. I think that it is inevitable that we will have difficulties.
Our Minister of Health has made £500 million worth of savings in the three years that he has been in office. The previous Minister may have identified savings, but he did nothing to implement them. I appreciate that additional savings could be made. Nobody is saying that any Department with a budget of £4·7 billion is spending every penny correctly. I am not saying that it is all waste, but I am sure that there is still some waste.
We have to go on the basis and wording of the motion. Our 2011-2015 Budget is running into some difficulties, and we have to ensure that we have money set aside to deal with the penalties — the £87 million — that will come to Northern Ireland for the non-implementation of welfare reform. That money will be taken directly out of our Budget, and we will have to deal with that as a consequence. Each Department is also having to find 2·1% cuts and will have to continue to find them. Those cuts have been announced, and Ministers are acting responsibly to try to meet their budget requirements. That will leave us with about six months left of this financial year. If we went by the wording of the motion, by the time that the process was in place, we would already be into the next financial year. I do not think that that is a way of dealing with it.
As far as we concerned, our party opposes the motion. We are asking people to focus their minds on our 2015-16 Budget and to ensure that we bring forward a Budget that is fit for purpose and that will deliver.
The Programme for Government mentions corporation tax, and the Executive have attempted to move the Government to devolve that. That would not be without cost, and I appreciate that it would be a graduated process over time. However, we are sure that there will be an announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the autumn. We believe that that will be of some benefit to Northern Ireland, allowing us to use some of the tools in the box to grow our economy. That will enable us to ensure that we can bring in some private investment and allow businesses to move forward in an area that is targeting the economy as a primary driver for recovery. On the basis that there have been some cheap shots, I would say that there have been extensive negotiations with the Treasury on these matters. It is vital that we get fiscal control over some of those areas so that we can have a direct input on growing our economy. I oppose the motion.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On behalf of my party I oppose the motion, quite simply because it does not make any sense. The proposers are asking for a new Programme for Government and a new Budget for a four-year period at the end of the four-year period. I agree with the Member who spoke previously: it is a bit of a stunt.
However, I welcome the fact that the Ulster Unionist Party is highlighting some of the financial crises that we find ourselves in. That is laced with irony. I am sure that other Members will recall that, back in 2010, the Ulster Unionist Party backed the Tory Party in its election to Westminster, and it is the Tory Party that has introduced the cuts that the UUP is now complaining about. You cannot have it both ways.
We now see the outworking of the Tory policies in Government through welfare and cutting our Budget right down to the bone. There is much discussion about welfare. The other parties refer to welfare reform, but they never refer to the consequences of the welfare proposals coming from Westminster. They do not talk about the effect that it has had and will have on the disabled, working families, and on those who are struggling to get by. I would like to hear the other parties in the House refer to that, rather than the £87 million and welfare reform.
We have already seen the devastating impact that this has had on ordinary people in Britain. Food banks are on the rise, and benefits for people who really, really need them are being held up for appeal, with people who are entitled to them dying. That is the process; that is the system that is being put in place in Britain. Of course, Britain is trying to put an IT system in place that simply does not work. Therefore, it does not make sense for us to tie in to a system in Britain that is being highly criticised by many parties across the water.
We can all agree that benefits and welfare need to be simplified and improved. However, what has been undertaken in Britain is not working and is not workable. Therefore, it would not make sense for us to bolt ourselves on to a universal credit system that looks destined to fail in the not too distant future.
Of course, the British Government are threatening to take money from our Budget, and they are threatening to take money for us not implementing their proposals, which they cannot implement themselves. Therefore, the challenge that we as an Assembly and as an Executive should put to the British Government is this: how can they bring forward the proposal to take money from our Budget when they are not doing it themselves? If we went with a united voice, and if we showed the same resolve that we have seen from the Scottish Administration, perhaps we would get more. Given the pressure that other Administrations have put on Westminster, it is quite clear that they have moved when they have been put under pressure, rather than simply nod the head to the Treasury every time they make a move.
Reference has also been made to the health budget and how it has been managed, or mismanaged, in the past. Of course, the elephant in the room is the mismanagement of the health system at present. There was an agreement between the Department of Finance and the Department of Health and, of course, there has not been much agreement between those two Departments or two Ministers in recent weeks. However, the fact is that there was agreement that the Department of Health would be given some flexibility over this Budget period, but it would not make any bids in the various monitoring rounds. Since then, the Department of Health has made 41 bids for money year in year, and over £140 million has been given to the Department of Health, even though that was not part of the original budgetary plan.
That huge pressure has not been referred to, but it needs to be taken account of as well.
Many proposals and projects that should have been put in place over the past four years would have led to economic growth and savings to offset some of the pressures that we have at the moment. The Education and Skills Authority (ESA) is the most obvious one. The agreement on the Maze/Long Kesh was reneged on. That would have led to a facility being put in place that local people could have used and tourists could have availed themselves of, but it was flushed down the toilet for political purposes.
Mr McCallister: On the subject of reneging on agreements, some would say that Sinn Féin reneged on its agreement on welfare.
Mr McKay: The Member should provide some evidence on that if he has it. I suspect that he does not, although I thank him for the extra minute.
The final thing that I want to refer to is corporation tax. That has been a priority for the Executive in recent years, and now we have mixed messages coming from the party opposite on whether it wants corporation tax or not. Yesterday, Sammy Wilson said that it would be madness to take on any more fiscal powers, and then we turn on the radio this morning to hear Arlene Foster say that we are working hard to get corporation tax transferred to the Executive. Which one is it? You cannot have the party to my right coming out with mixed messages when we are on the cusp of achieving the devolution of a significant power that will significantly help our economy.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): My apologies, that was my mistake. I call Alex Attwood. Alex Attwood's name is on the list that has been provided to me, and it is next on my list.
Mr Attwood: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The first point about this debate is that, whether or not it is late in the mandate, there is a need for an annual budgetary process in this Chamber to enable it to interrogate the Budget on a rolling year-to year basis. Whether the motion is passed and whether the Minister begins to reshape how we do our budgetary processes, we urge him and DFP to adopt the model used in every other jurisdiction.
If you turned on 'Morning Ireland' this morning — the premier RTÉ Radio 1 news show — you would have heard the headline story about fiscal bodies and the forthcoming budgetary decisions that the Irish Government have to take. The same headlines are in the Irish press. Over the next number of weeks, it will be the same in respect of the British Government. Because they have an annual budgetary process, it concentrates minds and political effort in shaping that process to get the right outcomes on behalf of the citizens whom they represent. We are denied that here in Northern Ireland. If an annual budgetary process is the standard model in other jurisdictions on these islands, that is the model that we should adopt.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to concede that, while we all sit on Committees of the House, insufficient time is spent on each Committee interrogating the budget of each Department. That is why the SDLP believes that, on the model of the Public Accounts Committee, we should have a dedicated budget Committee to interrogate on a week-to-week and month-to-month basis all the issues that Mr Nesbitt outlined in his speech, such as the fact that some budget commitments and policy priorities have not matured and other commitments have emerged that have created budgetary pressures for the Executive and Departments. In addition to having an annual budgetary process on the Floor of the House, we should have a dedicated budget Committee of the House to interrogate each Department's budget on the way forward.
Even though this comes late in the mandate, if it is a valid proposal, let us expand the forthcoming Budget of 2015-16 to incorporate the residue of this mandate to show good authority and to give to our people the hope that has been denied to them and is in sharper relief following the Scottish referendum. If one thing demonstrates the authority of the Scottish Government, it is that they are seen to know the difference between being in government and being in power. They have intervened on behalf of their citizens and earned the respect of the population. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there are lessons that we need to learn and conclude from the authority of the Scottish Government. Over the next period, it will become clear that people have a confidence in the Scottish Government that is lacking when it comes to this Chamber and our Government.
Consequently, we need to show more general authority, and one of the ways of showing that general authority is to learn from the Scottish Government, have an annual Budget process and a budget Committee. When it comes to the issue of welfare — in the event that that is ever resolved satisfactorily, which seems a distant hope at the moment — one of the Scottish Government's interventions has been to create a dedicated Welfare Committee to interrogate and monitor the impact of welfare reform on its citizens. That led that Committee, in the early part of this year, to describe the bedroom tax as iniquitous, which, in part, informed the Scottish Government in essentially doing away with the bedroom tax in Scotland. Every tenant, existing and future, who is penalised £1 for the bedroom tax receives a benefit from the Scottish Government. If that approach is good enough —
Mr Attwood: — for the Scottish Government, it should be good enough for the Northern Ireland Government.
Mrs Cochrane: Thank you again, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
While the motion raises an important issue, namely the viability of our current Budget, the call to bring forward a new Budget at this stage is not really feasible. As others have said, we are in the final year of a four-year Budget, and that four-year approach was adopted to try to give certainty over a number of years to allow effective planning and stability. Departments, along with their arm's-length bodies, need certainty ahead of financial years in order to act responsibly and to allow them to deploy their allocated resources as efficiently and effectively as possible. The notion, therefore, of rewriting the 2014-15 Budget is unwise. Even the timescales for that process would mean that no decisions would be taken until near the end of the year.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Perhaps, will she then explain why, as part of the June monitoring discussions that concluded at the end of July, her party around the Executive table voted no.
Mrs Cochrane: Yes, I will cover that in one moment.
As I said, rewriting the Budget now would produce a roughly similar outcome and provide only a three-month window during which to implement any necessary cuts. That could massively increase the risk of individual Departments and the system as a whole breaching expenditure limits, which would carry massive consequences from the Treasury.
We have already seen, through the approach to the monitoring round, the problems associated with making significant adjustments to the Budget in-year. Indeed, Alliance Ministers opposed those changes at the Executive. Minister Kennedy had the opportunity to clearly voice his dissatisfaction with that process but decided to abstain. Alliance Ministers opposed it because, although they accept that using monitoring rounds to make adjustments to baselines in-year is perhaps the only viable way to deal with emerging issues, we argue that these changes need to be made with proper strategic consideration of the impact of any cuts when protecting other Departments. Instead, in the June monitoring round, we saw the protection of Education without any justification being offered, when this is an area where there are huge inefficiencies in existing expenditure, with a segregated education system and numerous empty school places. For instance, if Education had borne some of the same cuts, the 4·4% Budget reduction would have generated about £70 million. Taking on even the 2·1% cut would have produced about £30 million.
By stating that we were not happy with the approach taken at the last monitoring round, I am not saying that Alliance is averse to considering additional resources for priority areas, such as health and social services. However, before we do that, major questions need to be asked about how the Health Department has ended up in this crisis. It is clear that there were structural problems in health and social services at the outset of the Budget period. That has, no doubt, made it more difficult to deal with the required funding reductions. However, the Health Minister was given full flexibility to move money internally in his Department's budget. That should have allowed him to make better progress on reform.
The apparent crisis in health, coupled with the other budgetary problems, is further compounded by a lack of progress on welfare reform. The penalties have already been referred to: £87 million in this financial year. It is time that the nationalist parties faced reality. The current welfare system does not work. That is why we have so many people coming into our constituency offices seeking our assistance. Northern Ireland simply cannot afford to run its own welfare system. There is plenty of electioneering going on, but unfortunately all that is doing is costing us millions of pounds in penalties. We have already secured some flexibility around the bedroom tax. We now need to reluctantly accept the main model but, at the same time, devise a set of Northern Ireland proposals to help our most vulnerable, who may be adversely affected. Surely we owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to show some competence. Instead of paying penalties, which helps no one and affects everyone, we should make a proper assessment of what the reforms will mean to individual households and then take a strategic decision to allocate some of our block grant to address that with Northern Ireland-specific solutions.
I am sure that, overall, the public would like to see Northern Ireland showing some maturity and making a realistic and informed assessment of the financial pressures on all public services in Northern Ireland and using that to develop a strategic Budget for 2015-16, which could perhaps —
Mrs Cochrane: Perhaps we could prioritise public protection through health, policing and justice and invest in the future by focusing on skills and the economy. However, whatever priorities might emerge, there is no doubt that the Executive need to step up to the mark and tackle the cost of division and the difficult issues of reform, including those in health and education. They also need to find other ways to raise revenue. We cannot continue as we are.
Mr Wilson: This is one of the most bizarre motions that has ever come before the Assembly. I am not even sure that the proposer understands what his motion says. He spoke at length about the difficulties of the 2011-15 Budget. His motion says that it is untenable and calls for the Executive to bring forward a new Budget. Then, with a leap — no one could see the link — he talked about next year's Budget. The first thing we need to know from the proposer of the motion is whether we are talking about the Budget that terminates in April next year, or are we talking about the Budget for 2015-16?
The Member then talked about how we got into this situation. Without the least shamefacedness, he said, "We got into this because we didn't deliver on ESA". Who opposed ESA, along with us? The Ulster Unionist Party. He also said, "We got into this because we didn't get £40 million from the Harbour Commissioners". Who was responsible for bringing the legislation forward to get that £40 million? The co-signatory of the motion. He did not do a thing about it, but now he is complaining that "We got into this because we didn't proceed on Long Kesh".
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He well knows the background to the issue of the money for Belfast harbour. That was an Executive decision to take out money — £20 million per year in terms of Belfast harbour — and there were voodoo economics behind it. There was no provision, rationale or legal basis for doing so. The Member is being disingenuous in the House with the information that he has provided.
Mr Wilson: The Member is not being disingenuous. The facts of the matter are that any legislative change that needed to be made to get the money from the Harbour Commissioners should have originated from the Minister for Regional Development, the co-signatory of the motion, but that did not happen. I could go through the whole list of how we got here. The fingerprints of the complainer are all over the reasons why we have got to the position we have got to.
Leaving aside what the motion is about, how would we ever implement what we are talking about? When I read it, I was not too sure whether Mr Nesbitt was being Captain Mainwaring and just blundering or was Corporal Jones in a flap. The one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that there are no remedies in this.
There are three questions I would like the proposer of the motion to answer when he is summing up. First, if we are going to have a new Budget, with all the consultation that is required and the legislative decisions that would have to be made, how on earth does he intend it to be delivered within the remaining six months of this year? Does he simply want to dispense with all the niceties of consultation and drafting of legislation? Secondly, even if we got a new Budget, what room would there be for change in the remaining months of this year? Is he honestly saying that Departments would have the ability to make adjustments? Even if we started this new Budget tomorrow, having left aside the consultation and the legislation, how would Departments make the adjustments that he requires in the last six months of the financial year with their programmes all in place? Thirdly, we had plenty of complaints about what money should be spent on and what money had not been spent on. If we are going to have a serious debate on this, maybe he will tell us how he would move the money around. Let us say we could get past the legislative requirements and make the adjustments in Departments, how would the Ulster Unionist Party move the money around the system? I do not know whether he is Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones or Private Walker — just an absolute political spiv. Spivery is what we are getting.
Mr Weir: Is a more appropriate analogy Private Pike? Is the Member being a stupid boy?
Mr Wilson: I was going to come to that in my last line, but you have stolen it.
I hope that those listening to the debate will not be Private Pikes, will not be stupid boys and will not fall for this point-scoring motion, which does not offer any solution. It does not show any way forward. It does not even recognise the niceties of the procedures that we have to go through legally in the Assembly to deliver a new Budget. If we are going to deal with the issues and difficulties in the longer term — the Finance Minister has started the consultation process on the Budget for next year — some financial reality is required in the Assembly.
Mr Wilson: We should not take on new commitments without budgeting for them, and we should not give money back to Westminster unnecessarily, as Sinn Féin and the SDLP require us to do through the non-implementation of welfare reform.
Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Monitoring rounds and Budgets usually pass without controversy. However, this year we face tough choices due to increased budgetary pressures. That is not due to Sinn Féin's decision to protect social welfare provision for the most vulnerable in our society and the working poor. We are faced with tough choices because of the sustained and persistent cuts to our Budget imposed by the British Government. Those cuts have reduced the allocation of funding to the Executive, and it is in that context of reduced finances that the Executive have chosen to defend core services.
This debate on our economy, our budgets and our choices is laced with misinformation, the sole purpose of which is to build fear among our communities. Remember that, when Sinn Féin first sought flexibility to protect our welfare budgets, Members opposite and others cried, "No, no, no. Can't, can't, can't". We now know all too well that it was a case of "Won't" rather than a case of "Can't".
We also have a Finance Minister who will not even ask for the necessary economic levers to protect welfare provision and grow the local economy.
The focus in DFP is solely on administrating the Budget, as opposed to standing up for the needs of businesses and rights of workers. When we needed entrepreneurs in finance, we got bookkeepers. The narrow fiscal and economic powers available to the North of Ireland limit the extent to which we can address budgetary challenges, provide public services and tackle unemployment. Without powers for the North over tax, benefits and employment, we can never fully deliver employment and social welfare or grow the local economy towards its full potential.
It seems, at times, that the economic dysfunction of the North is a badge of honour for some parties opposite, as if growing the private sector, investing in public services, increasing employment and balancing the books would endanger the Union. For the record, Sinn Féin believes that all citizens are entitled to public services and employment. We believe, North and South, that growing the economy requires the political power of progressive policies and investment.
Sinn Féin wants to balance the books in the North and across the island through economic growth and employment, not by cutting services and taking money from the poor or by quoting overinflated estimates, which the British Treasury does not endorse, of the fiscal deficit. It is disappointing that we now have a Minister who is unwilling to argue for welfare provision but is quite happy to stand over his Department's estimate of VAT, which is based on a survey for which they had to cobble together three years of responses even to get information from 600 households.
These estimates tell us nothing about the local economy, but still DFP churns them out. So when opposite sides of the House start shouting that we are broke to the tune of £10 billion, remember that none of these people pays attention to the information published by the British Treasury, which tells us a different story. Let us remember that we pay our taxes here. Sinn Féin opposes the motion.
Mr Weir: I suppose that, like others, when I first read the motion, particularly the detail of it, I was somewhat befuddled. Indeed, it seems quite clear that that is a sentiment shared by its proposer, as he clearly seemed to contradict himself.
At times, I do not find myself, as was shown on the radio even this morning, very much in agreement with Daithí McKay. I do agree with him on at least one point, which is that one of the financial constraints that we operate under is the wider position taken by the Government centrally at Westminster. Therefore, I find the motion astonishing, given the fact that the Conservative Party, which is the main part of this Government, was in alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party at the last general election, with this as its manifesto pledge.
We all remember the days of the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (UCUNF). Indeed, the proposer of the motion should be particularly familiar with this because the UCUNF candidate in Strangford was one Michael Nesbitt. Yet, mysteriously, that appears to have been forgotten about. That side of it beggars belief.
There is also, as mentioned and dealt with by Sammy Wilson, a range of things that, supposedly, the Executive have failed to agree. They failed to agree on the Maze and on ESA — I have to say, the Ulster Unionists took the same position. We are left, supposedly, with a Budget that is broken. Like Frank Maguire in the 1979 vote of no confidence, the honourable Minister, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, was there to make sure that he abstained in person. That seems to me an unlikely source of abiding anger at the Budget: you feel so strongly that you have to abstain.
Valid criticisms can be made of government in Northern Ireland. Those from the proposer of the motion — as well as those from the honourable Member for West Belfast across the Chamber, whose consistently expressed love of the SNP makes me wonder whether he wants to be the honourable Member for Dundee West — could hold a little bit more weight, and the motion an awful lot more water, if it were not for the fact that both their parties are members of that Government and may not be walking away from that Government. Today, both were highly critical of government.
If this is such a horrendous situation, I can look forward in the summing up of the debate to an announcement from either party —
Mr Weir: I will give way in a moment. I look forward to an announcement, particularly from the Ulster Unionist Party, which tabled the motion, that it is so disgusted with this Government that they will today resign from government. I give way to the Member for Dundee West.
Mr Attwood: It may come as news to the Member, but in 2011, I argued that we should go into opposition.
Mr Attwood: Thank you. Unfortunately, my argument did not prevail. Is there not a contradiction in the last point that you made, where you criticised us for being in government when we did not like some of government? Your First Minister, your leader of the DUP, has said that the institutions are not fit for purpose. Why have you not walked out of government when you yourself have declared the institutions unfit for purpose?
Mr Weir: With respect, we are trying to get in there to fix that, whereas the Member seems to be simply —
Mr Weir: Absolutely. I shall show every Member of this House the very courtesy and respect that they all deserve, perhaps even a greater level of courtesy than that.
Whatever criticisms there are of government, the central thrust in this motion is that the four-year Budget is untenable and that we need a new Budget as part of that cycle. The reality, as has been indicated, is that, even if everybody in this House agreed on what needed to be done, we could not produce a Budget. Yet, the Member proposing this throws an additional obstacle in the way of that because he told us that the Budget should have been the third item in the process. We should have formed a government, agreed a Programme for Government and then agreed a Budget. So, if the Member is being logically consistent, before this new Budget is even produced for 2011-15 — we are in the last six months of that period — he would have us agree a fresh Programme for Government at the same time. How exactly will we do that and then institute a new Budget for a four-year period, which is a few months away from running out? If, however, he has not read the motion correctly and is simply referring to a new Budget for 2015-16, there is not a Budget for 2015-16, so a new Budget will have to be agreed there anyway. Either it is asking the impossible or it is asking for something that will simply have to happen anyway.
I indicated that I agreed at least on that earlier point with Mr McKay, who, unfortunately, seems to be away from his position. I think that where the position of Sinn Féin and, to some extent, the SDLP, is slightly ridiculous is that, yes, we can highlight some of the problems that have been there by way of welfare changes, and we can highlight the restrictions that are there because of the Budget that is given from the block grant, but the solutions to that are not simply closing our eyes or gritting our teeth against the Government in the hope that some great windfall will come our way with the Government saying that they will sign over whatever needs to happen. We do need to face up to the realities that the failure to deal with welfare, for instance, will increase the costs. It will have impacts, particularly on health, on the Budget, and we need a little bit of reality. That is the particular reality that we need to face in the October monitoring round and as we move ahead into next year's Budget. As for the idea that was floated earlier today —
Mr Weir: — of simply moving into a united Ireland, getting rid of the £10 billion subvention and, indeed, pretending that that is not there, that is fantasy economics. The motion's wording, unfortunately, is effectively a stunt, and I urge Members to oppose the motion.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, rise to oppose the motion. The word "subvention" means gift. What gifts do our taxpayers and vulnerable people receive from the Tories? Are the people who rely on food banks to feed their children receiving gifts from the Tories? Are the people who are lying on hospital trolleys receiving gifts from the Tories? Are the 25,000 people who will emigrate this year receiving gifts from the Tories? Are the cancer patients whose sickness benefits will be reduced to just one year receiving gifts from the Tories? After having paid contributions for many, many years, they will be restricted to one year on their contributions. I think not. DFP poorly estimates that in 2011-12, we generated at least £14·1 billion in revenue locally. We know that this is an underestimate because it contains key gaps. The DFP fiscal balance report is not fit for purpose. In last year's report, the revenue estimate for 2010-11 was altered by £0·8 billion in comparison with the report produced the year before. This is laughable. How many more billions can DFP miraculously lose and find overnight? Yet, the other side of the House will continue to shout about how broke they believe us to be on the basis of a report that is not worth the paper that it is written on. It is time to move beyond shouting about the size of the fiscal deficit and focus on building economic growth.
At least 15 major reports on the state of the Northern economy since the 1957 Isles and Cuthbert report have reached broadly similar conclusions about the underperforming economy of the North. A consistent message has emerged from all those reviews and strategies, which is that we, the people of the North, should be empowered to make decisions about our own economic future, yet macroeconomic power continues to rest in London. British economic policy never has and never will build a strong economy in the North. Decisions affecting local trade, employment and investment in the North are made in Westminster for the benefit of the 97% that constitutes the British economy, not for the 3% here in the North.
The British economy is currently 2% lower than its pre-recession performance, whilst the Northern economy is 14% lower, yet we do not have access to the necessary tools to change that, but change is long overdue. The North is the only devolved region that has not had a comprehensive and independent review of fiscal policy. Why have successive DUP Finance Ministers not been pressing the case like their counterparts in Scotland and Wales? Without greater economic powers, we are incapable of developing an indigenous fiscal regime reflecting the uniqueness of the economy.
It is not an issue of the constitutional position of the North. The mechanism to resolve that is a border poll, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. As a republican, I believe in and will continue to pursue Irish unity. This is an issue of how we build economic growth and deliver jobs. If we are to realise economic potential, safeguard public services and create growth in jobs, we need the powers. In the coming term of the Assembly, we must collectively place the economic needs of the people front and centre. Let us demand the maximum powers to grow the economy that reflect the uniqueness of our economy. The economy is about choices, and we must be empowered to take them. Let us choose to protect the vulnerable, not exploit them.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In June, during the Budget debate, the SDLP outlined countless creative and relatively low-cost ways in which the Assembly and the Executive could use a Budget to boost our economy. Sadly, the DUP and Sinn Féin did not listen and simply refused to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. Despite having a Budget with major subsidence problems, the DUP and Sinn Féin continue to paper over the cracks. They refuse to admit that the problem is their collective mismanagement and their refusal to agree on anything but blaming each other.
The current Budget was a poor one to begin with. We did not vote for it in 2011, and we have consistently outlined our opposition to it since in key thematic areas. We voted against the Budget because of significant concerns relating to the funding for the health service, education, aspects of job creation and housing. Those are all areas that have come under greater pressure in the years since the Budget was passed. The A&E crisis earlier this year is an example of the impact of a weak Budget and financial mismanagement.
To make matters worse, the DUP and Sinn Féin are now using the Budget as a political football, putting jobs and the future of the health service at risk as a result. That irresponsible behaviour is possible as we have a budgetary system under which key policy priorities such as Transforming Your Care and key road infrastructure improvements are funded via the monitoring rounds. Worryingly, I have heard rumours that that type of behaviour will continue and may result in failure to agree an October monitoring round. That would throw into further doubt and jeopardy the funding for those major projects that do not feature in the 2011 Budget. It is therefore essential that we have a new Budget and, to ensure that key policy decisions and emerging projects are adequately funded, that it must be an annual process.
I am aware, however, that, in a time of austerity, developing a new Budget is easier said than done, which is why the Budget must be based on a robust new Programme for Government. That is why the SDLP has consistently proposed a comprehensive process that provides a transparent breakdown of the allocation of resources and expenditure. Ministers, Members and the public would be much better served by a clear and transparent process that clearly demarcates spending according to the degree to which it supports essential front line services. The development of a new Budget under financial pressure is challenging, so I again call for a review to assess the case for the devolution of fiscal powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and recommend further powers that would improve the financial accountability of the Executive. Sadly, the DUP has consistently opposed that idea. However, given that Peter Robinson has called for new talks on our structures of government, and given the events in Scotland, and Westminster's response, over the past number of days, perhaps the Minister can provide clarity on whether his party supports the principle of a new annual Budget, if talks come about.
Talks must also involve discussion of welfare reform. The SDLP has been very clear on welfare reform: the Executive must further negotiate with the London Treasury regarding the heightened profile of objective need in the North, and we must permanently rule out the imposition of the iniquitous bedroom tax.
Mr I McCrea: Will the Member explain his colleague Alex Attwood's comments on welfare reform during a previous Budget debate that the penalties were worth paying? Can he explain how that fits in with the wider discussion on welfare reform when the SDLP supports the payment of the penalties?
Mr McGlone: I thank the Member for highlighting that issue. It was at this point that I was going to draw to the attention of the Assembly the fact that I and some other Members attended the launch of the NICVA report, which highlighted that further advancement of welfare reform in the shape and manner that it is in at the moment would lose the Northern Ireland economy £750 million per annum. That is big stuff. That is why, progressively, as this Executive hopefully work together to come to terms with this — and I am hearing this not just from recipients of welfare payments and benefit payments, many of whom I represent at tribunals, but from small post office owners, small shop owners and people in the retail sector for whom this is becoming a major issue as they see how the ravages of welfare reform could affect them.
Scotland permanently wrote off the bedroom tax in a deal with the Treasury. Indeed, the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) estimates that bedroom tax would affect 32,000 tenants here, which is 40% of the numbers affected in Scotland. I see no reason that we cannot also come to a deal with the Treasury that costs us significantly less than the £35 million paid by Scotland. Interestingly enough, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has brought out a report today that states that the poorest households spend on average a quarter of their income on housing costs. Imagine what that would be if the bedroom tax, in its worst form, were introduced to the North. After all, we can all agree to afford corporation tax, and I am confident that we can afford it because the SDLP has been responsible and consistently outlined ideas —
Mr McGlone: — to grow the economy and to raise funds.
It is absolutely essential that the lead parties in the Executive begin to demonstrate —
Mr McGlone: — a responsible attitude in dealing with the current fiscal crisis. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Kennedy: I welcome the debate, which is sponsored by the Ulster Unionist Party and led by my party leader, Mike Nesbitt. I also welcome the attendance of Minister Hamilton. He will have heard what I have to say before, as matters have been raised in correspondence and at the Executive, but, still and all, it is important that they are said in the context of this debate.
It is clear that, whether you are inside or outside the Executive, we need a new Budget and that moving forward to a better planned and better balanced Budget is essential. Our current financial crisis cannot be swatted away as a little local difficulty. It is a crisis, and it is largely down to poor financial planning at the centre of government here in Northern Ireland. The absence of agreement around welfare reform may have compounded the problem, but it is not the sole cause. I believe that the issues are now of such magnitude that trying to resolve problems in one area through monitoring rounds simply serves to create problems and issues elsewhere. Those issues matter because they impact on the daily lives of the people whom we serve. For me, health matters. It is one of the chief reasons why I did not vote against the June monitoring proposals, unlike the Alliance Party, because I accept the argument.
This party, the Ulster Unionist Party, has accepted the argument and has consistently made the argument that health should have more money, both in the last Budget and in this one.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I accept Mr Kennedy's assertion that health matters. It matters to everyone, because it affects every home in the land. What will he as Minister be prepared to give up to move the thinking away from the economy being this Government's lead priority to the agenda of protecting the vulnerable? Is he as Regional Development Minister prepared to give up a significant part of his budget to do that? Will he bid in the October monitoring round?
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for his contribution. Let me say that that is the wider problem that needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed urgently, not only by the Assembly but indeed by the Executive. Difficult and hard choices have to be arrived at and cannot be ignored. What we as a party did not argue for is that, in the final six months of a four-year term, the Executive would take a large knife and slice one third of the spend areas with all these cuts. With the exemptions for Health and Education, right or wrong, the cuts in other Departments have been three times as large as they otherwise might have been, yet all of that could have been managed much more easily over a longer period. We did not argue for triple-level in-year cuts to be squeezed into an eight-month period. No one, surely, would argue that such an approach is sensible, but for far too long in local politics — it is mirrored in the Assembly and in this debate, for those listening closely — the loudest voice has won the day, not the soundest argument.
That said, we are where we are. Let me indicate that I will continue to contribute to the discussion and participate constructively in the decision-making process going forward. We need to address the services we value most, those we wish to protect most and where we are prepared collectively to make reductions. That requires looking across the board at all Departments and all departmental priorities. June monitoring, as we have already heard, was resolved on the last day of July. That says much in itself. The Executive placed huge pressure on services across a number of Departments, mine included, with 2·1% cuts and notice of 2·3% cuts in October. Just as it would be foolish for the Executive to demand further resource cuts to DRD that would cause winter services to be reduced or stopped, it would be incredibly foolish to create a large central contingency pot for next year's Budget that asks Departments that are currently stretched on the resource side to be stretched even further.
It is time, therefore, for our local Administration to show maturity. The public will not be impressed with the Punch and Judy shows, which we have even experienced in this debate today. Indeed, I sometimes wondered if we were listening to Sammy Wilson or Sergeant Wilson from 'Dad's Army' earlier, because pretending that everything is OK is not the answer here. It is nothing short of embarrassing for regional government in Northern Ireland following the very welcome no vote in Scotland. The Scots are seeking greater responsibility, and the Welsh are pitching for more powers. Yet, the message from our part of the world is a different take on "No thanks".
Mr Kennedy: Ours is, "No thanks, we cannot be trusted with greater responsibility". The message does not reflect well on the Executive, the Assembly or our political class. In short, we need a new Budget and a new approach.
Mr McQuillan: I rise in opposition to the motion. Members will be well aware that we are nearing the end of the budgetary period. The current Budget was presented to the House in 2010 and runs until the end of the next calendar year. Therefore, I pose this question: why set and agree another Budget when a new Budget for the period of 2015 and beyond is effectively in the making? It therefore seems a nonsense that we are discussing the very outcome that the motion is calling for, which is a new Budget, when we have a major decision to make regarding the October monitoring round and a new Budget for the specified budgetary period in any case.
The motion states that the current Budget is not fit for purpose. It is also important to point out that the current Budget, in its final year, has been placed under enormous stress due to the willingness of Sinn Féin and the SDLP to send money back to Westminster for penalties imposed due to the failure to agree welfare reform legislation. Those reforms would bring us into line with the rest of the UK. The grandstanding of Sinn Féin and the SDLP on the issue is somewhat ironic, given that they are content to impose cuts on other Departments due to their failure to accept the reforms for what they are and ease the financial pressure on other key services, such as health and social care — something that effects everyone, especially the vulnerable — roads, unemployment schemes to help people on welfare get back into work and, to top it off, the efforts of the Executive as reflected in the 2011-15 Budget and the Programme for Government to get our economy moving. You cannot have your cake and eat it. The resources that we once had are simply not available, due to the international economic downturn.
Furthermore, we now have a situation where, after last Thursday, Sinn Féin is calling for more powers to be devolved from Westminster to this House. How can we see more powers devolved to the Assembly when it is clear that Sinn Féin is unwilling to take responsibility for the powers that it currently refuses to acknowledge exist? While I am concerned about the changes that welfare reforms will bring — my party has made that clear — we have seen the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, make efforts to reduce the burden on the vulnerable with mechanisms brought in to protect them, two of which are the retention of benefits being paid fortnightly rather than monthly and the retention of the mechanism to pay housing benefit to landlords directly, hence protecting the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.
I am keen to see the current impasse orchestrated by Sinn Féin in its failure to offer leadership or to govern resolved. The impasse can be resolved when Sinn Féin and the SDLP decide whether or not to self-impose an £87 million cut to the Budget. It is therefore not a failure of the Budget or the process but a problem that lies solely at the door of Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): I oppose the motion. Before I respond to some of the points that have been raised and the substantive argument that has been made today, I think it is worth echoing what others have said. The motion before us, on a strict reading of the text, is absolutely one of the daftest motions that I have seen since I came to the Assembly in 2007. I say that as somebody who, a number of years ago, brought a motion to the House about grass cutting. That it bears the names of the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and a Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, who ought to know better, is, frankly, embarrassing. When I first read the motion, I was not sure whether it was some sort of cunning plan, the purpose of which I could not quite detect because of how cunning it was. However, having listened to the proposer of the motion and to Mr Kennedy, I think that it is more about a total lack of understanding of the Budget process that we have to go through.
Aside from the impracticalities — I will come to the impracticalities of doing what is asked for in the motion in a moment or two — quite why we would want to rewrite a four-year Budget when three of those years have passed I am not quite sure. In fact, three years and six months are we into that Budget period, with only six months left. How or, indeed, why would we want to redo a Budget and/or a Programme for Government when three of the four years have passed? It is hard to comprehend how the whole 2011-15 Budget has unravelled, when three of the four years have actually passed into history.
I absolutely accept that this year's Budget is in an extremely challenging position. The motion uses the word "unravelling" for the period. Members may use that word or "unviable", "untenable", "challenging" or whatever adjective they wish to find. However, is the answer to the problems that we find ourselves in a whole new Budget process? The answer is a categoric no, and there are two reasons why, both of which are practical considerations.
The first consideration is time. As many Members have said, if you read the motion before us, strictly interpret it and put it into practice, you will see that what is being asked for is a whole new Budget process for just six months of the financial year. We are nearly halfway through the financial year. Think of the practical considerations: political negotiations to agree a draft Budget; then a 12-week public consultation — we are required in legislation to have a public consultation on our Budgets in this place; and then the final Budget agreement, which would require political negotiation. By the end of all that, it would be a new Budget for fewer than three months of the financial year. This question has to be asked: what is the point or purpose of a Budget for fewer than three months?
The second practical consideration — always an important one when dealing with Budgets — is about money. Where would new or extra money that could make a difference in a Budget come from? You cannot increase rates in-year; there is no opportunity to levy something like water charges in-year; and there is no more money coming from London this year. Therefore, the only source of resources that would be at the Executive's disposal would be from the existing budgets allocated already to Departments. That is exactly what the monitoring round process is all about. That is what it does: it takes money that cannot be used from budgets and dispenses it around other budgets and other Departments that can use it. We have two monitoring rounds still planned for the remainder of this year, in October and January. That is a more sensible way of dealing with the issues that we have before us. It may not be perfect; it may not be ideal; but it is a process that, if you look at the record you see, has worked in the past.
In this supposedly unravelling 2011-15 Budget, in the last three full years, on the current expenditure budget side of things, we have redistributed nearly £400 million worth of resources. That is a sizeable amount of money that has moved around the system. On the capital side, about £320 million has been moved around, from one budget to another. If you include the earlier parts of the June monitoring of this year, nearly £850 million in current and capital has been moved around budgets in-year. That suggests to me that the process, whilst maybe not perfect or ideal, is more than capable of moving money around from where it is not needed to where it is, so that it can be spent and so that we do not lose any money — as we have not done over this period — through handing it back to Treasury because we have not been able to spend it.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he accept that the monitoring round process is pertinent only to Northern Ireland? It does not happen anywhere else in the UK. Is it good to fund mainstream projects, such as roads maintenance, through a monitoring round process?
Mr Hamilton: I am not sure whether the Member is arguing that we should do everything in exactly the same way as the rest of the UK. That would be a novel approach by a Member from his party, the SDLP. I think the fact that we have the monitoring round process is a good thing. As I have pointed out, we have been able to distribute close to £1 billion already over this Budget period, a Budget period that, supposedly, is not working. We have ensured that that money could be spent on projects where it was needed and be taken away from areas where it was not. Importantly, it has ensured that we have not had to send a single pound back to Westminster because we have not been able to spend it.
Mr Hamilton: No.
The motion also talks about a new Programme for Government. Whilst I do not have direct ministerial responsibility for the whole of the Programme for Government, the Executive, which, as has been pointed out, includes Mr Kennedy, are undertaking a mid-term review to roll forward existing Programme for Government targets and introduce appropriate new ones. I would certainly have expected a Minister in the Assembly to know that, as well, of course, as the Chair of the OFMDFM Committee, namely Mr Nesbitt.
It would be easy to be completely dismissive of the motion because of its wording. It is a motion that shows little or no understanding of our Budget process or appreciation of ongoing Executive work, but I have sympathy for the motion's sentiments, even if the wording is extremely poor. Our Budget is under pressure. The sick and vulnerable will suffer, and public services will be adversely affected. I have heard many Ministers talk about how public services will be affected, both by in-year reductions and by the prospect of reductions next year. However, it is important that everyone is clear about why "We are where we are", to borrow Mr Kennedy's phrase. Why are we in such a challenging position, where we have already had to make 2·1% reductions in the June monitoring round and face the prospect of at least 2·3% reductions to budgets in October as well? The starting point is that, over the period, we have, in effect, had flat cash on the resource side because of the block grant Budget allocation made to us by London. In 2010, our resource budget was approximately £9·886 billion. In 2014-15, the year we are now in, that is up to £10·170 billion. That is a difference of £284 million. That is a lot of cash; £284 million is a lot of money. However, when you consider inflation and all the other pressures on budgets, that is in effect flat cash over the period.
As Mr McKay, who is not with us, pointed out, that Budget and spending plan were endorsed by Mr Nesbitt, Mr Kennedy and their party when they ran on the Conservative manifesto back in 2010. The building block and foundation of the problems of where we are lie in the fact that we have effectively had flat cash in our resource budget ever since 2010. If anybody in the House is more responsible for that than anyone else, it is the Members from the Ulster Unionist Party, many of whom are sitting looking at me here and actually ran on that manifesto — Mr Nesbitt, Mr Kennedy and others — for Parliament back in 2010. The spending plans that we have are not my spending plans; they are their spending plans.
The second reason that why we are where we are is Executive commitments. Those commitments have been entered into over the past number of years and have been supported on all sides of the House. They include — this relates to the June monitoring round — a restoration of £7·7 million to DETI's budget to encourage job creation, £4·3 million for the historical institutional abuse inquiry and £12·8 million for local government reform. A total of £30·4 million had to be spent this year in-year to meet those Executive commitments, none of which, I understand, is opposed by anybody on this side of the House. In effect, what happened is that the cheques were written before and had to be cashed this year.
The third reason that we are where we are is that there are growing departmental pressures. In June, for example, we had the Regional Development Minister come forward with pressures in respect of concessionary fares, £5 million of which was met. OFMDFM, DCAL and others had Together: Building a United Community pressures of over £3·5 million. In total, there were about £17 million worth of departmental pressures that I thought that it was right to recommend that we meet. The early stages of the October monitoring round are revealing that there are further pressures. For example, in June, £20 million was allocated indicatively to Health, but the Minister has outlined a need for a minimum of £60 million to cover and live within his means this year.
Before I move on to other pressures — there are other pressures — it is worth picking up on some of Mr Nesbitt's comments about the health budget. First, he said that Health should not have bid in the in-year monitoring process. He is right: the agreement made was that Health should not have bid. However, in previous years, thank goodness we had Health to absorb some of the money that was given up by other Departments, including his party colleague Mr Kennedy's Department. If we had not had Health to absorb that £273·5 million of resource and reduced pressures across the board over the 2011-15 Budget period, there is a risk that money may have been lost to London over that Budget period.
Before we get to a position where Michael McGimpsey is held up as some sort of saintly sage, it is important to look at what he actually said back in 2010 and 2011. He was described as having "pinpoint accuracy" by Mr Nesbitt. Let us look at how pinpoint accurate he was. Back in 2010, he said:
"There will be job losses ... I think 4,000"
in the health service. Since 2011, the number of nurses in the health service is up 5·7%, the number of medical and dental consultants is up 15%, and the number of allied health professionals is up 12·7%. So, that was not such sagely, saintly advice from Mr McGimpsey back in 2010. Mr McGimpsey also said that hospital waiting lists would rise. However, from May 2011, the number spending longer than 12 hours in EDs has gone down by 73%. I will give one example: arthritis sufferers, who had to wait nine months in 2011 for expensive specialist anti-TNF drugs, now wait less than three months. Of course, in 2011, Mr McGimpsey also said:
"From April 1 in business terms the health service goes into Chapter 11".
Now I have never been sure why, if the NHS were bankrupt, it would file for bankruptcy in US courts. Of course, it has not gone bankrupt, and the current Minister, Mr Poots, has already found close to half a billion pounds' worth of savings and has committed to finding a further £170 million before the year is out.
As I said, other pressures are developing across all Departments: Justice, Regional Development, Education, Enterprise, and Agriculture. Many of those are legal and contractual. I have never heard anybody in the House say that all those pressures are anything other than a priority. It goes back to the point that Mr McCallister made: if Members of the House say that something is a priority, that means that something else must, by necessity, not be a priority. Ministers or Members who stand up and say that their Minister's Department should be treated more beneficially must understand that that comes at a cost in the situation in which we find ourselves, and the money has to be found from somewhere else.
Of course, the biggest problem that we face — it is really beginning to bite — is welfare reform. The June monitoring paper dealt with £13 million that was removed from our 2014-15 baseline. It also went on to state that further reductions in October to reflect the position on welfare at that time would be made. That would amount to reductions of at least 2·3%, if indeed, health and education are exempted. The problem is about to get much, much worse.
In a letter to me on 31 March, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that next year's penalties would be £114 million. We are also in a position now where, because of the closing down of the welfare system across the water, we may have to develop our own IT system. A recent letter from the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out that the cost of that could be around a total of £1 billion a year. That is £1 billion of current and capital expenditure that, in the circumstances we find ourselves in, we cannot afford.
How then will we deal with the challenges that are before us? Instead of playing political stunts in this place, there is serious work for me and my colleagues to do. In the first instance, in the in-year position, urgent action is needed. The October monitoring is not due for four weeks, but we cannot wait for four weeks to take tough decisions; Departments need to be best informed about the reductions that we want them to make and so they can plan to make them in as sensible a way as possible.
We also have a Budget for 2015-16. Perhaps this issue has been conflated in the mind of the proposer of the motion. It should not be seen as any less pressing or important because a new financial year is six months away. There are considerable pressures ahead of us in terms of the 2015-16 Budget, and I want the Executive to deal with that as quickly as possible.
In conclusion, our budgetary position is, indeed, challenging. What was always going to be very difficult is complicated and exacerbated by the issue of welfare reform.
Mr Hamilton: Instead of looking back at three or four years of a Budget and foolishly trying to redo a whole Budget for just a few months, let us exhibit a maturity hitherto not shown on all sides of the House, adjust the in-year position and agree a draft Budget for next year as quickly as possible.
Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his contribution. As we have heard in the debate, we clearly have major problems with the Budget. Those have been highlighted by party leaders, Ministers, MLAs inside and outside the House and in the Chamber today. There has not been an MLA who has contributed to the debate who has not acknowledged the problems and difficulties being faced by the current Budget.
Indeed, to paraphrase the First Minister, who spoke in the Chamber earlier today, the problems we face were predicted and were predictable. The Ulster Unionists warned in 2011 that the current four-year Budget would not work and that is why we voted against it. Back in 2011, the Ulster Unionist Party stated that the health budget needed more money, but Michael McGimpsey was shouted down by the DUP amid claims that it would be obscene to give more money to health.
For the past three and a half years, we have witnessed monitoring rounds being used to paper over cracks. The most recent June round, which lasted until July, showed that that process is no longer possible. Northern Ireland simply cannot afford to let the forthcoming October monitoring round become bogged down by ongoing disputes between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
In addition to the Budget, the Programme for Government targets have been missed, altered or in some cases completely forgotten about. Therefore, we need not just a revised Budget but a revised set of targets. As Mike Nesbitt mentioned when he moved the motion, the issue around ESA did not save £40 million; it wasted £18 million. The social investment fund had £20 million per four-year period but only £33 million has been spent to date. DSD's social protection fund cost £20 million for the first year only. The cost of local government reform was £48 million. I heard Members from a number of parties in the House now estimating that local government reform will not bring the cost savings that were first predicted. A £20 million annual contribution was to be made by Belfast harbour. I am not getting into the middle of the argument between the former First Minister and the current Minister for Regional Development, but that money was in the Budget and is not forthcoming.
No decision has yet been taken on the £250 million reserves held by the housing associations or the extended age discrimination legislation for the provision of goods, facilities and services. To those, we can add the failure of Transforming Your Care to modernise the delivery of health and social care, the failure to fulfil our commitments under the Child Poverty Act 2010, the failure to substantially complete the construction of the new police, prison and fire training college, the failure to improve literacy and numeracy levels and the failure to develop the Maze as a regeneration site of regional significance.
Continually moving money from one Department to another to fill gaps is no way to run a government. Missing target after target is not delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. The Executive need to have the difficult discussions on what exactly their priorities are and fund them in that order. That was our 2011 election manifesto pledge: to establish the PFG; to establish the Budget; and, then, to divide the ministries by d'Hondt.
I will go back to some of Members' comments. Mr Paul Girvan acknowledged that we need a new Budget for 2015-16. It does not say in our motion that that is not what we are talking about. It has been clearly discussed here today. That is exactly what we need to be talking about now. We need to start.
Mr Swann: It does not say this year. The Finance Minister said that he had read the motion in detail. I have been in the Chamber many, many times when the same party has debated motions and, once the motion has been moved and is on the Floor, Members from that party do not refer to it again. So they are being pedantic in this case.
The savings of £700 million achieved when Michael McGimpsey was Minister are almost forgotten now, or maybe some people wish that they were forgotten and brushed under the carpet. Mr Girvan also agreed that this Budget is running into difficulties. We all acknowledge that. Everybody is saying that. We keep saying that, and we have put in the motion that that has been acknowledged.
Daithí McKay referred to Tory cuts, and he keeps pointing the finger at us. In fact, they are the current Westminster coalition Government cuts and were not in the 2010 manifesto. Some Members keep referring to the 2010 manifesto. Maybe, if other Members looked back to their manifestos and to the commitments that they made, not just to the House but to the people in Northern Ireland, they might not be so quick to point the finger at people who do not keep manifesto pledges, because there are other Members and other parties in the House who readily forget manifestos.
One thing I can say, probably not with much pride, is that the motion has at least brought the coalition back together. It has brought the DUP and Sinn Féin together in condemning us. That is one bonus that they will be able to look back on as well.
Judith Cochrane referred to the certainty of the four-year Budget and said that we could not tinker with it at this stage. Unfortunately, Mrs Cochrane is not here to hear this, but her Minister sat in front of the Employment and Learning Committee and said how bad it was that he faced cuts in the June monitoring round, will face cuts in the October monitoring round and does not know what is in front of him. If that is the certainty that Mrs Cochrane sees in this four-year Budget process — that her Minister cannot see any opportunity to allow him to set out his programme for the last six months — there needs to be a conversation. He has told us that he has already put his arm's-length bodies, further education colleges and higher education colleges on warning that he may face a double-digit cut in the last four months. That is not the certainty of a four-year Budget.
Alex Attwood put forward the case for a year-on-year Budget. I think that that has been championed many times in here by Leslie Cree, and it has been supported by the current and previous Finance Ministers as being the better way to do finance in the House. Sammy Wilson, or, as my party colleague Danny Kennedy referred to him earlier, Sergeant Wilson, mentioned every character in 'Dad's Army'. One quote that Sergeant Wilson was always famous for was Captain Mainwaring's, "We've been rumbled." That is what the debate has brought out: you have been rumbled. The Budget needs that piece of work.
The Programme for Government needs to be looked at as well.
Mr McCallister: I do not disagree with the Member's arguments or with Mr Nesbitt's opening remarks. The biggest hole in their argument is that they are part of the mess.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his contribution. Part of the mess or part of the solution — I think that we want to be part of the solution. We will stay on this side of the Chamber, in this party, trying to be part of the solution. We will not run away from anything, and we will not jump parties so as not to be blamed for anything.
Peter Weir, for some strange reason, again referred to the 2010 UCUNF manifesto. He then had a go at Mr Attwood about being an SNP member for somewhere in Scotland. I refer to some of Arlene's comments earlier today as well: when you do not have an argument, you personalise the attack. Peter, I think that it is unfortunate that you used your time to do that.
The Minister has accepted that we have challenges, cuts and changes in front of us. He questioned the Minister for Regional Development's commitment in the Executive and to the current Budget. It is not that long ago that he was doing the same to his own Health Minister. The in-year cuts that we have faced in the last six months could rise to two-digit percentage cuts. I think that the Minister for Employment and Learning is talking about between 10% and 11%.
The Minister referred to monitoring rounds as being the way to solve problems. You described monitoring rounds as managing the moneys that cannot be used. However, if there are cuts being brought in to a monitoring round that are actually cuts to in-year budgets, they are more than moving around money that cannot be used — they are actually moving moneys that could be used. The tough decisions are there. The 2010 spending plans —
Mr Swann: I would have given way to the Minister and answered some of his questions, but we are nearly at the end.
He spoke of the monitoring rounds to date. Approximately £1 billion has been redistributed.
Mr Swann: Maybe the issue is that those budgets were not right in the first place. Maybe that is why the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP voted against them at that stage. In conclusion —
Mr Swann: — to paraphrase the First Minister from this afternoon's Question Time —
Mr Swann: — let us not waste time with the party bickering that goes on in this Chamber, and let us bring about a solution to this problem.
The business on the Order Paper has not been disposed of by 6.00 pm. In accordance with Standing Order 10(3), I will allow business to continue until 7.00 pm or until it is completed.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 19; Noes 70
Mr Attwood, Mr Byrne, Mr Copeland, Mrs Dobson, Mr Eastwood, Mr Elliott, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McGlone, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Mr A Maginness, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mr Ramsey, Mr Rogers, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend
Mr Agnew, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Ms P Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Craig, Mr Dickson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hazzard, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCallister, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Ms McCorley, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr McQuillan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr Wilson
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan, Mr G Robinson
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mr Allister
Question accordingly negatived.