Official Report: Monday 10 November 2014
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I received a letter from you last Tuesday about events in the Assembly on Monday. I am not in any way challenging your ruling. In fact, I have circulated the content of your letter to all MLAs so that they can see it.
Will you and the other Deputy Speakers examine the Hansard report from the Monday? I asked a question of the Sinn Féin Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister, and she refused to answer it.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That is not a valid point of order, but it does concern a matter that has been dealt with by the previous Speaker, who made it clear that the Speaker has no role in or control over the content or manner of response. In the particular instance, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the Minister gave you a very direct response to the question and how it was presented. I think that it would be sensible to let the matter rest.
That Mr Alex Maskey be appointed as a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister; that Mr Máirtín Ó Muilleoir replace Mr Chris Hazzard as a member of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment; and that Mr Máirtín Ó Muilleoir replace Mr Raymond McCartney as a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. — [Ms Ruane.]
Mrs Foster: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Is it not the normal practice in the Chamber that, when someone speaks in a language other than English, they translate into English what has been said, because that did not happen a few moments ago?
Ms Ruane: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I did translate. I said, "Moved" and "Bogtha". I actually translated.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members should use the usual guidance that the Speaker gives about good order, good temper and moderation. I asked the person named to move the motion. If there was any possibility of confusion about what transpired, it would amaze me; I think that it was fairly straightforward.
Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development): I beg to introduce the Pensions Bill [NIA 42/11-16], which is a Bill to make provision about pensions and about benefits payable to people in connection with bereavement; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
That the Second Stage of the Insolvency (Amendment) Bill [NIA 39/11-16] be agreed.
There are several types of insolvency procedures available to individuals and companies. For individuals, there is bankruptcy or debt relief, and, for companies, there is administration, which is intended to facilitate company rescue, or liquidation, which is to allow for the orderly disposal of a company's assets if it has to cease trading. In addition, individuals and companies can enter into voluntary arrangements. Behind all those procedures, however, lies a complex, detailed and highly specialised body of legislation. The purpose of the Bill is, therefore, to update and amend some of that legislation.
We are all familiar with the way in which new technology has, within a short time, revolutionised the way we communicate and conduct business. One of the key purposes of the Bill is to allow the increased use of electronic communication within insolvency procedures. At present, the validity of documents communicated by electronic means is recognised in law in only very limited circumstances. The Bill will extend that recognition and, by doing so, give the insolvency profession the opportunity to exploit new communications technology more fully, thereby driving down costs and increasing returns to creditors.
Clause 2, therefore, will give documents that are communicated and stored electronically in all types of insolvency proceedings the same status in law as paper documents. That will be subject to a small number of listed exceptions where the use of electronic communications would not be appropriate, such as the service of a statutory demand for payment on a debtor.
In addition, the Bill will permit the use of two novel forms of communication. Clause 1 will give insolvency practitioners the option of communicating notices and documents by displaying them on a website. Those entitled to see the notice or document will be given a password permitting them to see it. The potential of modern communications will be further exploited by clause 1, which will, for the first time, permit the holding of virtual meetings in insolvency proceedings. That will enable creditors and others entitled to take part in such meetings to do so from their own homes or offices and save them the expense and inconvenience of having to travel to somewhere else.
In making those amendments, I am mindful that not all citizens have access to electronic means of communication. There will, therefore, be safeguards for people who do not have access to computers or the Internet. Insolvency practitioners, for example, will be required to obtain the consent of the intended recipient before using electronic communications, and recipients will have the right to ask for hard copies of documents, free of charge. Creditors with claims totalling at least 10% of the total owed and, in the case of companies, members with at least 10% of total voting rights will be able to insist on a physical meeting instead of a virtual one.
The second main element of the Bill deals with reform of the licensing system for insolvency practitioners. It is a legal requirement for individuals to be authorised in order to act as insolvency practitioners. Acting as an insolvency practitioner when not authorised to do so is a criminal offence that is punishable by a fine or imprisonment. The majority of Northern Ireland’s insolvency practitioners are authorised by one of seven professional bodies recognised by my Department for that purpose.
My Department, in its role as competent authority, can also directly authorise insolvency practitioners, and two are currently authorised in that way. I consider that it would be preferable for all insolvency practitioners to be authorised by the recognised professional bodies. Those bodies have available to them a tailored range of sanctions that can be used where the professional standards of insolvency practitioners fall below that which is required.
The sanctions available to my Department are limited to the issue of non-binding improvement notices or complete withdrawal of the practitioner’s authorisation, which, in most cases, would be a disproportionate remedy. I consider, therefore, that there is no need for my Department to continue to be engaged in direct authorisation. Arrangements will be made to accommodate the two practitioners currently authorised by my Department. Articles 351 to 354 of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, which provide for authorisation of insolvency practitioners by my Department, are therefore repealed by clause 14 of the Bill.
Clause 14 also ensures compliance with the EU directive on services in the internal market. The directive requires individuals who are authorised to provide a service to be free to provide that service throughout that member state and not be limited to a particular region. Compliance with the directive has, up to now, depended on the fact that the majority of bodies responsible for authorising insolvency practitioners were recognised by the Secretary of State in Great Britain and by my Department in Northern Ireland. The amendment made by clause 14 of the Bill is intended to ensure full compliance. That will clarify that a person is qualified to act as an insolvency practitioner in Northern Ireland if he or she is authorised to practise by the Secretary of State in the United Kingdom or by my Department.
The third main element of the Bill relates to the qualification of insolvency practitioners. The current legislation is framed in such a way that insolvency practitioners can only be authorised if they are qualified to take both individual and corporate cases. That obliges the aspiring insolvency practitioner to study and pass exams in personal and corporate insolvency. Clause 14 of the Bill creates the option of partial authorisation so that practitioners can opt to act only in individual or corporate insolvencies. That will allow individuals to study and qualify only for personal or corporate insolvency examinations if they wish to specialise in one area. A consequence of that approach will render the option of authorisation limited to acting as nominee or supervisor in voluntary arrangements redundant. Article 348A of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, which provided for that, is accordingly repealed.
Another issue dealt with by the Bill is the difficulty undischarged bankrupts can encounter finding a bank that is willing to let them operate an account. Banks usually close a customer’s account on their becoming bankrupt and are, in general, very reluctant to let an undischarged bankrupt have an account. That can create major problems for individuals who are bankrupt, as wages and benefits invariably have to be paid through a bank account, and much of modern-day commerce is conducted online.
Research in Great Britain has identified that a key factor behind banks’ reluctance to let bankrupts have accounts is concern that doing so could place them at risk of retrospective claims by trustees in bankruptcy. Current legislation allows trustees in bankruptcy to claim any assets that the bankrupt acquires during the period between becoming bankrupt and discharge. The Bill, therefore, restricts the circumstances under which such claims can be made against banks, with the aim of encouraging them to allow undischarged bankrupts to have accounts. Clause 13 of the Bill, therefore, removes trustees’ rights to claim against banks, except where they have served notice on the bank in relation to a specific transaction.
The UK Enterprise Act 2002 and the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 reduced the period for which bankruptcy lasts from three years to one year. However, both went even further by providing that discharge from bankruptcy could take place before the end of the first year if the official receiver concluded that the investigation of the conduct and affairs of the bankrupt was unnecessary or had concluded.
The early discharge procedure has been thoroughly reviewed in England and Wales. It was found that early discharge did not represent good value for money and that the cost of administering the scheme far outweighed any benefit to individuals through being discharged prior to their automatic discharge after one year.
The outcome has been the repeal of the Great Britain provision for early discharge. The early discharge procedure has only ever been used twice in Northern Ireland, and I consider that there is no need to keep such a provision in this jurisdiction. Accordingly, the corresponding provision has been repealed by clause 12.
The Bill also does away with certain provisions that are no longer needed. Clause 10 removes references in the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 to a form of holiday arrangement that is now illegal. There have been no deeds of arrangements for over 20 years, and their place has been taken by individual voluntary arrangements. Clause 11, therefore, repeals the deeds of arrangements provisions.
Certain procedural requirements are also being modified to make them less burdensome. Clause 3 does away with the requirement to hold annual meetings in voluntary liquidations and provides instead for the issue of progress reports.
Clause 4 will allow the notice that has to be issued to creditors about meetings in a voluntary liquidation to be sent to them in ways other than through the post.
Clause 5 does away with the requirement for nominees in individual voluntary arrangements, which do not involve the court, to send the report on the debtor’s proposals to the court.
Clauses 7 and 8 will give liquidators and trustees in bankruptcy the freedom to exercise their own professional judgement as to whether to reach compromises over payments of debts due to companies and bankrupts' estates without having to seek sanction from creditors or the Department.
Other provisions serve to clarify the law. Clause 9 redefines liability in tort in liquidations and administrations in line with a similar amendment that was made to the corresponding GB legislation following legal advice. There are also provisions to amend errors that have been discovered in the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. Clause 15 puts right the omission of power to make regulations to give effect to Part 12. A correction to article 185 will result in the principal place of business of any unregistered company being wound up in Northern Ireland being treated as its registered office. Paragraph 13 of the same schedule corrects a mistake in a provision barring companies entering administration, by providing for it to apply in the case of companies that have a principal place of business outside the United Kingdom.
Clause 16 gives my Department power to make orders enabling credit unions, registered under the Credit Unions (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, as well as ones registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, to enter a company arrangement or administration.
Finally, there are a number of other minor amendments that do not fall into any of those categories. There are provisions in various pieces of Northern Ireland legislation that disqualify individuals from holding offices or positions as a consequence of bankruptcy or becoming subject to a bankruptcy restrictions order. Current legislation allows Departments to have the discretion to create a right of appeal to such disqualifications. At the request of my colleague the Minister for Justice, provision has been included at clause 17 to give the Lord Chief Justice the right to be consulted where the right of appeal is to be to a court.
To conclude, therefore, the Bill is chiefly aimed at modernising insolvency legislation and makes a number of positive changes to the law as it affects those who have the misfortune to be affected by insolvency and those charged with responsibility for administering insolvency procedures. I believe that these changes will be to the benefit of all concerned, and I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as an léargas chuimsitheach sin. I thank the Minister for her comprehensive overview.
The Committee welcomes the introduction of the Insolvency (Amendment) Bill for Second Stage consideration and thanks the Minister for bringing it to the Assembly. It has been a lengthy process to get the Bill to this stage. It was in March 2012 that the Committee first received a written briefing on the original proposals of the Bill and September 2012 when the Committee received an oral briefing on the outcome of the first consultation. I thank the Minister for keeping the Committee informed throughout the long process.
The Minister advised the Committee in November 2012 that it was intended to include a clause to repeal article 253(2) of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 on the basis that the provision had been little used in this jurisdiction and that the corresponding provision applying in England and Wales was to be repealed.
The Minister wrote again in October 2013 to inform the Committee of the need for an amendment to safeguard banks against claims by trustees in bankruptcy and to also inform the Committee of the need to put right an error in article 10(2) of the Insolvency (NI) Order 2005. In August 2013, the Minister advised the Committee that amendments to the licensing system for insolvency practitioners needed to be made in consequence of the Deregulation Bill. The Committee considered a written briefing on the revised Bill in June 2014. This included the minor amendments to correct the errors and anomalies in the existing insolvency legislation as well as the additional measures included in the Westminster Deregulation Bill that are to be replicated in Northern Ireland and are being dealt with through this Bill.
I will deal first with the original proposals of the Bill. The Committee welcomes the intention that the legislation will keep Northern Ireland insolvency legislation in line with that applying in England and Wales. The Committee agrees in principle with the overall objective of the original proposals to make the administration of insolvencies faster, more efficient and less expensive. Further, the Committee is in favour of measures that will modernise the administration of insolvencies by permitting greater use of electronic communications by establishing that documents stored and transmitted in electronic form are as good and as valid in law as paper ones. The measures should prove beneficial to the environment in respect of the carbon footprint and, according to the Department, will be of no cost to the public purse.
At the oral briefing in September 2012, the Committee sought assurance from the Department that safeguards would be put in place to ensure that those who need or, indeed, prefer to communicate using traditional paper-based methods should still be able to do so. The Committee received assurances from the Department that those who wish to change over to using electronic communications and those who wish to communicate in the traditional way can both be accommodated without any need for interference with the rights of either group. The Committee will consider that in detail during the Committee Stage of the Bill.
I think it relevant to note the Northern Ireland broadband improvement project that is currently being rolled out by the Department. That scheme will provide basic broadband services in certain areas of Northern Ireland for the first time. That is to be welcomed. However, there will, as the Minister knows, be areas in other parts of the North where the broadband will maybe not work so well. The proposals are intended to facilitate the use of modern methods of communication during insolvency proceedings and to modernise some of the processes involved such as, for example, prescribing circumstances in which communication by website can be used. The Bill highlights how important it is for government to ensure that broadband services are available to households and businesses alike throughout Northern Ireland.
The Committee welcomed the views of some consultees that measures such as allowing creditors or company members to attend meetings by way of technologies such as a video call and teleconferencing, which the Minister referred to, rather than attending physically may encourage greater creditor involvement in the insolvency process. At the oral briefing in September 2012, the Committee asked the Department why the proportion of creditors or company members that can request a physical meeting is set at 10%, which seemed low. The Committee accepts in principle the Department's view that such meetings are generally attended by large companies but, should the occasion arise that an individual desires a physical meeting, this protects their right to have that.
The Committee agrees in principle with measures aimed at addressing procedures that have become outdated and pointless. At the oral briefing from the Department in September 2012, the Committee also asked officials about the Crown Solicitor and the chancery and probate liaison committee's stated concerns about a proposal to do away with the requirement for the court to be notified of the outcome of the creditors' meeting in certain individual voluntary arrangement cases. The Department informed the Committee that it was in discussions around that matter. The Committee notes that the Department decided not to proceed with that particular proposal, and similar proposals concerning fast-track voluntary arrangements were also subsequently removed.
When considering the revised draft of the Bill in June 2014, the Committee commissioned research to compare the amendments proposed to insolvency law in England and Wales. The research stated that the Bill includes amendments in law equivalent to measures existing or due to be introduced in England and Wales with the exceptions of three provisions that make corrections to existing law in Northern Ireland for which no corresponding changes in England and Wales could be found. Incidentally, the research states that article 8 of the Legislative Reform (Insolvency) (Miscellaneous Provisions) Order 2010 removes the requirement to submit a report to the court in those individual voluntary arrangement cases where no application has been made to the court for an interim order.
The Committee looks forward to further scrutiny of those original proposals over the coming weeks.
On the further amendments, the Committee noted that, in the informal consultations carried out by the Department with Northern Ireland's insolvency practitioners and their recognised professional bodies on the proposed changes to the licensing system for insolvency practitioners, mixed views were manifest on the proposal to create the option of being authorised to act as an insolvency practitioner solely in personal or corporate insolvencies. However, the Committee understands that the Department will have no option except to proceed with partial authorisation for insolvency practitioners if that passes into law through the proposed Deregulation Bill. This is because authorisation will be restricted to a specific part of a national territory only if doing so can be justified by an overriding reason relating to the public interest.
The Committee noted that those consulted strongly supported the proposal for a legislative amendment to prevent trustees in bankruptcy bringing retrospective claims against banks in respect of payments made out of bankrupt accounts. However, the chairperson of the Chancery and Probate Liaison Committee expressed concerns about the possibility of cheques issued by bankrupts not being honoured; banks not being responsible for the loss incurred by those receiving cheques that were dishonoured on presentation; and the withdrawal of trustees' rights to take action in respect of moneys passing through bankrupts' accounts, leading to banks failing to exercise necessary control over bankrupts' accounts. The Committee will consider the Department's view that not going ahead with the amendment in Northern Ireland would deny to bankrupts here the benefits of a measure taken to assist those in similar circumstances in the UK, assuming that the Deregulation Bill, inclusive of a similar amendment, becomes law.
The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has drawn up a list of stakeholders with whom it will consult, and it looks forward to receiving written and oral evidence over the coming weeks during Committee Stage.
Mr Dunne: I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on the Second Stage of the Insolvency (Amendment) Bill.
Insolvency is a very complex and technical issue, and I commend the Minister for introducing the Bill and the Department for its work on the matter to date. Unfortunately, insolvency has affected quite a number of businesses. Therefore, it is important that measures are put in place to make the process as simple and effective as possible and ensure that we have a modern, fit-for-purpose system in Northern Ireland.
One of the main purposes of the Bill is to allow for the electronic transfer of documents, which is a welcome step forward. The development that electronic documents will now have the same standing as hard copy documents is a positive step that will, hopefully, help to improve the insolvency processes.
The other developments, which authorise the use of websites to communicate reports electronically and the use of video conferencing and other types of remote meetings, are further steps in the right direction. The introduction of those measures should allow for more efficient communication and help to reduce delays in the completion of transactions involving insolvency cases. However, I feel that it is important that those without access to electronic IT equipment are not put at any disadvantage by this process. Obviously, IT is the way forward, and the vast majority of people now use it, but we cannot forget those who do not have such access to it, and they need to be reassured. Perhaps the Minister will also clarify whether the requirement for manual final sign-off of documents will still be needed or whether an electronic signature will be acceptable.
I believe that those measures will help to streamline a difficult and technical process.
All in all, I welcome the progress and the work undertaken to date in this field. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill and trust that it will continue to progress.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate, for no other reason than to hear Gordon Dunne say that IT is the way forward. That is a huge acknowledgement from Mr Dunne, and I welcome it.
In principle, we support the Bill's progression to Committee Stage. Most of my brief comments will focus on the main areas that I think we should focus on through the Committee scrutiny of the Bill. It is clear that the insolvency legislation that applies here needs to be updated to allow for the use of modern means of electronic communication and to do away with certain procedures and requirements that have outlived their usefulness.
In relation to clause 12, on the repeal of provision for the early discharge from bankruptcy, through the Committee we have been informed that that provision has been little used in this jurisdiction. I think that the Minister said that it has been used twice. Through the Committee Stage of the Bill, we want to gain a greater insight into why the provision was included in the first place, what its raison d'être was, and to explore what circumstances it was used in. When it was used, did it prove beneficial? What are the potential cost savings that have been referred to through the making of the repeal? Or are we merely repealing it because a similar move was made in England and Wales?
There is also reference to fast-track voluntary arrangements. We should learn more about those proposals through the subsequent stages of the Bill, because I am sure that not too many of the 108 of us here are experts in the insolvency process, thank God, although it does feel like it on an ongoing basis.
The Minister informed the Committee in June that the original clause 14 of the Bill would be removed to comply with an EU bank recovery and resolution directive that is close to being adopted, we are told. However, as the provisions originally included in the removed clause will now be included in a statutory instrument that the British Treasury plans to make under the European Communities Act, it would probably be appropriate for the Committee to consider the provisions in some way.
The original clause 14 referred to bank deposits covered by the financial services compensation scheme. It seems to be the case that, in the event that a financial institution becomes insolvent, individual customers will be compensated up to £85,000 and the financial services compensation scheme will be reimbursed before the British Treasury can claim any further funds. However, what is not clear is whether the Treasury can claim against the remaining funds in preference to the customers who hold deposits in excess of that £85,000. We will try to get clarity on that matter through the Committee Stage of the Bill, unless the Minister can provide it today.
The new clause 14 includes provisions to create the option of being authorised as an insolvency practitioner solely in a personal or a corporate capacity. Under current legislation, it is only possible to be authorised for both. The Bill will do away with the authorisation of insolvency practitioners by competent authorities and enable recognised professional bodies to authorise insolvency practitioners to take only personal or corporate insolvencies as an alternative to being authorised to deal with both. We want an assurance that that will not create the risk of a lack of provision in future should practitioners opt for one or the other.
Also included in the Bill, at clause 17, is the proposal, at the suggestion of the Minister of Justice, to require the Lord Chief Justice to be consulted about the making of any order, including the right of appeal, to a court. We want to establish the rationale behind that and why it has been considered necessary at this stage. Provision is also made for statutory demands to be made in writing. During the scrutiny stage, we should seek to explore what the current arrangements are and what the potential benefits of making such a change would be.
In conclusion, we do not find a pile wrong with the Bill; it is largely a technical exercise. We will have a number of questions through the Committee Stage, but, at this stage, we are more than happy to support the Bill progressing.
Mr Kinahan: I welcome the chance to speak. I am, of course, new to the Committee since all this started, but I will make one or two points and observations. As we have already heard, it is very important that the whole system works slickly and well, particularly for those who are suffering under the threat of insolvency.
I note that one of the briefs mentions that there are only two practitioners here. I wonder whether we should look at whether there should be more, not because I would encourage more people, but just to make sure that it is a cheaper process for people to go through. When we look at the use of electronic means and all the other means, it is eminently sensible, but will the Bill be written in such a way that, as new technologies that we may not have even thought about come on board, instead of legislation, we will be able to do it with other means so that we can open up?
I am impressed that we are looking at having remote and virtual meetings, but I am equally impressed that we are protecting those who do not have IT. Many of us here may not be as good as we might be, but it is very important that everybody is protected and feels part of the system.
I think that the point that you cannot survive without a bank account is vital, and that seems eminently sensible as well. The Bill seems to have been well consulted on, and I congratulate everyone on that so far. There will, of course, be queries about definitions and jargon as we all learn our way through the Bill. I am particularly pleased to see the right of appeal to the Lord Chief Justice coming on board.
In one further and last comment, when we look at allowing individuals, other than qualified insolvency practitioners, to act as nominees and supervisors in voluntary arrangements, I note that the Minister said that the Department and the Secretary of State would authorise them. I wonder whether we should be looking at allowing some other independent body that might be better placed to do that so that it is not part of the Department or loaded on to the Secretary of State. We support the Bill as it is.
Mr McCarthy: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Insolvency (Amendment) Bill and will say a few words on the issue.
Insolvency is a very difficult process for business people and can have a significant financial and, indeed, emotional toll on those who are affected. Like other areas, Northern Ireland is emerging from a recession. As a result, we have seen the impact that insolvency can have. Sadly, we have also seen deficiencies in the law highlighted more often as a result. I see this Bill as largely tidying up and updating, as the Minister said, the insolvency laws in this region.
This is in part about restoring parity between the laws in England and Wales and those here at home. Although there is no financial cost to having different laws, there is a good case to be made to harmonise some of these rules among the increasing number of businesses that operate across both or all jurisdictions.
There are nine objectives in the Bill, and Alliance is content that the broad thrust of the Bill is well intended and will improve the insolvency process. For example, the abolition of the little-used clause relating to early discharge is welcome. That has been demonstrated in England and Wales to be costly and of little benefit to justify the cost involved.
I am interested to hear the Minister's views and to hear whether further consultation on restricting practitioners to personal or corporate insolvency is intended. I understand that the initial consultation presented views either way, and I will be interested to hear, at Committee Stage, what further views emerge during consultation.
I also support clauses 1 and 2, which allow modern business practices to be used on insolvency issues, such as authorising electronic means etc rather than printed references and correspondence, which will be very useful.
As others said, clause 1 also authorises online meetings, and those are timely and sensible changes. In conclusion, Alliance will support the Bill at this stage. We will, of course, follow the Committee scrutiny carefully and consider any issues that are raised at that stage. However, we support the passage of the Bill at Second Stage and agree with its provisions.
Mr Anderson: I will speak on the Second Stage of the Insolvency (Amendment) Bill as a member of the ETI Committee, and I thank the Minister for bringing it before the House.
The Bill is largely technical and covers a highly complex field of legislation. It will, therefore, perhaps be mainly of interest to practitioners and the legal profession. However, the whole area of insolvency can and does affect a wide range of individuals and businesses, and it is important that the law is kept up to date to reflect changes in society. It is also important that persons in businesses who are affected by bankruptcy are able to avail themselves of a system that is up to date, efficient and effective.
I thank the Minister for setting out the thinking behind the Bill and for explaining its key provisions so clearly in her opening speech.
I welcome the fact that this amending Bill is designed to streamline the law and bring it broadly into line, as far as is possible, with that in England and Wales. It is an area in which there has been parity in the past, and it is good that such parity is being maintained.
The Bill addresses a number of aspects of insolvency law and procedures, and I am particularly glad to see that it will provide for the use of electronic communication, which other Members have already mentioned. That is an area of life that has undergone a major revolution in a fairly short space of time. It is vital that the use of electronic documents, such as emails and websites, now be placed on a statutory footing as far as insolvency practices are concerned.
However, I am aware that not everyone will have easy or regular access to electronic communications and that some older folk still find email, and so on, something of a mystery and a challenge. There need to be stringent safeguards for those who still have to rely on what we would call old-fashioned paper communications.
Finally, as far as I am aware, the Bill was not subject to full public consultation. In view of its technical nature, I understand the rationale behind that, but perhaps the Minister can outline just how consultation was targeted and what sorts of responses were received.
Mr McKinney: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Second Stage of the Insolvency (Amendment) Bill.
It is important to note that great strides have been made in giving necessary support to those who have come into financial difficulty. Since its inception, Debt Action NI has dealt with nearly £215 million of debt, and nearly 13,000 people have benefited. More than 7,500 of those people have availed themselves of that support since August 2012. There are a record number of individuals here who have to take drastic action to manage their debt, and almost 11 individuals a day, to update the present statistics, have declared insolvency, including bankruptcy, over the past three months. There were 975 insolvencies between July and September this year. Those are staggering figures and are a real reflection of the legacy of the recession.
Against that backdrop, it is imperative that the Insolvency Bill be as accessible as possible, and its proposals will enable a faster, more efficient and less costly method of communication. The Bill is a welcome step in making the necessary changes aimed at modernising the administrative process by permitting greater use of electronic communications. For example, of particular benefit will be the option to attend meetings virtually, as has been outlined, and to use websites for the transmission of documents. The proposals include establishing the view that documents stored and transmitted in electronic form are as good and as valid as paper ones. The Bill also offers office holders involved in insolvency proceedings the ability to communicate information by displaying it on websites, albeit with the protection of a password.
We must welcome the proposals, which bring insolvency procedures into line with the modern era and help to streamline the process. However, we must ensure, as colleagues have mentioned, that no detriment attaches to those who do not have such access, and I welcome other comments that were made in that regard.
It is a great incentive that there were no objections to the legislation during public consultation. There are, however, a number of other issues that must be addressed. Earlier, reference was made to bank accounts for bankrupts. It is currently difficult for them to get bank accounts here, and the proposed change would go in some way to removing barriers. Without that change, there would be a detriment attaching to the people of Northern Ireland, who would be unduly disadvantaged compared with colleagues across the water.
In the light of the increasing figures surrounding insolvencies, it is important that we do more to promote greater awareness about finance and financial products available to the public. We need to ensure that they have the necessary information, structure and support available. In that regard, it is important to ensure that changes in the legislation do not limit access to services for clients, particularly those who are vulnerable, such as the elderly or those who live in rural communities, as Mr Dunne said. We need to ensure that proper safeguards are in place to protect these individuals. In this regard, I would support a request for a thorough and in-depth impact assessment to be undertaken to ensure that those individuals are not disadvantaged in any way as a direct result of increased digitalisation of the insolvency procedure.
Mr Allister: This Bill is largely non-contentious. It deals with modernising and technical issues. In that regard, I have no issue with it. I am a bit disappointed, though, that the opportunity maybe was not taken to bring a degree of more effective supervision — indeed regulation — to insolvency practitioners.
I say that from the basis and experience of the case of a constituent — not of my constituency, in fact, but of Upper Bann — who, some time ago, brought me some matters concerning a complaint that she found it necessary to make about how an insolvency practitioner conducted themselves when they came into her business. Indeed, at one point, the Insolvency Practitioners Tribunal — an infrequently used institution — made a finding that that particular insolvency practitioner had treated this lady in a most oppressive and unfair fashion. It transpired, for example, that assets of her business had been used to pay money to someone who was not even a creditor, such was the mismanagement by the insolvency practitioner. Yet that insolvency practitioner can retire and walk off into the sunset, as he has done, leaving that lady with a very justified sense of grievance and complaint; a complaint that she brought to the Department in January 2012, almost three years ago, and which is yet to be resolved.
The Minister knows about this case. I have been in correspondence with her about it for over a year. She has advised, for example, in a letter of 7 November 2013, that the Insolvency Service has learned a number of lessons from this case and that she understands from her officials that internal procedures with regard to how complaints made against insolvency practitioners are handled are being reviewed and that improvements will be made. That is good, but is there not in this Bill, I ask the Minister, an opportunity to tighten the controls in respect of insolvency practitioners?
We are now in the situation where they are to be appointed solely and exclusively by their own professional bodies, but in those professional bodies, there does not appear to be the degree and mechanisms of control when an insolvency practitioner falls below the expected standard of operation. As I understand it, this particular insolvency practitioner, whom I will not name, has had complaints in respect of other businesses as well. Is there not a case for this Bill to make statutory provision for a code of conduct in respect of insolvency practitioners? Would that not give some comfort, opportunity and assurance to those who, by the operation of insolvency practitioners, feel badly done by? I ask the Minister to consider that possibility.
I also ask the Minister to assure us that all of the professional bodies that are capable of appointing insolvency practitioners have, in fact, got a continual professional development (CPD) programme. Are they all operating CPD? Part of the lessons I draw from the case that I have referred to is that an insolvency practitioner had maybe been doing it for such a long time that he thought that he knew all the answers. In fact, he was deficient in his up-to-date knowledge and in how he applied it. If those professional bodies are to be left to self-regulate insolvency practitioners, as they do at present, is there within each of them an adequate, efficient and effective CPD scheme? I do not know the entire answer to that, but I suspect that, in respect of some, there may not be. I ask the Minister to check that out, either today or on another occasion, and return to us on that matter.
I note that the Committee Chairman is not presently here. In the Committee's consideration of the Bill, it should take the opportunity to hear evidence from the young lady to whom I have referred — I am quite happy to facilitate it with the information — to see whether it is persuaded that there is a case for, for example, a statutory code of conduct in respect of insolvency practitioners. I am not saying that that is the entire answer. Perhaps it requires more than that. However, I suggest that something needs to be done so that, in the supervision of insolvency practitioners, there is something with effect and teeth.
In this case, I think that it was last October when the Department received the report of its investigator; it is called the Hastings report. That report, to this very day, still has not been released to the complainant. I understand that insolvency is complex and technical, and that a lot of legal advice probably needs to be taken, but having a situation where a report has been sitting with legal advisers for over a year and the complainant is bereft of even a copy of that report does nothing to build the confidence of those affected. I say to the Minister that, if opportunity in the Bill can be made to exist to broaden it to bring some comfort to those affected by the workings of insolvency practitioners, that should be taken. I respectfully suggest that the very basic step that might appropriately be taken is the consideration of a statutory code of conduct for insolvency practitioners so that we do not have a situation again where someone, as in this case, makes a less than professional job of the matter and simply retires and walks off into the sunset. There has to be accountability.
Mr Flanagan: I thank the Member for giving way. I definitely do not argue with his point; it merits looking at. However, one of the arguments that we hear for these changes needing to be made to the legislation is to keep it in line with that offered in England and Wales. Is the Member content for us to deviate from what they are doing over there in terms of the inclusion of a statutory code of conduct for practitioners?
Mr Allister: I do not think that a statutory code of conduct would fall foul of the essential parity of arrangement to be maintained as to who appoints insolvency practitioners etc and the compliance with the pending EU directive. I do not think that any of that would fall foul of that. If we can better the legislation, we should take the opportunity to do so. We should proof it more against the needs of those who interface with the insolvency practitioners in the way that I have suggested. I trust that, in the spirit in which it is offered, the Minister will consider the suggestions of how we can better proof the actions of insolvency practitioners in circumstances where there seems to be a deficit of supervision, control, accountability and regulation of how they conduct themselves and that lessons will indeed be learned that will be translated into this legislation.
Mrs Foster: I am grateful to Members for their consideration of the Bill. I am pleased with the level of support for its introduction. As has been acknowledged, there are a number of very technical issues in it, but there are a few issues that I want to reflect on after the debate. The Bill will be welcomed by members of the insolvency profession, and I believe it will be of benefit to those members of the public at large who have the misfortune to be affected by it.
The Chair of the Committee welcomed the provisions for electronic communications and indicated that the Committee would be engaging in further scrutiny of the additional amendments. He expressed some concerns about the fact that insolvency practitioners could apply to be personal practitioners or corporate practitioners, which is a point that I will address in a second. He also indicated that he was pleased to see that people would still be able to apply for bank accounts in the future.
Mr Dunne expressed concerns in relation to IT and the fact that some people cannot access broadband. His colleague took it a bit further, saying that there are many old-fashioned people who did not want to use IT. I did not know whether he was speaking about himself at that point.
Mrs Foster: Absolutely not.
He is right: there are a number of people who do not want to avail of IT, but there will be a number of safeguards put in place to ensure that anyone who is not able to, or does not want to, receive communications electronically will not be put at a disadvantage. Provisions will be included in subordinate legislation that make it essential to obtain an intended recipient's consent to the use of electronic means to send them notices or other documents. That will very much be put in place to safeguard those people.
In relation to the manual sign-off of documents, which is a very specific point that Mr Dunne asked me about, there will be a set of rules made to accompany this legislation. They will provide for the authorisation of signatures by electronic means. So the answer is, "Yes. In due course that will be allowed for as well."
Mr Flanagan mentioned early discharge from bankruptcy and asked what cost savings could be made if we did away with that provision. If someone applies for early discharge, obviously you have to have the administrative system to deal with that, whereas, if it is not allowed for, you do not need that and you would be saving money in that respect.
On the issue of the appeal to the Lord Chief Justice; at present, you have to consult with the Lord Chancellor. The Minister of Justice asked that I add in, "and the Lord Chief Justice", so not only will we have to consult the Lord Chancellor's office, we will also have to consult with the Lord Chief Justice. That is in relation to the disqualifying of individuals from occupying certain office. If there is discretion involved, there will be an appeal process, and the Minister of Justice has asked for the Lord Chief Justice to be included in that.
Mr Kinahan said that there are only two practitioners in Northern Ireland, which is not correct. There are around 50 practitioners, but only two are authorised by my Department: the others are authorised by the professional bodies across Northern Ireland. The two insolvency practitioners authorised by the Department will, if the Bill is passed, need to seek authorisation from one of the seven recognised professional bodies. We will assist them with that and will allow them to remain authorised by the Department for up to a year after the measure commences to give them some time for transition.
Mr Kinahan made the point that it is very difficult to exist without a bank account. That is absolutely right. He made mention of the Secretary of State. To be clear, it is the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills who has the residual power, not the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Mr McCarthy asked about the business of being qualified for personal insolvency and corporate insolvency. I actually think that that will allow more people to become qualified. I think it was Mr Flanagan who suggested that perhaps fewer people might be qualified. However, I think that it will allow more people to be qualified, because some will choose to qualify as an individual, while others, perhaps larger firms, will want to be involved in corporate insolvency as well.
Mr McKinney welcomed the proposals and very much wanted to emphasise that no detriment should be attached to those who do not have Internet access. Again, I make the point that it will be very clear in the rules that we have to gain the consent of the intended recipient before we can proceed.
Mr Allister is right: it is largely a non-contentious issue. He raised a specific issue, and I am very conscious and aware of the facts behind that case, which I acknowledge has been going on for far too long. It comes from the fact that it was the first case of its type. As I indicated in my speech, we had very specific powers to intervene. If it goes down to the seven professional bodies, they will have a range of powers with which to intervene. I could only disqualify the insolvency practitioner; I did not have other ways of intervention. Therefore, it will help that the insolvency practitioner bodies — the authorised bodies — will be able to intervene.
I take his point in relation to a code of conduct. That is something that we could certainly look at and explore. I hope that the Committee takes the opportunity, through its evidence sessions, to look at that. I am very happy to engage on that issue as well. What we want to achieve is that, if a complaint is made, it is dealt with quickly and effectively, but also in a meaningful way, and the appropriate sanction is put in place.
He asked a specific question about whether the professional bodies engage in continuing professional development. I do not have that answer here, but I am happy to come back to him, and indeed the Committee, on that issue. Again, he made a very fair point in asking whether those bodies that are engaged in authorising insolvency practitioners make sure that, as is the case with lawyers, accountants and everybody else, they continue to keep up to speed in their professional qualifications.
All in all, the House has expressed a desire to move to the next stage in the legislation. I am grateful to those who contributed to the debate. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Insolvency (Amendment) Bill [NIA 39/11-16] be agreed.
Leave out Standing Order 71 and insert
Where an oath is to be administered it shall be in the following form -
'I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be truthful and honest, and that I will give the Committee/Assembly all such information and assistance as I can to enable it to discharge its responsibilities';
but where the person giving the evidence objects to being sworn, he or she shall be permitted to make a solemn affirmation in the following form -
'I, _____________ do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be truthful and honest, and that I will give the Committee/Assembly all such information and assistance as I can to enable it to discharge its responsibilities'.".
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I am pleased to bring the motion to the House, which proposes an amendment to Standing Order 71. Standing Order 71 sets out the form of the oath administered to witnesses. However, the current wording is not consistent with the Oaths Act 1978. The Act states:
"Any person who objects to being sworn shall be permitted to make his solemn affirmation instead of taking an oath."
Standing Order 71 is somewhat different, as it does not require a person to object to being sworn but refers to a person who "prefers to affirm". To reflect the wording of the Oaths Act, it is proposed that the wording is amended to read:
"where the person giving the evidence objects to being sworn, he or she shall be permitted to make a solemn affirmation".
The Act also prescribes the form of a solemn affirmation. However, this has not been precisely replicated in Standing Order 71, which omits the requirement for the person affirming to give their name and the words "and affirm". Today’s motion will rectify this and ensure that Standing Orders reflect the requirements of the Oaths Act. On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
Leave out Standing Order 71 and insert
Where an oath is to be administered it shall be in the following form -
'I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be truthful and honest, and that I will give the Committee/Assembly all such information and assistance as I can to enable it to discharge its responsibilities';
but where the person giving the evidence objects to being sworn, he or she shall be permitted to make a solemn affirmation in the following form -
'I, _____________ do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be truthful and honest, and that I will give the Committee/Assembly all such information and assistance as I can to enable it to discharge its responsibilities'.".
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Finance and Personnel on its Inquiry into Flexible Working in the Public Sector in Northern Ireland; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel, in conjunction with his Executive colleagues, to implement, as applicable, the recommendations contained therein.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. At the outset, I point out that the Committee’s inquiry findings and recommendations are both timely and germane given the public expenditure pressures that we face. Essentially, this is about how our public sector can work smarter to achieve desired outcomes while using less resource and taking account of the needs of both the business and the employees.
I do not underestimate the challenge that full implementation of the inquiry recommendations will present to the Department and the wider Executive. Given the cross-cutting nature of the change measures required, I expect, and know, that resistance will emerge and that the silo mentality will come into play, including amongst senior managers. Organisational culture is also notoriously difficult to change. However, it is clear from the international evidence that we are behind the curve in exploiting the benefits from a strategic and coordinated application of flexible working in the public sector. The prize is too great and the medium-term budgetary outlook too severe for us to flinch from meeting this challenge.
I shall refer to the case for a strategic approach to flexible working in a moment, but, first, let me explain what exactly we mean by the term "flexible working". As stated in the evidence, it is about:
"being able to achieve desired outcomes in a range of ways, being flexible about how, when and where people work."
Flexible working covers a wide range of options: for example, people working part-time, job-sharing, working from satellite offices, working in virtual teams using mobile devices and sharing offices. While the inquiry considered all aspects of flexible working, it focused on the further opportunities associated with the flexible place or location options. Drawing on international lessons and expert evidence, the inquiry makes key recommendations to the Department and the wider Executive on how flexible working could be implemented successfully and used strategically for maximum benefit and efficiency in our public sector.
I want to make it clear that this is not simply about homeworking. Some Committee members had much to say about that option, and I am sure that they will wish to highlight the necessary safeguards recommended in the report. Rather, this is about people working smarter, be that in hub offices in rural locations, mobile working, sharing office space or using the full potential of modern technology, such as Internet conferencing and bespoke software solutions. The underlying aim is to match the way of working with business needs and the needs of those doing the work.
The Committee’s evidence focused on five broad themes: the case for flexible working; existing flexible working practices in the local public sector; lessons from other jurisdictions; how we could implement flexible working successfully; and the relevance to other Executive policies and priorities.
Clear evidence was found of potential benefits for the employer, the employee, the economy and the environment.
These included reduced office accommodation costs; increased productivity; better work/life balance; improved staff morale and commitment; reduced staff turnover and absenteeism; promotion of gender equality in employment; and environmental benefits from reduced carbon footprint and congestion.
There was an abundance of literature and case studies demonstrating that such benefits can be realised, and that relates to both the private and the public sectors, including in comparator bodies such as local councils and Whitehall Departments in Britain. I will reference just a few. There were the case studies in the Recruitment and Employment Confederation report, highlighting that employees who, when given increased control over where, when and how they worked as well as the tasks that they performed, were more motivated, more engaged and had higher productivity as well as benefiting from a better work/life balance. The Bain review highlighted improved service delivery, increased public sector efficiency and effectiveness and reduced traffic congestion and carbon footprint.
Statistically, the evidence speaks for itself. For example, a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey in 2012 found that three quarters of employers reported a positive impact on talent retention, motivation and staff engagement. In financial terms, members noted the evidence on substantial savings potential. The Whitehall Department for Culture, Media and Sport achieved property savings estimated at £2·5 million per annum by all staff, including the permanent secretary, moving to open-plan offices, together with a consolidation of buildings and an increase of people working from home or at locations other than the traditional office. Similarly, the Department for Children, Schools and Families implemented a desk-sharing policy, which increased building capacity occupancy, resulting in a £10 million per annum saving in property costs.
Members also noted the office rationalisation achieved by Salford City Council, which, with a complement of only around 4,000 office-based staff, resulted in cumulative savings of £6·5 million per annum and savings of more than £5 million in capital receipts. Similarly, flexible working enabled Hertfordshire County Council to move its 4,500 staff from 51 to five offices and achieve annual operational cost savings of £3·8 million and property disposals totalling £40 million in addition to reductions in travel and in environmental pollutants and increased staff satisfaction. Evidence from further afield presented a similar picture, showing how comparable federal agencies in the United States achieved substantial cost savings from closing offices as a result of teleworking.
On this key issue of office accommodation savings, I point out that we do not yet have firm figures from the Department for potential savings here in the North. The Committee has discovered that only 20% of Civil Service office space meets workspace utilisation targets and that the traditional office is typically occupied only about 45% of the time. This points clearly to the possibility of significant savings being made with a more strategic approach to how public servants work. While figures of between £30 million to £50 million were suggested to the Committee from the reform of property management plan, the Department needs to provide clarity not only on what are the potential total savings but on how and when they will be achieved. There is also a need to establish the total potential savings from the wider public sector, including arm’s-length bodies, the health and education sectors and local government. To date, the Department’s focus has been on the Civil Service estate, for which it has lead responsibility, but that represents only a small proportion of the overall government property portfolio.
I will not labour the evidence point any further. Suffice it to say that the case for flexible working confirms the assertion from Professor Bain in his initial briefing that:
"it is more a question of how one should do this rather than whether one should do it."
The Committee’s cross-departmental survey highlighted the ad hoc and uncoordinated nature of the flexible location working arrangements pertaining across Departments. To address this and to ensure that we realise the full benefits, the Committee makes the following interrelated recommendations. The strategic direction and guiding principles must be set at the highest level in government, namely in the Programme for Government, with Departments and other public bodies provided with a menu of flexible working options from which they can tailor solutions to meet local business needs.
There should be an onus on all Departments to ensure that the work styles and tasks relating to each job role are assessed at the local level to determine the applicable flexible working practices. There should be a coordinated extension of the work hub or satellite office network involving collaboration by public bodies to improve the geographical spread of the facilities and to allow a greater number and range of public servants to work remotely. DFP should have a lead role in proactively identifying opportunities for exploiting technological solutions to enable mobile or agile working in a wider range of public sector job roles.
To maximise savings from reduced business-travel costs, Internet-based programmes or videoconferencing, which the Committee looked at in some detail, should be the preferred methods for civil servants participating in meetings that would otherwise involve significant travel. DFP needs to take on a central coordinating role in guiding and monitoring implementation, and there should be a duty on all Departments and arm's-length bodies (ALBs) to provide the necessary data in that regard.
While I will not go into the detail now, probably the most important part of the inquiry report is the section that outlines a good practice approach to implementing flexible working, including establishing the evidence, providing the vision, managing resistance, leading change, engaging staff, assessing jobs for flexibility, managing performance by results, providing appropriately designed workplaces, embracing new technology and training for change.
In closing, I emphasise that there will need to be determination on the part of the Executive and the Department to ensure a truly joined-up approach to implementation. For the benefits to be maximised, a corporate approach is needed not just in and across the Civil Service Departments in the lead functional areas of human resources, property and IT divisions but in ALBs and local government.
Finally, as highlighted in the report, the coordinated roll-out of flexible location working should be seen as an invest-to-save measure that will support the delivery of a range of other government policies and priorities, not least the reform and modernisation of the public sector.
I look forward to hearing Members' contributions and commend the report to the House.
Mr Girvan: I think that this is a body of work that needed to be done. This culture is alive and well in the private sector. One area that came out through the evidence that we received was that, in the private sector, a very strong business case is made each time it is brought forward and flexible working is put in place. Unfortunately, I did not have the confidence to believe that the same was the case in the Civil Service, and management would need to ensure that it is following what technology is available to ensure that individuals can and do work when they are supposed to be working flexibly.
I appreciate that this was an extensive piece of work that the Committee undertook, and many evidence sessions were brought forward. We even engaged in what is termed "videoconferencing", which is something that I believe could probably be used on many occasions to make savings, as opposed to flying people halfway round the world to speak to individuals for a very short time. The videoconferencing seemed to be quite effective and worked quite well.
Another area that I believe we should be looking at is the hubs that are available in the Civil Service and their usage. There should be feedback to ensure that a proper business case is being made for the rationalisation of the estate. As was mentioned in the report, the estate is used 45% of the time. From an efficiency point of view, that does not make very good business sense. I think we need to seriously look at how we can ensure that we get that.
Unfortunately, there are certain areas in the Civil Service that cannot avail themselves of flexible working; for example, those who are maybe delivering services directly to the public. One example is that those who want to empty the bins for a council cannot engage in flexible working, otherwise the bins would not get lifted. So, for some, the opportunity to avail themselves of flexible working is ruled out. I appreciate that flexible working seems to be more geared to administrative staff and management. That needs to be looked at to ensure that we get proper delivery from those areas.
The satellite-office opportunity is definitely there, as is hot-desking. We should ensure that people make use of them.
Unfortunately, some believe that flexible working is and has been alive and well in the Civil Service for many years. That may be just my view, and it may not necessarily be that of the Committee, but there have been occasions on which individuals have come into the office in the morning, put a coat over the back of the seat and disappeared for the rest of the day. People think that colleagues must not be too far away as their coat being there means that they will be back. I use that only as an example.
I believe that we have to use technology. The technology is available, and the private sector makes use of it. Those in the private sector know when people are on their computer and what they are doing. Unfortunately, I do not think that we are implementing that technology to the same degree. I am not sure whether special negotiations are needed with the unions to ensure that a snooping approach is not taken, but the situation does need to be looked into. The software is available and can be used to ensure that people are working and not turning on their computer in the morning, going off to do their shopping and coming back and saying that they were logged on all day. There is an opportunity to ensure that work is being undertaken. The outcomes are measured in the private sector, and I would like to think that we can ensure that the same protections can be put in place in the Civil Service and the wider public sector.
Savings can be made and productivity can improve. As long as people know that they have a job to do and a certain amount of time in which to do it, they will do it. On a number of occasions, flexible working has been demonstrated to be very effective and far more efficient for individuals.
As it stands, the body of work and the report as presented is a very true reflection of what happened in Committee. I support the recommendations. The report is helpful and means that we have a body of work that ensures that civil servants and those in management step up to the mark and ensure that we get delivery.
Mr Cree: The report before the House represents over two years' work on flexible working by the Committee. The early evidence showed that the Northern Ireland Civil Service did not have a formal strategy or policy on most aspects of flexible working but did have several connected human resources policies. At the outset, the Committee was satisfied that the inquiry would aim to investigate how flexible working practices in all areas could be implemented successfully and used strategically for maximum benefit and efficiency in the Northern Ireland public sector.
Most people have an opinion on what is meant by "flexible working". Indeed, there are many definitions. The Committee decided to look at the broadest range of factors, and that is reflected in the report. Evidence was gathered from a wide number of sources, and videoconferencing and Internet-based video links were used. It was particularly helpful to be able to speak to and question experts in the field and practitioners directly involved in flexible working.
The Chair referred to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's recent survey, but I will do so again. The survey of over 1,000 employers and 2,000 employees found that three quarters of UK employers surveyed felt that implementing flexible working practices had had a positive impact on talent retention and that 73% reported a positive impact on motivation and staff engagement. More than half of the employees surveyed felt that flexible working helped them reach a better work/life balance generally, and almost a quarter said that flexible working had helped them with their caring responsibilities for children. More than one third of those who responded believed that flexible working made them more productive, while around a fifth said that it reduced the level of sickness absence.
The Committee noted that, as part of the Civil Service reform programme, the Cabinet Office adopted the Smart Working policy approach for Whitehall Departments.
The purpose is to change the way work is carried out by focusing on the achievement of certain benefits. I will mention those benefits, quickly: increasing the effectiveness of the activities; reducing the financial costs of running an organisation; focusing on outcomes rather than processes, which is a very important one; meeting the aspirations of staff for an improved work/life balance; creating office environments that facilitate collaboration and innovation; and reducing the environmental footprint of working practices. So, it is not just about working from home as opposed to working in an office. Sir George Bain summed it up when he said that it was more a question of how rather than whether flexible working should be involved.
The Committee carried out its own survey of flexible working in the various Departments, as no meaningful information was held centrally. That survey produced evidence that the Northern Ireland Civil Service uses part-time working, flexitime, term-time working, career breaks and other alternative working patterns. However, it was also clear that there was an absence of corporate policy and guidance, which was reflected by incomplete data on existing working practices. Evidence was also gathered from other parts of the world where flexible working had been introduced successfully. However, culture change was a vital part of the overall change management process in most places.
The Committee firmly believes that the strategic implementation of flexible working, facilitated by appropriately designed workplaces, will maximise the property savings from the rationalisation of government office accommodation. That should be a key priority for the Department at this time of tight budgetary pressures. However, the main reason for flexible working is about doing things better, whilst cutting out waste from existing resources and embracing new technology. Unfortunately, the public sector in Northern Ireland appears to lag behind other jurisdictions in adopting new technology to support working practices. That is despite the fact that we have high-profile, local software companies in this market.
The implementation of the inquiry recommendations will also support the delivery of a range of the Executive's existing policies and priorities, such as the 'People Strategy 2013-16', the reduction of levels of sickness absence, the measuring well-being initiative, the consolidation of the Northern Ireland Civil Service estate and the wider public sector reform agenda.
I support the Committee's report and commend it to the House.
Mrs Cochrane: I welcome the opportunity to add comment to the debate on the report on the inquiry into flexible working in the public sector in Northern Ireland.
The context for the inquiry has already been set and stated by others. It is important to note that whilst the Committee examined the full range of flexible working opportunities, there was a particular focus on flexible working locations, such as satellite offices and shared office space. That is the area which potentially creates the greatest opportunities for savings but also benefits for staff. It is also important to note that a one-size-fits-all policy approach on the matter is not appropriate, as any flexible working practices need to be designed in line with business need. Therefore any progress on the matter could face some stumbling blocks early on, as there is often a drive for uniformity over and above considering actual business need.
There is no doubt that the need for flexible working is growing. We are no longer a nine-to-five world, and demands for access to services and information are increasing. The public sector has a role there to consider how it is delivering its services. During the evidence session, we heard of many of the benefits of flexible working arrangements, including increased employee productivity, better business continuity, reduced work-related travel, greater retention and more women in senior roles. All of those are worthy outcomes. However, even when the benefits of flexible working arrangements are clear on paper, the ability to successfully embed them can be hampered by a number of barriers.
The most commonly cited barriers tend to be cultural in nature and, unfortunately, public sector culture is probably the most difficult to crack in comparison with other sectors. That can be due to low staff turnover, which is often seen as a positive workplace trait, however it also means that work patterns have often become entrenched over the years. That problem of a stagnant corporate culture can be further compounded, as there are few opportunities for entry at all levels into the Civil Service. We are, therefore, losing the opportunity to bring new, fresh thinking to challenge the old ways of doing things.
If we are to achieve a culture of flexibility, public sector organisations need to become more agile so that they are able to constantly innovate around employee working arrangements. I believe that the Minister understands that, and it is one of the reasons behind him setting up the public sector reform division, which has a specific aim to help stimulate innovation in service delivery and policy design.
Current working practices often dictate the need for allocated desk space. However, the need is often based on the amount of staff-owned paperwork, and, in many cases, the spaces can be unoccupied for a significant part of the day. There is a real opportunity to rationalise workspace requirements across our public sector, but at the same time capitalise on the benefits of staff not always having to travel to specific office locations, which are often Belfast-centred. Indeed, we could be losing out on vital talent who live further afield but are not able to travel every day. Therefore, we need to fully explore and embrace technology so that we can deliver flexibility. I believe that we are still some way off where we should be on this, but it is not that easy to achieve in practice.
In a previous role, I was involved in implementing the electronic document record management system in the Civil Service. Although many will agree that it is good practice to save your work into a shared space, first for business continuity purposes but also to allow quicker information sharing, it was met with a lot of resistance. If we are to succeed in this area, lessons need to be learned from those types of projects. Often, project staff are more concerned with ticking boxes at project board meetings than actually ensuring that the technology is configured to take into account the various idiosyncrasies of different business areas. Having project team staff who have the skills to draw out information from staff and feed that into the development process makes it more likely that the technology will succeed. At the end of the day, technology like that will better allow for flexible working in the future. If we are going to invest millions of pounds in it, we need to make sure that we utilise its full benefits.
The inquiry has raised a number of interesting issues and opportunities for change. Our goal should be that the Civil Service and the wider public sector should strive for operational excellence. We therefore ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to examine the recommendations in the report and implement any changes that will create maximum benefit and efficiency in the public sector.
Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion as a member of the Finance and Personnel Committee.
Previous Members have mentioned that different groups and organisations came and gave evidence to the Committee on flexible working in the public sector. One of the earliest briefings to the Committee, which, unfortunately, I was not able to attend due to a family bereavement, was from Andy Lake of Flexibility.co.uk. I have looked back at Hansard, and he gave the Committee a step-by-step guide to what flexible working can look like. That was one of the earliest evidence sessions. When I look at that, it is clear that there has been a lack of understanding from many organisations and Departments on exactly what flexible working patterns can look like.
Mr Lake's organisation produced a document entitled, 'The Smart Working Handbook'. I looked at that document after he came to the Committee, and it was customised to suit many of the organisations and Departments that his company was working with and was used as internal guidance on flexible working patterns across many Departments and organisations. He also spoke of the overall emphasis in Whitehall around how this is part of the efficiency and reform programme under which flexible working sits.
One of the many driving factors of the Government across GB is to reduce property costs, and we heard the Chair of the Committee speak about that today. In our public sector workforce, there are many practical ways in which time can be managed better, and each Department or organisation has its own mechanisms in place, as we have heard, on how it can deal with that. People spend a lot of time doing things in their working day that they feel are not entirely necessary, as they have been involved in a system and in a process that has been designed, adopted, put in place and passed on throughout their working life, and some continue to do that. They have always done things the same in the way that they work. We need to challenge that. We can challenge it so that we can manage our time and our worth ethic and improve on our work output.
Committee members asked numerous questions, and I think it was Mr Cree who asked how managers know that members of staff are working when they should be working and not doing other things. There was a lot of talk in Committee about how this could be addressed, including the satellite system, shared space and all of that, and putting work guidance and templates in place to make sure that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Reduced property costs, a good working environment, health benefits with less stress, better motivation of staff and an overall improved work/life balance were all discussed in Committee during many of the evidence sessions that we took.
The report is a culmination of all the good work undertaken by the Committee over a couple of years. Many respondents to the inquiry were very positive. It struck me how well flexible working suited families, as it helped with childcare arrangements and reduced costs. It is fair to say, thinking from a rural perspective where I come from, west of the Bann, that civil servants who travel from west of the Bann would welcome these reforms on flexible working. They would be willing to engage in that from a sub-office in my area. It would prove to them that it is not all Belfast centred, and that Strabane could avail of it.
Mr McKay: I thank the Member for giving way. I am sure that she, as someone who frequently gets stuck on the M2 or the M1 in the morning, would also benefit from flexible working. I do not know the Minister's view on flexible working for Members of the House.
The Member touches on a good point. Frequently, we face issues in the Assembly on transport infrastructure and congestion. If we implement flexible working, surely that would forgo the need for more money to be spent on infrastructure in the future and would address congestion on our roads.
Ms Boyle: Absolutely. I certainly agree. Maybe the Minister might take into account a sub-office of Stormont west of the Bann, as that would certainly help me and other Members who have to travel two hours every day to get here.
Ms Boyle: Absolutely. An onus has to be placed on Departments and organisations as to how they would facilitate or accommodate people coming from a rural area and those with a disability. I commend the Committee for the work it has done on this and the clerks for the research they have done. I commend the report to the House.
Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): Looking around the Chamber this afternoon, it appears that many of our colleagues are adopting a flexible working approach to the debate. In the spirit of flexible working, I had, at one stage, contemplated giving my contribution by teleconferencing while I remained at home today, or, alternatively, I could have read three fifths of my response and given Mr McIlveen the remaining two fifths. However, given that we are trying to work flexibly here in the time left before Question Time, I will proceed conventionally.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. As Members know, I am a firm believer in exploiting new ideas and technologies to ensure that we deliver the best possible service in the most efficient way. If the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the wider public sector can achieve additional benefits through the increased use of flexible working practices, I feel that it is important that we evaluate and implement the proposals where it is appropriate and cost effective to do so.
However, the report on flexible working highlights a wide range of issues and contains a number of associated recommendations. In order to fully respond to the debate, I would like to set out and address the key points separately.
First, it is important to highlight the range of working practices that are currently available in the Northern Ireland Civil Service to support staff in the balance between their work commitments and life responsibilities. I was pleased to note that the Committee's report commends the Civil Service for being at the forefront of the introduction of flexible time working practices and acting as an exemplar organisation in that respect. The potential benefits of flexible working are wide-ranging, and my Department acknowledges those identified in the report. From a purely HR perspective, they include improved staff morale and commitment; reduced staff turnover and absenteeism; improved work/life balance; wider recruitment talent pools; and the promotion of gender equality in employment.
In recognition of those benefits, the Civil Service has implemented alternative working patterns under the umbrella of flexible working, including flexible hours or flexitime; compressed hours and personalised hours; part-time working, including job-sharing and term-time working; and partial retirement. The majority of Civil Service employees can avail themselves of at least one of those schemes, and there is no doubt that they have a positive impact on the work/life balance of staff. For example, the results of last year's staff survey showed that over 60% of staff agreed that they achieve a good balance between their work life and their private life.
In addition to the alternative working patterns on offer, my Department has been extremely proactive in exploiting new technology to support flexible working practices. I was therefore disappointed to note and must take issue with the report's assessment that the Northern Ireland public sector appears to lag behind other jurisdictions. On the contrary, the Northern Ireland Civil Service is very much a leader in this respect. Not only has it identified the opportunities presented by new technology, it has implemented several as proof of concepts or live running. They include satellite working, homeworking, videoconferencing, instant messaging, mobile devices and Wi-Fi.
In particular, my Department has supported the Civil Service in different ways to enable flexible working. They include making it easier for staff to work from different locations by implementing Network NI across all Northern Ireland Civil Service sites; providing a BlackBerry service that provides secure access to the Northern Ireland Civil Service services, such as email from a smartphone or tablet device; and developing and supporting unified communications, which includes a range of tools to enable flexible and agile working. We have introduced business zones or hubs to enable staff to work remotely at a location that is more suitable for them while still meeting their business objectives. The business zone in Marlborough House, Craigavon, for example, is well utilised by a wide range of public sector staff. On average, it had around 200 visits each month in the first half of this financial year. There is also a hub at Castle Buildings and a small facility for laptop users at Academy House in Ballymena. We have supported flexible and agile working across a number of Departments, including school inspectors in the Department of Education who are home-based; planning staff in the Department of the Environment who use videoconferencing to manage teams in remote locations; and staff in a range of Departments, such as DARD, DOE, DRD and DFP, who use mobile technology to help with their day-to-day job, including surveys, assessments and enforcement.
In my Department, IT staff have adopted an element of teleworking, including NI Direct, which has daily team meetings between staff in Belfast and Londonderry, to allow them to work closer to home. The evaluation of the teleworking initiative, which was initially run as a pilot, demonstrates that it has been a success. Benefits include an enhanced work/life balance, increased flexibility in working arrangements to meet business needs and a contribution towards some of the aims of the Government's green transport goals and objectives. My Department introduced a centralised video conferencing service at the beginning of 2012. That service continues to grow, and, although some stand-alone facilities still exist in Departments, a large number of units have been migrated into the central structure. In the last year alone, almost 4,000 meetings were hosted by the service.
The report expresses the view that Internet-based conferencing should be the preferred method for civil servants participating in meetings that involve travel outside Northern Ireland. I would like to advise that Internet-based web conferencing is already supported and has been available for some time in the Northern Ireland Civil Service using the WebEx product. We continue to improve the service, and plans are well advanced to introduce an internal web conferencing facility that will also have the capability to include people from outside the Northern Ireland Civil Service. I believe that that approach will help address any security concerns in relation to the current product and will result in a more extensive use of the facility.
The examples that I have just given show that the technology and security controls are already in place in the Civil Service to support flexible working. In addition, the new performance management system supports the principle of flexible working, as staff productivity and performance are measured by outputs and objectives that should not be influenced by where a person is located. However, in all the flexible working options that I have noted, there is a guiding and overriding principle that cannot be ignored, which is that flexible working solutions should only be implemented where there is no adverse impact on the service provided to the public or on the overall efficiency of the Department concerned.
I note that the report recommends that DFP take the lead responsibility for monitoring and reporting on the implementation of flexible working measures. However, it is widely acknowledged that some areas of work, particularly front-line jobs, are not suitable for flexible working arrangements. That point was made by Mr Girvan in his contribution, and it was recognised by the Committee, which reported that a one-size-fits-all approach was not appropriate and that the focus should be on selecting the appropriate working options and technologies to meet business needs.
I was interested to learn, in researching this, that a number of private sector companies, most notably Yahoo, have moved in the opposite direction. It ended flexible working as recently as February last year, in part because it believed that some of the best ideas and decisions came in places such as the cafeteria and the hallways and as people bumped into one another throughout the workplace. Its feeling was that impromptu team meetings were not happening and that there was reduced creativity and less camaraderie among staff as a result of flexible working.
Individual Departments are in the best position to examine the feasibility of enhanced flexible working for their business processes. They are also best placed to assess the costs and benefits of additional flexible working practices and to develop the associated business case. If we add an additional monitoring and reporting role for DFP, there is a danger that we could introduce an additional level of unnecessary bureaucracy into the process. Therefore, I feel that the proposal needs further consideration in order to develop the most appropriate approach. Likewise, the proposal for a new Programme for Government commitment on flexible working needs careful examination. I recognise that flexible working is an important issue that should be considered and addressed. However, I am not sure that a PFG commitment is an appropriate mechanism for that. PFG targets should be about the level of service delivered to the people of Northern Ireland, not the internal processes used to deliver those services.
I acknowledge the Committee’s view that there is potential for savings to be made by utilising a more flexible or agile work style. However, those savings will be achieved only if there is a net reduction in office accommodation space. We should not have a situation in which one person holds a workstation in their normal office base as well as in a remote location.
The Chair mentioned the need to reduce the carbon footprint. The asset management strategy, which he is familiar with, tries to do that on an ongoing basis. We are putting in open-plan office accommodation to Workplace NI standards. The Member knows that I have an open-plan office in Clare House. Even though I sometimes look out and see Mr McIlveen looking back at me, it is a price worth paying to lead by example.
It should be the responsibility of each Department to evaluate how enhanced flexible working can benefit its business and make an informed decision on whether to support a more flexible or agile work style. DFP will certainly provide the technologies to support that work if a suitable business case has been produced. We will also continue to promote staff awareness of Civil Service flexible working practices through ongoing staff communication.
The flexible working report contains many useful observations and proposals. My Department has already introduced a range of schemes and technologies to facilitate flexible working in the Civil Service and has addressed some of the issues highlighted in the report. I assure Members that we will continue to keep pace with developments in the area and introduce new policies and technologies in relation to flexible working as the need arises.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Dominic Bradley, the Deputy Chair of the Committee, to conclude the debate. I remind him that we will stop for Question Time at 2.00 pm. If he has not concluded his remarks, he will be called immediately after Question Time.
Mr D Bradley (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh míle maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.
This, indeed, has been a useful debate on the Committee’s inquiry report, and I thank Members and the Minister for their contributions. As the Chair said, the recommendations aim to help DFP and the wider Executive to implement flexible working successfully and strategically for maximum benefit and efficiency in the public sector here. However, that will require a joined-up approach within and across Departments and the wider public sector.
It has been acknowledged that the challenge of this task is considerable and that we can expect resistance to the change. Given the need to work beyond the silos in a collective and coordinated way, we can expect that perceived barriers will be identified and plausible reasons offered for why the project cannot progress as envisaged. The short answer, of course, is that comparable public sector bodies in other places already reap the rewards of the successful implementation of a strategic and comprehensive approach to flexible working. Nonetheless, it is important that I close today’s debate by reflecting on some of the barriers that may arise, some of which have been referenced in today’s debate. We need to be clear on how those can be addressed. While the inquiry report outlines the good practice steps and change measures required, there is plenty of detailed guidance and literature available to support public sector managers in this regard. In particular, I point to the ‘Guide to Smart Working in Government’, which was prepared for Whitehall Departments last year.
As has been identified, probably the greatest barrier or challenge is bringing about the necessary cultural change in public bodies and managing resistance, including at senior and middle-management level. If we are serious about achieving the benefits and savings, Executive Ministers need to be clear and determined in setting this as a priority for the Senior Civil Service. Senior managers must lead the change by effectively communicating the vision and benefits; by leading by example; by meaningful and early engagement with staff and their representatives; and by providing the necessary training and support. Everyone must be clear that it offers a win-win outcome.
We have noted that there can be opposition to open-plan offices, which are a necessary element of smart workplace design. We have seen from the evidence on best practice design that there needs to be a mixture of spaces, with each addressing the particular needs of workers: for example, meeting spaces, break-out rooms, quiet rooms and multipurpose areas to ensure the most effective use of space.
We have seen that there also needs to be give and take on the part of employees, as the new way of working involves a change of mindset. Gone are the days when people could expect to go into work to their own dedicated desk or office, which, as we have noted, are typically occupied only about 45% of the time. In return for the personal benefits of flexible working, including improved work/life balance and reduced travel, employees will need to demonstrate flexibility on their part.
Another perceived barrier is that only certain types of public sector job are suited to flexible working. The evidence shows that that can be used as a cop-out. It has been shown that, by assessing and breaking down the work styles and tasks of job roles, flexibility can be applied to certain aspects of public sector roles that are less obviously suited to flexible working, such as teachers and doctors. In such cases it may only be parts of a job that are suitable, but no assumptions should be made about people or roles before undertaking a transparent assessment of the job tasks.
We have heard how there needs to be a cultural shift away from management by presence to management by results. The argument that the performance of remote workers can be too difficult to manage is another fallacy. In fact, one could argue that performance management should always be based on results and outcomes. Irrespective of the job role or where it is undertaken, the manager and the jobholder should be clear on what quantity and quality of work is expected or what output is to be delivered, and appropriate measures should be in place.
We have noted that having more people working in different places and at different times should be seen as an opportunity to tighten things up and get more systematic on performance management. We have also heard about how safeguards can be applied to new ways of keeping in contact with staff, including teamwork protocols such as shared calendars. Modern technology means that monitoring is possible no matter where an employee works.
When considering the perceived barriers regarding job suitability and managing the performance of remote workers, it must also be remembered that flexible location working, including homeworking, already happens in the Civil Service.
The difference is that this is not being controlled or monitored centrally. The laissez-faire approach, whereby arrangements are left to be agreed at line-management level, arises from the absence of corporate policy and guidance and is reflected by incomplete data on existing practices. It is not evident that any safeguards are in place to ensure fairness and consistency of approach or for effective performance management. The implementation of the inquiry's recommendations would serve to address that weakness and would mitigate the risks while maximising the benefits.
A further barrier that has been noted is the cost of implementing the proposals. The Committee has acknowledged that those could be significant, including the costs of property design, new equipment, facilities and project management.
We are all too aware that Departments are under severe budgetary pressure that, according to the Finance Minister, will continue for some years to come. The Committee has emphasised, however, that the initial outlay should be seen as an invest-to-save measure in view of the longer-term resultant savings and other significant benefits. Consider the annual savings in office accommodation costs and capital receipts that Whitehall Departments and local councils in Britain have realised, as was indicated in the Chairman's opening remarks. Those could be replicated here, together with other benefits for public sector employers and staff, but only if the consolidation of property and the roll-out of smart workplace design is accompanied by a strategic and coordinated application of flexible working practices.
In launching the draft 2015-16 Budget, the Minister referred to the change fund, which is tailored specifically toward reform-orientated projects that are innovative, involve collaboration between Departments and agencies or are focused on prevention. That may perhaps offer an appropriate source of funding for some costs associated with the proposals. Moreover, we should be mindful that there is less pressure on the capital side of the Budget and that the potential of longer-term savings cannot be ignored.
In conclusion, I emphasise the point, made earlier, that we are lagging behind other jurisdictions in exploiting the benefits of a strategic approach. In particular, Whitehall Departments are stealing a march on us. We now have the opportunity through this inquiry report to exploit the synergy with other Executive policies and priorities, particularly the Minister's public sector reform agenda.
The Committee looks forward to receiving a formal response to the inquiry report after the Department has reflected on the evidence and recommendations therein. I, therefore, commend the report to the House and ask for support for the Committee's motion. A Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, gabhaim buíochas leat, agus iarraím ar na Comhaltaí tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Finance and Personnel on its Inquiry into Flexible Working in the Public Sector in Northern Ireland; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel, in conjunction with his Executive colleagues, to implement, as applicable, the recommendations contained therein.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Mr M McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): We met the First Minister of Scotland on 20 October in Belfast and the First Minister of Wales on 22 October in Cardiff to discuss opportunities for seeking additional devolved powers. Discussions were wide-ranging and constructive and had a major focus on the devolution of fiscal powers, including corporation tax, air passenger duty, landfill tax, the aggregates levy, bonds and borrowing. We also touched on the benefits of devolving welfare policy and administration and on the continued use of the Barnett formula.
During the initial discussions, it was apparent that each Administration has different devolved arrangements and powers, so the focus for each will clearly be different when it comes to adopting further fiscal powers. However, there was a will to use our collective strength to work together where we have common aims and to support each other when we have different areas of interest and focus.
Since the Scottish referendum in September, we have made clear our expectations regarding further fiscal devolution for our Administration. Securing the powers to lower corporation tax is a key priority for the Executive. As part of our economic pact, which we signed last year, the UK Government indicated their intention to make a decision on the devolution of corporation tax powers no later than the coming autumn statement on 3 December. That has involved discussions with the Secretary of State, and we have also written to the Prime Minister to press him to come to a decision quickly and ensure the swift devolution of corporation tax powers.
Mr Brady: I thank the Minister for his answer. What economic benefits can be expected from the transfer of corporation tax powers? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr M McGuinness: Work done in 2011 estimated that 58,000 jobs could be created, but, since then, we have seen the British rate fall from 28% to 20%, so a large reduction has already been achieved. However, we do not believe that the reduction to 20% goes far enough, and there are still significant improvements to our competitiveness to be achieved from reducing the rate of corporation tax further. That could give us an all-Ireland rate of 12·5%. The NI Centre for Economic Policy at the University of Ulster has been commissioned to provide an up-to-date assessment of the economic impact of cutting corporation tax to 12·5%, and that work is expected to be completed in November.
Mr McCallister: Will the deputy First Minister tell me whether he will build into the research that was done and the fresh look that is being taken the possibility that Scotland will receive the power to vary the rate of corporation tax? That could have a fundamental impact on the projection of 58,000 jobs and, indeed, on what rate we may set.
Mr M McGuinness: The Member raises an important issue. We are all very conscious that, over the next while, serious discussions will take place between the Scottish Government and Westminster about increased powers as a result of the referendum debate. Obviously, in the previous engagements that the First Minister and I have had with David Cameron, he has at all stages emphasised the uniqueness of our situation here regarding the land frontier with the South, which has a 12·5% rate of corporation tax.
Therefore, that is an unknown at the moment. It is a valid point that we will have to take into consideration as we further develop the process.
I think that it is important to point out that, in the course of the engagements with Downing Street and David Cameron, he made it clear that his decision would come prior to Christmas. I doubt that there will be a decision on Scotland's situation prior to Christmas. We will have to deal with that situation as it develops. We are working on the basis that, as David Cameron has said, our situation is much more unique than that which presently confronts Westminster in relation to Scotland.
Mr Kinahan: In his answer, the deputy First Minister mentioned corporation tax. Many feel that it is not the silver bullet by itself: there is a mass of other things that have to happen. Does he have a hit list of all the other things that should happen, not just in each of our Departments, but in Wales, England, Scotland and indeed Ireland? We need to place ourselves in the best position so that we can really thrive on it in the future.
Mr M McGuinness: I think that the Member will remember that our 'Building a Prosperous and United Community' document, published in June 2013, included a commitment by the Government and the Executive to examine the potential for devolving specific, additional fiscal powers. Our officials are examining a range of issues to consider what can be devolved in the context of ensuring that there is a clear economic benefit for us from increased powers. The different issues that are being considered are things like VAT, income tax, National Insurance contributions, landfill tax, stamp duty, land tax, tobacco and alcohol duties, fuel duties, aggregates levy and short-haul air passenger duty. I suppose that, from our perspective, the key test will be whether there is an economic benefit for us. I think that there is considerable agreement among the parties that are presently involved in discussions that very serious exploration needs to take place on whether we can enhance our fiscal capability against the backdrop of the swingeing cuts, particularly to our block grant, that this British Government have been engaged in over the last four years.
Mr M McGuinness: LeasCheann Comhairle, with your permission, I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer this question.
Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): We welcome the appointment of a new European Commission. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have written to new Commission President Juncker and the new commissioners to congratulate them on their new appointments in agriculture, financial stability and regional policy, respectively. They have invited them to visit, when we can show them what has been achieved with EU help and what we can offer to others by way of our experience. We will engage fully with other commissioners in due course. We had a productive relationship with the last Commission, facilitated greatly by the Barroso task force working group, in particular Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn in her research, innovation and science portfolio. Our relationship with Phil Hogan as agriculture commissioner will be equally important.
After last week's publication of the report of the European Commission's task force on the North, we welcomed the comments of outgoing President Barroso on the positive impact of this initiative. He stated that the task force had helped the region to participate more fully in the network economy, which is essential to building regional prosperity in the 21st century. Given the significant importance of the task force, the First Minister and deputy First Minister have pressed for the continuation of our structured relationship with the Commission. We very much welcomed the recent comments of Commissioner Cretu when she committed to maintaining the work of the task force.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. Given the continuing constraints on budgets here, can the junior Minister update us on how we are progressing on our drawdown of EU funds and efforts to increase them by 20%?
Ms J McCann: Obviously, we want to have the maximum benefit of any drawdown of funds. That is obviously what we are always looking at. Departments continue to make good progress towards meeting the 20% target. In 2011-12 — year 1 — Departments drew down £23 million, and in 2012-13 — year 2 — they drew down £18·3 million. At the halfway point in the Budget period, £41·3 million has been drawn down, which represents 64% of the target. Departments are well on track to exceed the total drawdown of £64·4 million by the end of March 2015. Figures for 2013-14 will be published as soon as they have been completed. There have been some difficulties at the European level with confirming drawdown in some programmes, which has led to a delay in the validation of the year 3 figures. We are always about trying to maximise and use to the best benefit the moneys that can be secured and accessed at EU level.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for her answers. In relation to Horizon 2020, which is very important to research and development here in Northern Ireland, does the Minister agree that a less modest and more ambitious target could be achieved by us? Do the Minister and her Department have any plans to revise the target figure?
Ms J McCann: As I said to the Member who asked the previous question, we are looking at how we can maximise to the best of our advantage the drawdown of funding. The Barroso task force working group has been working on the production of a set of European priorities for 2014-15. We are going to look at those priorities when they are published to see what we can do. A lot of work is also getting done in committing to the benchmarking performance. Again, we will be looking to maximise whatever benefits there are. If that means raising the targets, we will look to do that also.
Mr Elliott: I thank the junior Minister for the detailed answers, particularly to the first set of questions. I wonder whether she can tell me in detail what financial income has come from the Barroso task force so far to Northern Ireland.
Ms J McCann: With the Barroso task force, we have to look at not just the financial benefits but the networking and all that has been done. When we look at the report in detail, we see that it said that a lot of networking has been done, particularly around health, agriculture, education and other issues. That type of integrating policy and looking at policy and how best models of practice can be applied here is beneficial, as is the financial drawdown.
Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer the question.
Ms J McCann: It is incredibly important that we have the trust and confidence of victims and survivors of abuse. We listened very carefully to victims and survivors' wishes when we set up the inquiry into historical institutional abuse, and we ensured that those were accurately reflected in its terms of reference. The emotional and physical well-being of victims and survivors has been at the heart of all decision-making. Since January 2012, arrangements have been in place with Lifeline to provide ongoing face-to-face and telephone crisis counselling. From August 2013, Contact NI has also been contracted to provide a bespoke support service for victims and survivors, with a wide range of provision. A coordinator oversees the delivery of the service. In addition, OFMDFM funds a drop-in counselling facility in Derry and Belfast. Support is also provided by the inquiry's dedicated witness support officers, who provide support for victims and survivors attending the acknowledgement forum and oral hearings in Banbridge.
Mr Moutray: The focus of my question is on the importance of maintaining the trust and confidence of the victims. Given the role that you have played over the past number of weeks in relation to sexual abuse and the comments of the deputy First Minister in the debate last week, how can victims have any confidence in you to deliver?
Ms J McCann: I wish that I could say that I am surprised that the Member has sought to use the historical institutional abuse inquiry for party political reasons.
I have said repeatedly that I will not accept any shouting from a sedentary position. I must also point out to Members that they should not use the term, "You". All remarks must be made through the Chair.
Ms J McCann: Last Tuesday, the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP lined up to attack me because, in offering help and support to Maíria Cahill, I respected the confidentiality of my conversations with her and her decision at the time to not report her abuse to the police.
The leader of the UUP, Mike Nesbitt, who is not in his seat, was more than vocal in the contrived outrage he directed at me. The hypocrisy of his comments was underlined on Thursday when he admitted that he did not inform police when Maíria Cahill told him about the abuse in 2008. The difference is that I was a work colleague and had no authority at the time I was told. Mr Nesbitt, in contrast, was a victims' commissioner when he became aware of it.
Victims and survivors of abuse deserve our support and help, not the petty, political and personalised point-scoring that marked the debate in the Assembly last week and is marking Question Time today.
Mr Maskey: Has there been any action to address the tracing or assessing of victims' records?
Ms J McCann: Yes, there has been. We are working very closely with the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry . For instance, the page on the NI Direct website contains a series of helpful links to guidance on searching for those records. That includes a link to the website of the Public Records Office (PRONI), which is the main avenue for record searches. I met representatives of PRONI, who offered to put a room aside for victims. Some victims who are taking part in the HIA inquiry asked me to make representations on their behalf, and PRONI said that it would set aside a room for victims to look at the records.
The inquiry can only provide records to a relevant party when it considers it necessary to do so to further the inquiry's purposes. However, where a document is used and an applicant is unaware of the source, they will be told the source from which it was obtained, and the individual can then pursue the matter fully with the relevant body.
Mr Lyttle: Given the increasing scale and seriousness of allegations of conflict-related sexual violence, what progress has OFMDFM made on its consideration of constituting a public inquiry into non-institutional child abuse?
Ms J McCann: The Member is aware that we have been looking at extending the scope of the inquiry to people who were over 18 and were in institutions at the time of their abuse and those who were in the mother-and-baby homes.
Last week, one of the better contributions to the debate came from the deputy First Minister, when he proposed the establishment of an all-island initiative, resourced by, and under the remit of, the Irish Government and the Executive, through the North/South Ministerial Council, which will ensure that victims and survivors have access to the professional support services they need and, crucially, a channel through which those complaints can be made to the appropriate statutory agency or police service.
Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer the question.
Ms J McCann: A research study entitled, 'An Investigation of Gender Equality Issues at the Executive Level in Public Sector Organisations', was published by our office on 22 October. The published report presents stages 1 and 2 of the findings. Stage 1 contained a literature review and an analysis of publicly available data. Stage 2 comprised a survey delivered to current and aspiring executives in 143 organisations. Stage 3 is a series of interviews with male and female executives. A final research report, including the findings from stage 3, is ongoing. That will be published in February/March 2015. The findings from those reports will help to inform the new gender equality strategy that is being developed.
Mr Lynch: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Will the Minister outline how the findings of the report will influence the development of a new gender equality strategy? Go raibh maith agat.
Ms J McCann: The gender equality strategy 2006-2016 sets out an overarching framework for Departments, their agencies and other relevant statutory authorities to promote gender equality. One of the strategic objectives of the gender equality strategy is to achieve a gender balance on all Government-appointed committees, boards and other relevant official bodies. In our new gender equality strategy we aim to adopt a positive approach to identifying, understanding and responding to the different needs of men and women; develop the actions to address under-representation, including reconsidering policies that act as barriers; and ensure that gender stereotypes do not influence policy development and decision-making processes.
Mr McGimpsey: We have 11 Departments headed up by 11 permanent secretaries, who are 100% male; 77% of grade 3s are male; 58% of grade 5s are male. In the past, the deputy First Minister has agreed with me that that situation is totally unacceptable. Bearing that in mind, when can we expect to see balance among the permanent secretaries to properly reflect the gender balance in the Civil Service?
Ms J McCann: The under-representation of women in the Civil Service, particularly at the higher levels, is well known. The gender equality strategy tries to set out an overarching framework for all Departments, their agencies and other relevant statutory authorities to promote gender equality. We have a focus on tackling those inequalities. However, the barriers and structural inequalities in wider society are reflected — you have only to look around the Chamber to see the under-representation of women in political and public life. That is also true in the Civil Service, particularly its upper echelons. We are working hard to try to challenge that in whatever way we can.
Mr Campbell: The junior Minister will be aware that, up until four or five years ago, there was a significant imbalance in the Civil Service, particularly at AA and AO level, which are by far the most numerous, that affected young Protestant males and young Protestant females. Given that the situation has improved somewhat in the past three or four years, will she undertake to keep that under review?
Ms J McCann: I will undertake to challenge inequality no matter where it exists or comes from. Respect, tolerance and challenging inequality has to be the ethos of any Government or Executive. I take that job of work very seriously. As I said, where inequalities exist, I will look to challenge them and try to do something constructive to make the workforce more equal.
Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer the question.
Ms J McCann: The historical intuitional abuse inquiry has now completed the oral hearings in respect of the first two modules: the Sisters of Nazareth homes in Derry and the child migrant programme. The oral hearings in respect of De La Salle Boys' Home at Rubane House commenced on 29 September and are scheduled to finish by the end of November.
On the basis of the inquiry panel's experience of the first module, the chairperson, Sir Anthony Hart, made a very persuasive and compelling case for a one-year extension to the inquiry time frame. We agree with Sir Anthony that the inquiry must provide every opportunity for those impacted by the allegations of institutional abuse to be heard in open forum. A small piece of enabling subordinate legislation is required to extend the time frame for the inquiry. The Executive have agreed to the making of an order, subject to the approval of the Assembly. The order will be subject to draft affirmative resolution procedure and will come before the Assembly very soon.
Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for her answer. Given the current financial uncertainty, will the Minister give a commitment that any future decision around reparations for victims will be unaffected by the current financial difficulties?
Ms J McCann: The Member will be aware that we are looking for all forms of support for the victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse. It is an independent inquiry that will make a number of recommendations. We hope that those recommendations will include reparation for victims and survivors. We will have to wait to see what the inquiry says and recommends. However, I would certainly like some sort of reparation to be made to people who have gone through the inquiry.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister outline whether there is scope for improvement in the support available for victims and survivors?
Ms J McCann: This is an area that we have discussed quite frequently with victims and survivors. They sometimes feel that the support that they get is not adequate. We are always trying to do things better. As I said, I have consistently met victims' groups and individuals in relation to their experience at the inquiry. I have taken on board issues that they have raised about how things could be improved. Junior Minister Bell and I will review the services constantly to address those issues. I will do everything in my power to ensure that the support services are delivering for victims. That applies across the board and to whatever type of support services that they need.
Mr Allister: How far, if at all, does the Minister expect the historical abuse inquiry, within its confines, to report on the important issue of the withholding from the police of information about sex abuse? If it does, would the Minister be at all embarrassed, given her own wilful withholding of information in 2005, contrary to her legal obligation, in respect of Maíria Cahill?
Ms J McCann: I reiterate — I do not know how many times I have to say this — that I did nothing wrong in relation to the Maíria Cahill case.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. Will the Minister resume her seat? For the third time, I have to ask a Member not to make remarks from a sedentary position and to give the Minister the respect that she is due in answering the question.
Ms J McCann: I have said that I was told in confidence by a work colleague. I respected that confidence. At no time did Maíria say that she wanted me to report that. If you want the answer, read Hansard. Last week, I set out very clearly what I did, and that is in Hansard. I did nothing improper.
Mr M McGuinness: It is hoped that, through the current inter-party talks process, the five Executive parties can resolve all outstanding issues, including budgetary and financial matters, in a way that protects the most vulnerable.
Mr Spratt: Given the deputy First Minister's answer, would he agree with me that it is imperative that the whole issue of welfare reform is sorted out because, if it is not, it will affect the most vulnerable, the very people whom he spoke of, in the very near future?
Mr M McGuinness: The responsibility of everybody in the House is to work collectively to do the best that we possibly can to protect the most vulnerable, the most disadvantaged, the most disabled and the most marginalised. That represents a real challenge against the backdrop of the strategy employed by the coalition Government at Westminster since they were elected four years ago. Of course, since then, we have seen our block grant being critically undermined to the tune of over £1 billion. That, in itself, has had a very dramatic impact on the Departments in this Administration. Of course, in the aftermath of putting together and agreeing a Programme for Government amongst the five parties that are entitled to membership of the Executive, we had the hammer blow of welfare cuts, which have been directed at the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society. So, in the context of the present discussions that we are involved in, I think that it is fair to say that a very serious investigation is taking place on how we can resolve the challenges to this Administration as a result of policies that are being directed at us from London. Over the course of discussions that the First Minister and I have had, particularly with the First Minister of Scotland, I think that, if there is a route to resolve the issue of the welfare cuts that are impacting on us at this time, that is one area that is worthy of exploration. I think that we are —
T1. Mr Ó hOisín asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether, given the disparaging and mocking comments made about the Irish language last Monday, they agree that such comments have no place either in this House or elsewhere. (AQT 1701/11-15)
Mr M McGuinness: I have to say that I found the remarks made by the Member very disappointing indeed, and I think that they were not befitting of membership of this House. There has been considerable public debate about them, with many people asserting that they were racist. They were certainly bordering on the racist, and I think that there can be no place for them in this Chamber. We are all very conscious of the contributions of the particular Member over the lifetime of the Assembly. I come from the same city as the Member, a city that is determined to move forward and where all shades of political, religious and community people have worked together to improve the lifestyle of people in the city and to bring important gains for the city, which provide, I think, a solid foundation stone on which we can all move forward.
The one politician in the city who is out of sync with that is the Member who made those remarks. I am very conscious that there are, particularly among the unionist Benches, people who have a terrible hatred of the Irish language and, in fact, a hatred of all things Irish. I think that that is sad because I do think that also on the unionist Benches are people who are progressive and who recognise that working together represents the best way forward for all of us. Therein lies the hope. What we have to do is recognise that we need to work closely together to build a better future for all the people whom we represent. I think that, ultimately, people who harbour the sort of comments that were made last week are, effectively, those who will be left behind by that approach.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an LeasChéad-Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. Does he agree that we should lead by example in cultural and linguistic tolerance and diversity?
Mr M McGuinness: Nobody has anything whatsoever to fear from either the Irish language or from Ulster Scots. On many an occasion in this Chamber, Jim Shannon, when he was an MLA, spoke Ulster Scots. Not one person on this side of the Assembly laughed at that or made fun of it because we all recognise that we should have respect when people are speaking in a language of their choice.
I remember a number of years ago, when Rhodri Morgan was the First Minister of Wales, he came to the Assembly and spoke in Welsh in the Senate Chamber. Nobody made a laughing stock of that or was in any way derogatory about it. That is where we need to get to. We need to recognise that we all have a responsibility to give leadership. I think that there are many politicians in the House, on both sides of the forum, who give leadership; unfortunately, there are still some who do not believe in giving leadership, and that is sad.
T2. Mr Sheehan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the First Minister believes that the Desertcreat Community Safety College project should go ahead. (AQT 1702/11-15)
Mr M McGuinness: I think the First Minister is content for me to answer this question.
Obviously, people will be conscious that the Executive met on Thursday. We did so on foot of the information that came out the previous weekend about the suggestion that the project be discontinued. The decision on the future of Desertcreat will have to be made by the Executive; it will not be made by anybody else. It is a Programme for Government commitment, and there is a huge responsibility on all of us to deliver on those commitments. Something like £12 million has been invested in the site, and there has been for some time a very reasonable expectation from the people in the area that the Community Safety College would be delivered in Cookstown, which, of course, would make an enormous difference to the economy of Cookstown and that part of mid-Ulster.
I also think that we are all very conscious that we have seen quite a lot of the institutions of the state centred in the Belfast area. The decision by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, for example, to relocate the DARD headquarters to Ballykelly sends the important message to people west of the Bann that we recognise the challenges that face us in the ability to site important projects in those areas, as is also the case with Desertcreat. The political message that it sends about the acceptance of policing is one that we should not ignore.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chéad Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the deputy First Minister for that answer. Has the funding for the construction of the college been secured in next year's Budget?
Mr M McGuinness: Next year's Budget has catered for the £53 million that is allocated to the project. The statement that was issued on behalf of the Executive last Thursday is a very clear commitment that the construction of the Community Safety College is a huge priority for our Administration. I say that against the backdrop of comments that have been made on the requirements of the essential services that we depend on, such as policing, the Prison Service and the fire and safety authorities.
I think that, in all probability, the scale of the college will not be as originally envisaged, given the requirements and needs of the emergency services. The review that will take place over the next while will obviously have to deal with that. At the end of the day, the money has been allocated in the 2015-16 Budget. It is £53 million. The sooner we get on with the project, the better, because, as far as I am concerned, it has taken far, far too long.
T3. Mrs McKevitt asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether, given the debacle around the delay in delivering the social investment fund, they have considered whether it is worth protecting the fund when other Departments are facing major cuts. (AQT 1703/11-15)
Ms J McCann: The social investment fund (SIF) was created to try to tackle poverty and disadvantage. A group was set up to plan ahead, and that group chose the projects for the particular zones and the allocations for the zones.
Some 23 letters of offer have gone out. The people on the ground and those who were part of the social investment fund board in the local zones chose what important projects the money should go into, so it is important that they go forward. In community planning and all of that, those on the ground deal with the issues every day and know what is needed to tackle poverty and disadvantage.
Mrs McKevitt: Will the junior Minister explain what independent and robust monitoring and reviews of the SIF have taken place?
Ms J McCann: As I said, a board decided what projects the money would go to.
The Member's colleague made an outrageous statement about the SIF funding, I think, last week. He said that it was going to pet projects of republicans and loyalists: there is nothing further from the truth. That is insulting to those who decided on the programmes and on where the money would go. They have worked for years in the community and are from the statutory bodies that are on the board. They decided what programmes and projects would be taken forward.
T4. Mr Gardiner asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what options might be available to merge services with the Scottish welfare system under OFMDFM’s improving public services brief. (AQT 1704/11-15)
Mr M McGuinness: In an earlier answer, I dealt with the reality that the First Minister and I and, indeed, others involved in the talks are exercised about the need to find agreement in this area so that we can move forward. It was, I suppose, encouraging to some that the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, clearly indicated over the weekend that the British Government also had a contribution to make. I think that she actually used the word "compromise".
In dealing with the whole issue of how we provide for our people through a welfare system that is credible, does not increase child poverty, does not increase hardship for people with disabilities, does not further marginalise the already marginalised and does not further disadvantage the already disadvantaged, there is a huge responsibility on all parties involved in the talks to focus on the very real impact that the cuts that are coming from London will have on our Administration. There is also considerable frustration that, sometimes, when there is a debate on local radio, it almost gives the impression that the Executive are imposing the cuts. We can fund only what is within our means to fund. If we are continually to be hampered by the ongoing predictions of more austerity coming down the line, that represents a real challenge that we all have to rise to.
Mr Gardiner: The deputy First Minister touched on some of my question, but I will ask the rest of it. Will he tell us whether any savings of scale might be effected by other strategic mergers with UK regions outside Northern Ireland in the area of health?
Mr M McGuinness: That is primarily a question for the Minister of Health. From our perspective, our focus at the minute is on what represents our biggest challenge, which is how we can resolve the difficulties around welfare.
The Member raises the issue of how we can, in many ways, work with people in England, Scotland and Wales in relation to the health service. It is significant that he omitted to talk about how we can work on the island of Ireland with another health service that is much closer to us. The ongoing construction of the radiotherapy unit and indeed the new wing at Altnagelvin Area Hospital, for example, will bring huge benefits for everybody. Clearly, you can see that there is much more to be gained by us working on an all-island agenda as opposed to anywhere else. I am conscious that, prior to Michael McGimpsey standing down as Health Minister three years ago, he had in his possession a comprehensive report on how savings could be made on an all-island basis. I am not sure if that report has ever seen the light of day.
Mrs Foster (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): The promotion of coastal routes is an important activity for Tourism Ireland, as research confirms that visitors who come here by car or hire one while here tend to tour more widely, stay longer and spend more on their trip.
I recently had discussions with the chief executive of Tourism Ireland and expressed my disappointment about how the promotion of the Wild Atlantic Way stops at the border. I have asked that, in future, the Wild Atlantic Way and the Causeway Coast and glens coastal routes be marketed together by Tourism Ireland and given equal prominence.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer. Does the Minister agree that an important economic interest may have been missed in that this has not been developed as a single route that would have stretched from Youghal in County Cork all the way round, perhaps, to Ballycastle?
Mrs Foster: I was rather disappointed, and that was one of the reasons why I asked to speak to the chief executive of Tourism Ireland about the issue. The Causeway Coast and glens route has received many accolades from across the world in relation to its beauty. I was disappointed that it was not added on to the Wild Atlantic Way. The two of them together could have been a very good promotion, and it would have allowed people to travel wherever along that route and, as I am sure he would welcome, given them the opportunity to stay in different areas and spend money. As I said, I have asked that the two be promoted together, and I hope that that will be the case.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire chomh maith as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her response. On a wider issue, please can the Minister advise us on what discussions she has had with Executive colleagues around the reduction of VAT for the hospitality sector? What correspondence or discussions have been had between the Executive and the Treasury on the issue?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. It is a big issue for hotels across Northern Ireland, particularly hotels, restaurants and other providers that operate along the border. They feel that they are at a competitive disadvantage in relation to the VAT rate charged in Northern Ireland as opposed to that charged in the Republic of Ireland. You can see how important it is to the tourism industry in the Republic of Ireland by virtue of the fact that it has stayed in the recent budget for another period.
I very much support the Hotels Federation's campaign to have a VAT reduction, not just here in Northern Ireland but across the United Kingdom. Again, it is an indicator of the fact that we have London and the rest of the United Kingdom. It does not matter what VAT London charges; tourists will continue to visit. The rest of the regions outside of London, however, have a different problem. Therefore, I believe that government needs to look at the issue of VAT in relation to tourism provision. I strongly support the ongoing campaign by the Hotels Federation and colleagues in this House and in Westminster to push that issue to the top of the agenda.
Ms Sugden: I understand that the Minister is working with other Executive Departments to promote a strong tourism strategy on the north coast. How will the route play a part in that?
Mrs Foster: Apart from the driving route, the Causeway Coast and glens is generally a significant destination for our tourism promotion for Northern Ireland. It plays host to two of the top visitor attractions in Northern Ireland, namely the Giant's Causeway visitor centre and the wider world heritage site and the Bushmills distillery. Those are both in the Causeway Coast and glens area and remain a key part of our tourism promotion right across the world. In that context, I welcome the engagement that I have had with the new owners, through Diageo, of Bushmills distillery. I look forward to meeting the new owners in due course after they have been through some legal processes. I welcome them to Northern Ireland as an inward investor, and we look forward to doing business with them.
Mrs Foster: The Regional Start initiative has delivered a total of 1,224 business plan approvals for the southern region, including Upper Bann, for the period October 2012 to September 2014. That is against a two-year target for the southern region of 1,280.
The Regional Start initiative is delivered on behalf of Invest Northern Ireland by Enterprise NI and provides individuals who wish to start their own business with advice and the capability to produce a business plan. The business plan will provide a template for the new entrepreneur to plan and access sources of funding. The programme has been successful across Northern Ireland, and we are on track to achieve our contractual targets.
Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for her response. Can she give us an update in relation to the amount of business that Invest NI has carried out in the Upper Bann constituency over the past two years?
Mrs Foster: Invest NI has been very active in the Upper Bann constituency. We have had 583 offers of support, totalling £18·18 million of assistance, contributing to £81 million of investment in the region. We have had nearly 1,000 new jobs promoted. That includes the Regional Start initiative jobs. Their assistance per head of population compared with the Northern Ireland average, which is 161, is 174, so Invest is very much involved in the Upper Bann area. I want to pay tribute to the business owners in Upper Bann for their positive and forward-looking approach to dealing with not only Invest NI but others in the area. I know that they work hard with the council to promote themselves as a region for investment, and I am thinking particularly about Craigavon. I will continue to work with the business owners, the council and all the other partners in the Upper Bann region.
Mrs D Kelly: Are there any specific measures or targets that could be introduced or are already in existence to encourage more women and people from an ethnic minority background to participate in the programme?
Mrs Foster: There are specific targets — I am sorry that I do not have them to hand, but I am happy to share them with the Member — in relation to female entrepreneurship in general. I am not sure if it goes down as low as constituency level, but certainly on a Northern Ireland level we have very good working relations with particular bodies. There is a lady in Invest Northern Ireland who takes the lead on this called Sharon Polson, and I will share the rest of the information with her when I have it to hand.
Mrs Foster: In the first six months of this financial year, Invest Northern Ireland offered a total of £126 million across its full range of services, including investment announcements. I am pleased to advise that Invest NI will be presenting full details of its mid-year performance review to the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee tomorrow — 11 November.
Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for her answer. She outlined the considerable financial commitment that her Department has made to support Invest NI job creation announcements and she will be pleased, no doubt, with the proposed budgetary uplift that her Department will be receiving next year. However, does she share my concerns that a lot of the recent Invest NI announcements have come from promises of R&D support from the Department for Employment and Learning, which is seeing its budget face a major cut?
Mrs Foster: I am not sure which R&D project she is speaking about. I know for sure that Invest Northern Ireland has supported a number of R&D projects going forward. I am thinking most recently of the Seagate announcement in Londonderry, where a very big announcement in the region of £38 million was made on research and development. That will not only secure those jobs at Seagate but make it a very sustainable company moving forward for the next five to 10 years. It was a very significant announcement for us, and, indeed, we are having discussions with other firms across Northern Ireland in relation to research and development.
Normally, research and development inevitably involves a lot of money and, because of that, we have a situation that the Finance Minister referred to as "good pressures" on the Budget. I may, in future, have to bring those good pressures to the Executive table so that I will get the support of colleagues to try to facilitate those pressures, because we are reaching a situation where we are moving away from selective financial assistance as a tool to help companies and moving more into the remit of research and development. As we do so, the amounts of money tend to grow, and that will put a lot of pressure on my budget and on the Budget generally.
In relation to the draft Budget, the Member is right to mention that we have been able to have an additional £37·7 million to cover existing inescapable pressures brought about by the success, mainly, of Invest Northern Ireland. However, I also have to apply a 15·1% reduction to the Department's baseline, and that is a £27·9 million cut to areas that are already significantly committed. There is good news in the draft Budget as far as I am concerned, but there are also pressures.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. These are questions rather than congratulations. The Minister has outlined a stunning series of investment coups by Invest NI in recent months. How do we maintain that momentum, how do we surpass the spectacular achievements, especially in the run-up to the summer and during the summer, and, in particular, how important is political stability and political progress to maintaining that momentum?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question and welcome him to the House. I hope he continues with his positive outlook on the economy.
We have had a very good period of time, and Invest Northern Ireland will give those results to the ETI Committee tomorrow. However, we have to be realistic and respect the draft Budget. I will be in bilaterals with the Finance Minister on the allocations in the draft Budget, but we have to live within our means.
I think it is important that we continue to send out a very positive message about Northern Ireland as being a good place to do business and as a good place with good people to do business. We should not forget the political stability we have here and should continue to make it a lasting political stability, because what has come from that has been of tremendous benefit to everybody. I know that sometimes there is frustration with this place, but when you look at the difference and the companies that are investing here now as opposed to 10 years ago, I think that we should very much relish the political stability that we have.
Mr Lunn: What does the Minister think the impact will be on Invest NI's ability to attract jobs in the future if budget cuts force the local universities and colleges to shrink in size?
Mrs Foster: I congratulate the Member on getting a DEL question in during ETI questions; however, I will still take it. We need to ensure that we have a supply of young skilled people coming forward for the jobs market. We realise that the draft Budget is in front of us and that it is a draft Budget. We need to look at all the consequences of the draft Budget and work through it with the Finance Minister and the rest of the Executive. It is vital that we send out a message that we are open for business, and that involves having young people and older people with all the appropriate skills. I hope that that is the answer that he wanted.
Mrs Foster: Energy costs are determined by the market, subject to regulation. The Executive's strategic energy framework balances our need to provide security of supply and address carbon emissions at the lowest cost to all consumers. I have supported that through promoting competition, innovation and investment. For example, we are putting over £30 million into extending gas to the west to benefit consumers with greater fuel choice. On electricity, I will take account of ongoing work by the regulator and my Department, covering all elements of costs as we go forward. In particular, I have been considering the costs of the Northern Ireland sustainable energy programme and recently wrote to the regulator about that.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for her answer. We all welcomed the news last week of a new agreement between the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) and AES, which is a generator, on extra generation capacity for Northern Ireland. Can the Minister elaborate on the significance of that in relation to security of supply for Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his comments in relation to the recently announced agreement between SONI and AES to put in place a contract that will provide extra generation capacity to meet projected shortfalls over the coming years. There will be an additional 250 MW of generation capacity from January 2016 for an initial three years so that we can assess whether that is enough or whether we need to look at it again. That, together with short- and longer-term repair of the Moyle interconnector, will provide a sufficient safety margin in the medium term. We are dealing with pressures that have been identified, but, in the next decade, we very much need to see the implementation of the second North/South interconnector. I know that I have talked quite a lot about that subject in the House, but we really need to see progress on that.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí. With a planted question from her colleague, I thought that we were going to hear something new or positive. It is not good enough that we have announcements from SONI or AES on new supply with no details of the cost. I know that this is not the direct responsibility of the Minister, but does she have any indication as to when we can expect to see details on the cost of that new supply?
Mrs Foster: Well, with a question from you, I would quite like to have a translation of your Gaelic before you start your actual question, but that is a matter for the Deputy Speaker and not for me.
It is a matter for the systems operator to put the contract into place. There will be some cost impacts on consumer bills. That has never been hidden. The costs have been minimised through the competitive tendering process that is in place and will be around £5 per annum on average to the domestic bill.
Mr Kinahan: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. Could you give us an update on where you are bringing pressures on the interstate connector and whether more can be done on that?
Mrs Foster: With the North/South interconnector, as I understand it, the Republic of Ireland planning process has not really begun in earnest as yet. The application has to go back into An Bord Pleanála, as I understand it. In Northern Ireland, our application is now with the Planning Appeals Commission. I hope that we can proceed as quickly as possible, but that is not a phrase that I use very often in relation to the North/South interconnector because it has been dreadfully slow, and, as a result of not making progress on the North/South interconnector, we are having to take steps in relation to additional generation. Let me say this to the House: I am not in the business of allowing us to get into a situation where lights will go out. I am making sure that we have enough capacity going forward, certainly from 2016.
Mrs Foster: Going for Growth is a strategy for the entire agrifood sector, and farmers are an integral part of that sector. A sustainable primary production sector will be crucial to the success of Going for Growth and delivering on the Agri-Food Strategy Board's strategic vision to grow a sustainable, profitable and integrated agrifood supply chain that is focused on delivering the needs of the market.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that update. Does she have, in the DETI budget or separately in the Invest NI budget, any direct financial input to Going for Growth? Is anything built into those two budgets?
Mrs Foster: Invest NI plays a very important role in Going for Growth. We continue to provide significant local input to companies. In the first half of 2014-15, Invest NI made over 200 offers of assistance to the food sector, totalling £21 million, which is a record level of support. A £170 million expansion has been announced by Moy Park, with 628 new jobs across Dungannon, Craigavon and Ballymena. There has been a £20 million expansion in Dale Farm to allow it to expand its sales outside Northern Ireland and a £6 million investment by Ballyrashane Creamery to grow its European business. Significant investments have been made in relation to Invest Northern Ireland, and I hope that DARD will continue in its commitment to help to ensure that this vital sector continues to grow.
Mr Frew: I note the Executive's response to Going for Growth, Minister. Will the timescales for the objectives be met to the utmost advantage of the agrifood industry? Will the Minister give details and her thoughts on the single agrifood marketing organisation?
Mrs Foster: I hope to see the results of the marketing review, which is undergoing some focus, before Christmas, and I hope that officials will provide me with the way forward. As you know, engagements on marketing and how a single voice can be given to the agrifood sector in Northern Ireland are going on. That is not without its challenges, because different parts of the sector have different ideas on how they want their sector marketed. However, I want a decision made before Christmas so that we can move on and implement marketing for agrifood in Northern Ireland.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for her answers and, in particular, her comments on the dairy processing industry. The Minister is aware that the Chinese market is potentially very lucrative, particularly for instant milk powder baby food products. Will she state what representations, if any, she has had from Northern Ireland companies that have not yet been able to go to China? The Republic had a big delegation there within the last two weeks, and very promising indications have been forthcoming about the potential for such products.
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I noted, in 'Farming Life' on Saturday, that there were some concerns in relation to that trade mission that some Northern Ireland firms had expressed a desire to go on the mission and had not been facilitated. I will look into that because, if we are to work collaboratively on issues in places as far away as China, it would be helpful if we could ensure that companies that want to avail themselves of those facilities are allowed to do so. I was speaking to Simon Coveney about the milk sector recently, so it is disappointing that those companies were not allowed to attend. I should make it clear that I am not sure whether it was dairy companies; I did not read which companies were not allowed to proceed with that.
I have been speaking to a number of dairy companies about the pressures that they face, not only in relation to China but because of price volatility and the Russian ban on agrifood from Europe. There are a lot of pressures on the dairy sector at the moment. We keep very close to dairy companies and see what we can do to help them. Sometimes it is not about finance or money; it is about how we can make representations on their behalf at Westminster or in Brussels. We will continue to make such representations and work alongside the sector.
Mr Cree: "Inniskilling Fusiliers" should be "Inniskilling Dragoons".
Mrs Foster: In any event, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board has not been approached to commemorate the role of the Inniskillings at the battle of Waterloo. I think that you mentioned the dragoons, is that right? However, NITB is working alongside tourism partners in Fermanagh on the heritage gateway to Fermanagh project. That will see radical refurbishment of the Enniskillen Castle complex that houses the Inniskillings Museum.
Mr Cree: I know that the Minister is aware that Arthur Wellesley, arguably Britain's greatest soldier, was born in Dublin or thereabouts. He was a sponsor of Catholic emancipation and defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Surely that bicentenary deserves to be commemorated and presents a unique opportunity to attract tourists.
Mrs Foster: The Member will be delighted to hear that our national Government have advanced plans in relation to celebrating the battle of Waterloo. They have been to the site, and I think that they have actually donated £1 million to help with the upgrade of the site for 2015. Certainly, with the Inniskillings' connection, we will want to ensure that our voice is heard in relation to any benefit that we can achieve there. Given that we have stepped forward in relation to a number of these very significant commemorations, we should certainly ensure that our voice is heard in relation to the battle of Waterloo as well. We should claim it as our own.
Mr Humphrey: The Minister will be aware that the nation remembers this week. We should also remember the contribution of HMS Caroline in the First World War, particularly in the battle of Jutland. Can I ask for an update on the role of that vessel, which is so important to the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland as we move forward?
Mrs Foster: Yes, indeed. In what is happening from a national perspective, HMS Caroline is a key priority not just for me, DETI and Northern Ireland but for the UK Government. The Prime Minister has announced a national event on the ship planned for May 2016. I welcome that event, which is part of the World War I centenary commemorations. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Heritage Lottery Fund confirmed an award of £11·5 million to National Museums and DETI. We are using that to conserve and display HMS Caroline, and we are contributing an additional £2·7 million in match funding to the project. I look forward to the commemorations and the fact that Caroline will be part of a national celebration in Northern Ireland.
Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 7 and 10 together. Since the creation of the tourism events funding programme by NITB, the level of funding provided for events has varied from year to year. In spite of the pressures faced in the current financial year, I have allocated additional resources to NITB for events, and a total of 76 events are due to be supported in 2014-15 through the allocation of £2·8 million, which should provide significant benefits to the local economy.
Pending clarification of the Budget position in 2015-16, the Tourist Board announced the suspension of the application process for events for next year. That was a prudent step, given the present very difficult financial situation. In light of the draft Budget allocations that have now been announced, the Department is engaging with all its arm’s-length bodies on the savings that will need to be made. The position regarding support for events going forward is being assessed as part of that work. Nevertheless, I can confirm that nine international events that received three-year funding letters of offer for 2014-15 through to 2016-17 will continue to be supported, as well as the Tall Ships and the Irish Open in 2015.
Mrs McKevitt: I thank the Minister for her answer. What recent discussions has she had with the British Government and the Irish Government on the benefits to the local economy of joint funding tourism events on an all-Ireland basis?
Mrs Foster: That is not something new, because, as the Member probably knows, there is some joint funding for the Irish Open. When the Irish Open came to Royal Portrush, we were able to avail ourselves of some money from Fáilte Ireland and, indeed, when the Irish Open returned to the Republic of Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board gave some funding.
It depends on the events and on whether we believe that our getting involved in events in the Republic of Ireland benefits us in Northern Ireland, and I suppose it is vice versa from their perspective.
Let me say, however, that I am not going to turn away funding from any source. If there is money in the Republic of Ireland to help us with events in Northern Ireland, please give it up to me.
Miss M McIlveen: I welcome the Minister's comments. Obviously, events such as the Milk Cup have been receiving funding from DETI, and there has been an absence of substantial funding from DCAL. What discussions has she had with that Minister about events that would naturally fall within her Department?
Mrs Foster: Certainly, a number of our large-scale events straddle sports and their capacity to bring tourists to Northern Ireland. There are a number of those, of which the Milk Cup is one. The Giro d'Italia is another very good example. In the past, officials have discussed what money DCAL could help to provide to some of those large-scale events. If the Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister were here, she would say that it is primarily an event and therefore falls to DETI through the events fund. However, I think that there are other things that can be helped with. Whether that can be done through DRD for road safety for perhaps the North West 200 or DCAL through Sport NI, we perhaps need to look at other Departments to help to bolster the events fund in NITB.
T2. Mr Givan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for an update on the judicial review that her Department has taken to deal with the Environment Minister’s breach of the ministerial code, given that she will be aware of the work that had been undertaken by an Executive subcommittee to deal with the draft Belfast metropolitan area plan, up until the point at which the Environment Minister acted unilaterally and published the report, with the inclusion of an element that would have economically disastrous consequences in, for example, Sprucefield in Mr Givan’s constituency. (AQT 1712/11-15)
Mrs Foster: In so far as these matters have been publicly accounted for, it is matter of record that I feel that the Minister acted outside his powers. Therefore, I instructed departmental solicitors to look at the matter. The pre-action letter on the judicial review has been sent. There has been a meeting between the Minister of the Environment and me, which I thought was quite helpful. However, the matter has not progressed beyond that, so it appears that we are moving inexorably towards the courts. That is regrettable, but I do not see any other way to deal with this, unless the Minister of the Environment changes his current stance.
Mr Givan: I appreciate the Minister's answer and the attempts at mediation that she has sought to deal with this to avoid it going to the courts and to avoid public funds being used to deal with a matter that the Minister of the Environment should properly reflect on and come back to the Executive to seek consensus. Does the Minister agree with me that Sprucefield presents a regionally significant opportunity to develop the retail sector and that it is vital that Sprucefield is given the space that it needs to bring forward planning applications, such as that from John Lewis, that would provide tens of millions of pounds of investment and create hundreds of jobs at a time when our Northern Ireland economy needs that type of investment?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his points about Sprucefield. I do not think that there is any doubt that Sprucefield, given its connectivity with the motorways and the A1 towards the border and on to Dublin, is very much an area that should be open to development. I am loath to get into the details of the subject matter of the judicial review. Suffice it to say that a wider issue is at stake here, so as well as the significance of this to Lagan Valley — I understand why he raises that — there is the matter of the importance of the ministerial code and the proper way in which to take decisions at the Executive. Frankly, if a number of us decided to take the particular route that the Minister of the Environment took, a number of things would be put out that have not been agreed but that we may perhaps have wanted to bring forward. I can think immediately of the tourism strategy, which we may have been able to deal with more proactively. However, that is where we are, and I hope that, even at this late stage, we will not have to go to the courts.
T3. Mr Sheehan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for an update on her Department’s efforts to attract investment to west Belfast. (AQT 1713/11-15)
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. As he knows, we recently had a significant announcement from Delta Print and Packaging. He will say, "Yes, but that is an indigenous company", but I hope that he recognises that it is a global company with operations across the world. We supported the company in a meaningful way to ensure that those jobs stayed in west Belfast and were not taken elsewhere. That presented a challenge, but we took it on, and I took the matter to the Executive. Thankfully, I had the backing of all my Executive colleagues, and we continue to provide finance and activity in west Belfast, as we do in all other regions across Northern Ireland.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she outline how her Department uses varying financial incentives to entice potential employers to deprived areas?
Mrs Foster: If the Member cares to look at the offer made to the firm that I mentioned, he will see that we stretched ourselves in what we were able to do there. The reason why the matter was taken to the Executive was so that we could secure those jobs in west Belfast.
However, the Member should not just consider the money aspect, because it is about support and about trying to help people in the area start their own business and have an entrepreneurial spirit. It is about working with those people to try to get them to see beyond relying on the grant culture that has grown up in some areas over the years. We need to get away from that to looking at innovation and entrepreneurial ways of doing things in future.
T4. Mrs Overend asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what changes she envisages in the role, remit, scope and number of local economic development agencies across Northern Ireland in view of the transition period in local government. (AQT 1714/11-15)
Mrs Foster: That is mostly a matter for Enterprise NI working with local councils. A number of enterprise units right across Northern Ireland fall under the umbrella of Enterprise NI, and they will have to find a new relationship with the councils. That is because the Regional Start programme will be one of the programmes devolved to the local councils. Therefore, they will have control of it. That programme has been delivered by Enterprise NI and the local enterprise agencies for a number of years now. They will need to engage in the community plan for their particular areas to make sure that they have a role to play in economic development.
Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for her response. Until now, there has been a variation in Northern Ireland in the level and shape of local economic development agencies. Given that we are in a transition period, does she agree that we should be trying to learn lessons from the experience of local enterprise partnerships in England, which have been operating for several years?
Mrs Foster: I agree that there have been varying levels of success in enterprise agencies across Northern Ireland, but, thankfully, we have some very good examples of enterprise agencies here, too. If the Member is asking whether we need to learn from best practice, absolutely, we do. Whether that is in England or here in Northern Ireland, that is certainly the route that we should be going down.
T5. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to comment on the potential impact that the fall in crude oil prices might have on fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. (AQT 1715/11-15)
Mrs Foster: In the work that has been ongoing between the regulator and the Department, we have often been frustrated about what we can intervene on in relation to price. We have talked about energy costs in the House on a number of occasions.
Part of the difficulty has been that the wholesale costs make up around two thirds of the energy cost to the consumer. I am hopeful that, given that the price of crude oil is falling back, we should see some reflection of that in wholesale costs, particularly for electricity. However, I caution against price volatility. If we have a drop in the price of crude oil and that allows us to have lower energy costs in one month, we certainly do not want to see energy costs go back up when the crude oil price jumps back up again. We need to be careful not to have price volatility. I am hopeful that if the crude oil price stays low for a period, that can then be reflected in electricity prices to the consumer.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answer. She has kind of answered my supplementary question as well. I was going to ask her to expand on how that would be reflected in electricity costs.
Mrs Foster: Ultimately, that is a matter for the Utility Regulator in conjunction with the energy firms. She has indicated to me that she wants to move away from a period when there was a large cut in one half of the year and then a rise in the other half of the year. That does not help consumers to plan, if you like. They like certainty and to be able to plan into the future. I am sure that if the Utility Regulator were here, she would say that one thing that she does not want to see is price volatility.
T6. Mr Kinahan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, albeit that he welcomes Invest NI’s recent successes, whether a study has ever been carried out to assess the effects that its actions have on competing businesses, either smaller or less large, in the same areas. (AQT 1716/11-15)
Mrs Foster: I think that the Member is referring to displacement. It is something that Invest Northern Ireland takes a lot of cognisance of. It is one of the reasons why we look at a firm and try to assess its capabilities to export into a different market. We try to provide it with support to do that. It is one of the reasons why we do not get involved with some firms and why sometimes people challenge me on that and say, "Why do you not support Mrs X who is a hairdresser in Ballymoney?" Well, if we started to support all the hairdressers around Northern Ireland, we would just displace people around Northern Ireland. Displacement is very much something that we look at. I know that, when Invest Northern Ireland is looking to support companies, it is very cognisant that it does not displace business from other companies.
Mr Kinahan: One of the Minister's colleagues on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment mentioned that we go for the big hit with a trickle-down effect. When looking either at the displacement or how it affects competitors, is she looking at a strategy lower down for smaller or less big businesses to make sure that they can all pick up from the trickle-down that comes?
Mrs Foster: Yes, absolutely. If we have companies that want to get into the supply chain of some of our larger companies like Almac or FG Wilson, we will try to support them to do that. That is done through the Boosting Business campaign, which the Member may recall that we launched at the time of the recession. It comprised, yes, the jobs fund, but also a number of advisory helps to give assistance to companies that perhaps would not normally seek assistance from Invest Northern Ireland. Boosting Business is very much looking at that whole area of trying to help businesses that — I do not like using the phrase — are lower down in the food chain from some of our bigger companies.
T7. Mr Humphrey asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to comment on the ongoing campaign to devolve corporation tax to Northern Ireland. (AQT 1717/11-15)
Mrs Foster: It is a campaign that has been going on for quite some considerable time. It is supported by the five parties in the Executive and by the wider business community in Northern Ireland, which realises the benefits that will flow from a lower corporation tax rate here in Northern Ireland. I have listened to some people talking about the corporation tax issue, saying that it is all speculative and asking how we know what will happen. We have had numerous people examine the evidence base. They have told us that tens of thousands of jobs will come to Northern Ireland over a period if we are able to have the lower rate of corporation tax.
I very much support the campaign, and I hope that we will have an answer from the Prime Minister in early December.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she believe that Northern Ireland has the necessary skills and infrastructure to attract new companies to invest in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: From an Invest Northern Ireland perspective, it will certainly change the way in which it interacts with companies globally, particularly in America. We are ready for that change if and when it comes. Even though the decision on the devolution of corporation tax should be announced in December, we will have a period during which we can change the way in which we do business from an Invest Northern Ireland perspective. The Employment and Learning Minister has also been looking into what he needs to do in relation to skills if we are able to have a lower rate of corporation tax.
T8. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment whether she is keeping the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Invest NI fully up to date with the A8 and A2 road projects so that tourists and new businesses will be aware of the advantages that exist for Mr Beggs’s constituents in Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey, with businesses able to consider relocating to that area, given that the Regional Development Minister, Danny Kennedy, has indicated that the A8 and A2 projects are progressing well. (AQT 1718/11-15)
Mrs Foster: I was just establishing from my colleagues where the A2 and A8 are. Forgive me: I am a humble Fermanagh representative. I understand that they are to Carrick and Larne — am I correct? Yes? Well, I know more about the A4 and the A29. When we have an upgrade of infrastructure, it certainly helps in relation to the offering to inward investors and tourism. We will, of course, take cognisance of any upgrades to infrastructure, no matter where it is in Northern Ireland.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Mrs Jo-Anne Dobson has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary.
Mr Wells (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): In line with arrangements for the rest of the United Kingdom, viral haemorrhagic fever (VHF) testing of samples taken from patients in Northern Ireland is carried out in Porton Down laboratories, following discussions with the imported fever service. The Regional Virus Laboratory (RVL) has transport arrangements in place to ensure that clinicians in the Royal Victoria Hospital receive VHF test results in the shortest possible time.
Where it has been agreed that a sample will be processed immediately on receipt, results will normally be available within seven to eight hours of the arrival of the sample in the laboratory. In addition, in anticipation of transport delays — for example, because of bad weather — the RVL has arrangements in place to have samples tested in Dublin. That would be in tandem with sending samples to Porton Down, which, as the Member will know, is in Wiltshire. VHF testing will commence in Edinburgh on 1 December this year. The RVL is exploring the possible benefits for Northern Ireland in terms of contingency arrangements and reducing travel times.
Mrs Dobson: The Minister will know about the very real worry and concern amongst the public. People will be waiting to hear the results and hoping that the Ebola virus has not reached our shores. At this time, we are all holding our breath for the patient and their family, and we are thinking of the staff at the Royal.
Minister, we need to be aware that this may be only the first of many scares. Perhaps the Minister can outline for us how those will impact on front-line services at our regional hospitals. Can he also give a commitment that, at a time when our trusts are under such immense pressure, these pressures will not be a barrier to our health service adequately responding to future Ebola scares? Can he detail approximately how much a scare costs, what training is provided to staff and how costs will be met to protect patients and staff?
Mr Wells: I thank the honourable Member for her supplementary question. As she is aware, a patient was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital on Friday 7 November and tested positive for malaria. As the patient had been in Sierra Leone, samples were sent to Porton Down in Wiltshire and, I understand, to Dublin as a precaution. The results of the tests are imminent, but we do not have them as yet. We may have them before the end of this session. The results are expected to be negative, but we have to be absolutely certain. As soon as the results are available, everybody will be advised of them.
We have been here before: in Londonderry, a similar scare at Altnagelvin proved to be negative, and, in Donegal in the Irish Republic, a similar situation arose. This is third time this has happened on the island of Ireland.
We have an arrangement with the Royal Free Hospital in London, where any patient who is assessed as having Ebola will be flown. Arrangements have been established for that to be done rapidly. Therefore, the overall treatment of anyone who has Ebola will be carried out on the mainland and not in Northern Ireland.
Even in the worst-case scenario, the numbers in the United Kingdom would be expected to be in single figures. Therefore, whilst it is a matter of great concern to the public, we do not envisage this placing an inordinate burden on our health services or those in the rest of the UK. In Northern Ireland, every health and social care trust has plans in place that were tested in a regional exercise on 23 October. We had all the bodies, including the trusts, the Public Health Agency and colleagues from England, Wales, Scotland and the Irish Republic involved to make certain that we were fully prepared in the event of a suspected case of Ebola or, in the worst-case scenario, a confirmed case.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response. He referred to the incident in Derry, and I want to acknowledge the role that the staff in the Western Trust played on that one. Given the potential worst-case scenario, is there specific public health advice that the Minister would offer the wider public at this point?
Mr Wells: It is highly unlikely that anyone in Northern Ireland will contract Ebola unless they have been in one of three countries in West Africa — Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea — where Ebola is having a profound impact. Arrangements are in place at all the major entry points to the United Kingdom and Europe to screen for Ebola.
My only advice at this point is that, if anyone has returned from those countries and is showing any of the signs — one of which is sometimes an increased temperature — they should seek health advice immediately and self-refer. Prompt medical care is essential to improving the rate of survival. It is also important in controlling the spread of the disease, and infection control procedures need to be started immediately.
We know for certain that this person was in Sierra Leone, in the area affected by Ebola, so the correct procedures were invoked once self-referral took place. The public health agencies in the rest of the United Kingdom do not envisage spread within the United Kingdom from existing sufferers; it is far more likely to be brought to the shores of the British Isles from West Africa.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answers. Can he give us an assurance that all equipment at the Royal Victoria Hospital, including personal protective equipment, is fit for purpose and compatible with that in use in the rest of the UK?
Mr Wells: I have to be slightly careful when I am replying to the honourable Member for North Down because patient confidentiality is absolutely essential in this instance and, indeed, in all instances. The equipment being used in the Royal is absolutely in line with that being used in the rest of the United Kingdom and is of the highest international standard. Isolation has occurred for the patient and is being carried out under the strictest possible controls.
I am content that everything that can be done in the Royal is being done. Remember, the individual has tested positive for malaria, a disease that can be quite readily treated in Northern Ireland. There is no confirmation of anything beyond that, as yet. Therefore, I am content that all the correct precautions are being undertaken.
Mr McKinney: Will the Minister outline the state of preparedness, including transport, at all our hospital facilities?
Mr Wells: I have taken part in two COBRA conference calls with the Health Ministers for Wales, Scotland and England to try to make certain that the United Kingdom as a whole is completely prepared for any potential situation arising. We have arrangements in place to make a transfer from Northern Ireland to the Royal Free Hospital rapidly. An air ambulance service is available to make that transfer as soon as is required. Remember, the patient would remain in isolation if, per chance, Ebola were confirmed in the Royal. Therefore, there is no chance of the condition spreading. I am content that a very good system is in place to make certain that everybody is ready and prepared to take the patient to the expertise in the Royal Free, which has two beds immediately available and can expand that to 12, if need be. That hospital has huge international experience in dealing with these conditions.
The Chief Medical Officer has issued letters to all front-line staff who may be treating or admitting patients. All steps have been taken to ensure that we are ready. So far, what I am seeing indicates that those precautions are working and have been effective in this particular situation.
Mr Allister: What is the capacity of the isolation unit in the Royal? Does the Minister or his Department have access to any data, perhaps from the border agencies, to indicate the number of citizens connected to Northern Ireland who are travelling to, or have travelled to, the suspect countries?
Mr Wells: The isolation ward in the Royal has a capacity of one. However, we have a relationship with the Royal Free, so there is, in my opinion, sufficient capacity. We have had numerous discussions about checking the entry points for people from the three affected countries coming into Northern Ireland. There are no direct flights from West Africa to Northern Ireland. Therefore, the vast majority of people will come through London, Paris, Brussels or the Channel Tunnel. All those entry points now have scrutiny and testing arrangements in place. We believe that 97% of the people who could potentially come into Northern Ireland are covered by those arrangements.
On Wednesday, I will meet my counterpart in the Irish Republic, Leo Varadkar. One of the issues on my agenda is to make absolutely certain that the arrangements in the Irish Republic are as strong as they are in the United Kingdom. We also have other step-up beds available, here and in the rest of the UK. The Minister for Health in England, Jeremy Hunt, has suggested that, if the worst comes to the worst, we would be talking about single figures for the whole country. Therefore, there is sufficient capacity in the United Kingdom to deal with a situation. We have had several months' warning and have taken all the necessary steps to make certain that, should things go wrong and people with Ebola come in, we are ready to act.
Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I seek your advice and guidance on the long-established procedure in the House regarding the Speaker's discretion, which obviously is ultimate and final, to call Members for supplementary questions. On question 1, during questions to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, a number of Members stood up on one side of the House and were called, and one Member stood up on this side and was not called. The previous Speaker, and other Deputy Speakers, indicated that Members should constantly rise to their feet to have the possibility of being called. I seek your guidance and reassurance that that is still the case, and that people will be called, in so far as is possible, from across the Chamber if they continue to stand.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. That sounded very like a challenge to the Deputy Speaker. I am glad that you clarified that it was not because that would be extremely serious. The Member is welcome to go to the Business Office and check the records. He will find that his party was exceptionally well catered for today, while three members of my party did not get to ask their supplementary. Let that be the final word.