Official Report: Tuesday 18 November 2014
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr McKay: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Yesterday, the Health Minister deliberately deceived the House. He gave an assurance to Members that he would consider the case put forward by the Save the Dal group. At the same time, his officials moved in to start to shut down that hospital. He misled the House, and he should come to the House today and apologise for that.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member will, of course, know that that is not a point of order. The Member will also know that the proper place to take that issue is to the Minister.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I wish to inform the House that the Legal Aid and Coroners' Court Bill received Royal Assent on Monday 17 November 2014. It will be known as the Legal Aid and Coroners' Court Act (Northern Ireland) 2014.
Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): Today, I am announcing my proposals for the future of youth training in Northern Ireland. I believe that these proposals have the potential to establish a new youth training system that will form a key part of our wider education and skills landscape. This marks the launch of the publication of the interim report on the review of youth training and the launch of a public consultation on its proposals.
Building and rebalancing our economy are key strategic priorities for the Executive. Investing directly in people and providing opportunities for personal development and fulfilment, and, consequently, delivering the skills required for the economy, are key overriding responsibilities for my Department and me. We have an important role in preparing our young people for the world of work and sustained employment through improving levels of skills. Complementary to that is the need to provide opportunities for education and training at all levels, and to ensure that both current and potential future employers have access to the skilled employees, particularly young people, that they require.
Last year, I launched major reviews of youth training and apprenticeships. I indicated then that I was committed to making these areas major priorities. The aim of the reviews was to ensure that both youth training and apprenticeships matched the needs of young people, employers and the wider economy.
In June, I published 'Securing our Success: the Northern Ireland Strategy on Apprenticeships'. The implementation of this strategy will establish apprenticeships as the key mechanism through which individuals can gain knowledge and skills while in work. Apprenticeships will commence at level 3, which is equivalent to A level, and will be available at all levels up to level 8, which is equivalent to a doctorate.
The proposed new system of youth training will primarily serve those young people who are leaving school at age 16 and will focus on professional and technical training at level 2.
In essence, this new system will fill the space that is currently occupied by a wide range of interventions and time-bound initiatives, providing consistency and certainty for young people, employers and providers. They include Skills for Work level 2 under Training for Success, the current legacy programme-led apprenticeships, current level 2 ApprenticeshipsNI opportunities and some mainstream level 2 further education provision.
The new system will ensure that young people can progress to the apprenticeships of the future, provide a progression route into higher-level professional and technical training that is available through further education and facilitate transition for young people into sustained employment. However, immediate progression is not the only aspiration that I have for the new system. I believe that the changes that I am proposing will provide young people with a foundation to support their lifelong learning and provide the stepping stone that is needed to allow them to adapt and progress in the modern workplace.
The focus at level 2 was also informed by supply and demand for skills in our economy. My Department's skills strategy 'Success through Skills — Transforming Futures', demonstrates clearly that our economy will rely increasingly on higher-level skills, with a decreasing demand for low-level skills at entry level and level 1. For example, by 2020, the proportion of our workforce with lower-level skills is set to halve from the level that was recorded in 2005.
In order to prepare young people for the demands of the labour market, achievement at level 2 is critical, but there are challenges on the supply side in ensuring that young people reach this level. Last year, approximately two out of five young people left school without five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and mathematics. This measure of achievement at level 2 is, in many cases, the minimum requirement for prospective employers and is a common entry requirement for the progression routes that are available at level 3 through both apprenticeships and further education.
Over the past year, the youth training review team carried out extensive work which led to the findings that are presented in the interim report. We engaged with experts in the OECD to identify examples of best practice and completed study visits to the Netherlands, Denmark and Scotland, the findings of which have been incorporated in case studies throughout the report. My team also carried out an extensive literature review and tested each proposal through engagement events and meetings with employers, young people and other key stakeholders. A call for submissions and an employer survey were also conducted and the review has been aided greatly by the Committee for Employment and Learning and an expert panel.
Therefore, the development of the new system is based firmly on evidence of international best practice and the application and fit of this in the local context. It is a made-in-Northern Ireland solution that combines local innovation with world-class standards.
My team used the evidence that was gathered to critique and examine current youth training provision. One of the key challenges was the complexity of the current system, with a variety of different options available to young people seeking training at level 2. Greater clarity and indeed greater opportunities from progression routes was also a key concern that was highlighted by stakeholders.
A connected issue to progression was the curriculum offer at level 2. Employers expressed concerns about the rigour and relevancy of the professional and technical qualifications that are available at level 2 as well as the considerable number that are currently available. Some options at level 2 also require that literacy and numeracy skills be developed at level 1 only, which may inhibit a young person's access to higher-level training courses, lifelong learning and progression in the workplace.
The provision of work-based learning was also pinpointed as a current weakness, with local stakeholders highlighting that work-based learning needed to be integrated into the curriculum to better prepare young people for the world of work.
Finally, at an individual and system level, research indicated that young people required greater support to guide their choices through independent careers advice and guidance, supported by up-to-date labour market information. The greater monitoring of outcomes and destinations of participants could also help to improve the system.
The interim report draws on that rigorous analysis and articulates a vision for a new youth training system. My aspiration is that our new system will be recognised locally and internationally by employers, further and higher education providers, young people, parents and guardians for its quality, flexibility and transferability. The system will be centred on the career aspirations and needs of young people, and it will be a conduit to support their ongoing career development. Young people in training will be sought after by prospective employers, and the system will be respected by young people, parents and guardians as an alternative progression route to the traditional academic pathway. By linking a new baccalaureate-style professional and technical award to the needs of employers and the wider economy, the youth training system will better match supply to demand and provide a seamless progression route for young people to a breadth of professional and technical occupations.
To achieve our vision, the report makes 26 proposals for the future of youth training in Northern Ireland. They can be grouped under four themes: the core components of the youth training system; supporting young people; delivery and employer engagement structures; and ensuring quality. The implementation of the proposals will provide a youth training system that incorporates structured work-based learning for all participants, including an employment-based pathway. It will provide a new professional and technical award at level 2, the curriculum content of which will be informed by employers in order better to match demand and supply. The system will provide flexible routes and support mechanisms to make training accessible to all young people, and it will facilitate progression into apprenticeships, further or higher education and directly or indirectly into sustained employment.
First, in a major departure from current provision, and for the first time in Northern Ireland, youth training will be available to all young people aged between 16 and 24 who require training at level 2, regardless of where they reside on their employment and learning journey. Importantly, that will include young people who have already entered the job market but do not have the comparable skills and training proposed under the new system. Therefore, youth training will be accessible to those starting a new job, those in existing roles and those not yet in employment. Through that approach, we will seek to ensure that the system is flexible enough for all young people to access training at level 2, regardless of their employment status. It will support young people regardless of where they reside in their training and employment journey. I want to ensure that all our young people are provided with the opportunity to compete in the workplace. No one should be left behind.
Secondly, the youth training system will provide a new baccalaureate-style professional and technical award at level 2, equating to a minimum of five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and mathematics. By setting that standard for the curriculum at level 2, youth training will ensure that all those who achieve at that level can progress into higher level options and that the achievements of those progressing from training are recognised and valued by employers. Research has shown that this is the foundation level for progressing in the workplace and facilitating a platform for lifelong learning.
In addition to that breadth of learning, structured work-based learning, whether through employment or a work placement, will be a mandatory element of youth training. The employed route will be similar to the current apprenticeship pathway, with a young person employed by a business or organisation and benefiting from a mix of on- and off-the-job training. Under the non-employed route, a young person will benefit from an extended work placement. Work-based learning will be the primary method for developing skills, including employability. For those not yet in employment, the system will facilitate short project-based work tasters to help to inform their choice of occupational area. Beyond the core curriculum, youth training will also provide opportunities to study additional qualifications relevant to the interests of the individual young person and the requirements of employers.
Young people not yet ready to start youth training will be supported to attain a minimum of a full level 1, which is defined as being equivalent to four GCSEs at grades D to G, including English and mathematics at grades D to F. That support should be delivered through a range of targeted interventions, including further education courses at level 1 and specialised projects funded through the European social fund. The new baccalaureate-style award for youth training will be designed to take a maximum of two years to complete. However, the system will be flexible to allow those who can complete sooner to achieve and progress into employment or further training, and to allow those with additional needs to receive more time.
Collectively, the proposals constitute the core components of the youth training system in Northern Ireland.
The report's second theme focuses on support measures to help young people to successfully complete their training. To inform young people’s choices and promote progression, independent careers advice and guidance that is informed by the skills barometer will be provided to young people before starting training and upon completion.
Pastoral support will also be provided to address the range of complex issues that young people face and will help them to succeed in their chosen occupational area. Indeed, flexibility and support will be the cornerstone of provision, ensuring that the new system reflects the needs of young people and the barriers that they face as they transition from school to the world of work. To support young people in the workplace, participating employers will provide workplace mentors to develop their employability skills and achieve their learning outcomes. Financial support will also be provided to young people, whether through a training wage or allowance.
Support will be targeted towards those with additional requirements, such as young people with a disability or caring commitments, or those leaving care. My Department’s forthcoming disability employment and skills strategy will have a key focus on young people, including those in training. Youth training will make use of innovative online technologies to engage young people, prepare them for the workplace and facilitate opportunities for international exchange. Through those support measures, we will hope to ensure that young people engage in training that is relevant to their interests and that they are supported to achieve and make a successful start to their careers.
While we can set standards for the curriculum and design support measures for young people, the youth training system will be effective only if employers are engaged in its design and delivery. Following the approach being implemented through the apprenticeships strategy, a strategic advisory forum will advise government on the youth training system. A common forum for apprenticeships and youth training can also help to ensure that the two systems are aligned. However, the forum’s roles and responsibilities in youth training will be shaped around the particular needs of this system.
Sectoral partnerships will define the qualifications to be delivered, alongside the duration, structure and timing of work placements. Depending on the sector's skills needs, sectoral partnerships may be shared between apprenticeship or youth training provision, or they could be established to carry out this specific function for youth training. Along with those strategic and sector-led proposals, there will be a more targeted approach towards employer engagement to encourage work-based learning opportunities and to recruit young people for the youth training system. A central service will be created to facilitate the sourcing and advertising of work-based learning opportunities for the youth training system.
I am also proposing the creation of dedicated industry consultants to work directly with sectors and employers, and I will consider incentives that are targeted at small businesses and at microbusinesses and that are aligned to the priorities of the Northern Ireland economy. By having mechanisms in place that can take the pulse of the local job market, we will be able to assess the extent to which the system is providing young people with the skills to allow them to be absorbed directly into the workplace, and, where necessary, to take timely corrective action. My Department will also actively target and work with local councils and the wider public sector to provide work experience opportunities and promote the system at a local level.
A final key aspect of engagement is to support the youth training system through clear branding and marketing for employers, young people, parents and guardians. Effective branding will promote engagement and improve the image of professional and technical training overall.
The final theme of the report sets out a range of measures to ensure that the highest standards of quality for training are maintained. To ensure a quality work-based learning experience for young people, a registration and approval system is proposed for participating employers. Work-based learning will also be underpinned by a clear contractual agreement between the young person, the host employer and the training provider.
For workplace mentors and tutors delivering the non-work-based elements of training, new requirements will be set for their industry experience and pedagogical skills. At a system level, a new quality model will ensure that only those providers who achieve prescribed quality standards will be funded to deliver youth training. The system will also be underpinned by robust data collection analysis and evaluation, and it will provide mechanisms for young people to provide qualitative feedback on their experience of training. The proposals will help to ensure that the system can be monitored and improved over time to serve the needs of young people, employers and our economy. From today, the proposals will be the subject of public consultation over the next 12 weeks.
Particular efforts are being made to gather the views of young people on our approach, including their views on the future branding and marketing of the youth training system. Based on engagement with the Commissioner for Children and Young People, we will incorporate innovative best practice into our work with young people. This process will begin with a workshop involving young people to develop an animated version of the consultation, followed by focus groups with young people, which will start in December. We will also hold roadshow events to gather further the views of employers, training providers and other interested stakeholders.
In addition to the consultation, we will link the proposals to the ongoing implementation of the apprenticeship strategy to identify synergies between those two key mechanisms in our wider skills system.
Our proposals for youth training will deliver for young people and employers. For young people, they will provide a foundation of knowledge and expertise that will support their lifelong learning and provide a sustainable foothold in the world of work. The proposals will guarantee that the training the young people complete is right for them and sought after by employers, and they will support those who require additional help and guidance as they transition into and through the world of work. For employers, the new system will offer support to engage and reduce bureaucracy, and it will guarantee that the young people whom they support will be work ready and trained in skills that are relevant to their immediate and future needs.
The new system of youth training will deliver a foundation of knowledge and expertise, which will contribute to the skills required by the economy, improved social mobility and facilitate lifelong learning.
I commend the proposals to the Assembly.
Mr Swann (The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning): I thank the Minister for his detailed statement, in which he referred to two points. The first was that, last year, approximately two out of five young people left school without five GCSEs at grades A to C, including English and maths. Secondly, through the programme, young people not yet ready to start youth training will be supported to attain a minimum of a full level 1 qualification, which is defined as the equivalent of four GCSEs at grades D to G. Does the Minister have to put this programme in place because of the failings of our education system? Does the Department for Employment and Learning have to provide that 14-to-16 education that our schools can no longer provide?
In meeting the needs of employers through the programme, will the Minister describe to the House the difference in attractiveness to an employer in taking a young person through this scheme as opposed to taking on a young apprentice? What will the Minister do to make parents respect and understand this major step change in education?
Dr Farry: I thank the Committee Chairperson for his welcome for the statement and his questions. I will take each of them in turn. First, with the interface with the education system, the Member rightly identified that approximately two out of five young people leave school without a level 2 qualification. I would not say that we are addressing the failings of the education system. We must always have a joined-up interface between the training offer provided by the state and the education system. This is provided in many countries around the world.
The Education Minister has aspirations to increase the level of attainment; indeed, that aspiration is in the Programme for Government targets. We have to be very clear that the education system does not always work for young people. It may not meet their particular needs, interests or aspirations. In particular, they are more interested in a vocational pathway as opposed to an academic pathway, and a vocational pathway can sometimes offer a better prospect of finding and sustaining employment. It is in that context that we are seeking to provide this intervention.
That said, there will be greater scope on the back of this for us to look at a revised 14-to-19 strategy between my Department and the Department of Education. While we are offering this training to young people from the age of 16, work can take place in the school system that will help to join up with the new system that we are proposing today. Some of that delivery can be facilitated through proper area planning, the entitlement framework and proper use of the further education system. This is not about schools necessarily becoming providers of vocational education for 14 upwards; it has to be about a coordinated approach using the best of the resources, facilities, teaching and lecturing opportunities that we have. I see this as an opportunity for my Department and for the education system as a whole rather than as necessarily a competition between the two.
While we do have a concern about the number of young people who are achieving their level-2 qualification, most young people who go through the school system will achieve a level 1. However, there is a challenge for those who are not yet ready to avail of the programme that we are offering today. That can be addressed through a combination of further education and programmes that may be run under the European social fund. We will wish to take a very hands-on approach to ensure that they are meeting needs and facilitating progression into the system. Much as we talk about progression from the youth training system into employment or other opportunities, this is also about ensuring that we facilitate progression into the system.
The difference between this and what is offered in an apprenticeship is that part of this system will offer an employed route. For now, we can term that a traineeship, although we are open-minded about branding and the terminology used. We want to hear the views of employers and young people in that regard. The traineeship will be similar to an apprenticeship and, in some respects, will replace our current level-2 apprenticeship NI offer. The Member will be aware that our new strategy for apprenticeships has now moved that model for apprenticeships up the skills ladder, starting at level 3. Nonetheless, we believe that it is important that we have the employed route available for young people at level 2. The duration will be shorter — a maximum, rather than a minimum, of two years — in the apprenticeship strategy. Hopefully, that will facilitate young people into doing an apprenticeship as the next stage of their progression.
Employers will find this of huge benefit, as, increasingly, they are telling us about the need to provide more skills that are relevant to the workplace. We have a huge demand for a much greater commitment to be made to vocational training at all levels, from level 2 upwards. This is the new level-2 offer in that regard. We are seeking to ensure that the provision that we make is more relevant to the needs of the economy. At present, it is often shaped around the needs of training providers who will try to get employers to take young people for the type of training that they provide. We are trying to invert that process to ensure that employers, particularly through the sectoral partnerships, are driving what goes into the curriculum as well as shaping demand in the system.
Finally, we need to ensure that there is proper parity of esteem with other pathways in the system. This is not about creating a hierarchy; this is about creating choice. Alternative pathways will suit the different needs and aspirations of young people. It is important that parents and other influencers see it in that regard and support people making informed choices. Again, that will be a key aspect when we put in place the outcome of the current careers review.
Mr Buchanan: I, too, thank the Minister for his statement to the House. Minister, you talk about the high standard of training required, but how will you ensure that it is delivered? Have you any concerns about the recruitment of tutors with the up-to-date industry and occupational experience alongside the required teacher training?
Dr Farry: The Member is quite right to identify the issue of quality and of ensuring that those who provide training have the proper skills. That is why an entire section of the report, one of four, is devoted to quality. We will seek to develop that as best we can.
The other aspect of quality is the notion of how we support young people. That includes a mixture of pastoral care provided through the training providers and the mentoring that will be offered in the workplace. We fully recognise, and, indeed, concur, with the Member's comments about the importance of ensuring that quality is apparent at all levels. If we are not providing quality, we are short-changing employers, who will be depending on a good stream of young people, and also short-changing our young people to whom we have a duty of ensuring that we give the best foundation in life.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Minister's statement and commend the good work that has been done to identify international best practice. What is the Minister's assessment on whether that area of work is compatible with the issues and concerns that have been raised by the Post 19 Lobby Group on the special educational needs sector, which you have been lobbied on?
Dr Farry: I thank the Member for her comments and question. A piece of work is being conducted in the Executive subcommittee on the implementation of the Bamford review on mental health and learning disability. Indeed, a meeting of that group is due to take place on Thursday. We have been doing a scoping exercise to look at what is offered and to try to identify where gaps exist in provision.
The Member will also be aware that my Department is bringing forward a new disability employment strategy. That is due to be released for public consultation in January next year. There will be a very close synergy between that strategy and the proposals for a youth training system.
We recognise that people with disabilities will be going through the system. Indeed, we are openly encouraging that. We want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to play a role in life and develop to their full potential. The Member will be aware that, already, we offer additional support for people with disabilities who are going through our training programmes. That commitment will remain and will be strengthened as we look to go forward with the new system.
Mr Ramsey: I warmly welcome the Minister's statement — he always brings very detailed statements to the House — and his recent comments on disabled young people. I am keen to hear what form pre-level-2 provision will take, given, referring back to the Chair's initial comments, that the requirement for entry to level 2 will be five GCSEs. How are you going to do that when the most vulnerable, such as those who leave care or prison, may not have any academic qualifications?
Dr Farry: The Member is quite right to highlight that issue, and I have tried to focus my comments in a balanced way between progression out of the system and progression into the system and recognise that we need to provide support, where appropriate, in that regard.
It is fair to say that we probably have many fewer people leaving school without a level-1 qualification than we give ourselves credit for at times. The issue is often about the numbers who are securing a level-2 qualification, which is regarded as being the standard for progressing in the world of work, but nearly 90% of young people achieve a level-1 qualification. The Member is quite right that there is still a gap for those who do not have that qualification.
That is addressed through aspects of Training for Success and the Pathway to Success strategy for NEETs and programmes supported under the European social fund. We will be looking to see how we can make best use of the resources that are available. Through a combination of the further education system and the roll-out of the next phase of the European social fund, we will be looking to ensure that we resource projects in a holistic and strategic manner to ensure that we are facilitating the progression into the new programme. It is important that we capture every young person. This is intended to be open to all young people between the ages of 16 and 24. So, we have a duty to ensure we are capturing everyone.
Mr Lyttle: I welcome the statement. The Employment and Learning Committee has done a lot of work on identifying the barriers to education, employment and training for our young people, and I am glad that the Minister has listened to that work and is addressing them by bringing forward proposals today for quality careers guidance, pastoral support and financial support in order to achieve parity of esteem for vocational education. How will the Department ensure that young people, their parents, schools and employers are fully aware of the youth training and apprenticeship pathways that are available to them?
Dr Farry: There are two particular interventions that we can highlight in that regard. One is the careers review itself, which, as the Member knows, was commissioned jointly with the Department of Education's review of careers, which built upon the inquiry that the Employment and Learning Committee conducted. That report, led by Brian Ambrose from Belfast City Airport, is now published. John O'Dowd and I are studying it and hope to set out the way forward over the coming weeks. Within that will be a very clear focus on ensuring that young people are given the full range of career options and on how we can best address key influencers to ensure a genuine parity of esteem between the different pathways.
We also have to be mindful that, often, people are not fully decided upon what is the most appropriate way forward at a young age, particularly those who leave school at 16. That is why we are putting such emphasis on the design of the programme for the technical baccalaureate-style award, which is designed very deliberately to have breadth and portability to allow young people the flexibility to progress in a whole range of pathways.
The second aspect that I will highlight is the proposal for a central service, which we have already announced in relation to the apprenticeship strategy. The central service will work for both apprenticeships and the youth training system and is designed to be a matching service for employers and young people — almost a bringing together or brokerage. That does not exist in the current Northern Ireland landscape, and, hopefully, it will make a major difference.
Mr Ross: One of the advantages of being a small country is that we can be flexible. Indeed, when it comes to youth training, we saw that investor companies were able to work with universities and colleges on specially tailored courses to meet their needs. Earlier, I listened to the Minister say that the needs of employers will be paramount in this process to ensure that young people are trained in the areas that employers want, which will increase their opportunity to get employment once they have finished. How exactly will he ensure that that happens? What formal structures will be in place to ensure that employers work directly with those who deliver the training courses to ensure that young people are trained in the areas that businesses want them to be trained in?
Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his question. There are two particular interventions to highlight, and these will also be held in common with the apprenticeship strategy. The first is a strategic advisory forum, which, at a high level, will bring together employers and employer organisations, colleges, universities and other key stakeholders to monitor and signpost the implementation of the apprenticeship strategy and the youth training system, when we finalise that in the coming months. That will be supported by a range of sectoral partnerships. Depending on the sector that we are talking about, you may find that a sectoral partnership operates purely in apprenticeships, if a sector needs only people from level 3 or upwards.
Equally, we may have some sectoral partnerships based in areas where the main skill demands are at level 2, or, if a particular sector requires a range of skill levels, there may well be a hybrid covering apprenticeships and youth training. The sectoral partnerships will involve any specialist representative bodies in the sector, a cross-section of employers and people who have a much more hands-on role in curriculum development, higher education and further education (FE) and, for the youth training system, training providers, who will also be a key delivery partner alongside the FE colleges.
Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. I think that, when the final document comes out, we will all have a duty and an obligation to put our shoulder behind the wheel to ensure that we have a world-beating training and employment system for young people. The statement mentions people progressing into employment for further training sooner rather than later, but it also mentions those with additional needs. There is a 12-week consultation. Many groups work with people who are furthest away from achieving an apprenticeship. Can the Minister assure us that those groups will not be left out during the consultation period, that they will be spoken to and that what they have to say will be taken on board in forming the final document?
Dr Farry: I am very happy to give the Member that assurance. Throughout the process, we have been very hands-on with the engagement with our stakeholders. That also extends to trying to derive lessons from international best practice. That will continue through the process.
In my statement, I referred to some innovative approaches to engaging young people that we will seek to take forward over the next number of weeks. The expert panel that was formed was a strong cross-representation of different aspects of the current system and those who will have future delivery roles. That was very helpful in shaping our conclusions.
The Member talked about the importance of this for young people and the need to ensure proper progression. One of the reasons why we are seeking to act is that our levels of progression are simply not good enough. People go through our different level-2 training offerings and, once they do, proper progression pathways are not available for them. We almost hope that they will find their way into sustained employment, but that is not always the case. If we look at our youth unemployment figures, we see that, while they are coming down, they are nonetheless a source of concern. The levels of youth unemployment for people who have gone through our training system and who have often essentially been recycled through programmes are much in excess of the overall figure for youth unemployment, as high as that is. That points to the need for a major revamp of our youth training interventions at level 2.
When we are referring to youth unemployment, it is worth making a comparison with what is happening in other parts of the world. We know that other European countries have much lower levels of youth unemployment than we do. That indicates a very strong correlation between those societies that invest the most in vocational education and the production of much better results in the alignment of skills with the needs of their economies. As a consequence, there are lower levels of youth unemployment.
Mr Allister: The Minister has given considerable detail about certain matters, but one area that I have heard no detail on is the costing for and funding of his proposals. Given the present financial climate, is it not important to know that? I am sure that matters have been costed. Will he advise the House on that? Given the educational dimension, does he expect some of the education budget to fund what he has in mind?
Dr Farry: The present level of funding for our level-2 offering approximates to just over £50 million. That includes about £25 million for Skills for Life at level 2 in Training for Success, about £8·5 million on level-2 apprenticeships and about £19 million on mainstream further education provision at level 2. We also have the ability to engage the European social fund. It goes without saying that the pressure on our budgets are enormous, but I have committed to making this a priority.
We are not in the business of salami-slicing across the Department's work programmes. Often at times of greatest pressure, you have to seek to innovate the most. We believe that we are seeking to innovate through this approach. As a consequence, I hope that financial, economic and societal benefits will arise from our interventions. We should see many more of our young people progressing into the world of work and sustaining employment. That will have a whole range of social benefits, as well as less money having to be spent on unemployment benefit and other welfare supports. We should see employers with a stronger ability to access the skills that they require. They should be able to grow better and, as a consequence, our economy will develop ever further. It is right that we continue to do this, notwithstanding issues on our budget.
I already mentioned the interface with the Department of Education. We want to see a revised 14-to-19 strategy to ensure that we can join things up as best we can. I am on record saying that I am concerned at the degree of protection that has been given to the Department of Education's budget relative to other aspects of our skills offering and at the potential for inequities in that regard. Some recognition was given to that in the draft Budget. At this stage, we are working through the implications of the Budget to ensure that we can fund the biggest strategic priorities for my Department and, consequently, our economy.
Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for his statement this morning. The Committee was keen that officials explore international best practice. Was that a useful exercise? What was gleaned from it?
Dr Farry: There is a plethora of examples of best practice around the world. So far, we have engaged in study visits to the Netherlands, Denmark and Scotland, as well as having discussions with officials and others in London. As I said to Mr McCann, we can, at a very high level, draw conclusions from the investment that societies make in their commitment to vocational education and training, and the levels of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, that pertain in those societies. The correlation is compelling, and you will see that in the report and the supporting evidence.
Beneath that, we had the opportunity to look at specific interventions that have been successful in other countries in how they structure their approach to youth training. Again, a number of case studies are set out in the interim report and consultation document. They involve areas such as employers' reports, pastoral care for young people, the design of curriculums and how employers can influence them. A lot of the report's content has been influenced by what is going on in other societies. We have not been looking to reinvent the wheel but simply to apply best practice to our local context.
Ms Lo: I thank the Minister, particularly for his commitment for targeted support for young people leaving care. As a new Committee member, I recently met Include Youth and heard about the comparatively high drop-out rate of those young people from FE colleges. Will the Minister encourage the FE colleges to roll out the Buttle quality mark approach for care leavers in Training for Success to monitor and track their outcome in FE colleges?
Dr Farry: We are seeking to ensure that we attain better achievement and retention rates in the system. Obviously, the Member refers to what happens in the current provision and the attention that is given, which is, at times, of a high standard. We get strong feedback from young people on the programmes. Equally, we are conscious that the progression levels through our current systems are not sufficiently strong and that people are not availing themselves of the opportunities, and employers are consequently not availing themselves of the local skills base in the manner that they should.
We are making a very strong commitment on pastoral care and the mentoring of young people, because we acknowledge that young people will be entering these schemes with a range of barriers and particular needs that will have to be addressed. That is why pastoral care from the training providers in FE colleges and the workplace mentors are so important. We are not simply providing the technical skills for young people but giving them much wider support. With reference to what Mr Hilditch said, one of the key lessons that we learned from our international study visits was the importance of that type of pastoral care. Some of the training facilities almost gave the impression of being a type of school, with a full provision of extracurricular activities. Young people could have the advantage of availing themselves of that, which is more associated with a traditional school setting than with a traditional training-type provision. People who are entering from a care background are a key group for whom that approach would be most beneficial.
Mr Wells (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Last year, my predecessor, on behalf of my Department and the Departments of Justice and Education, commissioned an independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland. The inquiry was led by Kathleen Marshall and is now complete. It was charged with the following matters: establishing the nature and extent of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland; examining how effective cross-sectoral child safeguarding and protection arrangements are in preventing and tackling child sexual exploitation; and considering how well we are safeguarding and protecting looked-after children. The inquiry was asked to make recommendations on future actions.
All three Ministers have now received the inquiry report. On behalf of my ministerial colleagues, I thank Kathleen Marshall and those who assisted her for their efforts. Throughout my statement, I will refer to child sexual exploitation as CSE for ease of reference.
All forms of child abuse, including CSE, are totally unacceptable. I want Northern Ireland to be a safer place for children and young people and the most hostile of environments for those who abuse or exploit our children and young people. I want to take Members through what Kathleen Marshall has found, her recommendations and my initial response, and I want to emphasise that it is an initial response.
On the nature and extent of CSE in Northern Ireland, the inquiry concludes that it is not new and takes different forms in Northern Ireland, as it does throughout the United Kingdom, but there are particular Northern Ireland dimensions to it.
The forms that CSE takes here include: online exploitation; what is described as the party house scene; exploitation by older boyfriends; prostitution; trafficking, and forced marriage. The inquiry has not been able to establish actual numbers of young people being exploited, though it references official figures for prostitution, trafficking and forced marriage, all of which are in single figures.
The inquiry states that there is an increasing risk of peer-to-peer abuse, attributed by Kathleen Marshall to an increasing sexualised society, assisted by advances in technology and changing cultural norms in our society.
The inquiry concludes that while there is some level of organisation to CSE in Northern Ireland linked to groups who coalesce around young people, for instance, in party houses, it does not constitute organised crime as understood by the National Crime Agency.
Considerations about the organised nature of CSE took the inquiry to consider possible links with paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. The PSNI view is that organised paramilitary involvement in child sexual exploitation has not been established. However, the inquiry found the witness testimonies about potential paramilitary links with CSE to be powerful and persuasive. A number of individuals expressed an ardent plea that the inquiry should speak up about the paramilitary dimension to CSE.
Some described how CSE could be associated with organised drug dealing. More commonly, it was a case of individuals believed to be members of, or linked to, paramilitary groups who used the authority and fear that it engendered to exploit children and young people. Those individuals have access to alcohol, drugs, guns and violence. They were described as people to whom you cannot say no. They regard themselves as beyond the law.
The inquiry was told very clearly that paramilitary influence may cause and facilitate CSE. In communities, it can build up loyalty and fear. Girls may feel that they can gain status through cooperating with those powerful individuals, and that may be tolerated by some families. Others fear threats to their families if they do not succumb to the abuse.
The inquiry also heard that some young men look to those powerful figures as role models and aspire to be like them. The inquiry was told of families that had endured generations of exploitation. The kind of power that such individuals exert means that they may be involved in all types of CSE. However, specific to them are the pubs and clubs operated in some areas where there may be lock-ins involving young girls who get the tap on the shoulder to stay behind. The report states that it was not possible for the inquiry team to identify the prevalence of paramilitary links, but perhaps that is not surprising, given that some stated that they feared for their lives if it became known that they had spoken to the inquiry.
The inquiry identifies a number of groups of young people who are potentially more at risk of CSE than others. The risk and vulnerability factors identified include: neglect, deprivation, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, peer pressure, advances in technology, an increasingly sexualised society, cultural attitudes to women and going missing overnight. The inquiry concludes that available data can only provide a rough idea of the extent of CSE and it is likely to be a significant underestimate. The report states that the first step in tackling CSE is to recognise that it exists and suggests that more cases will be identified as awareness increases, and there is a recommendation linked to public awareness-raising.
A shared understanding about CSE and improved information collection and analysis are considered by the inquiry to be prerequisites to better identification, reporting and a more accurate assessment of the prevalence and nature of CSE. However, it is important to bear in mind that we already know that all forms of child abuse have a hidden dimension and are significantly under-reported and, as a result, there will always be a gap between actual prevalence and what is known to social services.
While we do not know the full extent of CSE in Northern Ireland, we can say that there are no findings in the inquiry that point to the type of organised exploitation seen in Rotherham or Rochdale; nor does it have the same ethnic-minority dimension. There is no evidence in the report to suggest cover-up, corruption or a lack of commitment on the part of agencies or individuals. Indeed, the report states that, in Northern Ireland, senior managers expressed a commitment to taking CSE seriously. While that may be the case, there is no room for complacency, and the inquiry report counsels vigilance in the face of changes in social attitudes and in the cultural make up of Northern Ireland society.
I turn now to what the report says about preventing, tackling and supporting recovery from CSE. Statutory agencies — social services, the police, health, education and youth services — cannot tackle CSE on their own. They need the support of children, parents, communities and third-sector organisations. It is reassuring that all those who provided evidence to the inquiry indicated their willingness to take part. It is particularly reassuring that young people want to be empowered to resist CSE, and they can only do so by knowing more about the risks. Parents, who are the first line of defence against the exploitation of their children, want to be treated with respect and supported by agencies in their efforts to do so.
Concerns were raised in the report that there is too much emphasis on the behaviour of victims and calls to restrict their liberty rather than punishing and locking up perpetrators. Perpetrators must be held to account. The report highlights long-standing concerns about the low rates of securing prosecutions and convictions of those who prey upon children and young people for sexual purposes. Not enough is known about people who sexually exploit children and young people. This is a serious gap that has been identified in other reports. While there have been some specific groups of men identified in some reports regarding CSE, the National Crime Agency suggests that perpetrators are mostly solitary offenders and could be from any part of the community. Understanding offenders’ profiles and predispositions, their motivation, mindset and how they operate are key to helping us better protect children and young people. Holding offenders to account is primarily the responsibility of the Justice Department, and I pledge to support Minister Ford in whatever actions he may decide to take forward in this regard.
The inquiry notes the importance of cooperation amongst agencies and the sharing of information. It states that, while there have been improvements, more can be done. It also states that it heard a view that there are too many partnership arrangements involving the same people and leading to duplication of efforts. Those are matters that, I accept, need further consideration.
On victim support, a range of general and bespoke services to support the recovery of victims is identified in the report. The inquiry identifies the need for services to support victims of CSE who come forward in adulthood, as well, of course, as younger victims.
The inquiry was asked to look specifically at safeguarding looked-after children, given the concerns about those who go missing from care, sometimes repeatedly, and the associated risks of CSE. The inquiry acknowledges that not all children who go missing experience child sexual abuse and that some who experience CSE may not have gone missing or stayed out late without permission. The inquiry also acknowledges that the debate about missing children and their vulnerability to CSE can be skewed by the fact that there is available data about children in the care system, whose activities are closely monitored and recorded.
The inquiry obtained figures from the police on reports of missing children over two 24-hour periods, one at the weekend and one midweek. The figures show that, over the weekend, more than twice as many people were reported to police as missing from family settings as from looked-after settings such as foster care. Going missing and the risk of CSE is not just a problem with looked-after children.
The inquiry acknowledges that many young people have good experience of residential care. It also heard that many looked-after children felt stigmatised by the media coverage of CSE in September 2013, and we should be mindful of that as we discuss the report and its findings. It is important that the messages about the threat of CSE to all our children and young people are not masked by an undue emphasis on those in residential care. In Northern Ireland, 7% of all looked-after children, which is about 200 in total, are in residential care. It is the explicit policy of my Department that as many looked-after children as possible should experience and benefit from a stable family placement with kinship or foster carers. The welfare of all looked-after children is a priority, but there is undoubtedly an issue with the care and control of young people who go missing repeatedly despite the best efforts of staff and foster carers.
On the use of physical restraint and secure care, the inquiry is firmly of the view that those must not be regarded as everyday responses to manage risk in children's homes, although there will be some situations in which their use is justified.
The inquiry sums up the challenge in finding a solution to young people going missing from care as follows:
"The challenge for society is to provide the kind of structure, safety and quality of care that these facilities provide without depriving people of their liberty and of the opportunity to develop into individuals who can cope with freedom. Children need a safe space, and it may be possible, with their help, to identify a model that feels safe without restricting their liberty."
That is already being considered by the Health and Social Care Board and the trusts.
Importantly, the inquiry challenges the view that children have an unqualified right to autonomy, which some have suggested disempowers staff to act with appropriate authority or to set clear standards and expectations for behaviour. The inquiry suggests that a holistic view on the spectrum of children's rights, including their right to direction and guidance, can assist in identifying ways that balance the care and control required to keep young people safe while respecting their rights and evolving capacities and independence.
The inquiry helpfully explores how the issues of CSE can be addressed within the human rights framework and challenges the misconception that children's rights are a barrier to taking action to help them. The inquiry asserts the obligation on Government to do their utmost to protect all children and young people up to the age of 18. As children become older and are able to exercise more practical autonomy, the task becomes more difficult. However, the duty to care for and protect remains, alongside the child's right to be cared for and protected. It is incumbent on all of us with responsibilities for the care and protection of young people to prioritise their right to be protected.
That includes parents, social services, police and the legal profession.
I will now turn to the inquiry report’s recommendations. The report makes 17 recommendations, of which seven are for my Department, and two of those recommend actions to be progressed jointly with the Departments of Justice and Education. Two key recommendations are made for the Health and Social Care Board. There are other recommendations in the report for the Departments of Justice and Education and their agents, including schools, and for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). There are also recommendations for the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) and the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA). Ministers Ford and O'Dowd will consider the recommendations that are relevant to their Departments and how they wish to respond. While there is a need for cross-sectoral collaboration in progressing any accepted recommendations, my ministerial colleagues and I will agree how that can be done.
The Minister of Justice asked me to advise Members that he notes that the agencies of the justice system participated in the review. The inquiry acknowledges that there have been improvements to the police and criminal justice system in recent years, but, again, more needs to be done. The Minister also acknowledges that it is the Department of Justice's role to ensure that, when children are sexually exploited, agencies work together to protect and support victims and bring the perpetrators to justice. He assures us that work has been and continues to be progressed, including through the victim and witness strategy that he published in 2013. Relevant work will also progress under the forthcoming stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse strategy. I welcome Minister Ford’s commitment to work supportively with me and other Ministers to protect children.
The Minister of Education has indicated that he welcomes that child protection arrangements appear to be well embedded in schools in Northern Ireland, and he accepts that schools are well placed to support the primary role of parents in teaching children and young people about healthy relationships and delivering keeping-safe messages. He therefore welcomes the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) assessment, which is referenced in the report, that many schools are doing so effectively.
Minister O'Dowd also recognises that we can always do better and that there is further work to be done to raise awareness in schools and communities of the risk factors and signs of child sexual exploitation. He also accepts that further guidance and information is required not only for schools but for parents and carers. The Department of Education has already engaged with schools to share information and advice on child sexual exploitation. Like the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Education has pledged to continue to work with my Department and other agencies to ensure that children and young people are all educated about the dangers of child sexual exploitation and how best to keep themselves safe.
To ensure a coordinated Health and Social Care (HSC) response to the Marshall report, I plan to establish an HSC CSE response team. That team will be required to consider all Kathleen Marshall’s recommendations that are relevant to the health and social care sector, consider responses to them and advise me of those by the end of January 2015. I hope that indicates just how seriously we are taking it, as that is a very tight schedule indeed for the report to come back to me. The team will also consider where the HSC needs to work collaboratively with other Departments and agencies and will make recommendations to me on how that should be done.
The team will then be responsible for the implementation of the recommendations that have been accepted. An implementation plan, which will include timescales for the completion of each recommendation, will be agreed and published by March 2015. Again, Members should note the urgency with which my Department is treating the issue. That is only five months away. Thereafter, the response team will provide me with six-monthly updates until all activity associated with all the accepted recommendations is complete.
I am pleased to be able to say that a number of recommendations are already being progressed. Those include the development of a new children’s safeguarding policy; the revision of a departmental circular that will provide guidance to front-line practitioners on the sharing of information about adults considered to pose a risk to children; and the introduction of a new definition of the term "adult at risk" in the context of a new adult safeguarding policy, which we are consulting on. We will progress the review of the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, which we are already making plans for.
Subject to the support of other Ministers, I propose to ask the SBNI to build on the work that it has commenced on a public information campaign on CSE to target messages at children and young people, parents, carers, front-line staff, volunteers, and individuals and businesses in the wider community — all those identified in the Marshall report. It would also target those considered to be most vulnerable to the risk of CSE, as identified in the report. Taking account of Kathleen Marshall's recommendation for a public health campaign in response to CSE to be led by the Public Health Agency (PHA), the PHA will, as a member agency of the SBNI, play a lead role in the work.
That brings me to the next action, which is under way. Kathleen Marshall very clearly identified advances in technology as increasing the dangers and risks to young children. Helping children and young people to keep safe in an electronic world, and equipping their parents and those who work with them to keep them safe, is a major challenge for all of us and is a shared responsibility. I have written to my ministerial colleagues to seek their agreement to commission and fund the SBNI to develop an e-safety strategy and action plan for Northern Ireland.
The welfare and safety of all looked-after children is a priority for me, particularly the safety of those young people who go missing frequently from placements and who are at increased risk as a result. The Health and Social Care Board has been asked to consider proposals for alternative arrangements to secure the safety of those young people in community settings. I will now put a time frame on that work to ensure that arrangements are put in place as a matter of urgency. The intention is to create the safe places referred to by Kathleen Marshall in her report.
Whilst there is no specific recommendation for the HSC in connection with data collection, it is clear to me that our data collection systems for missing children could be further improved. As a result, I have directed the Health and Social Care Board to review the HSC data collection systems as they relate to children missing from care and identify how they can be improved. That work should build on the good work that has been taken forward by the police and social services through Operation Owl and the joint protocol in responding to children who go missing from care.
Staff capacity in responding to CSE is critical. I have made CSE a commissioning training priority for the HSC, and a CSE training strategy for all relevant staff has been drafted. Once agreed, that will be rolled out across HSC trusts with immediate effect.
We will continue to work closely with officials in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland in connection with child protection generally and child sexual exploitation specifically to ensure that we continue to learn from each other. That will include using the existing arrangements to cooperate on matters relating to child protection under the North/South Ministerial Council arrangements.
Members should note that one recommendation was made to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is unusual. It seeks the commitment of the House to strategic, long-term and sustained funding of services for prevention and early interventions. Members are aware that the Executive have signed up to the programme of early intervention for children and families through to 2017-18. The prevention of child abuse and exploitation will be greatly assisted by us acting and intervening earlier. Members will want to keep Kathleen Marshall's recommendation in mind when voting on future Budget Bills.
I want to leave you with some reflections, taken from Kathleen Marshall's concluding remarks in her report. First — I need to emphasise this — she counsels a balanced response to the reality of CSE in Northern Ireland. In her words, we need to:
"avoid a panic that leads to an unhealthy repression of and limitations on young people's lives and expectations of human relationships."
Those are wise words, and they should be heeded by us all. I also agree wholeheartedly with her when she says that we need greater awareness of CSE, that we need to tackle the issues that make children and young people vulnerable to it, and that we need to promote the confidence of children and young people, their parents and carers, and those who work with them in the wider community to enable each and all of us to respond effectively to CSE and the risk of it.
I am encouraged to note that Kathleen Marshall recognises that Northern Ireland has some strong staff tackling the challenges presented by CSE: our social workers, police, health workers, youth and community workers and those who provide services in the community. Let us commend them for the sterling work they do and have done, and help them through the challenges ahead.
This is a step on a journey. We know more today about CSE than we did yesterday. Next year and in years to come, we will know more than we do today. It is a journey that we will continue for many years and one that we need to make together.
Finally, if Members want to have full sight of the report, it can be downloaded from my Department’s website. It can also be accessed on the DE and DOJ websites.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. I reflect and wish that we were not dealing with this particular serious issue. Let me preface my comments by saying that, in everything that we say in the House and beyond it, we should be mindful that we are dealing with extremely vulnerable children and young people. We should be mindful of that context.
However, the Minister's statement was very detailed. In my view, it was also very weak in terms of accountability. I reflect that the inquiry was charged, as page 1 of the Minister's statement states, with:
"establishing the nature and extent of child sexual exploitation"
"examining how effective cross-sectoral child safeguarding and protection arrangements are in preventing and tackling child sexual exploitation".
Just what, in this report, does any of that? What in the report tackles the issue of accountability or failings in the system?
I reflect on page 2 of the statement, and I will ask a direct question about it. Page 2 of the Minister's statement concludes:
"The Inquiry concludes that available data can only give a ‘rough idea’".
We were told that, in 2011, through a Barnardo's report. In fact, recommendation 3 in the Barnardo's report requested that the Health and Social Care Board develop:
"a targeted and fully resourced action plan",
with consideration of data collection. Almost four years on, it has been flagged up today that we need to look at issues like data collection.
I suggest to you, Minister, that what was required, and what the Chairperson and Sinn Féin advocated at that stage, was a fully independent, resourced inquiry with full statutory powers. I ask the Minister to reflect on whether that should and could be the most appropriate way forward. Does this report, Minister, in its weakness in terms of accountability —
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: — run the risk of failing the very children and young people that we set out to protect?
Mr Wells: First, if the honourable Member's party signed up to the National Crime Agency (NCA), that would do an awful lot to assist in preventing the cross-border movements of those who would abuse our children. That is one of the big prices that we, as a society, will pay if we do not get this area sorted out. We need that expertise and, at the moment, we cannot have it because of the intransigence of yourselves and the SDLP.
Secondly, there will be an opportunity tomorrow at the meeting of the Health Committee for a more detailed probing of the points she has raised. I accept that it is not reasonable to expect any Member to have read, understood and asked searching questions about a report of this depth. We could have gone for the model that she requested, but there is a matter of urgency regarding this and I hope that she understands, from the comments that I have made, that I am setting extremely tight deadlines for the Department to make certain that we get answers to those questions and that we are on a stronger basis.
She has quite rightly raised an issue about data. I do not believe that any form of inquiry would have taken this much further, because, by its very nature, you will not get many people coming forward and admitting that they have been involved in CSE. Many victims do not come forward until much later in life to tell the police or social services that they have been involved in this totally reprehensible situation. However, I believe that Kathleen Marshall's report sets out a series of steps which, if taken urgently, will help the situation.
The Member is aware that a second review is ongoing. There is a review dealing with the cases of 22 young people in care, many of whom are very vulnerable. That report should provide us with further information on the situation. Do we know how much of this is going on? No, we do not. All I can tell you is that it is not going on on the scale of that in northern England. What is going on is being treated extremely seriously; evidence of paramilitary involvement has been given to the inquiry; and we are going to do absolutely everything that we can to reduce the vulnerability of our children, particularly those in care, to this awful activity.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister and welcome his statement to the House today along with his plan to establish a health and social care child sexual exploitation response team. When I think of child sexual exploitation today, the first name that comes into my head is Maíria Cahill. If we are talking about accountability and transparency, we all have to have a collective responsibility. Will the Minister explain what members of the public told the inquiry about paramilitary involvement in child sexual exploitation?
Mr Wells: The report was based on a large number of interviews with individuals who had direct experience. Their testimony was, and they were ardent in their view that this should be revealed publicly in the report, that this was going on and that they wanted it to be exposed. They painted a worrying picture of what is happening in communities, particularly those where there was not support for the forces of law and order; where support for the PSNI, or the RUC as it was then, was weak. That view has been confirmed through discussions with some of our trusts.
It is important to say that some of those who spoke to Kathleen Marshall's team were very explicit about what they believe to have happened to them, and they feared for their lives because, had it become known that they had spoken to the inquiry, they felt that their lives would be at risk. I cannot see why anyone would deliberately make up that information. I believe that there is a fair degree of credence to those testimonies, and I suspect that we are still only touching the surface, as it were, because, for very good reasons, many may not be coming forward. The Barnardo's report in 2011 also referred to the involvement of organised groups and links to paramilitarism, so this is not particularly new. As the inquiry continued, the paramilitary dimension became a very serious one.
I know that the media will inevitably concentrate on this particular issue, but I think that it is important that the wider findings of the Marshall report are also adequately reported — what has happened and what is being done to avoid it occurring in the future. I do not want this report to be seen to be homing in on the one issue when there are so many others that have to be dealt with. We need public support at every level to ensure that we reduce dramatically the levels of CSE in Northern Ireland.
Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister and must say at the outset that I am flabbergasted, to be honest, that Ms McLaughlin simulated outrage at these issues, given her party's approach to Maíria Cahill.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr McKinney: I remind the party opposite that the SDLP is in good-faith negotiations on the NCA, and we are making good progress.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member will please resume his seat. My patience is exhausted with people shouting from a sedentary position. This is a serious statement. I remind Members that we are taking questions to the Minister and nothing more. I will observe from now on those who are abusing this Chamber.
Mr McKinney: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I lean on the words of the Minister's statement? He said:
"The inquiry has not been able to establish actual numbers of young people being exploited"
"The report states it was not possible for the inquiry team to identify the prevalence of paramilitary links".
"we do not know the full extent of CSE in Northern Ireland";
"Not enough is known about people who sexually exploit children and young people",
"perpetrators are mostly solitary offenders and could be from any part of the community."
It is vague and points to huge gaps in information. In that context, are the report and its recommendations not, ultimately, weakened?
Mr Wells: First, I am not sure that it is in the interests of Sinn Féin Members to be so defensive about the report of an independent inquiry by an internationally renowned expert. The words that I quoted are those of the inquiry report; they are not mine. The recent Maíria Cahill issue indicates to me that brave people like her have been coming forward and giving information on what was going on, particularly in the paramilitary field. I think that we all note with concern the reaction of Members opposite to her testimony. I applaud her bravery and the articulate way in which she has raised this issue. It confirms much of what the Marshall report says.
I accept what Mr McKinney is saying about the fact that we do not have the cold, hard statistics that he and we all want. I hope that I have explained to some extent why it is difficult to obtain them. I also hope that he understands that one of the recommendations that I will implement is to attempt to improve that situation.
The fact that we do not have cold, hard statistics does not disprove the fact that this is going on in Northern Ireland. It is out there. It is out there on a worrying scale, though not on the scale evident in northern England. It is not happening in the same systematic way in which gangs are involved in organising it, as was the case amongst some ethnic groups in Rochdale and Rotherham. We are not clear on what the actual statistics are, but that does not mean that my Department and the other two Departments concerned should not do absolutely everything that we can to ensure that this awful scourge is removed from our society.
Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for his statement. I note poignantly one of the last paragraphs. He said:
"This is a step on a journey ... It is a journey that will continue for years to come and one that we need to make together"
I very much welcome that commitment.
The Minister's statement refers to the pubs and clubs culture and, very frighteningly, the tap on the shoulder received by some young girls and, indeed, boys. Can he assure the House that, if, during the inquiry, any specific case or evidence was uncovered, full information was provided to the PSNI and appropriate authorities to enable an investigation?
Mr Wells: There was a worrying reference to what is called the "party house scene", and I will explain what that means. It was frequently referred to by witnesses as a method to draw young people into CSE. Attendance at party houses was often initiated by the young person's boyfriend or girlfriend. Children were frequently enticed to attend party houses, where they were provided with drugs and alcohol and, subsequently, exploited sexually.
The party houses may be known to young people or parties may be arranged via social media. Some were organised by groups of men who had no attachment to loyalist or republican paramilitaries. Others were organised in areas where those organisations were dominant. What tended to happen was that there were one or two "Mr Bigs", as I will call them — people known in the community as having direct links, formerly or currently, with paramilitary organisations — who were people to be scared of. People knew that the consequences of disobeying them could be very serious. The tap on the shoulder tended to be from one of those individuals who had a predisposition to sexual abuse. They tapped the shoulder of a young girl or boy, and it had terrible consequences.
The difficulty is that young people were scared because of the fact that they would be exposed by giving evidence to the inquiry. When you have that situation, it is very difficult for them to give evidence to the police and social services against the perpetrators. Those men, and, to a lesser extent, women, are known to society. They are known in their communities. They are perhaps even known by their local MLAs. It is absolutely vital that, if we hear even the slightest rumour of that happening, we go to the police and make that evidence known to them and that we encourage the community to rise up, as Maíria Cahill did, and give that information. Only when that happens will we get ourselves to the situation where there will be no hiding place for Mr Big, who is a predator on young girls, and he will be fearful that the tap on the shoulder will be not him on a girl but the PSNI on his shoulder.
Mr McCarthy: The Alliance Party welcomes this very important statement this morning. I thank the Minister for delivering it. There are two issues of great concern for me about how to empower children to avoid all such abuse. The Minister said in his statement:
"Girls may feel that they can gain status through cooperating with those powerful individuals".
"young people want to be empowered to resist CSE and can only do so by knowing more about the risks."
Will the Minister outline how he thinks such advice and empowerment can be passed on to young people, especially how it can be done other than through the school system?
Mr Wells: As I said in the statement, I hope that we will empower not only teachers but parents and youth organisations to take this more seriously. I appreciate the support that has already been given to these recommendations by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. We need to get the message out there to all our young people that, if they have the slightest concern, they can come forward and that we will treat it seriously and with respect and that we will be able to identify those involved in that dreadful activity.
Tomorrow, at the Health Committee, of which he is a member, we will have an opportunity to explore more carefully what is being suggested. I accept that he would not have had time to see the recommendations in the report on this issue. After he gets a chance to study them overnight and to question me and officials tomorrow, he will understand that we are taking the matter seriously.
I would also like the media to play their role in reporting this report and future developments to let society know that there should be no hiding place for individuals involved in this, particularly given the fact that Northern Ireland is supposed to have moved on and that, now, all the communities are supporting the legal authorities. They must feel safe and secure to come forward and give the information.
We have an awareness-raising campaign that we are discussing in our Department and with ministerial colleagues. I hope to be able to give further information on that. I hope that the Member accepts that the deadlines I have set in the recommendations are all very urgent; they are all within two, three or four months. This is not going to be put on the long finger. In answer to Ms McLaughlin's comment, had we gone for the type of inquiry that she demanded, it could have been years before we were in the position to implement the changes. My predecessor set the trend of having swift, quick targeted inquiries as a much better way of doing things. One inquiry has been going for nine years. That is going to do nothing to protect our children. This is an urgent situation in which technology is moving very quickly and it is difficult to keep up with it.
Mr G Robinson: I thank the Minister for his statement. What does the report say about communities who do not report horrendous child exploitation abuse, which we have all been made very aware of in recent days?
Mr Wells: I watched the Maíria Cahill interviews twice to make sure that I heard them right. She very bravely uncovered a totally different type of society from what I am used to. In that society, the reaction to child sexual abuse was not, "Let's get this out into the open and report it to the police"; it was, "No, let's cover it up, and let's try to discourage those who are the victims rather than exposing those who are the perpetrators".
I am told that, since 2005, all of Northern Ireland is signed up to policing and justice. We are serving on the Policing Board, we are serving on district policing partnerships (DPPs) in our local communities and we are serving on the Justice Committee. Therefore, there can be no excuse whatsoever for any community in Northern Ireland not coming forward with evidence if they know about it. I am certain that MLAs throughout the House have very close contacts with their grassroots communities. They are in them every day and have advice centres. I would not like to think that, in four or five years' time, we will look back and see that there was still a reluctance among public representatives to come forward and expose those people who were preying on their societies.
I remember the Donagh case. I know Donagh quite well, strangely enough, for other reasons. Donagh has a chapel, a pub, a school, and about 50 houses. Certain individuals were openly preying on children in that community, yet, because of a reluctance to come forward to the RUC at that time, nobody was prepared to come forward and report it to the authorities. They were not being asked to report it to the police. They could have reported it to the social services, but they did not do so. That is totally unacceptable in modern day Northern Ireland. I hope that every Member in the House signs up to complete openness when it comes to this issue, though I am not hearing it from some sides of the Chamber.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Fáiltím roimh ráiteas an Aire. I welcome the Minister's statement, although I agree that there is a lot of vagueness throughout it and that it lacks substance. The statement says that senior managers and agencies are fully committed to dealing with this and that there was no corruption, cover up or lack of commitment. If there is no lack of commitment, why are there repeated cases of young people going missing? Why is there duplication of effort, where you have agencies and partnership arrangements dealing with the same people. It seems to me that there is a misuse of resources and certainly a lack of commitment. How can the Minister ensure that resources are going to be used most effectively to deal with this very serious issue?
Mr Wells: As the honourable lady knows, in Rotherham, there was a series of reports brought forward alleging systematic abuse of children in that community. The reports were largely ignored, and there was no evidence of any firm action being taken. What this inquiry found, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, is that, following the Barnardo's report, which was funded by my Department, steps were taken to try to deal with this very important issue. Indeed, the Department has poured quite a bit of funding into this particular field. The basic tenet of the report is that quite a lot has been done but that there is much more that needs to be done. The report cites excellent recent examples of collaborative work amongst agencies in Northern Ireland, including the Child Support Agency (CSA).
There is dedication and commitment on the part of the staff across social services, police, health and education. The report also states that Northern Ireland has very strong staff resources for dealing with this issue. That is very different to the rest of the United Kingdom. The report is saying that there are some solid grounds on which to build future policy. The report has exposed no lack of willingness among the staff involved. I find that very reassuring. There has been no attempt at foot-dragging, cover up or downplaying the situation.
What the report has done is to indicate ways in which we can improve. That is the benefit of having someone from outside to look at the situation. As individuals, we tend to find it difficult to see the wood for the trees. Bringing someone in gives it a fresh focus, and she has outlined real and positive changes that will be made. I am committed to those changes. I am committed to delivering them as quickly as possible. I am also looking for the Member's community to commit to helping me in that by outing those involved in child sexual exploitation in her community who have not been exposed to date. That is a role that she, in particular, can play in her constituency to make certain that there is no hiding place for the evil men exploiting children in west Belfast.
Mr Givan: Sinn Féin Members talking about corruption and cover-up by senior management figures in the health service will leave people incredulous when they consider what has gone on in the republican movement when it comes to the exploitation of vulnerable children and young people. They are utterly bankrupt when it comes to talking about these issues, and they do a disservice to the statement by saying what they are saying in the Chamber.
Mr Givan: The report talks about the likelihood that the evidence about the abuse that has taken place has been significantly underestimated. Given the powerful and persuasive witness statements about paramilitary involvement, surely more needs to be done to get the truth from paramilitary organisations, past and present, about the prevalence of the abuse that has taken place. Will the Minister encourage those Members with influence to ensure that that happens?
Mr Wells: I think I have covered some of those issues. Although the Maíria Cahill story has come quite late in the process, the information that she provided has lifted the lid on the extent of the problem in some communities. I accept that, unless more Maíria Cahills come forward, it will be very difficult to put an exact figure on what has been going on. When we interview people as adults and ask how many of them have had the trauma of child sexual abuse, we find that the percentage is worryingly high. That indicates that we are missing a lot in communities.
The landscape has changed, and I am still waiting for a public commitment from all Members of the House that they will, on every occasion that it is reported to them, bring information to the authorities that shows that this is going on, be it the social services, the police or the Department of Education. I detect reluctance to do so, and unless we, as a society and as its public representatives, set an example to our community, is it any wonder that others remain scared to come forward to give that evidence? Act as a conduit. Act as a springboard. Act as a tunnel to bring information from your community to the authorities and then we will start to get a grasp of what is going on.
The lower number of prosecutions was referred to. The Justice Minister is committed to the report, and I am sure that he will consider that issue along with other elements of the report. Not only do we need all communities to come forward, report the issue and facilitate the authorities but we need to give victims and witnesses the confidence to go to court to give the evidence that will put these people behind bars for as long as possible. That requires everyone — we are all in this together — to work together to ensure that we can wipe out the scourge of the exploitation of our most vulnerable children.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will start with a positive note and welcome the Minister's statement about the paediatric unit at Daisy Hill. There has been an announcement about a unit. I take it that you know about it, Minister. Maybe it came as a surprise to you as well.
This is a serious and complex subject and, unfortunately, the debate has degenerated into the usual SDLP scoring of cheap political points. Unfortunately, the Minister's comments have degenerated in that way, too. It is a subject that we should all be looking to eliminate in our constituencies. As he usually does, Mr Givan did his impression of Mr Angry without really adding anything to the debate.
Mr Brady: The Minister talked about the effectiveness of the report. Does he not think that an independent inquiry, with powers and teeth, that could compel witnesses to give evidence could ensure that the scourge is properly eliminated? The Minister talked at length about the timescale and all the rest, but surely an inquiry could be achieved within a reasonable timescale.
Mr Wells: First, I welcome the £15 million investment in Daisy Hill. I was very much aware of it. I just did not see how it was linked to this report, hence why I raised my eyebrows. As representatives for the area, we are both very happy with that decision by the Southern Trust this morning.
I wonder why Members opposite wanted this to be pushed off into the long grass. I wonder why they wanted that for a very long, difficult and torturous report that could have taken eight or nine years to come to fruition. I wonder why they were not happy about the previous Minister's decision to make it short, sharp and as quick as possible.
What the Member is asking for would not actually have produced the extra information that he is looking for, because if it is difficult to get the victims of these terrible crimes to give evidence in a darkened room confidentially to the team led by Kathleen Marshall, how on earth would we get them to come forward and give evidence at a full-blown public inquiry? How much would that have cost, and what would it have achieved? He knows that there is a second thematic inquiry taking place, where there will be further opportunities to look at this terrible scourge on our society.
I am happy and content that the former Minister did the right thing, as he did with pseudomonas, when he made it quick and to the point. He solved that pseudomonas problem very quickly, but did he get any credit for it? No, he did not, but it was a good move, and that has to be the way forward.
For the Member to indicate that he feels that there is a deficit in the report is to impugn the integrity of Kathleen Marshall and all of her expertise and experience in the field. She is to be applauded for lifting the lid on this issue and encouraging and cajoling us to do better. Our job, jointly, is to ensure that her recommendations are implemented quickly — and the thematic report as well — to make certain that there is no hiding place for people who are lurking in his community and in my community and are involved in this awful activity.
Mr McGimpsey: I welcome the report. It is an important piece of work and points the way forward. We will get an opportunity at tomorrow's Committee meeting to examine the report and its implications further. I have questions about membership, time frame, budget and so on.
This is a very important challenge. First, it is about protecting children and ensuring that abusers are identified and brought to justice. There are two key elements in that. The Minister of Justice has given his full support, and it appears that the Minister of Education has done similarly. This is something that the Health Department cannot do on its own: you need the support of other Ministers and other Departments. Have you considered forming a ministerial task force, along the lines of the ones we formed to combat suicide and protect life, to ensure that the Departments that are relevant — Education and Justice — are fully committed and are fully supportive and do not simply allow the Health Department to carry the can?
Mr Wells: First, I agree that we need to explore the report in depth at the Committee tomorrow. Frankly, even I have not had time to digest all of it, because it is so significant. Therefore, we need to give consideration to his suggestions.
My Department is forming a team to deliver on those recommendations that specifically refer to DHSSPS. Similarly, we may need to sit down with the other Departments to consider the best way forward. I assure him that both Ministers — Justice and Education — got prior sight of the report to give them an opportunity to assess it. We are still considering whether some of the recommendations are practical and what the best way is to take them forward, so we have not come to a fully considered decision on the report in its entirety. However, the Member made a very valid comment, and it would be very useful for him to explore it more fully tomorrow, because not only do we have me and departmental officials before the Committee, we also have the chair of the Safeguarding Board coming along.
I must mention the fact that, in the middle of this process, we produced the legislation that led to the foundation of the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, which has a very important role in all of this. That gives an indication that the Assembly as a whole is committed to dealing with the issue and has a team of experts scrutinising it on a regular basis.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Members, I need your cooperation. We still have five Members left to speak. I am sure that all of you would wish to have this finished before we break for the Business Committee meeting. I ask Members, and the Minister, to be brief.
Mr Frew: I will be brief. There is no doubt, Minister, that the iron grip of fear that has been placed upon our communities by terrorist organisations and their political apologists has been a massive barrier in information going forward to authorities. Is there any evidence in the report to suggest that people were not only shipped out to places like County Louth and County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland, but also placed out of Belfast into places in my constituency, like Dunloy, Rasharkin or Ballycastle?
Mr Wells: In her report, Kathleen Marshall did not specifically name any paramilitary organisation or identify particular areas, although we know that it is often a problem in urban areas. That is not for one minute to suggest that it does not happen in rural areas. I have certainly come across it in my constituency, which, of course, is mostly rural.
Many people believe that it is less of a problem in rural areas, but, as I said about the Donagh situation, it does occur in villages and hamlets that are controlled by powerful families with paramilitary links. It was not possible for the inquiry team to accurately identify the prevalence of the paramilitary influence. Some told that it was endemic and widespread, but it seems clear that there are many communities where it does not exist. However, for those who have experienced it, it is an oppressive shadow over lives.
Again, we have heard the evidence of Maíria Cahill about the shipping out of perpetrators to other areas, which has a remarkable similarity to Catholic Church and clerical sex abuse, where the priest or the clergyman was simply moved down to the next parish. It almost seemed that paramilitary groups were doing exactly the same. If someone was causing embarrassment to the leader or local brigade commander or whatever, he was simply shifted down to another county or across the border. There can never be justification for that, but, certainly, in a situation where everyone in this Chamber is signed up to policing and justice, it would be appalling if we were to discover that that was still going on. We need names, we need information and we need historical information to be brought forward to the authorities now. If anybody in this Chamber has information, they owe it to children to bring it forward immediately.
Lord Morrow: I want to ask the Minister about what he said in page 4, paragraph 4 of his statement. Is there any danger, Minister, that this report will err on the side of the children's liberty to the detriment of staff who wish to act in the child's best interests at all times?
Mr Wells: The report does deal with this issue at length. There is a very fine balance to be struck between the need to protect the child and the need to give the child a sense of being a citizen and to take part in all of the normal social and recreational activities that anyone would want to participate in. You cannot have a situation where children and young people are locked in permanently at nights and weekends simply because of a general perceived risk of CSE.
Equally, the report is quite novel in saying that we cannot always assume that the child's best interest is to have total liberty. Therefore, it is a very interesting suggestion that we look at this to see what is in the best interests of the child.
I have heard, through my constituency work, some horrendous examples of children being called out of residential care and being sent to parties dominated by middle-aged men, where all sorts of activities that are totally unacceptable are going on. We have to give priority to the right to protect the child. That is primary, but part of this report is sending out a signal that we need to examine this issue. It is not in the interests of the human rights of a child to give him or her the right to be sexually abused. That is not a right at all. Therefore, it is a fine balance that is being looked at, and I hope that we can come up with a definition that can be usable and which will protect children more generally.
Mr Lyttle: I had the duty to accompany a participant in the inquiry, and I have seen the evils of online sexual exploitation at first hand. I pay tribute to that participant and, indeed, to the work of the independent inquiry.
The Marshall report identifies online exploitation as a serious danger and risk to young people in our community. In February 2013, the Assembly called on OFMDFM to bring forward a cross-departmental internet safety strategy and action plan, and the Minister has said that he has written to his ministerial colleagues to seek their agreement to commission and fund the development of an e-safety strategy and action plan for Northern Ireland.
When did the Minister write to his ministerial colleagues, what is the delay in the implementation of that strategy and what is his deadline for that recommendation?
Mr Wells: First, may I say that I could not agree more with the Member on the issue. How did I protect my children from all sorts of undesirable activities online? I simply ensured that the computer was kept somewhere where there could be some form of supervision. That is utterly meaningless today, when children from five onwards have access to the most horrific content online through their mobile phones and tablets. The days of parental control are over, and it is getting more and more difficult.
The safety strategy has been prepared in the last few weeks, and we are dealing with that as a matter of great urgency. I emphasise to the Member and others that the Department of Health cannot deal with the issue alone: it is a problem that affects Northern Ireland's society in general and has to be dealt with by the entire Northern Ireland Executive.
We give our children all the freedom of the fox in the chicken run. We expose them to things that were absolutely unimaginable to most people during their childhood. Fortunately, my children have escaped the worst of it, but I shudder to think what my grandchildren will be exposed to. Over 60% of boys under 13 have been exposed to hard-core pornography. What impact is that having on future relationships? What impact is that having on their relationships with girls and, hopefully eventually, their wife or partner? What is going on is truly dreadful. Internet access by teenagers as a percentage is way into the high 90s, and they can be exposed to the most dreadful, sadistic, horrible pornographic material. I see this as an absolute priority, and I want buy-in from the whole Assembly on it.
There is a difficulty with the issue. We saw the 'Spotlight' programme the other night. Where was the website based that was exploiting children in Northern Ireland? Israel. That is part of the problem. Much of it is being marketed outside Northern Ireland. We really need to get a grip on what is a terribly difficult situation.
Mr Poots: Child sexual abuse and exploitation is always wrong, whether it is by a state, a Church or paramilitaries. The women in Sinn Féin should be ashamed of how they are seeking to cover up for those who have engaged in child sexual exploitation and abuse. They are failing and have failed young republican children very badly.
There was a large focus on children's care homes. However, the reality is that child sexual exploitation takes place in far greater numbers outside that scenario. Can we have some thoughts about how we can ensure that we better protect young vulnerable people who are in a home environment, as opposed to a children's home, from child sexual exploitation and make them more aware of the risks and dangers they might face?
Mr Wells: The specific remit of the Marshall report was looked-after children, which includes children in foster care, children in residential care and children in homes and placements. There is also the thematic report, which will identify a specific number of cases — we think that it is 22. We hope that the more general education and awareness programme that we are initiating will help parents, who are obviously the first line of defence against this awful activity, to provide protection for their children. However, sadly, in many cases, the abuse has been carried out by a parent. I find that particularly horrific, given that I am a parent and a grandparent: I just cannot fathom how people could do that. However, it is widespread. We are trying to put as much effort as we can into the public awareness campaign.
The Executive and the Assembly as a whole must take the issue seriously. We cannot do it alone and nor can DOJ or the Department of Education. The report takes the novel step of making a recommendation for the Assembly rather than individual Departments and calls on the Assembly to take the issue extremely seriously and provide, through the Budget, the money required to invest in the future safeguarding of our children. If we do not do that, we will build up a backlog of the most horrendously difficult situations that we will have to deal with when those young people become adults. As a result of sexual exploitation, they could end up in care and could themselves end up as exploiters, as is often the case. Therefore, we must try to deal with this case immediately.
Finally, let me say that many Members opposite have been given the opportunity to pledge their total support for openness on this issue, and not one of them has taken it. I find it very worrying that that opportunity has been missed, time after time after time. Are they committed to dealing with this scourge on society, or will they look after their paramilitary friends in towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland?
Mr Allister: May I express disappointment that we have only the Health Minister here today? In so far as I have been able to read the report, it is clear that some of the most significant recommendations lie with the Department of Justice. I wonder whether the Justice Minister will ever come to the House on the issue. I assume that Minister Wells cannot answer for the Education Minister or the Justice Minister, but, in answering for himself, can he tell us precisely the recommendations in the report that touch on his area of responsibility that he is not accepting?
Mr Wells: I need to make it clear that the protocols of the House set out that one Minister has to take the lead in any statement. Therefore, it would not have been possible for two other Ministers to have given their input on the report. However, I can assure him that, prior to this, I have received strong support from both Ministers.
It is not a question of rejecting any recommendations; we have to sit down and talk to the other Ministers because there is some overlap. As a Department, we have to examine carefully all the recommendations, some of which we have publicly committed ourselves to today and some of which require further consideration. I guarantee him that, when we come to that conclusion, the House will be made aware, probably through a written statement, of what exactly we are doing. This issue is far too important for anyone to have doubts about my commitment or that of any of the three Departments. We owe it to thousands of our children and young people to make certain that we as an Assembly do everything we can to eliminate this scourge. If devolution is to mean anything in Northern Ireland, it must lead to better protection for our children. If we cannot do that, we should not be here. It is essential, and I am totally committed to doing this, as he will well know.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That concludes questions on the statement. The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2·00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.
The sitting was suspended at 12.32 pm.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr Kennedy (The Minister for Regional Development): The Northern Ireland investment fund is targeted at areas where significant infrastructure investment is usually taken forward by the private sector but where government has a particular interest since the investment helps to deliver on specific Executive objectives. Those areas include: social and affordable housing; energy production; energy and renewable energy; telecommunications; and urban regeneration. As such, my Department's functions and related projects do not fall within the scope of the fund.
With regard to the specific use of European Investment Bank (EIB) funds, Her Majesty's Treasury's public expenditure guidelines restrict the ability of Northern Ireland Departments and their non-departmental public bodies to borrow from external sources. In that respect, even government loans to public corporations will score against departmental capital budgets. Therefore, the scope to directly involve the European Investment Bank in funding projects across my Department is more limited. I met representatives from the European Investment Bank earlier this year to discuss its potential involvement in a number of projects, in particular, the funding of the A6. European Investment Bank funding being provided through councils was considered, and we met the councils to consider the proposal. Unfortunately, it has not yet been possible to reach a successful outcome on the proposal. I will, however, continue to explore all feasible options for the funding of capital projects by my Department.
My Department has been very successful to date, as the Member will know, in accessing European funding for a number of roads and transport projects, and I will continue to explore opportunities for further EU funding.
Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that he will agree that, until UKIP liberates us all from the cost of £54 million a day just to be Europeans, we should retrieve our own money from the EIB. Can the Minister categorically say whether he has put forward any schemes, other than those he referred to, that would qualify? I take exception to him saying that his Department does not qualify. I believe that there are areas where he should find out more about that.
Mr McNarry: Well, I was in the middle of it. To conclude my question, Deputy Speaker: what are the lending terms for EIB money? Are they attractive enough to ease the savagery that he says was imposed on him by the Finance Minister?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. Some further clarification about and understanding of the European Investment Bank and how it operates is required. I tried to outline that. Her Majesty's Treasury's public expenditure guidelines restrict very much the ability of Northern Ireland Departments and their non-departmental public bodies to borrow from external sources. Therefore, it is for private initiatives or something that we would carry forward, as we attempted to do even through using councils as a potential avenue of funding. That has not been possible, but we will continue to try to do that.
If I was very mischievous, I would welcome the interest from a member of UKIP in accessing European funds. I hope that you have told Nigel, because Rochester is this Thursday.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. An dtig liom fiafraí den Aire ar chomhlíonaigh an Roinn s’aige an riachtanas ó Oifig an Chéad-Aire agus an LeasChéad-Aire maoiniú Eorpach de fiche faoin gcéad a bhaint amach? Has the Minister's Department achieved the OFMDFM requirement of 20% European funding?
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for her question. Indeed, I am very happy to confirm that, of the Executive Departments, DRD is easily the best and has had the most success in drawing down EU money, and I have established a dedicated funding team to ensure that we remain top of that particular league. Therefore, we will continue to draw down as much European funding as we can. I can tell you that, for the Budget 2011-15, and for the period to date, £57,174,839 has been drawn down as a result of our efforts through the European sustainable competitiveness programme, INTERREG IVa, INTERREG IVb and TEN-T. Therefore, we are very much on top of this game and looking at all opportunities whereby we can benefit from EU funding.
Mr Ramsey: Does the Minister agree that the lack of transport infrastructure across Northern Ireland is the key element in the levels of social and economic deprivation that we have and that it is imperative that we have funding from external sources to deal with this matter urgently?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. Indeed, I accept the point he is making, which, presumably, is that better connectivity throughout Northern Ireland is surely a key benefit to economic progress. That is what I have sought to do, not only around the Executive table, as I bid for necessary funds from conventional sources, but in utilising the opportunities before us from Europe. We have had some success with that. The Member will know that, under TEN-T, we had success in the Coleraine to Londonderry track relay phase 1; the dualling of the A8 Coleman's Corner to Ballyrickard roundabout; and the installation of rapid charge points for electric vehicles and supporting IT systems. We have put forward other schemes such as the Belfast intermodal transport hub and York Street interchange and at some stage, I also hope, the new Waterside station in Londonderry.
Mr Kennedy: I would say at the outset that I do not accept the premise of the question. I made myself available to the Assembly on 3 November when I made my statement, and I went before the Regional Development Committee on 12 November to speak about the matter in detail. I also sought to speak with the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Committee in advance of my statement, but circumstances did not permit me to speak to the Chair. However, I did speak to the Deputy Chair and Committee Clerk.
As I made clear in my statement to the Assembly on 3 November, I can advise that the current tendering process relating to the signalling element of the upgrade of the Belfast to Londonderry railway line will proceed, subject to the necessary approvals being obtained and an updated economic appraisal.
The Member was in attendance at the Regional Development Committee meeting last Wednesday when I explained the current situation on the project in detail. I remain fully committed to the completion of the work and to the improvement of the rail service between Northern Ireland’s two largest cities.
Mr Dallat: The Minister knows fine well that, for months, the elected representatives were treated like mushrooms and kept in the dark about the postponement of the contract. Will he give us some good news today? I take it that he is giving us a promise that the contract will go ahead at the third attempt. Does he have any other good news about the north-west that he might tell the Assembly?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. I do not consider him, or anybody else in the Chamber, to be a mushroom. I have treated everyone with the utmost respect, and I am sure that the Member will concede that.
All of those issues have been explored in some detail, not only following the questions to my statement in the House on 3 November but at the Regional Development Committee. I say again today that I am committed fully to the completion of that work. We are working though the various stages. We await the outcome of the economic appraisal with DFP but will continue to make progress as speedily as we possibly can.
The Member asked whether I have any other good news for the north-west. I indicated in my earlier reply to his colleague Mr Ramsey the potential for EU funding at Londonderry's Waterside rail station. I am very hopeful that we can move forward on that. My officials have engaged extensively with the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) and officials in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland to explore the potential for the project to be funded through INTERREG Va. That cooperational programme document is being formalised by the Commission, and the first call for suitable applications is planned to be in spring 2015. We will pursue that as well.
Mr G Robinson: What contact has the Minister had with landowners affected by the delay in the phase 2 signal programme, particularly down at Bellarena?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. He has a continuing interest in the Bellarena part of the project and is aware of the land issue involved there. We are seeking to resolve that, and, of course, I expect that Translink will continue to consult landowners and all interested parties in the area.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answers to date. I accept that the Minister came to brief me initially and to the Committee last week, but what was the timeline of learning of the procurement difficulties?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary. I outlined in some detail the timeline of how things evolved last week. We were alerted to the situation at the end of June. That was confirmed to us in late July by the Translink board, and, in early August, I commissioned the special report, the progress assessment review (PAR), which was undertaken with considerable speed in September. Its recommendations were made available to me by the end of September, and I had to conclude on those and chart a way forward with Translink. That took us to the end of October, and we were then in a position to inform the House, which I did in my statement of 3 November.
Mr Cree: Has the Minister had any indications that the Department of Finance and Personnel will process the revised business case without further delay — in fact, expeditiously?
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for his supplementary. We have not yet had final confirmation from DFP, but I believe that this is an important Programme for Government project. With passenger journeys on the Londonderry to Belfast line increasing by over one third in the last two years — up to 1·6 million following phase 1 — I very much that hope that DFP will recognise the value of the project despite the increase in phase 2 costs. We can, of course, re-look at the business case to ensure that all relevant social and economic benefits have been set out in sufficient detail and that the established growth in passenger numbers has been clearly taken into account.
Mr Kennedy: I am happy to go straight to question 4, but the Member's interest seems to be in question 3.
My Department is facing significant resource budget constraints, so I have had to take a number of difficult decisions, including the suspension of works orders to external contractors that were responsible for the repair of approximately three quarters of the street lights that go out. To deal with the health and safety implications, I have set priorities for dealing with street lighting faults. Priority will be given to those faults that present an electrical hazard to members of the public, and contractors will still be employed to deal with such faults.
My Department’s operations and maintenance staff, who can provide around 25% of the overall resource required to fix street lighting faults, will endeavour to repair as many lights as possible, prioritising large groups of lights that are out and then individual lights that have failed.
At this stage, it is very difficult to predict how many street lights will not be repaired by the end of this financial year. As of 14 November 2014, almost 15,000 of our total of 280,000 street lights were out across Northern Ireland. In the period since 8 August 2014, when I had to suspend the use of external contractors for routine street lighting repairs, my operations and maintenance staff have fixed over 5,000 faulty street lights across Northern Ireland.
I must point out that street lighting repairs have not ceased. All fault reports are being recorded and will be dealt with as soon as resources permit. That is not the level of service that my Department would like to provide, but I have had to take some difficult decisions following the outcomes of the June and October monitoring rounds. I simply cannot spend money that I do not have.
Mr I McCrea: In a sense, I understand the difficulties that the Minister faces, but he will be aware that street lighting is an emotional issue, and it is certainly so for the elderly and most vulnerable people in our society, especially around their property. Has the Minister given any consideration to looking at other aspects of his overall budget to see whether he can lessen the burden of that work? I am not necessarily saying that he should cut other areas, but if it were more balanced, it would certainly be easier to deal with and more acceptable to communities.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. This has not been an easy decision for me, or one that has been lightly taken. We have forensically scrutinised all aspects of our budget for this year, and, unfortunately, such are the impacts that that was one of the realistic measures available to me for external contractors. I draw a parallel with the Member's colleague in charge of health, who at this stage appears to have cancelled external works, operations and the like provided by external carers and companies for health operations. I think that there are parallels. These are not easy decisions to take, and we will continue to work through them as quickly and efficiently as we possibly can.
Mr Maskey: Like the Member who spoke previously, I entirely understand the difficult decisions that had to be made by the Minister. To what extent will public safety determine the nature of the street lighting programme and where repairs might be carried out?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for at least having sympathy for me.
Obviously, there are statutory duties involved here, under article 8 of the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order, to maintain roads etc. My Department has received legal advice on the issue. We will continue to inspect roads, footways and street lighting columns, and defects will be recorded as normal.
It is clear that defects may not be repaired as quickly as normal, and all repairs will be prioritised on the basis of safety. My Department will continue to actively investigate and defend public liability claims, with every case turning on its own facts. Ultimately, it will be for the courts to decide whether the reduced standards comply with my Department's statutory duty.
Mr Byrne: The Minister will be aware that there is some concern that, sometimes, DRD people take bulbs from lights that are working to areas where they are not working. It is almost a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. He will be further aware that a parish priest in Drumquin, Father Mullan, was very concerned that six lights were out for over two weeks. He felt that, given security and public safety issues, they should have been repaired quicker.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. I am not aware of DRD officials swapping lights, either working or not working, particularly outside places of worship, where "lighten my darkness, we beseech thee" would be a common enough prayer. On a serious note, the issue he refers to at that church property has been resolved through maintenance work. If the Member has specific issues or cases that he wants to draw to my attention, I will certainly investigate those.
Mr Kennedy: There are currently proposals to dual two sections of the A6: Randalstown to Castledawson and Londonderry to Dungiven. Funding has been provided to advance the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dual carriageway project to a shovel-ready position in 2014-15 so that it would be ready to commence construction at short notice should the necessary funding become available.
The A6 Londonderry to Dungiven dualling scheme, which includes a bypass at Dungiven, is well advanced in its development. It has been through public inquiry, and the inspector has produced a report containing a number of recommendations. Those include a request to consider an alternative route in the vicinity of Dungiven. That work is continuing, and, when I am satisfied that all issues have been appropriately reviewed, a number of which are complex, I will issue a departmental statement.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his detailed response. It seems that there is some light at the end of the tunnel in relation to the Dungiven bypass. It has been delayed for many, many years, and people are reaching the end of the patience that they have exercised. Will the Minister give even a guesstimate of a date for the bypass?
Mr Kennedy: The Member will understand that I am not a fan of guesstimates. There is widespread political support for the A6. Obviously that is one reason why we have, in part, allowed sections to be built to move forward as finance becomes available. We will look at that. Of course, we find ourselves in challenging financial times, and that is another reason why I am loath to begin to put a date on it. I assure the Member and the House that there is no reluctance on my part to carry forward the scheme at the earliest available opportunity.
Mr Clarke: I accept the Minister's answer on the A6. However, there are safety problems in relation to the Moneynick section, and, maybe because money has not been available, we are not at an advanced stage. Have you or your Department any plans to do any other work to cut down the number of accidents on that stretch of the road?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. Safety remains the priority for the Department in the planning of all schemes, but, more importantly, in all situations where they are not yet in place. That remains of paramount interest and concern to us. We have been looking steadily at the improvements to the A6 through this major scheme. It can separated into sections and, again, if money becomes available, we will certainly consider that in a positive way. In the meantime, we continue to maintain the route to the best of our ability.
Mr Kinahan: May I follow that question? I am sure that the Minister is expecting me to show interest in Randalstown and Castledawson. Will he confirm the latest cost estimates of the scheme if it is delivered in phases?
Mr Kennedy: The planning of the Londonderry to Dungiven dual carriageway allows it to be constructed in up to three parts: the Dungiven bypass itself, which is the Derrychrier Road to the Crebarkey Road; the Caw roundabout to the Maydown roundabout; and the Maydown roundabout to the Derrychrier Road. The A6 Randalstown to Castledawson stretch will cost, we estimate, somewhere between £120 million and £140 million for the 14 kilometre dual carriageway. The A6 Londonderry to Dungiven scheme cost estimates for the three sections are as follows: for the Dungiven bypass, between £55 million and £65 million; between the Caw roundabout and the Maydown roundabout, between £45 million and £50 million; and the 25-kilometre section between the Maydown roundabout and the Derrychrier Road, between £290 million and £305 million.
Mr Kennedy: Following on from the successful legal challenge in 2013 to the A5 western transport corridor, four draft reports have been developed to assess impacts on the integrity of all potentially affected European-designated environmentally sensitive sites — nine in total — in the vicinity of the A5 western transport corridor scheme. A public consultation exercise on three of those reports commenced on 30 April and concluded on 13 June 2014. The subject of the fourth report, the Tully Bog special area of conservation, is impacted by air-quality aspects and, therefore, required further updated traffic survey information before publication. The consultation period on that draft report commenced on 15 October and will conclude on 28 November 2014.
It is important that my Department does not in any way pre-empt the outcomes of the consultation exercise; hence the way forward with the scheme thereafter can be determined only after careful consideration of all the responses received.
Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat. Without pre-empting the findings of the consultation, does the Minister believe that his Department will be in a position to issue the orders by the end of this year?
Mr Kennedy: As I have indicated to the Member, it is important that we work through the processes involved. The next step in progressing the scheme would be the publication of the new environmental statement, the draft vesting order and the draft direction order for the scheme. Development work on those is now at an advanced stage, but a firm date for publication cannot be given until after consideration of any submissions to the ongoing public consultation exercise into the impacts on the Tully Bog special area of conservation.
Publication of those documents would be followed by a further consultation period, a minimum of six weeks, when formal representations and/or objections to the scheme can be made. That consultation is likely to lead to the need for a further public inquiry, but a decision on that can only be made following careful consideration of the representations and level of objections raised in response to the consultation exercise. If deemed necessary, a public inquiry is likely to be held later in 2015.
T1. Mr Lunn asked the Minister for Regional Development whether he has any plans to review the free travel scheme for people aged 60 and over, given that, like all Ministers, he refers constantly to the need to make savings within his budget. (AQT 1761/11-15)
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. I am not going to ask him to declare any special interest in the scheme. I am a very firm supporter, as is my party, of the concessionary fares scheme. It brings considerable benefits to the travelling public, not least people who may be regarded as senior citizens. It gives them the opportunity to enjoy a day out in the company of friends and, perhaps, family or to go and visit family. It gives them the opportunity to engage socially, and, importantly for our town centres and cities, to shop, spend money and help the local economy. I am not interested in cutbacks to the concessionary fares scheme, and I have argued that consistently around the Executive table. I believe that the Executive should fund it centrally, and I believe and hope very much that I have won that argument around the Executive table. I want to see people benefiting from the concessionary fares scheme as it is presently constituted.
Mr Lunn: The Minister has prompted me to declare an interest of a sort, although not in the particular age range that I am going to refer to. I understand that around 27% of journeys undertaken under the scheme are by people in the age range of 60 to 65, some of whom are probably still working. Without advocating the termination of the scheme, is the Minister prepared to even consider a possible adjustment to the minimum age, perhaps to 65? I understand that that might save between £7 million and £10 million.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. I concede that there are anomalies in the system, but I do not believe that it is worth addressing them. I am not sure about and will want to check his assertion that the savings could amount to £7 million. We will look at that, but, irrespective of that, the concessionary fares scheme provides an opportunity for people to go out and socially engage and to spend money. Even the few who perhaps use it to travel to work at least have other opportunities to use it at weekends, when they can benefit local economies. It strikes me as strange electoral policy to be in favour of water charges and cutting the concessionary fares scheme. I will be interested to read the Alliance manifesto when it is published.
T2. Mr McNarry asked the Minister for Regional Development who was at fault in cocking up the costs of the rail track between Coleraine and Londonderry, which have escalated from £22 million to £40 million, given that, regrettably, relations between his departmental officials and Translink executives have descended into a blame game over who was responsible. (AQT 1762/11-15)
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. We had the opportunity, as he will know and remember well, to have an exchange at the Regional Development Committee last Wednesday. I set out clearly my view of and my displeasure at the failures involved in the project. He will also know that I have initiated a lessons learned exercise in Translink and in my Department, and I expect those reports to be on my desk before the end of this year.
Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for his answer, but I remind him that, after he left, the Committee, having heard from him and his officials, also heard from Translink. That was why I asked the question.
Has the Minister any doubt that £40 million will be the final cost of the project? If it is not and if it spirals again, what percentage increase will he tolerate? Will he hold to the £40 million as a fixed sum? Can he tell us just how he intends to get this £40 million?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. I can confirm that I believe the current estimate to be accurate, but, to give belt and braces to that, I will insist that we test the validity of that projection before we go out to procurement and award the contract. I do not want to second-guess that process at all, but I believe that the project is very worthwhile. It remains an Executive priority; it has been a huge success for rail travel, as I outlined; and I believe strongly that, for public transport reasons and for the public good, we should continue to pursue the project.
T4. Mr Elliott asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on progress on the proposed park-and-ride scheme at Tamnamore outside Dungannon, about which he has made representations. (AQT 1764/11-15)
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member. All politics is local, it was once famously said, and park-and-ride is very important locally and in general. I place great importance on the provision of park-and-ride facilities, not only at Tamnamore but all over Northern Ireland. We are making progress on that, thereby making it easier for people to use public transport or share transport with others.
Construction of the park-and-ride facility at Tamnamore is expected to be complete in January 2015. It will provide 280 spaces. The original intention was to remove hard shoulders to encourage better use of the new facility.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that answer. Because so many vehicles are being parked just off the Stangmore roundabout between it and Dungannon town are there any measures to ensure that those vehicles use the Tamnamore park-and-ride?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. He will know, obviously, because we have had representations from him and from his office in relation to this, that the hard shoulders are used by traders who have applied for and been given licences by Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council. Following representations from sources including the council and Mr Elliott, the hard shoulders will remain in place and traders will continue to be able to use their licence.
T5. Mr Clarke asked the Minister for Regional Development whether, given the debacle about the Belfast to Londonderry rail track, he believes that his Department is sufficiently engaged in the overall project and the project board. (AQT 1765/11-15)
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. Again, we spent much time exploring the issues in some detail in the Regional Development Committee last Wednesday. He will know that I have set in place the lessons learned, and those will be undertaken by the chief executive of Translink and will look at not only the performance of the executive of Translink but the role of the board and all issues. The issue of how my Department and officials have performed is also being scrutinised. I expect to have both reports by the end of this year.
Mr Clarke: I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure that he was as surprised as we were when, after he left the Committee last week, Translink came to the table to tell us that the observers were more than observers and had full access to the papers. Minister, when your departmental officials describe themselves as observers but Translink come on board and say that they are not just observers but have full access to papers and can speak and actually sit at the same table as the project board, what are you going to do with your officials?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. I understand that the Committee for Regional Development is conducting its own inquiry into the issue. I have not yet had an opportunity to study the terms of reference, but I have no doubt that the evidence that he and the Committee produce will better inform the whole situation.
The role of the official at the relevant subcommittee of the Translink board reviewing these things is simply to observe. As the Member will know, all projects are carried forward by Translink executives, but I will, of course, be interested in any work that the Committee wishes to provide.
T6. Mr Weir asked the Minister for Regional Development whether there are any plans to revisit or adjust in any way the policy on gully cleaning in light of last week’s flooding problems. (AQT 1766/11-15)
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question. He will know that last week's exceptional rainfall in areas of Northern Ireland was absolutely astonishing in many ways. I sympathise with all householders and business owners affected by the recent flooding. I will put it in context: the average November rainfall is around three and a half inches, and the total rainfall to date — it is only 18 November — is over five inches, which is 140% of the average for the entire month. Counties Down and Armagh were worst hit, and areas such as Newry, Portadown and Lurgan were badly affected. In some parts of south Down and south Armagh, up to four inches of rain fell — more than the average for the entire month — in the three days from Tuesday.
I underscore continually that my Department has never stopped cleaning gullies. Yes, we have had to restrict the work of external contractors, which accounts for about 25% of the normal work, but we continue to maintain gullies, particularly in areas with known wet spots.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his reply. Minister, in light of the war of words that ensued between your Department and DARD, which has responsibility for river maintenance — I think that a lot of the problems arose there — can you outline what steps are being taken to ensure better cooperation between the two Departments?
Mr Kennedy: I regret that I found it necessary to defend myself and the role of my Department when it would have been better to concentrate on improving things for the people who were at the very sharp end and having their homes and businesses impacted by flooding. However, I will say with particular regard to Bridge Street in Newry that it was very clear that that occurred because one of the local rivers had burst its banks on at least two occasions. Given the high volume of rainfall that had occurred in the period running up to that, no system could have coped.
I refer the Member to the PEDU report following the June 2012 flooding incident, about which I also reminded some ministerial colleagues. It recommended that one Department and a single Minister take account of and be responsible for emergencies of this nature. I support those recommendations, but it is rather a pity that some of the people who complained most loudly around the Executive table have not done so. However, I look forward to seeing whether there will be a change of attitude.
Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development): It would not be appropriate for me to outline the findings of the fact-finding investigation, as the report relates to a personnel matter. It is an established principle that such information be treated as confidential.
Mrs Dobson: I was going to thank the Minister for his answer, but it was really a non-answer. Perhaps we can explore it a bit more deeply. Despite a direct request from the head of the Civil Service and the report being conducted by DFP, that Minister is still feebly trying to claim that the issue had nothing to do with him. He is either avoiding his duties or is wrongly trying to protect a party colleague.
Mrs Dobson: Nevertheless, can this Minister tell us what legal advice his Department and the former Minister got previously, where it came from and whether he will be able to let the Assembly see it?
Mr Storey: It is quite clear that the Member is not aware of how legal advice is retained in the House. Equally, I remind the Member that the issue was dealt with by my predecessor. There is where it rests.
Mrs D Kelly: Did the Minister actually familiarise himself with the report's findings? Can he share the conclusions that he has reached on it?
Mr Storey: It is quite clear that there are others who are more interested in this issue than they are in matters that relate to the Department. Since I came into office, my focus and attention has been on ensuring that I get to grips with the responsibilities that I have as Minister. When we look across the piece at the many issues that the Member and others in the House have, that should be the priority and focus. I repeat that it was an issue for my predecessor. I believe that that particular matter rests there. He made the decisions that he made. As far as I am concerned, that is where the issue remains.
Mr Allister: This was a fact-finding investigation that was initiated by the permanent secretary not by the Minister. Doubtless it made findings of fact about the special adviser's role as a civil servant. What are the facts that the Minister is so anxious to hide? Why is he ducking and diving to hold from the public domain the finding of facts?
Mr Allister: Does that not speak greatly about the attitude of the Department to this particular matter?
Mr Storey: It is a personnel issue. As I would not release information on any individual in my Department, I would not do so on this issue. For those of slow hearing or learning, I repeat that this is a matter for my predecessor. That is where the issue remains.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. A review of the stock transfer scheme was commissioned in February 2014. The review group concluded that the current model will not deliver the announced programme, and therefore a different approach has been proposed. It focuses on a smaller number of schemes, with each scheme comprising larger bundles of properties. That has been endorsed by the Housing Executive board. I have also approved the proposals.
I have written to the chairman of the Housing Executive asking him to develop a revised programme of stock transfer schemes as one element of a wider initiative to improve and invest in Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties. Once a revised programme is agreed, the Housing Executive will write to all the affected tenants to clarify whether they are to remain in the programme and, if so, the timescales that will be involved.
Additionally, given the delays in the programme to date, I have agreed that stalled planned maintenance schemes for the properties that had been included in the original stock transfer programme can now proceed. The Housing Executive will also continue to undertake normal response maintenance works where necessary.
Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he expand on which areas of south Antrim have a proposal to do transfers? What protections are going to be there for current Housing Executive tenants?
Mr Storey: The stock condition survey that is under way will provide a firm basis to enable a strategic decision to be taken regarding what properties are to be included in the revised programme. It is not possible to predict the results of the survey or to comment on the possible outcome of any specific areas at this stage. However, once a revised programme is agreed, the Housing Executive will write to all the affected tenants to clarify whether they are to remain in the programme and, if so, the timescales involved. I am quite happy to give the Member an assurance that this will be done with the agreement and consent of the residents. That is a vital issue. I am well aware of the concerns that have been expressed to me by him and others in regards to concerns that tenants have about elements of the process. I am quite happy to give the assurance that it will not be done in a way that in any way ignores the concerns raised by tenants.
Mr Ramsey: I thank the Minister for his response. Are he and his Department committed to ensuring that social housing largely remains in the public sector?
Mr Storey: Yes, I think I am. Since coming to office, I have discussed this with officials and a number of Members. We will have to have a discussion. While a number of reviews are going on, and the Department, in conjunction with the Housing Executive, has set out a policy direction, I think that there are issues that we need to address about how we deliver for specific areas and needs. I am quite happy to have those discussions with Members, the Committee and the organisations. It is my intention to keep social housing provision in the public sector, but we have to make progress on how the Housing Executive, in particular, delivers.
Mr Nesbitt: The Minister will be aware of the large number of derelict and abandoned buildings that are blights on our landscape. Is he envious of the regime that applies in England, where councils can acquire those properties through compulsory possession orders? Will he give consideration to such a scheme here where you cannot establish the ownership of derelict properties?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. When you look at any jurisdiction, you will see variances in how they apply policy. When you come to the area of housing, you have a variety of approaches. The Member will be aware that there was a proposal to have a regeneration and housing Bill. In that proposal, reference was made to powers that would be given to local councils. Unfortunately, other Members felt that those provisions were a step too far. When I came into office, I expended considerable time trying to address those concerns. As a result of that, we now have a different Bill, which primarily focuses on the regeneration element and does not primarily give consideration to the housing elements. One of those elements would have been around houses in multiple occupancy. That could have led us to a position where we would have looked at particular locations where dereliction is the case.
I am quite happy to consider what the Member said, in light of the ongoing review of the future of housing provision in Northern Ireland. I share the concern that the Member raised: there are locations where you have dereliction and it becomes very difficult to find out who the owner is and who, ultimately, is responsible for addressing that need.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. Between May 2011 and 31 October 2014, the last date for which data is available, the Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association received 163 applications and has supported the purchase of 77 affordable homes in the West Tyrone constituency area at a total value of £8 million at the time of purchase. A further 17 properties are in the process of being purchased in the area at a total value of almost £2 million. It is important to remember that the shared equity housing that coownership provides is demand-led and that potential homebuyers approach the association with a property already selected.
Mr McElduff: I thank the Minister for his answer. Of course, coownership will suit some, but there are towns and villages in West Tyrone that have not seen social houses built for years, indeed decades. Can I ask the Minister whether he is aware of the waiting list for social housing in the Omagh and Strabane districts and to explain how his Department plans to address this objective need?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member. Obviously, this is an issue. It is not that long ago — in fact, it was just when I took up office — that I made a comment, which I stand by, about the important role that coownership plays in the provision of housing. We have ensured that the financial model that we use has to be revised because I do not believe that we have all the financial tools in place to give us the outcome that we have. It is also important to remember that coownership housing is necessarily demand-led and that potential housebuyers approach the association.
So, while the Member talks about other specific areas, it is important to ensure that, in those areas, those who see the need are raising the concern because the system operates on a demand-led basis and because of the potential of those homebuyers to approach the association with a property already selected. If the Member wants further detail on Strabane, or any other part of his constituency, I am quite happy to furnish him with further information.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. We all, as community representatives, are aware of the need not only for social housing in our areas but for affordable housing. Could the Minister go into a bit more detail on what role coownership and affordable housing have in addressing our high housing demands?
Mr Storey: It plays a very important role. Coownership homes that are offered on a shared equity basis provide an alternative to social housing for people who want to purchase their own homes but who cannot afford to do so without some help or intervention. There has been a high and sustained public demand for the scheme, mostly from first-time buyers who want to grasp the opportunity to take the first step onto the property ladder but at a lower cost. It also provides an alternative housing solution to those who would otherwise join the social housing waiting list or become part of the private rental market. It is something that I want to continue to encourage. It is something that I think we need to look at as a very good financial model, and it is something that I believe gives first-time buyers, but not exclusively first-time buyers, the opportunity to be in possession of their own home.
Mr Kinahan: The budget for the coownership scheme has previously been given major additional allocations because of the previous Minister's underspending on the social housing development programme. Does the current Minister accept that, as positive and successful as coownership is, it should not be used to provide political cover for managerial failures?
Mr Storey: I do not accept the premise of the question. It is just a typical assault by a party that wants to have the privilege of being in government but not take responsibility for any of the decisions that happen to flow from a five-party mandatory coalition. I know that the Member has difficulty understanding that that is the case, but here is the situation.
Let us remember when the change of policy came. Let us remember that it was not when my colleague was in post that the focus changed in terms of how we deliver housing; it was when Margaret Ritchie and the SDLP were in possession of the Department for Social Development that we saw a change in focus and emphasis.
In terms of the affordability of any of the schemes, they all are under financial pressure. The reason for that is that the envelope or the money that we have to spend to deliver any element in my Department will solely be dependent on how I can ensure that the money that I have to save is found and on the impact that that will have on a variety of schemes. That will be an extremely difficult and challenging place for me to be in, and there is no doubt that it will generate criticism and concerns from many. However, I give this assurance: the importance that I place on the provision of affordable as well as social homes means that it is on my priority list.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. I recognise that there is a high demand for social housing across all communities in North Belfast, but I do not consider it to be a housing crisis. In terms of provision of new social homes, my Department and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive have invested heavily in social housing in the area. In fact, over the past five years, almost 1,000 new social homes have been delivered in the North Belfast parliamentary constituency at a cost of £140 million. A further 260 new social homes are under construction, and the social housing development programme contains plans to deliver more than 370 additional homes over the next three years. Through new builds and relets, much has been done to address housing need in the area, and we will continue to do all that we can within the constraints of the serious financial challenges that we face. The Member will appreciate the comments that I made to the Member who asked the previous question: it will be a challenge for us. However, on the basis of what we have done to date, it is clear that a commitment has been given and that delivery has been provided for in relation to the constituency that the Member represents.
Mr A Maginness: I welcome the Minister's looking at North Belfast afresh. That is important, and I know that the Minister will do that very seriously. In relation to his comments about there not being a crisis, the demand in North Belfast —
Mr A Maginness: — suggests that there is, in fact, a crisis. I ask the Minister to look afresh at the figures and look in particular at the demand —
Mr A Maginness: — from single men for housing in North Belfast. That is definitely very, very critical.
Mr Storey: Let us take a moment or two to put the situation in North Belfast in some context. Since coming to office, I have endeavoured to ensure that, irrespective of the location — in this case, it is North Belfast, but it could be any part of Northern Ireland — we do not accept the failure of the Housing Executive or any other agency to deliver services to the community. That is a challenge for us. It is a challenge for me, as a Minister, and it is something that I take seriously. Let us look at the figures. You cannot look at the figures for North Belfast in isolation, because, if you did, it might suggest that there has been a drop in the number of houses completed in North Belfast. Let us look at the completions over the last number of years. In 2011-12, there were 179 units. In 2012-13, there were 182 units. In 2013-14, there were 124 units. However, in 2014-15 to date, 198 units have been completed in the first eight and a half months, with a further 63 due for completion shortly. This will make a total of 261 completions during this financial year, the largest to date.
There are factors that influence when dwellings are completed, including the size and length of construction, the contract and the time of the year that the construction commenced. Over the last five years, North Belfast has experienced the highest number of completions of any parliamentary constituency. It is also fair to say that there remains a robust social housing building programme in North Belfast, with 229 starts in 2012-13 and 182 in 2013-14. That gives us a sense of it.
The specific needs of individuals are an issue that I am happy to raise with the Housing Executive, and I am happy to raise the category of individuals to which the Member referred.
Mr McCausland: I welcome the fact that the Minister referred to the parliamentary constituency and the Assembly constituency of North Belfast and his commitment to look at the whole constituency. Will he do all he can to ensure that the Housing Executive delivers in all areas of the constituency to meet the need that is there?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member. I thought that I was going to escape from addressing issues in the North Belfast constituency, but I will not ignore the needs of the people in North Belfast or those in East Belfast, South Belfast or West Belfast. We had better not forget the four component parts of the city.
I have to say that it is an issue, and, across the North Belfast constituency, there is a high demand for social housing from all communities. I will give the latest figures that the Housing Executive has made available to me, but I have to say to Members that I find it somewhat difficult to give these figures. I will give you the figures and then say why I find it difficult. The latest figures that the Housing Executive has provided to me show that there are 1,485 Protestants and 1,587 Roman Catholics on the waiting list in North Belfast. Those figures clearly demonstrate the need for social housing for both communities in North Belfast. We have to move away, if we can, from the arbitrary distribution of homes solely on the basis of a person's religion. However, that is the reality of where we are, and I have to deal with that reality. To ensure that we meet the need across the community, I am committed to that, and that is a message that I have conveyed to the Housing Executive.
Mr Dickson: I have one further question on north Belfast. It is in relation to the type of housing that is regularly allocated, and I have particular concerns, having received representations from those who are housed in inappropriate flats where families are expected to be housed in flats with little or no outdoor play or other facilities. What action will the Minister take to move that issue on as well?
Mr Storey: The Member raises the valid point that it is not just the type of provision that you make but the location that is important. The difficulty is ensuring that we meet demand. It is interesting that I have just made enquiries about the number of times when people who have made an application have refused an application. A large percentage of people have refused the second and third offer, and that makes it difficult to deal on an ongoing basis with the demand and with meeting that need. Space and available recreation provision is always a challenge. That needs to be looked at, not only in conjunction with the council and the Housing Executive but with other providers to ensure that we are not only building the appropriate type of dwelling but giving communities the space that they need. That is a key component of a good and stable community and environment.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. Since the introduction of the Make the Call advertising campaign in 2011-12, over 36,000 people have been helped with their benefit entitlement, resulting in the generation of £10·8 million of additional income. The 2013-14 campaign led to nearly 12,000 people receiving assistance, which led to over £4·6million in additional income being generated, a 63% increase on the 2012-13 figure. The 2014-15 campaign, consisting of television, press and outdoor advertising, is being completed over two stages. The first set of adverts was broadcast during June 2014, and the second set commenced in October 2014 and will run until February 2015. The results will be published later.
Make the Call is one of the success stories. I do not believe in premonitions, but I was pleased that, when the Department for Social Development launched the campaign in 2013, my constituency of North Antrim was selected, and I had the opportunity to launch it in Ballymoney. However, had I known then what would happen to me, I might have been a bit more reluctant to use North Antrim as the launch pad for the scheme.
I encourage all Members to ensure that the campaign is highlighted in their constituency offices. In the work that we are doing with food banks, we include in the food that goes out a leaflet that informs people of the importance of the Make the Call campaign and the access that they have to it.
Mr G Robinson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he outline whether he would support Make the Call campaign roadshows revisiting areas of high deprivation to ensure that the maximum benefit is gained by the most in need?
Mr Storey: Yes. We will continue to do that. Obviously, when we come to the end of this programme, we will have to look at how we continue to roll it out. Given its success and the very positive feedback, I believe that it is of value and worth. I have no difficulty with government offices or Departments being criticised for a lack of ingenuity or forward thinking, but this campaign has brought real benefit to individuals, families and communities. Remember that people are entitled to this money, and we need to continue to encourage that. We will give serious consideration to further roadshows.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. The Housing Executive has advised that 50 of its properties in South Down still have room heaters: 24 in the area covered by the Banbridge office; 18 in the area covered by the Downpatrick office; and eight in the area covered by the Newry office. The Housing Executive confirms that all those tenants were offered the option of changing their heating system as part of the heating replacement programme but chose to retain their original system. The Housing Executive will continue to offer those tenants an upgrade. Housing associations advise that they do not have any properties in South Down that are heated with glass-fronted coal fires.
T1. Miss M McIlveen asked the Minister for Social Development how many children in Northern Ireland have benefited from the work of the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) in the past year. (AQT 1771/11-15)
Mr Storey: This is another example of success. It came about as a result of reorganisation within the Child Maintenance Service. Although we would prefer that we did not need to have such a provision, it is obviously vital for families.
During 2013-14, the Child Maintenance Service collected or rearranged £27·2 million, which supported 22,123 children across Northern Ireland. That was a record amount of money collected, from which a record number of children benefited. We did that by reducing the number of non-paying cases. In March of this year, almost 91% of cases with a current liability were contributing. That was another record high. To give Members some context, the number of cases contributing in the United Kingdom in March stood at 85%. That means that we significantly outperform GB, getting more of our cases paying on time. That is something that we should be considerably pleased about. Last year, we achieved 98% accuracy levels across the work. Again, that outperformed GB, which achieved only 95%. Therefore, CMS increased the quantity and quality of what it does, which has meant more money for more children across Northern Ireland.
Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his response and congratulate him and his predecessor, who happens to be sitting beside me, on the work of the Department in achieving those results. Further to his answer, can he explain what impact that has had on reducing the outstanding debt balance?
Mr Storey: Reducing the non-paying cases and getting more money flowing has contributed to reducing the amount of child maintenance that is outstanding. Our recently published accounts show that the amount of outstanding child maintenance debt during 2013-14 had fallen by £2·69 million. During the same period, we reduced our non-paying cases by almost 1,000. Therefore, there is a clear link between arrears and the complaint cases.
There is no doubt that today's Child Maintenance Service is a totally different organisation from that which was established some 20 years ago. These results are the culmination of some very hard work by the staff in the service. I pay tribute to them, because it is an exceptionally difficult field of work. It is very challenging for my staff and for those who are involved in the Child Maintenance Service, and I believe that this is something that has been of benefit. However, I sound a note of caution because there can be no complacency. There are undoubtedly many challenges facing communities and families, and we want to be there to ensure that the organisation is there to help and to make a positive contribution to families who are in particular need.
T3. Mr Ramsey asked the Minister for Social Development, on a subject on which he probed the previous Minister, whether he is in a position to review the regulation or influence that the Housing Executive can bring to bear in ensuring that disabled and older people are not discriminated against across Northern Ireland by the lack of new-build bungalows from housing associations, particularly given the example of a young family with a child who is a wheelchair user who have been waiting eight and a half years since their application for a new build, albeit, at present, only one new-build home in every 100 is a bungalow. (AQT 1773/11-15)
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question and for the work that he has done on the issue. He is one of the Members who continues to bring to his work a commitment and focus that reflect his personal priorities. He is to be commended for that.
On 31 March 2014, there was a total of 21,781 bungalows in the social housing sector. That equates to almost one fifth of the social housing stock, which means that the majority of need can be met through the current bungalow stock. However, I understand that the Housing Executive is reviewing the bungalow provision in the housing development programme. Even though a restriction has been applied in my Department's housing association guide to ensure that land is maximised to its full potential, it does not mean that bungalows are prohibited. In fact, in Charlemont, just a few weeks ago, I cut the first sod on a new social housing scheme, and one of the homes will be a bespoke wheelchair bungalow. So, needs are beginning to be met. However, I still think that there is further work that we need to do in relation to the issue that the Member raises.
Mr Ramsey: I thank the Minister for his response. In the social mix of new-build programmes, there is not much point in the allocation of 100 homes in my constituency to single parents and the social issues that are created by that. There needs to be a change of focus. Will the Minister be prepared to meet me and others representing disabled and older people to have a discussion around how we can improve those circumstances?
Mr Storey: Yes, I will be more than happy to meet the Member. As the House knows, I have endeavoured to ensure that where those requests have come, I have accepted them, much to the annoyance of my diary secretary and, maybe more importantly, the Minister of home affairs, who is my wife. My diary has been completely chock-a-block over the last few weeks and will continue to be so. However, it is a priority for me to ensure that where a Member raises particular concerns, I am quite happy to meet the Member and those whom he wants to identify. I will also ensure that, before that, we have more information for the Member, particularly around the issue of allocations in his constituency.
T5. Mr McNarry asked the Minister for Social Development how many senior staff at grade 5 and above there are in his Department and how much they cost annually. (AQT 1775/11-15)
Mr McNarry: This is my first opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his appointment, and I do so willingly and trust that he will endeavour to look after my Strangford constituency.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his words of congratulation. I can give him the assurance, as I have given all Members, that I will endeavour to have a listening ear to the issues that were raised by him, whether it is in Strangford or any other part of Northern Ireland.
I do not have the specific figures for the number of staff at grade 5 in my Department, and you would not expect me to have them. However, because of the Budget process, we now have a situation in which, over the next number of weeks, I will have to look seriously at the issue of staff, not only in the programmes that the Department delivers but the complement of staff. The Department for Social Development covers a range of organisations, including the Social Security Agency, the Child Maintenance Service, voluntary and community and the Housing Executive. I think that it equates to almost 26% of the Northern Ireland Civil Service complement. So it is an issue. I will come back to the Member with the specific numbers of staff at grade 5.
Mr McNarry: The Minister may have the answer to my supplementary question, but I am sure that he will come back to me if he does not. What opportunities for sharing non-specialist administrative staff has the Minister sought out with other Departments and agencies?
Mr Storey: The Member raises a point that, just this week, I have asked for a discussion with the Minister for Employment and Learning about. As you will know, when we come to the implementation of welfare reform, I have particular concerns in relation to jobs and benefits offices, where you have Social Security Agency and DEL staff. We have asked the permanent secretaries to meet on this issue, and Minister Farry and I have had a brief discussion about it and intend to meet. That is one example, but there may be others. I am quite happy to look, and will undoubtedly be put in a position over the next number of weeks where we will have to look, at inventive ways of ensuring that we stay within our budget but, equally, that we continue to deliver the service that the public expects us to deliver.
T6. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister for Social Development whether there has been any improvement in housing association performance. (AQT 1776/11-15)
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question. If she had asked me whether there had been any improvement in the performance of the Housing Executive, I might have taken longer to answer, because it is no secret that, since coming to office, I have had concerns about the capacity of the Housing Executive. However, we have had a number of meetings, and we will continue with those over the next number of weeks.
I am pleased to report that, over the past five years, there has been a significant improvement in the performance of housing associations. For example, only four housing associations have failed the inspection, as opposed to 10 in 2010. I can also advise that, in 2010, 42% of the social housing stock was being managed by associations that had failed the maintenance element of inspections, and that is now down to 3%. That indicates that progress has been made. However, I still believe, as I indicated when I spoke at the housing associations' annual conference, that there is a journey that we have now embarked on and there is still some progress that we need to make.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answer. I recognise the progress that is being made and welcome it. Will the Minister outline what efforts his Department is making to ease the regulatory burden on housing associations?
Mr Storey: Yes, the regulatory impact and the difficulties that regulation brings have been raised across a number of organisations. Obviously, that falls within the remit of the social housing reform programme, which is a vast programme covering a variety of elements in organisations, tenants and all the component parts. Given the improved performance of housing associations over the past few years, I am keen to consider what changes we can implement to the inspection regime and how we can make that process less intrusive and onerous while still achieving an appropriate level of assurance. That was the assurance that we gave at the conference, and I am working through how we will deliver the promise that we made that would make it less arduous for housing associations to deliver on their programmes.
T7. Mr Ó Muilleoir asked the Minister for Social Development how he will get the appropriate resources to address the grave and urgent need for social housing, given that, although he avoided using the word "crisis" earlier, it remains the case that just over 4,600 presented as homeless during the last quarter from April to June, which was a slight increase. (AQT 1777/11-15)
Mr Ó Muilleoir: I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. This is my first time not only addressing him but addressing Question Time. It is also appropriate to convey the thanks of the NI Federation of Housing Associations for his emphasis on social housing and homelessness when I addressed them after he addressed them last month.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member and welcome him to the Chamber to ask questions today. I said some weeks ago that there were two things that we needed to address in homelessness and housing provision generally. The first is to change the language that we use; the second is to change the financial structure. In the Housing Executive, a definition is given to homeless, and I have repeatedly asked the Housing Executive to tell us how many people are really homeless — how many people in Northern Ireland tonight will not have a home. It is very hard for it to give us a definite figure. I have seen figures of 22 or 23. However, housing need is a completely different issue. I have had discussions with the Simon Community. In fact, last week, I met representatives from the Simon Community to discuss a number of those issues, including how they make an application, how they are assessed, what really is their need and, of course, the vexed question of location.
We sometimes come to dealing with very difficult situations that families face, and a lot of the figures are based on break ups of a family and the family unit, and particular domestic situations. We need to ensure that the appropriate location is being offered to people who present themselves as homeless and that we are not allowing the system to be abused in such a way that people get into the system because they have been inventive. I am committed to ensuring that we address the need, but it will take a collective approach —
Mr Storey: — between the Executive, my Department and the community and voluntary organisations to ensure that —
Mr Storey: — we are adequately addressing the needs of the constituency that he refers to.
Mr Weir: I am suitably relieved that the questioner is not following on with the supplementary on homelessness given that he did not have his opportunity for a supplementary in the last section.
I appreciate that the Member is relatively new to the Assembly, so I will give some background. The current policy was adopted on 7 May 2013. It was not adopted unanimously; there are different views. Prior and subsequent to that, the issue has been raised on a number of occasions in correspondence and directly at the Commission meeting. An equality screening exercise on the policy is being conducted, and it is anticipated that that will hopefully be completed for the next Commission meeting, which is due at the end of November. It is likely to be discussed at that.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Commission for that response. Tá súil agam go dtagann sé chuig freagra gasta ar an cheist seo. I hope that it reaches a speedy conclusion. I am considering sending a nice Irish language Christmas card so that we get a nice answer in Irish. It certainly seems to me, if I may ask —
Mr Ó Muilleoir: As part of the screening, what has been the result of the equality impact assessment?
Mr Weir: The screening is due to come back to us within the next week. So, I am not in a position to prejudge that. I am sure that everyone will want to see speedy conclusions. Whether that is necessarily the decision that I or others would welcome is something that we will have to simply wait and see. I am sure that the Member will be very busy with Christmas cards in the days to come.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar an téama chéanna, tá sé tamall de bhlianta ó shin anois ó bhí comhairliúchán ag an Choimisiún maidir le polasaí Gaeilge ginearálta don Tionól. Is cuimhin liom gur chuir mé aighneacht isteach ar an chomhairliúchán, ach níor tháinig polasaí ar bith as sin ó shin i leith. Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí de bhall an Choimisiúin cá huair a thig linn a bheith ag brath le polasaí cuimsitheach Gaeilge don Tionól. It is some years since the Commission conducted a survey on the Irish language policy for the Assembly in general. I remember making a submission to that exercise. As of this point —
Mr D Bradley: — nothing has come out of that, and that is almost five years ago. When can we expect to see a comprehensive policy for Irish in the Assembly?
Mr Weir: I cannot really answer from five years ago because I was not in post at that stage. I think that the Assembly Commission held a meeting in 2013 where a draft language policy was under consideration. There is no agreement at the Commission on an agreed Irish language policy. It is an area where there is a difference of opinion in the Commission and, as such, I am not in a position to give the Member a particular date by which there could be any level of agreement on that. I can simply indicate to the Member that there is no agreement in the Commission on a policy at the moment.
Mr Ramsey: I propose to take questions 3 and 7 together. I thank both Members for their questions.
The Assembly Commission appointed Tracey Brothers to undertake the roof project in April, and work on site started in late May, with a projected contract period of 52 weeks. Although the contractor has fallen slightly behind on some areas of the work, he is still reporting that the works remain on target for completion by the end of May 2015. The estimated construction cost, taking account of the working restrictions placed on the contractor — they are clearly obvious for Members on Mondays and Tuesdays in particular — was £5·4 million, and the approved contract sum was £5 million.
The project team has been issuing regular postmasters to report on progress in an effort to keep all building users, members of staff and political parties up to date on progress. The primary objective of the project is to provide a waterproof solution to ongoing problems, but the works also include the refurbishment and replacement of all roof-mounted building services installations and incorporates environmental improvements, including the installation of photovoltaic panels.
Work to date has included the removal of the majority of redundant roofing materials, and the roof has been re-covered with the proprietary waterproofing product. There have been some unfortunate incidents whereby inadequate temporary waterproofing measures led to further water ingress during the recent heavy rainfall. With work of this nature, some of that was inevitable. While the restrictions placed on the contractor have limited the impact on Assembly business, the Commission is very conscious of the noise and disruption that building users have had to tolerate and endure, and is very grateful to all members of staff and MLAs for their patience and tolerance. A number of staff had to be temporarily decanted, and we also thank them for their cooperation.
Mr Allister: Should I understand the member's answer to indicate that, whereas the original contract price was £5 million, it already appears to be almost 10% over budget? What assurance is there that there will not be a further drift in that direction? In respect of the waterproofing —
Mr Allister: Is it a fact that, when part of the roof was supposedly finished —
Mr Ramsey: On the latter point, which I do not mind responding to, there were some issues during the work, and there was further rain penetration. Given the nature of the job, one would expect that during a major construction. We have identified the issues and are dealing with them, and we hope that they will not occur again.
The overall estimated cost for the project was £5·4 million, and the tender document was for £5 million, so we are under target at this stage and hope to keep that going, depending, obviously, on circumstances as we progress with the contract. If there is any unforeseen work, the Assembly Commission will have to look at that, but, at the minute, we are under the estimated price of the tender by almost £500,000.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the member for answering the questions. He has answered one part of a question that I was going to ask about the budget. I know that the work is progressing, because I know most of the contractors on the roof. Is the project coming in on time, or will it be delayed?
Mr Ramsey: There was a delay for a number of reasons, but we expect the roof project to be on schedule and concluded by May next year. It takes a lot of effort to do that, given that you are trying to manage parliamentary business here. You are trying to manage a series of Committee meetings and to relocate and decant quite a high volume of staff during the period. We can only be grateful for their cooperation, support and help.
Mr Clarke: Following on from one of the first questions, how many companies tendered for the original contract?
Mr Ramsey: I do not have that information with me, but I think that there were quite a few. A contractor was approved under the procurement process, and that is the contractor who we have in place. I will provide the Member with further information on the number of people who put in a tender for the roof project.
Mr Kinahan: As one of those who enjoyed the clink, clink of water into buckets in my office on Monday and Tuesday, I want to know whether we have got to a point where that is the end of the damage that is going to be done or whether it is likely to continue if we have further bad weather.
Mr Ramsey: I certainly apologise to the Member. I know that a number of Members have been inconvenienced and disrupted as a result of the roof project. That is something that the contractor, along with our staff, is very keen to minimise. However, I am not going to dare suggest that it will not happen again. Every effort is being made to minimise any disruption, including any further rain penetration to offices in the Building.
Mr Eastwood: The Member spoke about environmental improvements. What impact will they have on the Building's carbon footprint?
Mr Ramsey: I thank the Member for his question. In preparation for the work, we examined a number of areas at an officer and Commission level. The combination of works undertaken will improve our carbon footprint by almost 30%, which is significant. That is a good exercise, given the extent of the project and the restrictions placed on the contractor to try to improve things. I think that we have had a good, safe landing with that 30% reduction in our carbon footprint.
Mr Ramsey: I thank the Member for her question. A service-level agreement exists between the Assembly Commission and the PSNI on the provision of policing in Parliament Buildings. The PSNI provides a small team of police officers, known as the Northern Ireland Assembly police unit, and the PSNI applies charges on a monthly basis at national rates. Those charges are met from within the budget of the Assembly's facilities directorate.
Following recent discussions between the Assembly and senior PSNI officers, the latter provided a number of options for minimising the cost to the Assembly Commission. One agreed option came forward. The change, which took effect on Monday 3 November, should result in a significant reduction in overall policing charges from around £523,000 to £364,000 per year.
To date, policing arrangements at Parliament Buildings have worked very well, and it is envisaged that the change can be brought about without any loss in the overall service provided by the police, either in its efficiency or effectiveness. The management team and the Commission remain confident that the Assembly's policing needs will continue to be fully met.
Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat. Can the Assembly Commission detail the cost of the police presence in the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly?
Mr Ramsey: Those questions came up at the Assembly Commission. I do not have the exact pricing, but in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, the costs are based on national pricing, which I referred to in answer to the original question. Those are proportionate to the level of policing here. The level of policing in Westminster is considerably higher than it is here, and it is also considerably higher in Wales and Scotland. However, at the same time, we are confident that we can meet the challenges, considering where we have come from. In late 2006, there was an incident here with Michael Stone that forced us to change course to ensure that those using the Building, whether that be members of staff or MLAs, were protected. So, we made that investment.
The cost of policing in the Oireachtas is not met by the Commission there, but in the Assemblies of Wales and Scotland, and the Parliament of Westminster, the cost is paid by the appropriate Commission for each House.
Mr Spratt: I thank Mr Ramsey for his answer and I congratulate the PSNI on the good job it does in protecting the Assembly. Will the Commission look at this issue very soon? The cost is over £500,000 per year and is really a double dunt on the public purse. The Justice Department already provides the money for the officers to the Chief Constable through the public purse, and here it is being charged again. Effectively, what is that money being used for in the Police Service? That is a very important question, because I do not think that the public purse should be hit twice with those charges.
Mr Ramsey: I thank the Member for his comments and I agree with him about the excellent service that the police officers give us all in ensuring that we are protected. We constantly keep all policing here under review, depending on circumstances. At the present, we are reasonably content. However, I can assure the Member that the recent review, which was completed within the last few weeks, has made significant savings of £160,000 for the Assembly Commission. That is no mean task, given that we are receiving the same level of staffing in Parliament Buildings.
It is also a matter that Member could raise, as he is a member of the Policing Board, and there may be other members of the Policing Board present.
However, I take his point on board and, as a result of the matter being tabled, I will check whether there is double pricing or double charging that I am unaware of. I presume that the price that the Assembly Commission is paying, over £360,000, is the total cost of having the police here.
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for her question. In June 2013, at the request of the chief executive, a group of senior staff — comprising both genders — met to discuss how the secretariat might examine the existence of any barriers, whether perceived or real, to gender in the Northern Ireland Assembly secretariat and consider what actions might be necessary. Following that meeting, the directors were asked to nominate senior members of staff to form a gender action plan steering group.
In late 2013, the steering group developed a questionnaire, in consultation with the Equality Commission and the Assembly's internal communications group. The questionnaire was circulated to secretariat staff in February 2014 and 192 responses were received. The steering group examined the questionnaire’s themes and comments against current policies, along with the organisation’s decision-making structures. Details of the questionnaire, along with recommendations and relevant research and data, have now been included in the group's final report. That report will be made available after the Assembly Commission has considered it at its next meeting on 26 November.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a fhreagraí. I thank the Member for that answer. An dtig liom fiafraí den Chomhalta an mbeidh an plean gnímh bunaithe ar spriocanna agus cá huair a bheidh an plean curtha i gcrích? Will the action plan be target-based, and when will it be completed?
Mr Weir: The report makes a considerable number of recommendations. For instance, it details, at a quick count, 10 separate and wide-ranging areas for action. Some of those will have differential impacts as part of that. The report recommends that a working group be established to take forward the actions identified in a range of areas such as: affecting the decision-making structures, dignity at work, staff-Member protocols, childcare schemes and caring responsibilities, just to name a few. Once the actions have been identified, the working group will develop and consult on a gender action plan.
It is anticipated that the working group will have developed a gender action plan by April and will then consult staff in May/June 2015, with a final report to be tabled at the Assembly Commission in September 2015.
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom ceisteanna 6 agus 11 a fhreagairt le chéile. Gabhaim buíochas le Comhaltaí as a gceisteanna.
Choinnigh Coimisiún an Tionóil leis ag soláthar réimse iomlán seirbhísí don Tionól agus dá Chomhaltaí, ainneoin laghdú ina bhuiséad airgid de 8·9%; sin é £4·32 milliún thar na ceithre bliana in athbhreithniú caiteachais 2010. Chruthaigh an gearradh seo dúshláin mhóra, ach d’éirigh leis an gCoimisiún brúnna boilscitheacha a iompar, agus d’éirigh leis freisin riar ar éileamh ó Chomhaltaí ar sheirbhísí, éileamh atá ag síor-fás, ainneoin gur laghdaíodh an buiséad.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I propose to answer questions 6 and 11 together, and I thank the Members for their questions.
The Assembly Commission has continued to deliver a complete range of services to the Assembly and its Members despite a reduction in its cash budget of 8·9%, equating to £4·32 million over the four years of the 2010-14 spending review period. The cut has already presented major challenges. However, the Commission has managed to absorb inflationary pressures and meet an increasing demand for services from Members within this reduced budget allocation. I am sure that all the Members here will applaud the Assembly's workers for the amount of work that they do.
The draft Budget for 2015-16 proposes that the departmental expenditure limit resource allocation for the Assembly Commission remain unchanged from its 2014-15 level. While this allocation is flatlined in cash terms, it represents a cut in real terms of almost £800,000 for next year. That means that, in the five years from 2010-11, there has been a 19% real-terms cut. I am sure that the Member will agree with me that that is a significant amount of money.
The Commission will continue to meet its statutory requirements to provide the Assembly with the property, staff and services that it requires. Members will know that some £15·9 million of the Commission’s budget relates to costs that are established by the Independent Financial Review Panel and cannot be amended, upwards or downwards, by the Commission.
The Commission will seek to meet upward inflationary pressures for 2015-16. This is —
Mr Elliott: The Member said that there is no financial reduction in the budget for 2015-16 but that there is one in real terms. Where will the Commission find that reduction? Can she point to any specific areas?
Ms Ruane: I absolutely agree with the Member that there has been no cash reduction but a significant reduction in real terms. Compared with Departments, the Assembly Commission is relatively small, and it is hit by any cut in money. How will the priority services be identified? The Assembly Commission will continue to work closely with Members and parties to ensure that its corporate priorities are aligned, first, to its statutory provisions, and that will be done in the context of budget constraints. The Commission will carry out a full review of the range of services currently provided and their associated costs, and it will ensure that the resources are allocated to functions and activities essential to the running of an institution such as the Assembly.
Mrs Dobson: I also thank the Member for her answer. I am aware that the Commission previously engaged in a business efficiency programme that looked at each area across the secretariat and identified a series of measures to help to meet budgetary obligations. Will she outline in more detail the measures adopted?
Ms Ruane: We are still discussing some of the outcomes of the business efficiency review. The Commission is a corporate body, and I will happily send the detailed information required as appropriate.
Mr Clarke: I welcome the Member's answer, as I do the answers to both supplementary questions, about the Commission's desire to drive down costs. However, is there not a conflict, given the answer to the first question, about translating some of this into Irish, which will be an additional cost to the Commission and, as such, is a waste of money?
Ms Ruane: Gabhaim buíochas leis an gComhalta as an gceist sin. I thank the Member for that question. He will know that I was one of the people who believed that they were being discriminated against regarding questions for written answer. I look forward to the equality screening and the results of that. I do not believe that Budget allocations, or lack thereof, should be used in a manner that can potentially discriminate.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Education Service provide a good and value-for-money outreach service?
Ms Ruane: Arís gabhaim buíochas leis an gComhalta as an gceist sin, nó ceist is an-tábhachtach í. I thank the Member for that question. It is a very important one. I think that I speak for all Assembly Commission members when I say that I support the Information and Outreach Directorate's Education Service. I believe that it does a tremendous job, especially as this institution is relatively new, and it is important that members of the public, whether schoolchildren, active citizens or international visitors, wherever they come from, see that we have a good, strong programme here. I put on record my commendation to the staff who work on that programme, because I think that we all agree that they do a very good job.
Mr Gardiner: I thank the Member for his question. I am sure that he will appreciate that not having a Speaker in place has been a matter of concern for the Commission. The vacancy has led to some disconnect between the Speaker's procedural, corporate and representational roles. Providing guidance and support to officials between Commission meetings is more difficult than when there was a permanent Chair of the Commission. However, just as the Deputy Speakers have agreed arrangements to ensure that disruption to the business of the House is minimised, the Commission, too, has put measures in place to maintain the operation of the corporate body in those circumstances.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his answer. Does he agree that the House not having a Speaker impacts negatively on the Commission's ability to carry out its work?
Mr Gardiner: I thank the Member for asking the question. To ensure continuity during this period, the Commission agreed on the 17 September 2014 that meetings that occur in the absence of a Speaker would be chaired by a temporary Chairperson from within the Commission membership on a rotational basis, as far as is reasonably practical, in the order of party strength. The temporary Chair for each meeting will be involved in the preparations and follow-up actions from the meeting that he or she is chairing. It was also agreed that the Clerk/Chief Executive would keep all Members briefed on any significant emerging issues and seek informal advice via email or by convening short, additional briefings of the Commission.
The Commission will continue to keep the matter under close review and looks forward to the appointment of a new Speaker.
Mr A Maginness: Could a Deputy Speaker assume the role of Chairperson of the Commission in the absence of an elected Speaker?
Mr Gardiner: That has not been the case. At the moment, as there is no Speaker a member of the Commission will preside.
Mr Gardiner: I thank the Member for his question. The Assembly Commission has not given specific consideration to providing additional resources to allow Members to bring forward private Members' Bills. Additional temporary resource has been allocated to provide support for the development of the Committee Bill being promoted by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to reform and update the role and powers of the Assembly Ombudsman.
However, the Assembly Commission seeks to ensure that adequate resources are available to support the work of the Assembly, including Members’ Bills. The Commission’s commitment is evidenced by the significant resources currently devoted to supporting the development of increasing numbers of Members’ Bills proposals and providing professional drafting services by way of an external contract. The Member will appreciate the difficulty of obtaining any further resources for private Member's Bills in the current financial climate.
Mr Swann: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not in my place to ask my question during questions to the Minister for Social Development. I apologise to the House and to the Minister. I am glad that he is back in the Chamber.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I thank the Member for his comments.
I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments as we change the staff at the Table.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
That the Second Stage of the Pensions Bill [NIA Bill 42/11-16] be agreed.
The Bill follows on from the Pensions Act 2014, recently enacted by the Westminster Parliament. The Bill introduces a new state pension system from April 2016, as well as a number of changes to private pension provision and bereavement benefits. The aim of the Bill is to put in place a pension system that not only reflects the reality of our society now but ensures the sustainability of state pension provision for years to come. To help the House understand what the Bill aims to achieve, I will endeavour to outline its main provisions.
The initial provisions in the Bill relate to the introduction of a new state pension for future pensioners. Considerable complexity has built up in the state pension system over time. At the core of the Bill, therefore, is the provision for a new state pension that will simplify the system and provide a firm foundation for pension saving. The current two-tiered system of the basic state pension and the additional state pension will be replaced with a simpler, single-tier state pension for all those who reach state pension age on or after 6 April 2016.
The full rate of the new state pension will be set above the pension credit minimum guarantee level, currently £148·35, which means that fewer people will have to rely on means-tested benefits for their needs. The full-rate new state pension will therefore be no less than £148·40 a week. However, the actual amount will be set in autumn 2015. There will be a minimum qualifying period for entitlement to the new state pension. This will be set out in regulations and will be not more than 10 years.
Integral to the reforms is the closure of the additional state pension for people reaching state pension age on or after 6 April 2016. Contracting out of the additional state pension will therefore come to an end in April 2016, and all employees will pay the same rate of National Insurance and become entitled to the state pension in the same way.
Transitional arrangements will be put in place to ensure that the contributions that people have made in the current system will be recognised in the state provision. If someone has earned a higher pension, the excess will be payable over and above the new state pension.
As part of the simplification of the system, entitlement will be based on an individual's own National Insurance record. The current provisions that allow a spouse or civil partner to boost their state pension on the basis of the record of their spouse or civil partner or ex-spouse or ex-civil partner will end. Those provisions, introduced in the 1940s, no longer reflect today's society, in which the vast majority of men and women receive a full basic state pension in their own right.
Furthermore, the introduction of the new state pension will reduce the inequalities faced by low earners, in particular women and carers who are unable to accrue large sums of additional state pension under the current system. It will also benefit the self-employed, who will be treated in the same way as employees for pension purposes.
Part 2 makes provision for increasing additional state pension under the current scheme. The Pensions Act 2014 introduced a new class of voluntary National Insurance contributions, class 3A. The relevant provisions in the Act extend to Northern Ireland, as National Insurance contributions are an excepted matter. The state pension top-up scheme would allow people who reach or are due to reach state pension age before 6 April 2016 to boost their retirement income by gaining extra additional state pension by making class 3A contributions. As the state pension is a devolved matter, the Bill contains provision for the additional state pension entitlement that will arise as a result of paying class 3A contributions. The Government have advised that the facility to pay class 3A contributions will be available from October 2015 until April 2017. In reality, people in Northern Ireland will not be able to avail themselves of the scheme until the Bill has been enacted by the Assembly. It is important that we move ahead with the Bill to ensure that people here can take advantage of the scheme if they wish to do so.
Part 3 provides for accelerating the increase in state pension age to 67. Despite previous increases in the state pension age and a programme for further increases, the Government are concerned that life expectancy is increasing faster than projected. Under the current law, state pension age is due to increase to 67 between 2034 and 2036 and to 68 between 2044 and 2046. However, the existing timetable for increasing the state pension age to 67 was determined using 2004-based projections by the Office for National Statistics. The 2010-based projections have since revised the cohort life expectancy for those reaching the age of 66 in 2027 upwards by 1·5 years for men and 1·6 years for women. The Pensions Bill implements a revised timetable for bringing forward the increase to 67 by eight years to between 2026 and 2028. No one will experience a rise in state pension age of more than one year compared with the original timetable that was set by the Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2008.
I turn now to Part 4, which provides for the abolition of the assessed income period in pension credit. The assessed income period was introduced as part of pension credit in 2003. It was a new approach to case maintenance for claimants aged 65 and over. That was based on the assumption that pensioners were more likely to have relatively stable incomes with fewer changes in their circumstances, and so a lighter-touch maintenance and review regime was deemed to be appropriate. However, it has proved more complex than originally anticipated. It has allowed inaccuracies to build up in the system. As claimants with an assessed income period do not need to inform the Department if they experience changes in their capital or the make-up of their retirement income, an increase can legitimately be ignored until the end of the period. In future, any change in circumstances should be reported when it occurs, and a review of the benefit award will be conducted at that point. That will ensure that people get the benefit they need when they need it. Older claimants will be protected through the continuation of the existing indefinite assessed income period for those aged over 75.
I will move on from state pensions. The Bill contains measures to replace the current bereavement benefits with a new bereavement support payment. Bereavement benefits form an important part of the state safety net. However, the current system is based on a complicated system of payments and contributions to determine eligibility. A single bereavement payment with a simplified contribution condition should reduce complexity in the system. The new benefit will focus support on the period immediately after bereavement and will consist of a lump sum with instalments over 12 months. Whilst the precise amount will be determined nearer to introduction, indicative values are in the region of a £5,000 lump sum and £400 a month for 12 months for those with dependent children. Those without children will receive a £2,500 lump sum and £150 a month for 12 months.
Bereavement support will do a number of things. First, it will provide additional upfront help in the year after bereavement, when it is needed most. Secondly, it will be available to childless people under the age of 45 who would not have been entitled to bereavement allowance or widowed parent's allowance. Thirdly, it will be disregarded from capital and income calculations for entitlement to other benefits. Longer-term support will be provided through other benefits as appropriate. The bereavement support payment will not be payable to anyone over pension age. If a person is entitled when reaching pension age, entitlement will cease. Current beneficiaries will retain their rights under the existing scheme. That is an important point to underline.
Finally, the Bill contains a number of private pensions measures. Some of the provisions are designed to build on earlier reforms, such as the introduction of automatic enrolment, and to encourage private pension saving, while others are purely technical in nature. Under the current system, every time someone moves to a new job, there is the potential for them to leave behind a small pension pot that they may lose track of over the years. However, knowing the Members of the House, I suspect that some have kept a very close eye on those pension pots. The Bill, therefore, contains powers to introduce a pot-follows-member system of automatic transfers of small pension pots. That will help people to keep track of their pension savings and ensure that they reap the intended benefits of automatic enrolment.
The Bill extends powers to set minimum quality requireme