Official Report: Tuesday 13 January 2015
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: I inform Members that I have received a valid petition to refer a ministerial decision to the Executive Committee under section 28B of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The petition relates to the decision by the Minister of Education to approve changes to post-primary education in Fermanagh, discontinuing the Collegiate Grammar School and Portora Royal School, as announced to the Assembly on 28 November 2014. In accordance with the Act and Standing Order 29, I have consulted with the political parties whose members hold seats in the Assembly. Having consulted the parties and given the matter full consideration, I have certified that the Minister's decision does not relate to a matter of public importance. I will not, therefore, refer the decision to the Executive Committee for consideration.
Mr Wells (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): I wish to make the following statement on the seventeenth North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting in the health and food safety sectoral format, which was held in the NSMC joint secretariat offices in Armagh on Wednesday 12 November 2014. Minister O’Neill MLA and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at that meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Leo Varadkar TD, Minister for Health, and Dr James Reilly TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Minister Varadkar chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed with Minister O’Neill, and I am making it on behalf of both of us.
The Council noted that considerable EU funding opportunities are available in the health sector, and we have encouraged our respective officials to continue to identify joint projects that can attract European funding. We welcomed the collaboration that is taking place to draw down funding, in particular the Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT) project, which is delivering cross-border health services to improve patient care.
Ministers noted the progress on the alcohol-related harm prevention strategies in both jurisdictions. That included the work of the North/South alcohol policy advisory group and the establishment of a North/South hidden harm group, facilitated by Cooperation and Working Together.
The Council noted the ongoing work on minimum alcohol unit pricing. We discussed the jointly commissioned University of Sheffield study on the potential impact of minimum unit pricing in both jurisdictions. Minister Varadkar and I are committed to working towards the introduction of minimum unit pricing at the same time. That commitment from the Minister in the Republic that we will work together on this issue was a very welcome outcome of the meeting. We can all understand why that is important because if Northern Ireland was to go down the road of minimum unit pricing on its own and the Irish Republic did not, that would obviously lead to many smuggling opportunities.
The Council was informed that the tobacco products directive came into force in May 2014, following European Union member states' final approval. Ministers noted the ongoing work under the EU action plan on childhood obesity. Ministers welcomed the progress on the development of the two new suicide prevention strategies. We also welcomed the commitment to share knowledge arising from media and public information campaigns on mental health.
It is unfortunate that the Chair of the Health Committee is unable to be with us this morning because I am sure that she would be very interested in the next section of my contribution, which deals with Altnagelvin Hospital. The Council noted that a memorandum of understanding and a service level agreement for the operation of the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin had been signed, that works had commenced at the site and that the project remained on target for completion with an operational date of autumn 2016. I am sure that everyone in the House will welcome the considerable progress that is being made in that much-needed and much-welcomed project. Ministers welcomed the continued progress of the Ireland-Northern Ireland-National Cancer Institute cancer consortium and the proposals for sharing information to support the work streams of the consortium.
The Council noted the report from the latest meeting of the tri-jurisdictional steering group for the US-Ireland R&D Partnership which took place on 29 September 2014. We noted that the meeting included discussion on the various application success rates in the different research priority areas, opportunities for promoting partnerships to increase visibility, particularly in the USA, and new funding mechanisms, including centre-to-centre cooperation.
Ministers also welcomed the update on the ongoing work of the All Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care, including the recent launch of the children and young people's website.
The Council recalled the discussion at the NSMC plenary in Dublin on 3 October. Ministers noted that the child protection work programme continues to be progressed and that updates will be reported at future meetings. We also noted that a North/South child care in practice conference on authoritative early intervention was held on 22 October 2014 in Dundalk.
The Council noted a progress report provided by the recently appointed chief executive of safefood, Ray Dolan. Ministers were briefed on the continued development of the awareness campaign targeting childhood obesity and overweight. We also noted the success and development of the community food initiatives and a range of research projects and surveys completed in recent months.
The Council was advised that safefood had established a draft 2015 business plan and budget. These will be submitted to NSMC for approval once they have been approved by the sponsoring Departments and Finance Ministers. The Council noted that safefood has prepared its annual report and accounts for 2013, which have been certified by the Comptrollers and Auditors General. Once the annual report has been approved by both sponsor Departments, it will be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Ministers noted the position with regard to Tourism Ireland’s annual report and accounts 2013, which have been laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and will be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. Finally, we agreed that the next NSMC health and public safety meeting will be held in spring 2015.
I should say to Members that I had formally invited Minister Varadkar to Londonderry to visit the new radiotherapy unit, which his Department is partially funding. I am glad to say that the revenue from the Republic continues to flow for that scheme and that there has been good cooperation on the funding of it. I understand that the visit will take place in May. At that time, I will also be keen that he visit the new South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen, where a significant number of patients from the Irish Republic are having various procedures.
I thought that it was a very good, positive meeting. I have had various contact with the Minister since, and I think that we can establish a very good, cooperative relationship on issues of mutual concern.
Ms P Bradley (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety): I thank the Minister for his statement. It may have been brief but it was certainly packed with lots of positive information.
I wish to turn the Minister's attention back to the minimum unit pricing of alcohol. The Committee for Social Development has discussed the issue. As someone who worked in the health service and saw at first hand the effects that alcohol has on our hospital services, I ask how realistic it is that we work towards the introduction of minimum unit pricing at the same time as the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Wells: I was greatly heartened by Minister Varadkar's view on the matter. I also met the Health Ministers for Wales and Scotland, and we are all singing off the same hymn sheet.
I welcome comments from the parties in the Assembly on their views on minimum unit pricing. We announced it just before Christmas and have not had an opportunity to consult. It is important that we work together as an Assembly on that vital issue.
I got the clear impression from my counterpart in the Irish Republic that he is as committed to its introduction as I am. He can see clearly the logic of us working together. If we did not, and we were to introduce, say, a minimum price of 50p a unit in Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic refused to do that or was a long way behind us, it is obvious what would happen. There would be the mass importation of cheaper alcohol from the Republic into Northern Ireland.
The island of Ireland has history when it comes to this issue. There has been a long tradition of alcohol moving from one side of the border to the other, depending on price. Therefore, because we are dealing with two currencies, it is vital that we work together. As such, we are going to have to pitch our minimum price at a level that means that people buying alcohol in the supermarket are paying basically the same, North or South.
My clear view from the meeting was that exactly the same problems that we have, and the £900 million that they are costing us, are evident in the Republic. It also accepts the University of Sheffield study. I think therefore that we are moving forward in tandem, and I really do welcome that cooperation.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire ar maidin. I welcome the Minister's statement. I agree that it is packed with a lot of issues.
The Minister said that there has been development with suicide prevention strategies. Suicide is a scourge on Irish society across the island, so to see progress is welcome. Can the Minister elaborate on that progress and is there a timeline for the strategies?
Mr Wells: As the Member knows, the issue has come up frequently at sectoral meetings. Indeed, there have been joint events between the two jurisdictions. We are hoping that our suicide prevention strategy will go out to consultation in early 2015, so that is only a few weeks away. I have not got a date from my colleagues in the Irish Republic, but there will be a read-across in the two strategies as to the most efficient way of dealing with the issue.
We have huge experience of dealing with this desperately difficult problem. Remember that, in 2013, we lost 303 lives to suicide in Northern Ireland. It is a growing and very difficult problem. Therefore, we will have to learn from each other. I suspect that the issue will be on the agenda for future sectoral meetings, and I want to work closely with our colleagues in the Irish Republic.
In Northern Ireland, however, different issues from those in the Irish Republic are causing the worrying trend. For instance, the Irish Republic does not have the legacy of the Troubles that we have or the sectarian interfaces. Therefore, it is important that we have our own distinct strategies but that they complement each other rather than conflict.
What slightly worries me about this statement is that, on every issue that we brought up, there seemed to be unanimity and agreement on the ways forward. There were no differences or difficulties expressed whatsoever. Again, they are very keen to let us have access to their research and study, and we are equally keen to make our research available to the authorities in the Republic in this instance.
Mr McKinney: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate you on your election.
I warmly welcome the Minister's positive comments in relation to the working relationship with the Minister in the Republic, Leo Varadkar, which I hope continues. The SDLP has always taken the view that North/South makes sense, so, as you can imagine, we are doubly excited when we hear talk of joint projects and considerable EU funding. Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity to expand on the range of those projects available and the extent to which further funding might become available.
Mr Wells: The honourable Member, from his huge experiences, will know that, for health, EU funding is not the pot of gold that it is perhaps for other Departments. If only we could access additional funding from Europe to cover pressures on A&E and domiciliary care etc, but we cannot. Therefore, we are really tied to INTERREG V and Horizon 2020.
In Northern Ireland, we have three health-care intervention networks established in cancer, public health and through the Northern Ireland Clinical Research Network, which cover 11 areas of health and social care. Within that existing portfolio, there are interventional trials running in Northern Ireland, of which 30% are commercial.
The overall goal of INTERREG V is to extend to those networks in Northern Ireland and build corresponding linked infrastructure of that kind in the Republic of Ireland. That is important, but it is on a very small scale in the overall scheme of things. We have a £5 billion budget and, in the Republic, the budget is something like €9 billion. Therefore, whilst it is important in areas of mutual concern to encourage joint provision and cooperation, it does not come anywhere near what we need to fund our own health service, for which we are short by about £70 million this year. Therefore, I welcome it and think it has potential, but it will not, in my opinion, provide a significant input to our future funding in the hundreds of millions that we require.
Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is proposed that the Food Standards Agency will have its budget reduced from £8·5 million to £7·4 million. Given that food hygiene official controls constitute over 60% of the entire FSA budget, how is the Minister sure that such a reduction will not impact on food safety standards, especially with regard to clamping down on the blight of cross-border smuggling and illegal slaughtering?
Mr Wells: I have had representations from the Food Standards Agency on that particular issue and I can understand its concerns about the reduction in funding. A very high proportion of its expenditure is on fees for vets to inspect meat plants. I am pleased to say that that work is generally showing that our standards are extremely high in Northern Ireland and, indeed, in the Irish Republic. Some of what is being undertaken at the moment is very routine and is not producing much in the way of new information.
The agency has asked us to have another look at the reduction in funding, and I have agreed to do that. It is like so many other issues in my budget and in the Northern Ireland block grant generally: we have to find savings somewhere. There is only a small area that we can target for budget reduction, and this is one of those bodies that is not seen as being front line. Therefore, we have asked all such groups to come up with options for a 5%, 10% and 15% reduction in funding. When all those come back, I will look very carefully at them and see what the impact will be.
I suspect that, with the FSA, we could reduce to some extent the amount of red tape and bureaucracy at meat plants to reduce the costs involved. Well done to the quality assurance scheme and our farmers for producing food to the highest standard. That is showing in the abattoirs, where it is quite unusual to find issues of concern, which means that all the tests that are being carried out are not producing much.
A range of different agencies have responsibility for food safety.
I would be surprised if it were not possible to continue to ensure, on a cross-border basis, the highest possible standards within a reduced budget, though it may not be as reduced as the early indications suggest.
Mr McCarthy: Mr Speaker, I take this opportunity to congratulate you on being elected Speaker and wish you every success in the future. I also take this opportunity to welcome our Health Minister back. He was lying very low over the last fortnight, so I am delighted to see that he is around and fighting well.
The report that we have has this morning is very comprehensive. It covers many important issues and the progress on them. I am delighted to hear and see the Minister's enthusiasm to see Ireland united on the introduction of minimum unit pricing at the same time. As the Minister has said himself, most of what is contained in the statement is about everybody cooperating very well to the benefit of all our people on the island.
Childhood obesity is very important and something that we all know is going to have to be tackled in the future. Can the Minister advise if there is any possibility, under the EU action plan on childhood obesity, for funding to be directed to ensure that our young people, particularly our schoolchildren, continue to get the education that is needed and the wholesome food that has been provided but that is under threat because of serious budget constraints in Northern Ireland? Is there any chance that the Minister could chase that up to ensure that youngsters at our schools continue to get good wholesome food, fruit etc?
Mr Wells: First of all, I am glad that the honourable Member for Strangford missed me over Christmas. I cannot win. If I am constantly on the airwaves, he complains that he is fed up hearing my voice. Then, when I give him a bit of relief, he says that he has missed me greatly. However, I suspect that he will be pretty annoyed about the number of times that he will hear me in 2015.
As he knows, the overarching goal of the action plan on childhood obesity is to contribute to halting the rise in the number of overweight and obese children and young people, 0-18 years. We want to achieve that by 2020. To achieve this goal, the action plan specifies a set of operational objectives that have been designed to guide the actions of stakeholders across eight priority areas. Actions undertaken in these areas in Northern Ireland include supporting a healthy start to life and promoting healthier environments, especially in schools and preschools.
The former Minister wrote to the Secretary of State for Health at Westminster in support of a 9.00 pm watershed ban on the advertising of certain foods. However, this issue remains a reserved matter. Again, there might be a role for cooperation here between the two jurisdictions. I understand that some Members and some members of the public in Northern Ireland watch an overseas — sorry, another — TV station known as RTÉ. If RTÉ continues to advertise foods before the 9.00 pm watershed, it really would not make much sense for us to put a ban on that. However, that is not an issue that we, as an Assembly, can deal with.
Remember, of course, that this is much more than just a Department of Health issue. The Public Health Agency (PHA) jointly funds an active school travel programme for 180 schools. DCAL and Sport Northern Ireland continue to invest in the Active Communities programme, in which approximately 106,000 people participated approximately 1 million times in 2013-14.
He is absolutely right: if we do not solve this problem of childhood obesity, it will lead to a long-term rise in type 2 diabetes and other conditions that could swamp the health service in 20 or 30 years' time. Whilst we have concentrated today on many of the tangible issues such as the radiology centre in Altnagelvin and minimum unit prices, there is no doubt that this is one of the priorities that we have to tackle in the coming few years.
Mrs Cameron: Mr Speaker, I, too, welcome you to your new role, especially as a South Antrim constituency colleague. I welcome the Minister's statement and, indeed, the good working relationship that the two Governments are continuing, to the benefit of us all. On the back of my colleague's initial question, can the Minister give us some more detail about the impact that alcohol has on hospital services?
Mr Wells: I am very keen to start a public debate on alcohol abuse in Northern Ireland. We know, for instance, that it costs the health service in Northern Ireland £240 million a year. If I had had that £240 million, my first three months in office would have been so much easier because we would not have had to have any contingency plans and cause the pain that occurred in various communities. We would have been able to roll out new and additional services. We would not have had, for instance, the 130 deaths that occurred in Northern Ireland as a result of alcohol abuse.
There are so many indicators that this is the right thing to do: alcohol is 60% cheaper than it was 30 years ago; we treat 3,100 individuals in hospitals as a result of alcohol abuse; and, at midnight on a Saturday or Sunday, the vast majority of those who report to A&E are under the influence of alcohol or are there because of alcohol. I am very keen that all the parties and all the elected representatives in the Chamber let me know what they feel about the concept of minimum unit pricing, because there is not much sense in all of us working hard on the issue to find that some parties have such huge difficulties with it that it gets no further.
We have found that 31% of our population are binge drinkers: 35% of males and 27% of females. This is a big problem, particularly when you remember that 27% of the population, including me, never touch it. Therefore, that indicates that the prevalence amongst the rest of the community is extremely high.
We will all be put under enormous pressure on this issue by the large drink companies. Be very aware that companies with a bigger budget than the Northern Ireland Executive will lobby you — be ready for that. It is important that, before that starts, we hear the initial views of all MLAs. If you have problems with it, let me know, because I am very keen to have that discussion. We have a hiatus caused by the fact that big distillers in Scotland have referred the Scottish Executive's decision to the European Court of Justice, and there can be no legislation until that case is reported upon. So, in the interim, let us have a debate and see what we think about making alcohol less readily available to all in our community.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Déanaim comhgairdeas leat ar do phost nua mar Cheann Comhairle ar an Tionól. I wish you every success in your new post, a Cheann Comhairle. It is a well-known fact that Derrymen, be they from the county or city, are even-minded and fair-handed, and it is on Derry, particularly the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin, that I want to make my remarks. It does my heart good, and that of many cancer sufferers and their families, to see the rapid progression on the unit and know that it will open in the autumn next year. We are very glad of that. Further to that, will the Minister qualify what exactly the proposals are for sharing, on an all-island basis, vital information from the National Cancer Institute cancer consortium?
Mr Wells: First, I welcome the progress of the new radiotherapy centre in Londonderry. I was up at it recently. I do not know not whether it was the topping-up or what particular stage it was, but it was certainly making excellent progress.
It is unfortunate that the Chair is not here because I think that she would be very interested in my next point, which I think I should raise as a result of this question. There is considerable capacity in the cath lab in Altnagelvin, which is brand new state-of-the-art provision for those who have had heart attacks or have heart conditions. There is a proposal, which I hope to pursue, that we make available that cath lab to patients from Donegal, where between 130 and 150 people a year have cardiac arrests. It does not seem to make much sense that they almost drive past the front door of Altnagelvin on their way to Dublin. When I asked the authorities up there recently what happens to those patients, they told me that some of them die. It is very sad that people are forced to drive for two hours when there is a brand new state-of-the-art facility in Altnagelvin that they could use and that the clinicians there are very keen to make available because we have sufficient spare capacity. I hope to talk to the Minister in the Republic when he comes up to Altnagelvin about the potential to use that spare capacity .
We have all heard of a chap called Christie O'Donnell, the famous taxi driver in the Bogside who had a heart attack and drove himself to Altnagelvin. His condition was quickly spotted, he was in the cath lab within 55 minutes, totally conscious throughout his procedure and out within three days. I am glad to say that he told the entire city of his very pleasant experience. Why should that not be made available on a full-cost-recovery basis to the residents of Donegal? That makes common sense to me. Maybe some people can see a problem with it, but I cannot.
We are still working very closely together on the cancer strategy and hope to use the joint research between the two jurisdictions to improve cancer care. Again, I think that there is a lot to be said for joint cooperation and sharing of information. Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are quite good at cancer care, and the stats show that we are making huge progress. Therefore, as with all jurisdictions, we are very keen to share the knowledge and experiences of the two jurisdictions to better the treatment of all our communities.
Mr G Robinson: I thank the Minister for his statement, and welcome that work has commenced at Altnagelvin Hospital on the much-needed radiotherapy unit for the north-west of the Province. Is all the funding now in place for that much-needed project?
Mr Wells: I suppose that I am going to disappoint some Members, because all the news from the meeting was very positive. You always look for the complexities, difficulties and problems, but we came out of that meeting feeling that it had gone very well.
I am glad to say that the authority in the Irish Republic — the HSE — has come up to the mark and has been paying the capital bills that we have sent for the work on the new radiotherapy unit. There have been no difficulties whatsoever with that, and that is commendable given the fact that the Republic is coming through very difficult financial times. No; there have been absolutely no problems.
I am told that the discussions on the agreement to reimburse patients when they eventually arrive from the Republic are also going very well. From my experience with Daisy Hill Hospital, where a high percentage of the users of the renal unit are from Louth and north Monaghan, I know that there have been no difficulties whatsoever with that arrangement. The bill is sent, it is paid and the unit is used to its maximum capacity. That has to be a good thing.
I know that the honourable Member for East Londonderry is very concerned about his constituents in places like Limavady and Ballykelly. They can be absolutely certain that, as things stand, that unit will open on time and will be used to alleviate the problems that so many cancer patients face in the north-west.
Four years ago, we were told that it would never happen and that the money was not there to build that new facility. Indeed, it was very controversial at the time. The first decision that Edwin Poots made as Health Minister was that the radiotherapy centre in Londonderry would go ahead, and we have delivered on that promise.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for his statement. I want to ask him about the tri-jurisdictional collaboration with the US-Ireland R&D Partnership. What is expected to come out of that and what sort of resourcing implications are there likely to be for the centre-to-centre collaboration?
Mr Wells: As the Member knows, the US-Ireland R&D Partnership promotes innovative research projects to deliver major advances in healthcare and to the economy. The projects involve academic and clinical research collaborations from the USA, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Project proposals relevant to health care are submitted to the US National Institutes of Health, where they undergo rigorous evaluation. If they are deemed to be of sufficient scientific merit, they are recommended for funding. Funding is provided by each of the three jurisdictions to meet the research costs that they will incur.
I am very excited about that proposal, because the US is obviously a leading world authority on medical research. Not only does it provide opportunities for clients and patients in Northern Ireland to obtain better care, but Northern Ireland is quite good at taking those technologies and using them to promote employment. It has been quite remarkable that, during the last five years, all our major companies in that field have increased their employment and have not laid anybody off. Indeed, one of the major companies doubled its workforce between 2008 and 2014. So, that indicates that the outcomes of that tri-nation partnership could lead to significant employment opportunities throughout Northern Ireland, and not always in the greater Belfast area.
The concept that the world ends at Glengormley does not apply here, because the leading players are in places like Newry, Crumlin, Portadown and Craigavon. I was in Cuba two years ago with the then Health Committee Chair, Sue Ramsey, and it was very interesting to note that a lot of diagnostics in Cuba were being carried out by Randox in Crumlin. With great pleasure, I explained where Crumlin was. I remember that company starting with four men in a farm building at the lough shore near where my grandparents lived, and now it is a world leader. This has my full commitment, as well as that of the ETI Minister and the previous Minister, Edwin Poots, not only to benefit our patients but to develop our economy. I am totally committed to pursuing every possible way of maximising the returns from this partnership.
Mr Allister: The Minister advises that the memorandum of understanding for the radiotherapy unit in Londonderry has now been signed. Will he tell us something about the charging regime that will apply? Is he satisfied that it will be foolproof, and how does that compare with the experience of foreign use of Newry and Enniskillen hospitals?
Mr Wells: It is quite a simple issue: the board and the trust decide what is full-cost recovery for each procedure carried out. The patient comes from the Irish Republic — from Donegal, Cavan or wherever — and the procedure is carried out. We are then very quick to send the bill to the Irish Republic, and my experience is that it pays quickly and does not haggle or negotiate. A reasonably solid income is produced for the Department. The Newry experience is that there have not been any difficulties. I am always very quick to check and double-check, because, if something is too good to be true, it sometimes is. However, I have spoken to the Southern Board about it and visited the renal unit to see how smoothly the system operates, and we do not seem to be experiencing any problems. I had suspected that, given the dreadful difficulties that the Health Department in the Irish Republic was under during the recession, there would have been problems getting the money out, but that has not occurred. I am confident that, if there are any problems with getting full-cost recovery, the problem is ours because we have not assessed the bill correctly; it is not that the Republic is not paying.
As to whether the Irish Republic has come up with the money for the capital aspect of the budget — absolutely, on the nail, no problem. Every time we asked for the money that was committed by the Irish Republic, we got it. I am confident that my officials will make certain that we will not be out of pocket for having treated patients not only from the Irish Republic but from anywhere else where we can have full-cost recovery, and that will add significantly to our income.
There is also another aspect. If you spend vast amounts of money, as we are doing in the Western Trust — woe betide anyone who comes to me in the next 18 months and says that Altnagelvin is being neglected, because that simply is not true — it is absolutely vital that you use those assets to the maximum. There really is no sense in spending millions of pounds on a new facility to have it lying empty for several hours a day or at weekends. It makes commercial sense to ensure that patients from Donegal — be it in the cath labs or the radiotherapy unit — are there, because they keep that capacity going more efficiently.
Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also offer my comhghairdeas to you on your new appointment and wish you all the best for the future.
With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the 1998 Act regarding the twenty-sixth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in aquaculture and marine sectoral format. The meeting was held in Armagh on 5 December 2014. The Executive were represented by Minister Mervyn Storey and me. The Dublin Government were represented by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Alex White TD, and Joe McHugh TD, Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Minister White chaired the meeting. The statement has been agreed with Minister Storey, and I make it on behalf of us both.
Given that it was the first time that three of those Ministers had attended a meeting in aquaculture and marine sectoral format, the chief executive of the Loughs Agency outlined the key objectives for the agency in 2014-2016. The Council noted the key objectives and benefits of the agency’s investment strategy for local and community initiatives in the Foyle and Carlingford areas. The Council received a progress report on the work of the Loughs Agency from the chief executive. Ministers welcomed progress on the activities of the Loughs Agency, including an update on the management agreement, the progress on the Loughs Agency’s financial statements for 2012 and the Foyle Ambassador Programme.
In relation to the management agreement, we were told that the interdepartmental group on jurisdictional issues met on 29 October 2014, with a further recent exchange of views between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In parallel, the Loughs Agency continues to engage with other relevant agencies in developing a management agreement. The agreement will address the practical and operational issues that will arise from the transfer of aquaculture licensing and development functions to the agency. As previously noted, any such operational agreement could not be implemented prior to the resolution of the jurisdictional issue. I have asked that Minister White works with Minister Coveney to progress the management agreement. I stressed that the agreement has been under discussion for quite a number of years and that it is important that it is advanced.
The Council noted the latest position on the survival of Atlantic salmon in the Foyle and Carlingford catchments and the ongoing conservation and protection efforts. It also noted the position on the survival of the native Lough Foyle flat oyster and the need to balance the conservation imperative with sufficient economic opportunity for stakeholders in the industry. During the NSMC meeting, Ministers called on the Loughs Agency to review its decision to close the six main oyster beds. I am pleased to say that on 11 December, the chief executive took the decision to reopen two of the six main oyster beds. Whilst I appreciate the importance of management interventions to conserve and maintain oyster stocks, I was mindful of the impact that closure of the oyster beds was having on the livelihood of local oystermen, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. The decision struck a balance between the socio-economic benefits for the Lough Foyle fishermen and the scientific evidence supporting the long-term sustainability of the native oyster fishery in Lough Foyle.
The Council received an update on the agency’s ongoing work commitments, such as its responsibilities under the water framework directive and the habitats directive. Water quality and biological monitoring programmes continue to provide valuable information for the management of the systems. A small streams survey of Carlingford to determine the potential for rehabilitation of trout-spawning areas and a survey of urban streams were undertaken. The agency has also developed a fisheries' habitat improvement assessment template for 2015. We heard about the upward trend in conservation limits. In 2005, the main rivers, on average, were only meeting 50% of their conservation limits, and in 2014 the average was approximately 97%. Ministers also noted the progress on the IBIS project and the ongoing partnership with the Queen’s University Belfast and Glasgow University.
The Council noted that the Loughs Agency has applied the required efficiency savings to the 2015 budget in accordance with agreed guidance issued by the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and that sponsor Department Ministers and Finance Ministers have approved the business plan and budget. I am pleased to report that the NSMC approved the Loughs Agency 2015 business plan and recommended the 2015 budget provision of just under £4 million. I want to pay tribute to the chief executive and his staff for delivering the draft business plan within very tight time constraints.
Ministers welcomed the report on the activities of the Loughs Agency in promoting and marketing Foyle and Carlingford loughs, in particular marine leisure infrastructure developments, outreach and community activities and promotion of local seafood products. The Council noted the report on the funding opportunities available to the Loughs Agency and future plans for funding applications that would benefit the Foyle and Carlingford catchments.
The Council considered and approved the Foyle area regulations 2014. These were scrutinised by the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee earlier last year.
Ministers approved the determinations made by the Loughs Agency and the parallel determinations of other North/South bodies that the North/South pension scheme should apply to all North/South bodies, including the Loughs Agency. The NSMC also approved the determination made by the Loughs Agency that the Foyle Fisheries Commission pension scheme 1979 be closed and that, simultaneously, its members transfer to the North/South pension scheme.
The Council agreed to meet again in aquaculture and marine sectoral format in March.
Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for her statement. I refer her to paragraphs 8 and 9, regarding the management agreement. As the Minister knows, this has been a recurring theme over many years, and it seems we are no nearer to getting it resolved. Reference was made to a recent exchange of views between the two Departments on this. Will the Minister indicate whether the views were favourably inclined to a management agreement?
Mrs O'Neill: Aquaculture licensing is one of the functions of the Loughs Agency. To date, as you have rightly said, the agency has not been able to assume that function due to jurisdictional, legal and policy issues. At its meeting on 29 October 2014, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reported that the jurisdictional issue had recently been discussed. Remember that those negotiations are with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Those discussions were quite positive, and there were moves to progress things, but all issues have not been resolved. I understand that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently awaiting further communication from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office arising from that dialogue.
In parallel with ongoing discussions on the jurisdictional issue, the Loughs Agency continues to engage with other relevant agencies in developing a management agreement that will address the practical and operational issues that may arise. So, it is working to make sure that it has things in place that are ready to go as soon as we have the agreement. I confirm to the Member that I stressed at the meeting the need for this to be resolved. It has been going on for far too long; it has been going on for quite a number of years, certainly for the time that I have been attending NSMC meetings. I have asked Minister White to raise the issue again with Minister Coveney. I have also raised the issue with Minister Coveney, and I will continue to push for it to be resolved.
Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate you on your historic elevation.
Minister, I thank you for your presentation. Will the Minister tell us the current status of the proposed fisheries Bill?
Mrs O'Neill: Formal consultation on policy proposals for the new fisheries Bill, which, among other things, include proposals to amend the Foyle Fisheries Act, closed on 10 November 2014. Officials are analysing the outcome of the recent consultation on proposals for the new Bill. The final policy that will underpin the draft fisheries Bill will be finalised once a full analysis of the outcome of the consultation has been completed. My aim is to introduce the Bill to the Assembly before the 2015 summer recess. In order to make arrangements in relation to the Loughs Agency, parallel changes are required in the Twenty-six Counties, and discussions are under way with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources as the co-sponsor.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for her statement. In relation to the management agreement, might opportunities arise to increase the potential for funding to make sure that we have further development in the Foyle and Carlingford catchment areas?
Mrs O'Neill: The management agreement is a practical issue that we need to resolve, but there absolutely are other opportunities for funding. The Loughs Agency is working, particularly at European level, to see what funding it is able to draw down. Quite significant funding has been invested in aquaculture. We want to see that continuing. Given the financial climate that we are in, it is so important that the agency looks towards other funders. It is actively involved in quite a number of projects that it is chasing at a European level and even more internationally than that. To date, it has secured in excess of €15 million. That shows the potential of the Loughs Agency to seek additional funding. I know that it will continue to do that over the next wee while as part of its plans moving forward as it looks towards other partners that it can work with, particularly in research.
Mrs Dobson: I also thank the Minister for her statement. Will she detail how the recommended 2015 budget grant provision of under £4 million compares with previous years? Is she absolutely confident that, as the crisis in public spending in key services such as health and education looks set to continue, no further savings can be made from the Loughs Agency?
Mrs O'Neill: NSMC Ministers approved the Loughs Agency's business plan and recommended that it receive budget provision of £3·95 million. In accordance with the agreed guidance, the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission is required to make efficiency savings of 4% for every year between 2014 and 2016. It has lived up to that. It is a plan that will culminate in overall savings of 12% up to 2016. I am pleased that the Loughs Agency has been very proactive and has applied all the required efficiency savings in the 2015 budget in accordance with what was agreed with the sponsor Finance Departments. I appreciate the challenges that lie ahead for the Loughs Agency. They are as relevant to it as they are to other bodies. I am grateful to the chief executive for being proactive and looking for other sources of funding, which I referred to earlier. It has a very ambitious programme in terms of the research it wishes to do and the opportunities for funding that are there. I am happy to work with it in its pursuit of that.
Mr McCarthy: Following on from that question, I am concerned about paragraphs 19 and 20. Paragraph 19 states that there have been:
"the required efficiency savings to the 2015 budget in accordance with agreed guidance".
Can the Minister tell the Assembly what, if any, work will fall by the wayside as a result of the savings that are spoken about in paragraph 19?
Mrs O'Neill: The Loughs Agency has been aware of the requirement that was set to find 4% year on year, so, in setting out its programme for the year ahead, it has built in to its corporate plan and business plan the fact that it needs to find that 4% saving. It is not a matter of reducing; it knew that it had to find it. As I said, although I appreciate the work that it has done in finding the savings, I also appreciate the work that it has done in attracting additional EU funding to help it to deliver the fantastic service that it does.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for her statement. I, too, wish to follow on with paragraph 19 and the budgets. Minister, that paragraph refers to "efficiency savings", as you mentioned. Can you elaborate on that? Are you satisfied that the agency represents value for money?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I am. I read its business plan and its budget proposals, and I look through all its plans. I said in the previous answers that I commend the Loughs Agency for the work that it has been doing. When you see for yourself the projects that it does on the ground to promote tourism and the fact that it has been able to bring part of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race to Derry, you see that fantastic tourism potential has been opened up. It is showcasing fishing in Ireland right across the world and is attending a lot of events. I think that its track record speaks for itself, and the value for money speaks for itself through what it does. All that, as well as the fact that it is so proactive in finding other EU funding, is to be commended.
Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I, too, congratulate you on your position. Can the Minister please elaborate on why the decision was taken to reopen the oyster beds in the run-up to Christmas 2014?
Mrs O'Neill: During the NSMC meeting in December, we asked Loughs Agency to review its original decision to close the main six oyster beds in Lough Foyle. The main reason for that was that, following a meeting of the Lough Foyle fishermen in Redcastle on Friday 28 November, which my officials attended with their counterparts from the 26 counties, along with Minister McHugh, we were made aware that the vast majority of the fishermen were calling for the beds to be opened in the run-up to Christmas. The fishermen made the point that they saw themselves very much as the custodians of Lough Foyle and would do all in their power to protect the stocks. However, they made a plea to be allowed to fish in the run-up to Christmas. It was therefore incumbent on Ministers to ask the agency to look at that decision again. One of the things that I highlighted to the Loughs Agency was that there was perhaps a need for improved communication with the fishermen to communicate the message on why beds need to be closed. Also, in this instance, the decision was purely down to the Loughs Agency. We asked it to take a look at it again, and I was delighted that it made a decision that I believe was balanced on the socioeconomic needs of the fishermen and with the conservation imperative in mind. I know that it is something that the fishermen welcome, and I look forward to improved communication with the Loughs Agency and fishermen.
Mr Dallat: Mr Speaker, in keeping with the other Members who already congratulated you, in case someone might make mischief, I need to put it on record that, earlier today, I too offered my warmest congratulations and full cooperation in ensuring that this place remains a model of democracy.
I am delighted — almost ecstatic — to see that paragraph 21 mentions the idea of promoting and marketing Foyle and Carlingford loughs and that that is now on the discussion sheet. Can I trawl that idea to new depths and propose that, at a future meeting, the Minister will perhaps suggest that we develop a comprehensive strategy involving not just Carlingford and Lough Foyle but maybe the River Bann, which, although flowing out into the same sea a few metres away, is controlled by Waterways Ireland? In other words, in a nutshell, can we at least have a discussion on a comprehensive plan for all the waterways that are under different controls at the moment?
Mrs O'Neill: Like you, I am also delighted that the Loughs Agency continues to be very proactive in the promotion of tourism, and the events that I referred to earlier are testimony to the work that it has done. Through engagement with stakeholders and other statutory organisations, working with councils and other bodies, the agency is always striving to find new ways to accelerate growth and potential. Your point about a comprehensive strategy is well made. I am happy to explore the remit for the River Bann and whether it comes under the NSMC or Waterways Ireland and to pass that on to the relevant body for discussion.
Mr Allister: In paragraph 9 the Minister referred to the "jurisdictional issue". What is that jurisdictional issue and what is the view of the Northern Ireland Executive on it?
Mrs O'Neill: In paragraph 9 I did refer to the jurisdictional issue, and the Member is very aware of what that is; we have discussed it, and he asks me questions on it every time I make a statement on the NSMC. Given that the issue has been discussed for quite some time, I am acutely aware that he is aware of the issues. My core concern is that we get the issue resolved to allow the Loughs Agency to do its job and to make sure that it provides regulations where regulations are necessary. That is the priority for the Loughs Agency and for me. I have asked Minister White to raise the issue with Minister Simon Coveney and for him to chase the issue up again with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Mrs O'Neill: I will let you know what the Executive are doing. Minister Storey and I attended on behalf of the Executive, and I make this statement on behalf of the Executive, so the Executive are very aware of the jurisdictional issues in Lough Foyle that need to be resolved.
Mr Speaker: I call the Minister for Regional Development, Mr Danny Kennedy, to move the Consideration stage of the Off-street Parking (Functions of District Councils) Bill.
Moved. — [Mr Kennedy (The Minister for Regional Development).]
Mr Speaker: No amendments have been tabled to the Bill. I will now proceed to put the question on the clause, the schedule and the long title.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Off-street Parking (Functions of District Councils) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions of the Pension Schemes Bill dealing with restrictions on transfers out of public-service defined benefits schemes and reduction of cash equivalents in relation to funded public-service defined benefits schemes, as contained in clauses 69, 70 and 71 of the Bill, as brought from the House of Commons to the Lords.
As part of his Budget statement 2014, the Chancellor announced that, from April 2015, there is to be greater flexibility in the way that members of defined contribution pension schemes can access their pension pot. In essence, members of such schemes will be less constrained to purchase an annuity than is currently the case and will have more freedom to choose, in light of their personal circumstances, whether to purchase an annuity, draw down their savings as a lump sum or keep their pension invested.
Under the current rules, it is already possible for a member of a public-service defined benefit scheme to transfer their pension rights to a defined contribution scheme. However, after the introduction of the flexibilities in April, members exercising that choice would then be in a position to access their pension pots as a lump sum under the new rules. Whilst those new flexibilities are progressive and increase individual choice in how members of schemes control their own pension arrangements, they must also be proportionate and managed effectively, especially where there may be impacts for public-service pension schemes, their members and the taxpayer.
As Members will be aware, funded public-service pension schemes have a fund of assets that can support the payment of transfer values out of the scheme. However, unfunded public-service pension schemes have no such fund of assets set aside, and the transfer values payable for members in those schemes represent an up-front, direct cost to the Exchequer. The main unfunded schemes in Northern Ireland include those for the Civil Service, police, the Fire and Rescue Service, teachers and health workers. The local government pension scheme is the main funded scheme in Northern Ireland.
Permitting such transfers from unfunded public-service schemes from April would risk destabilising those schemes and put pressure on public finances if significant numbers of members were to avail themselves of the new flexibility to transfer to one of the defined contribution arrangements in order to draw down as a lump sum the pension benefits attributable to their career in public service.
It could also be to the detriment of members who remain in the scheme by causing an extraordinary pressure on the scheme's employer cost cap mechanism, which is a requirement for public-service pensions established under the Public Service Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. As a consequence, a significant volume of transfers out of the schemes from April could ultimately mean employee contributions being increased and/or benefits reduced for those members who choose to retain their public-service pension rights in the schemes.
I will now deal with the provisions covered by the motion. Clause 69 of the Bill will have the effect of amending relevant primary legislation — namely, the Pension Schemes (Northern Ireland) Act 1993 — to prevent transfers from unfunded schemes. However, clause 69 also provides scope for regulations to be made by my Department to disapply the restriction in the case of any of the unfunded schemes, should that be a consideration in future.
The outright restriction of transfers will protect the unfunded schemes in Northern Ireland. As I pointed out, the assets held by funded schemes mean that the costs to the public purse of transfers to one of the defined contribution arrangements are less direct than from unfunded schemes. However, in some circumstances, where a significant number of withdrawals from the scheme impact on the short-term cash flow, and therefore the stability of the fund, there could still be implications for members of funded schemes and the taxpayer. As I already advised, that risk affects the local government pension scheme in Northern Ireland.
Although the scheme has a fund of assets that can sustain the payment of transfer values from the scheme under normal conditions, the potential for a significant increase in transfer traffic associated with the introduction of the flexibilities represents a potential risk to the integrity of the scheme and its remaining members, should sufficient members elect to apply to transfer their accrued benefits out of the scheme and into a defined contribution arrangement after April. I firmly believe that there should be a backstop protection to manage that risk.
Clause 70 provides for, in specified circumstances, powers to switch on reduced cash-equivalent transfer values if, as a direct result of increased transfer volumes, there is an increased risk of taxpayer intervention to support the scheme or a risk that the necessary intervention is significantly greater than it would otherwise have been.
The provisions for funded schemes operate as a safeguard rather than as an outright ban. The policy to allow the transfers to continue, subject to the safeguards in clause 70, reflects the inherent capacity of the funded scheme design to absorb an increase in transfer traffic under normal conditions.
The funded defined benefit scheme design is also operated in the private sector. Transfers from funded schemes will continue to be allowed in that sector also. The concern over scheme stability also arises for private sector defined benefit schemes, where it is already addressed by existing powers allowing for the reduction of transfer values to reflect scheme funding. Clause 70 extends an equivalent safeguard for a funded scheme in the public sector.
Minister Durkan is the Minister responsible for the local government unfunded pension scheme. In his response on 23 October 2014 to the Executive paper, which I circulated and which proposed the use of a legislative consent motion (LCM), he confirmed that he was content with the proposed approach.
Clause 71 makes consequential amendments to the Pension Schemes (Northern Ireland) Act 1993 and the Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. Those areas of pension policy are devolved to Northern Ireland. However, given that the flexibilities are scheduled to be introduced in April, securing Assembly agreement to legislate for the policy via an LCM is the most prudent and timely approach to secure the financial safeguarding of unfunded and funded public-service pension schemes in Northern Ireland.
The policy rationale for introducing a restriction on transfers out of unfunded public-service defined benefit pension schemes and a power to switch on reduced cash-equivalent transfer values for the funded public-service scheme in Northern Ireland is a legitimate one that the Assembly must today endorse.
The measures will avoid contributing to an already very difficult and challenging financial year for public-service spending. As Members will all be too well aware, the Executive have had, and continue, to address significant financial pressures.
The reality is that we cannot afford not to regulate transfers out of public-service pension schemes in prescribed circumstances where there would be risks for scheme members and taxpayers. The scope of this legislation is very limited. It targets a specific risk. It would be simply negligent on our part if Members did not agree to the LCM for the purposes which I have outlined.
Having explained the rationale for bringing the motion to the Assembly, I commend the Committee for Finance and Personnel for the timely manner in which it considered and reported on the motion. I thank the Committee for its general support for the motion. I hope that I have addressed any outstanding concerns that the Committee has raised in its report on this issue, particularly in the area of the rationale for the safeguards that are applied for the funded local government scheme rather than an outright ban.
Mr D Bradley (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm labhairt ar an rún seo ar son an Choiste Airgeadais agus Pearsanra. I am pleased to speak on the motion on behalf of the Committee for Finance and Personnel.
The Minister wrote to the Committee on 21 October 2014 to advise it that he had sought approval from the Executive to have the applicable provisions of the Westminster Pension Schemes Bill extended to Northern Ireland.
As the Minister indicated, as part of the Budget 2014, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the introduction of flexibility in the way that members of defined contribution pension schemes can access their pension pot, which essentially will permit members to draw down their savings as a lump sum as opposed to the current practice, which requires the purchase of an annuity.
Under current rules, it is possible for a member of a public-service defined benefit scheme to transfer their rights to a defined contribution scheme. After the introduction of the flexibilities in April 2015, members exercising this choice would then be permitted to access their pension pots flexibly under the new rules.
Unfunded public-service pension schemes, which include the Civil Service, police officers, firefighters, teachers and health workers, have no such fund of assets.
At its meeting of 5 November 2014, the Committee was briefed by DFP on the proposed legislative consent motion. Given that the LCM will restrict the flexibilities being extended to affected scheme members, the Committee questioned DFP officials to establish the implications of not progressing the LCM, the level of engagement with trade unions and any potential equality implications. In response, DFP advised that, in overall terms across the jurisdictions, there would be a cost to the public purse of some £200 million in the event that 1% of those who are reaching the retirement age in the public-service pension schemes elected to transfer their rights in order to take advantage of the new flexibilities. Also, whilst forecasting of costs had yet to be undertaken at a local level, the Department's understanding was that the trade unions agreed in principle to safeguard the existing schemes, since without these safeguards the cost-control mechanisms could be impacted, which could thereby have a detrimental impact on members in the event of a run on these schemes.
Departmental officials also advised that DFP had been liaising with Treasury on its findings on the equality implications, which will supplement the equality considerations that will be undertaken by the Department. On this point, I would be grateful if the Minister could, upon the completion of this work, provide the findings for the Committee's consideration.
To further inform its consideration of the issues, the Committee wrote to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) for its views on the proposals. In response, ICTU confirmed that it was supportive of the provisions and the use of the LCM mechanism in this instance, explaining that the:
"most important reason to support the legislative consent proposal is to protect the individual scheme member".
A further point highlighted by the Northern Ireland Committee, Irish Congress of Trade Unions was that the Westminster legislation should cover all public-service pension schemes, including funded schemes such as the local government pension schemes. At its meeting on 19 November 2014, the Committee sought clarification from the Department on this issue. In response, the officials advised that whilst the legislative provisions apply to all unfunded schemes, they do not extend to funded schemes, since those operate on a separate basis. The Committee did not have the opportunity to explore the rationale for the provisions not covering all public-service pension schemes here, including the LGPS, so it would be helpful if the Minister could further clarify that point today. Aside from such points of clarification, and after considering the evidence, the Committee for Finance and Personnel agreed its report supporting the proposal for the legislative consent motion. This was circulated to all MLAs in advance of the debate.
Ar an ábhar sin, ar son an Choiste Airgeadais agus Pearsanra, tacaím leis an rún seo. On behalf of the Committee, I support the motion.
Mr Cree: The difficulty in following the Deputy Chair is that he does not really leave much to go on. However, the changes in the pension schemes that have been made recently mean that, from April next year, members of defined contribution schemes will be allowed to access their pensions and exercise choice in how they wish to handle their investment. Public-service defined benefit schemes can also be transferred to defined contribution schemes under current rules, but again, as the Minister said, most of the public-service schemes are unfunded and therefore have no fund of assets.
The Pension Schemes Bill currently going through Westminster seeks to prevent transfers from unfunded public-service pension schemes to defined contribution schemes. The legislative consent motion before the House, if approved, will extend those provisions to Northern Ireland. The Department of Finance and Personnel considers this legislation necessary to protect both the integrity of the unfunded schemes and the interests of scheme members here. As the Deputy Chair said, the unions have indicated their support. Indeed, the Committee for Finance and Personnel has agreed that the motion should be agreed today.
On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I support the motion.
Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): I am pleased that we have had a brief but useful debate on the provisions in the Pension Schemes Bill dealing with the restrictions on transfers out of public-service defined benefit schemes and the reduction of cash equivalents in relation to funded public-service defined benefit schemes. I thank the Deputy Chair of the Committee for his contribution on behalf of the Committee. I thank not just him but the other members of the Committee for their support for the provisions covered by the LCM.
The Deputy Chair himself said that this is about protecting public-sector pension scheme members, whether they be in funded or unfunded schemes. I hope that I have clarified some of the points for him in my opening remarks. This is particularly about those in unfunded schemes, which the majority of schemes operating in Northern Ireland are. It is about protecting those members should significant numbers seek to avail themselves of this flexibility, and I think that it is right and sensible and prudent that we close that down so that pension scheme members left behind in the scheme are not put in a very difficult position. The changes that we put through in our own recent Public Service Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 mean that, if that was the case and the scheme did not have sufficient funds in it, we could have the perverse situation where members would have to pay more in contributions or take less in their benefits, which, I am sure the House would agree, is not something that we want to see happen.
In respect of funded pension schemes, there is a risk. Whilst it is not an outright ban, a safety valve of sorts is being put in place in the event of, as the Deputy Chair said, a run — that is a very good term to use in the circumstances, if maybe not one that we are used to applying to pension schemes.
I hope that what has been said, certainly in my opening remarks, and the support that has been offered today by the Committee via the Deputy Chair's contribution is enough to secure support across the House for the legislative consent motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions of the Pension Schemes Bill dealing with restrictions on transfers out of public-service defined benefits schemes and reduction of cash equivalents in relation to funded public-service defined benefits schemes, as contained in clauses 69, 70 and 71 of the Bill, as brought from the House of Commons to the Lords.
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions dealing with public-sector exit payments contained in clauses 149 to 151 of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, as brought from the House of Commons to the Lords on 20 November 2014.
The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill was introduced to the House of Commons in June 2014. The Bill contains provisions on a wide range of policies aimed at improving access to finance for businesses and helping them to innovate and compete. Specifically, it contains measures that will facilitate a requirement for the repayment of some or all qualifying public-sector exit payments from individuals in prescribed circumstances. The policy intent is that this will apply to individuals earning more than £100,000 who exit a role in the public sector and then return to the same part of the public sector within 12 months.
Clauses 149 and 150 contain the provision by which HM Treasury may make regulations dealing with the repayment of specified types of exit payments. Clause 151 contains a power for the Department of Finance and Personnel to make a waiver for any particular type of exit payee where this is considered appropriate.
It is proposed that the exit payments will include voluntary and compulsory redundancy, voluntary exit payments and discretionary payments made by employers to buy out actuarial reductions for early pensions.
The amount that individuals will be required to repay will decrease gradually over time, proportional to the time between an individual leaving and returning to work. Those who rejoin within a month will have to repay the whole of the payment. Those who rejoin after a month but less than a year will be required to repay less, proportionate to the time they have spent outside public-sector employment.
Where the minority of these staff leave and shortly rejoin, these measures will ensure greater fairness for other public-sector workers and the taxpayer, and flexibility regarding re-employment that avoids an unnecessary discouragement to return to work.
Redundancy pay has played a vital role in supporting the reform of public administration here in Northern Ireland. For employees who have voluntarily or otherwise left public service, it has helped to support them while they find new work. In that context, however, it is entirely unacceptable that highly paid public-sector workers receive a generous redundancy package and then, within 12 months, return to work in the same part of the public sector. In such circumstances, the justification of financial support to bridge the gap to new employment is undermined. This represents poor value for money.
Of course, it would be within the scope of the Assembly to legislate for this provision through its own Bill. However, there would not be sufficient time to enable such legislation to receive Royal Assent by April 2015. Therefore, to guarantee consistency of approach, avoid barriers to labour mobility and ensure that high-earning public servants in the devolved Administration are not treated more favourably than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom, I consider that securing the Assembly's agreement to legislate for this policy via a legislative consent motion (LCM) is the most effective approach by which to secure the timely protection of public funding.
The clauses are scheduled to take effect from April 2015. The regulations will merely set the baseline requirement and will not impinge on existing provisions for the recovery of redundancy payment operated by some employers. These proposals seek not to replace but, rather, to underpin current exit payment arrangements. Indeed, in some areas of the public sector, employers will choose to go further in recovery. These measures will not affect an individual's entitlement to statutory redundancy.
Legislative consent for these provisions will also ensure that the same protections for public finances are applied consistently in Northern Ireland at a time when finances are already stretched.
The principal intent of the Bill is to safeguard public finances. The Bill will ensure that public-service funds are not diverted to compensate high-earning individuals for loss of office in cases where that loss is transitory due to the individual re-entering paid employment in the sector.
I acknowledge and thank the Committee for Finance and Personnel for its timely consideration of the memorandum. Furthermore, I welcome the support of the Committee for the legislative consent motion.
I note that the Committee has drawn attention to the threshold of earnings being set at £100,000. Specifically, the Committee's report states that the provisions
"may not go far enough and that arrangements may need to be tailored to the Northern Ireland context."
I acknowledge and accept that that is a valid point. Certainly, the LCM does not preclude the adoption of a more radical approach in the future; indeed, it will be for my Department to evaluate and review the impact of this legislation to determine whether, going forward, a more targeted, Northern Ireland approach should be adopted. For example, should the threshold be reduced to more accurately reflect public sector salaries here in Northern Ireland, or should the legislation come into effect for re-employment to any of the public sector, rather than just to those who return to the same part of the public sector? Those are valid points and, whilst I believe that consideration should be given to those issues, I am mindful that, for the present, we should seek to implement what we can now, in order to establish a baseline to safeguard public finances.
The detail of the earnings thresholds, employees and bodies that will fall within the remit of the legislation and the mechanism for how it will work in practice will be specified in secondary legislation. Employers, of course, seek to offer alternative employment before making an individual redundant. For example, the Northern Ireland Civil Service has a clear policy of using redeployment to avoid having to reduce staff through such measures as exit or redundancy schemes. As Members know all too well, given the financial pressures that we face, it is only when measures such as redeployment fail to deliver the required reduction in the pay bill and staffing levels that such schemes are implemented.
In its report, the Committee also requested clarification of the rationale for the inclusion of compulsory redundancy payments within the scope of this recovery policy. The purpose of exit payments made for loss of employment is to provide adequate financial support to bridge the gap to new employment. In terms of the overall rationale, to ensure fairness and value for money, it is entirely appropriate that compulsory redundancy payments made to compensate those who meet the high-earner threshold of £100,000 for loss of expected earnings should be within the scope of the policy where earnings are restored within a short period. I also point out that the policy will apply in the case of voluntary exit payments, where a high earner decides to apply for a voluntary exit scheme offered by a public service employer. In the case of those voluntary exits, there is absolutely no compulsion to apply. In those circumstances, it is wholly reasonable to expect that entitlement to retain a cash payment for giving up a high-earning position should be wholly or partially forfeited if they return to a similar position within a 12-month period. It is already a feature of the Civil Service compensation arrangements that payments for each of the categories "voluntary exit", "voluntary redundancy" and "compulsory redundancy" must be returned in full, where an individual returns within 28 days, and repaid pro rata, where an individual chooses to return to the Civil Service within six months.
In short, the motion is a measured and a crucial vehicle that will prevent the wasteful use of vital public funds in lining the pockets of high-earning public servants who, as a consequence of re-employment to the sector following receipt of an exit payment, will, of course, no longer require that financial support.
Mr D Bradley (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel): Go raibh míle maith agat arís, a Cheann Comhairle. Ar son an Choiste Airgeadais agus Pearsanra, ba mhaith liom tacaíocht ghinearálta a thabhairt don rún seo atá faoinár mbráid anois.
On behalf of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, I express general support for the motion. The details of the Committee’s deliberations on the legislative consent motion were set out in a short report that was circulated to all MLAs and published online on 18 December 2014. I shall, however, summarise the key points now for Members’ convenience and for the record.
As has been outlined, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill contains measures primarily aimed at supporting small businesses by improving access to finance. However, the Bill also contains measures to recover redundancy and compensation payments from individuals who exit a role in the public service and then return to the same part of the public service in a short space of time. The Minister advised the Committee that he intended to extend those measures to Northern Ireland to safeguard public finances through the use of the legislative consent motion that is before us today.
After being first informed of the potential need for such an LCM on 12 November 2014, the Committee sought an urgent briefing from departmental officials as soon as possible thereafter. That took place on 19 November 2014. During the session, members heard that the proposed provisions would allow for the recovery of redundancy and compensation payments made to those earning £100,000 or more in certain circumstances; the amount requiring payback would be on a graduated basis; and the provisions would not apply to redundancy payments where individuals have a right to full, unreduced, employer-funded early retirement pension.
In addition, members raised issues and queries with officials. They asked why the threshold of earnings was set at £100,000 and not at a lower sum; why the provisions were being limited to those being re-employed in the same part of the public sector as opposed to all parts of the public sector; and how the condition of not being re-employed within a short space of time will be defined. I note that, during the debate, the Minister has referred to 12 months. Perhaps he will clarify whether that is the short space of time that he has in mind. Finally, members also asked for the basis for the exclusion relating to a person’s contractual entitlement. In responding to the Committee's queries, DFP officials assured members that guidance would be provided on how a "short space of time" will be defined. However, the session raised other issues that I will elaborate on in a moment.
Legislative consent motions, by their nature, are time-limited, so the opportunity for the Committee to engage meaningfully with interested stakeholders has been restricted. Nonetheless, the Committee obtained an informal response from representatives of the Northern Ireland Public Sector Alliance (NIPSA) and correspondence from the First Division Association (FDA). NIPSA highlighted the fact that the proposed legislation would most likely impact most on the health and social care sector, which has more employees earning over the £100,000 threshold. Furthermore, the Committee understands that exit payments for voluntary and compulsory redundancies are included in the scope of the legislation and that NIPSA has raised concerns with the inclusion of compulsory redundancy situations. Perhaps the Minister will wish to place on record during today's debate the rationale for the inclusion of compulsory redundancy payments in the provisions. The Minister could also take the opportunity to address points raised by the FDA, which provided the Committee with a copy of its previous submission on the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, specifically the section relating to the recovery of public sector exit payments.
As will be evident from a reading of the Committee’s report on the LCM, members acknowledge the need for legislative reform in this area during a time of constraint on the public purse. However, the Committee has also highlighted other pertinent issues. It stated that the LCM might be only a necessary first step and that the arrangements being put in place might not go far enough in this regard. DFP officials assured the Committee that, by agreeing to the LCM, the Assembly would not constrain itself and could tailor arrangements to local circumstances and, indeed, take a more radical approach in the future, if necessary. The Minister referred to that in his initial remarks. I regard this as an important and necessary assurance in informing today’s decisions.
Members were also concerned about the implementation of the legislative provisions and what compliance monitoring, if any, would take place. Departmental officials assured members that there would be a post-implementation review examining the impact of the legislation. However, as part of this exercise, the Committee urges the Department to also examine the appropriateness of the £100,000 salary level in the local context; in particular, whether a lower threshold would be more applicable here and as regards how the legislation impacts on different parts of the public sector here.
Clearly, the Committee was able to undertake only a cursory consideration of the issues given the time constraints associated with legislative consent motions and that process. Nonetheless, the Committee identified several pertinent issues such as the need for local guidance, the need for a thorough post-implementation review and what that review should examine, as well as the case for tailoring future arrangements to the particular public sector context in Northern Ireland. As on previous occasions, the Committee has endeavoured to complete its scrutiny of the LCM within an extremely tight time frame. That time frame is inadequate, and, once again, there is a need to highlight the case for a refinement of the LCM process, with early warning of possible LCMs and more time built into the process of legislating for devolved matters.
As the Committee has pointed out previously, earlier notification of the potential need for LCMs is required on two fronts: firstly, from the responsible Whitehall Department to the responsible devolved Department and, secondly, from the Department here to the respective Assembly Committee. This is especially necessary when the legislative provisions covered by the LCM are significant or substantive in nature. When such early notification has been provided by DFP on previous occasions — the LCM on the devolution of long-haul air passenger duty (APD) being a case in point — it has enabled the Committee to begin gathering comprehensive evidence and undertaking the necessary engagement with relevant stakeholders at an early stage and prior to the commencement of the very limited 15-day timetable provided for in Standing Orders.
This concern with how the LCM process can constrain scrutiny is all the more pertinent in the wider context of moves to strengthen the devolved arrangements. I consider that, if sufficient notification is not provided in cases involving substantive legislative provisions, closer consideration will need to be given to whether an Assembly Bill would be the more appropriate vehicle for legislating in the devolved context. I therefore ask the Minister to ensure that all the relevant senior officials in his Department remain mindful of this requirement and endeavour to keep the Committee abreast of developments in respect of any further potential LCMs as they emerge in future. That said, the motion before us today, notwithstanding the issues I have raised, including those to be addressed by the Minister and Department, the Committee agrees that the LCM is a necessary first step to address a legal loophole, especially in the current financial climate.
Ar an ábhar sin, a Cheann Comhairle, ar son an Choiste Airgeadais agus Pearsanra, tacaím leis an Aire Airgeadais agus Pearsanra agus é ar lorg tacaíocht an Tionóil don rún áirithe seo atá os ár gcomhair inniu. On behalf of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, I support the Minister of Finance and Personnel in seeking the Assembly’s agreement to the LCM that is before us today. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr Girvan: I wish to speak on the legislative consent motion on the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill. I appreciate that, when you see small business mentioned in the Bill, you think it is something to do with the private sector, but there is very little reference to it. It is necessary to close what has been an opportunity for many people in the wider public sector. We have a very narrow view of what the public sector is, and public employees seem to filter right down to arm's-length bodies that are still being funded totally from the public purse.
There needs to be more of a workforce planning approach, not just in Departments but throughout the Civil Service and the public sector as a whole, to reduce the opportunity for people to take up voluntary redundancy payments and then re-emerge in the public sector. An earnings limit of £100,000 has been set, although I appreciate that might only reflect on a very small number of people in Northern Ireland. That has to be looked at. It may be that some change will need to be made at a later date, but in order to close the loophole we need to go down this route.
One area that I had concerns about is to do with a culture that has existed and probably relates to pension schemes as well. Some of this will relate to buying pension annuities for individuals who are, maybe, coming close to pension age and, as a consequence, might be buying added years. That will be included as part of the clawback if they return within 12 months. I am somewhat sceptical about the clause spectifying that it must be in the same area because we should look at it overall. After all, many people who have been trained in the Civil Service believe, for example, that they are quite capable of working in the Department of Agriculture and, once they find that they might have to move position or move to Ballykelly and decide that that is not necessarily where they want to be, they will quickly develop the skills to re-emerge in another Department. That is an area that we need to look at.
There is an opportunity coming forward for many people to avail themselves of the exit scheme in the Civil Service, and there might well be opportunities for some people, with the skills that they have acquired in whatever area they are involved, to say that they can work, for example, in the Court Service. They may have worked in a local government department and been made redundant, but they have many skills as a chief executive, for argument's sake, in local government and feel that they could do something else in the courts end. As a consequence, they will not have to hand back any of the very large payout that they might have received as well as the contribution that has been made to a pension pot for them. There are areas that need to be looked at later. However, to allow us to move ahead with this opportunity to close a loophole and safeguard the public purse and public finances, it is vital that we deal with the issue.
Where compulsory redundancy has been dealt with, it is vital that some consideration is made in cases where people have had no alternative but to be made redundant. One area that I was quite interested in is to do with payments made to facilitate dismissal on the grounds of efficiency. In the private sector, that might be called the sack; the public sector has other ways of dealing with it. That, seemingly, does not preclude people from getting payments, and that is something that I would like further investigation of. As it stands, we support moving ahead with the legislative consent motion, which will allow us to close what has been a loophole.
Mr Cree: I have little to say, apart from adding some points. I acknowledge that the Bill was introduced in the House of Commons last June. It contains provisions on a range of initiatives intended to support small businesses by improving access to finance. I notice that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has tabled a motion for debate on it for 20 January.
The Bill also contains measures to facilitate the effective recovery of redundancy and compensation payments from individuals who exit a role in the public sector and then return to the same part of the public sector in a short space of time. In that regard, there is concern that compulsory redundancy situations could fall under the legislation, and clarification has been requested.
The Deputy Chair of the Committee said virtually everything that needs to be said. He highlighted that, because of the time constraints on the Committee, it was able to undertake only cursory consideration of the proposed LCM. However, he identified issues for careful consideration by the Department, and I acknowledge that the Minister addressed some of those points this morning.
The provisions of the LCM are a necessary first step in addressing a loophole in the law, and they deserve the support of the House.
Mr Hamilton: I am very pleased to note various Members' contributions to this debate on the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which deals with public-sector exit payments.
The Deputy Chair was very clear, and whilst I understand and accept his point about whether the Committee had sufficient time to consider this in appropriate depth, I think there is no disagreement across the House that the principle behind this LCM is right and that this is the right thing to do. As Mr Girvan pointed out, whilst it is the right thing to do, it is for a small number of people in the Northern Ireland context.
As I outlined in my opening contribution, and to respond to several points that the Deputy Chair made, there may be an argument to amend these provisions in the future to suit the Northern Ireland set of circumstances, especially in the light of our upcoming voluntary exit scheme and the experience that that will provide.
There were three broad areas not of concern — that may be too strong a word — but of interest. One was on the £100,000 threshold. I will point out that this is an LCM that will be attached to the Bill going through Westminster, and £100,000 is a salary level that is probably more appropriate over there and that probably covers a lot more people than those in the Northern Ireland public sector. However, I still think that it is right thing for us to do this now. We would not have had the time to do and get our own piece of primary legislation through. As I said, we can, of course, amend it to suit Northern Ireland's circumstances if that becomes an issue.
The issue of whether it should be restricted to the same sector and not cover a range of sectors or all sectors was also raised. That is a relevant point that is worth examining on the basis of experience. The origins of this at Westminster are more to do with people leapfrogging and jumping from part of one sector, where they take a payment to get out of that sector, and moving to another high-paying job elsewhere within that sector. I think that that problem manifested itself most primarily within the health sector in GB, and that is perhaps why it is restricted to the one sector.
The Deputy Chair raised the specific issue of what a short period of time will be. That will be set out in regulations. I anticipate that that will be 12 months. There is a more general point about whether it should be restricted to a period of time or should be almost for ever and a day.
Whilst that is worth considering, as is the point about the same sector, I think that it has to be borne in mind whether we want to have a disincentive for people to come back in to the public sector at a particular time. There may be individuals who exit for whatever reason, and it might be useful to bring them back because of the skills and experience that they have and could bring to an area of the public sector in the future.
So, if we are looking to go beyond what is in the Bill and restrict it a little bit more, we need to bear in mind that we do not want to restrict it so much that we cannot bring talented or useful individuals back into the public sector at a later date into a different type of post or even into a post in the same sector, where they may be very useful to the public.
I thank all Members for their comments. On balance, despite the issues raised, I remain of the view that the Assembly should support these measures now for the reasons that I have set out. Over time, as I have already made clear, the efficacy of those measures can be evaluated and further changes considered.
In conclusion, the motion addresses a targeted provision in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill. Legislative consent on this matter will ensure uniformity in the application of the baseline requirement for the recovery of exit payments to those in the high-earning category and provide an assurance to the taxpayer that exit payment arrangements across the sector must be fair and demonstrate value for money.
I invite Members to support the motion, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions dealing with public-sector exit payments contained in clauses 149 to 151 of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, as brought from the House of Commons to the Lords on 20 November 2014.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. As two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes has been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind. All other Members who speak will have five minutes. Before we begin, the House should note that the amendments are mutually exclusive. So, if amendment No 1 is made, the Question will not be put on amendment No 2.
That this Assembly acknowledges the challenging financial environment in which education will operate in 2015-16 and the widespread concern amongst schools regarding the implications for the classroom of the Department of Education's draft budget; recognises that, from 1 April 2015, there will be a single Education Authority in place of the five education and library boards to oversee the allocation of the majority of the education budget; and calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that protecting the classroom is his first priority, that he uses the new administrative arrangements to achieve greater efficiencies within support services and, in so doing, devolves the maximum amount of the available budget to school level.
There has been widespread concern and dismay felt by many in the education community, particularly our schools, at the Minister's draft budget. We face a challenging financial environment, and that will continue over the next few years. That was clearly articulated by my party colleague the Finance Minister on 3 November 2014, when he presented the Executive's draft Budget to the Assembly.
I do not propose to rehearse that debate, but, suffice it to say, the Assembly faces significant financial challenges. This debate is about asking the Education Minister to think innovatively about his budget to ensure that the classroom is the primary beneficiary of those moneys.
Of course, parties were involved in detailed discussions prior to Christmas, and, as the Finance Minister said in the take-note debate yesterday, the Stormont House Agreement, together with additional moneys from the Chancellor's autumn statement and whatever other flexibilities can be found, will create some flexibility in funding available to the Executive in the discussions about the final Budget.
As Chair of the Education Committee, of course I would like to see more money going towards the education budget, but I am also mindful of the competing interests from other Departments, particularly DEL. It is important to acknowledge today that, irrespective of the shape of the final settlement that education receives, responsibility for the allocation of that budget remains with the Minister. The Sinn Féin amendment appears to abrogate that responsibility and place it within the remit of the Executive. That does not appear to be a ringing endorsement of its Minister, but perhaps it has a point. The draft budget for education has demonstrated that the Minister has failed to discharge his responsibilities, because he has broken a number of fundamental rules in its construction. He has produced a draft budget that has caused maximum concern in the school system.
Like most Members, over the last month I have been inundated with letters from schools regarding the implications for them of the current proposals. Over the past number of weeks, I have met principals throughout Northern Ireland. The group of 50 principals that I met in Ballymena last week and principals in my own constituency of Strangford and right across the Province are all saying the same thing. Many schools have contacted me to express their concern about the chaos that would result for them if the draft budget were implemented in its current form. The draft budget is an attack on the education service because it is an attack on the classroom.
Some have suggested to me that this is the Minister simply playing politics and creating mayhem and uproar in the system so that he has the possibility of getting more money in the final settlement. It is only the draft budget, and if other Members and Ministers are playing politics with street lighting and other public services, he would perhaps be doing a disservice to his Department if he did not play the game. If that is the case — and I am not saying that it is — it is a damning indictment of our departmental system that, in a time of austerity, we are playing on the vulnerabilities and fears of the population to score points against one another. Perhaps that is just politics, but surely there is a better way to manage difficult financial settlements than by playing on people's fears.
My major problem with the current draft budget and its proposals is that it has broken two golden rules that have always governed the budgetary process in education. First, it has departed from the basic rule of education budgets of protecting the classroom at all costs. The draft budget proposes to remove £78 million from the aggregated schools budget, which all departmental officials know will create chaos in the system. Furthermore, for the director of finance to come to the Education Committee and talk in a cavalier fashion about 2,500 redundancies — 1,500 non-teaching and 1,000 teaching — thereby ignoring collective agreements, periods of redundancy notices and the reality of the school year, which crosses two financial years, is theatrics of the worst type, and it really was not an Oscar-winning performance.
Let us stop this play-acting and agree that, whatever happens, we will protect the classroom as our first priority. That should be the Minister's first priority, and it is clearly something that he has failed to do in this draft budget. The basic building block for any school to function is that there are a sufficient number of teachers available to teach our children. If you produce a budget that will result in primary schools whose numbers are static losing five teachers, thereby destroying the ability of the school to function, that is incompetence of the worst kind. It is not the amount of money that is the problem but the manner in which the Budget allocation is being managed.
That brings me to the second golden rule and the final part of the motion. A well-planned education budget needs to not only protect the classroom but drive efficiencies in the system. Most of the concern being expressed by schools about the current draft budget has been generated by the impact on teaching staff. When you talk to governors and principals — and, as I said, I have already done that over the last few weeks — they can give examples of efficiencies in the current system. There are always ways in which you can drive efficiencies within any bureaucratic system. I know that no one in the Assembly is suggesting otherwise, and that is why we should be cautious about ring-fencing any service in its totality.
Over the last number of years, Sinn Féin Ministers have been guilty of wasting lots of money on ill-thought-out, half-baked schemes such as the Education and Skills Authority (ESA), computer-based assessments, levels of progression, and taking various decisions that could be seen as pet projects across the Department and, of course, the school estate and that have not brought about an efficient use of public funds. However, I do not want to dwell too much on the Minister's past misdemeanours, as they have been well documented.
As Chair of the Committee, I have sought to encourage the current Minister onto paths of righteousness to put the service on a more positive and cost-effective footing. That is why I and my party worked with the Minister to smooth the passage of the new Education Authority through the Assembly.
We know that, from 1 April, it will be important to streamline the current administration of education if we are to achieve efficiencies that will help protect the classroom. One body, instead of five, will allocate the vast majority of the education budget resources, and that provides the Minister with a tremendous opportunity to reap efficiencies. Think of the cuts that he can now make in his Department: four fewer bodies for his officials to micromanage; only one letter to send instead of five; and no need to play divide-and-rule games between boards. Think of the reduction in the number of meetings with board officials. As Chair, I expect to see the plans to reduce staffing numbers in the Department in the coming months.
There is also an opportunity to streamline support services in the reorganisation of the new authority, and all that will ensure that the classroom can be protected. There is much talk about the new authority needing to appoint lots of staff because of the wind down of the boards over the past number of years. That is not my party's view, and I hope that the assurances that a previous deputy secretary gave to the Education Committee, that the current level of staffing of the five boards would be a ceiling for the new authority and not a baseline, will be honoured and improved upon. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the support structures in favour of schools and pupils, and we must not waste that opportunity.
At present, only 59% of the budget finds its way to schools. In England, it is over 80%, and surely we have an opportunity to seriously review that situation. Principals with whom I have discussed the draft budget wish to have greater delegation to school level of services provided by the boards, and they continually mention to me aspects of the work of the Curriculum Advisory and Support Service and CCEA. The recent report by the Education Committee on the Education and Training Inspectorate and its role in school improvement has received widespread support in the system, yet the Minister and the Department appear unwilling to countenance any meaningful change. The new administrative arrangements provide us with an opportunity to develop a more cost-effective service in the interests of children, and we must grasp it.
My party wishes to see the freedom of management enjoyed by some schools rolled out to all schools. Most research on education budgets shows that the more that decision-making on funding is placed in the hands of schools, the more effective and efficient the spend. Our goal should be a system whereby local communities, groups and schools are charged with the responsibility of managing the majority of the education budget in the interests of children. Let us acknowledge that we live in challenging financial times, but let us agree to protect our classrooms and use the opportunity of the new authority to shape a service that supports and protects the classroom. Finally, let us empower schools, individually or through sharing, with the responsibility of managing that expenditure in the interests of our children and young people.
Mr Speaker: Order, Members. The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension, and 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. When we resume the debate after Question Time, the first Member to speak will be Mr Seán Rogers.
The debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 12.28 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —
Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for her question. Before I begin, I want to wish everybody a happy new year.
I have consistently recognised the value of the arts, including the visual arts, and their role as a driver for the achievement of broader social and economic goals, such as social inclusion and cohesion, as well as urban regeneration, tourism, inward investment and employment, and the impact that the development of high added-value creative industries has on education and health. Therefore, I am deeply aware of the impact of the financial constraints that are being felt by the entire sector. However, I will continue to work closely with all our arm's-length bodies (ALBs) to seek to reduce the impact of the budget reductions as far as possible. Throughout the process, I will also continue to ensure that the available funding remains aligned to the Department's priorities of promoting equality, tackling poverty and enhancing social inclusion.
Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for her answer. Given the constraints, what proactive measures has her Department taken to assist the visual arts organisations with developing resilient business models so that they can demonstrate civic value and ensure future sustainability?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I understand that there is a debate under way in the sector, particularly on the issue of sustainable business models. However, I also accept the premise that it is all very well and good arguing about sustainable business models when you start with an even playing field; but not everyone in the arts is starting from that position. In fairness to the Arts Council, it has employed a dedicated member of staff to look at the available opportunities in Europe through the Creative Europe programme. Arts and Business has also been very proactive in terms of businesses.
Notwithstanding all that, we deeply appreciate the situation that some, if not most, of the groups in the arts sector face, and, when the discussions on budgets have concluded, we hope to minimise the worst impacts. I am happy enough that, even at this stage, some of the arts groups are looking at ways of providing their programmes and services collectively.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas fosta leis an Aire as ucht a freagra agus as ucht a beannachta, agus, mar an gcéadna, guím athbhliain faoi mhaise uirthi agus tá súil agam go n-éiríonn go geal léi sa bhliain atá romhainn. I thank the Minister for her good wishes and wish her a happy new year and all the best for the year that lies ahead.
Tá ceist agam a ba mhaith liom a chur ar an Aire faoi thionchar na ngearrthacha ar na grúpaí éagsúla ealaíne anseo sa Tuaisceart. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the cuts to the arts sector on the various groupings within that sector? Does she feel that it is necessary to use an equality impact assessment (EQIA)?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. Gabhaim buíochas leis as na beannachtaí. I also thank him for his good wishes. We conducted a high-level screening exercise and, on the basis of that, I have asked my senior officials — I am meeting them again tomorrow — to look at an equality impact assessment as well. I am sure that all the groups would argue that they will be impacted in some way or another, but some will be more marginalised than others as the result of any potential reductions in their budgets. I am taking that work forward and, hopefully, will have it concluded.
As the Member will be aware, the consultation on the draft Budget ended on 29 December. After going through those findings, using the screening exercise and conducting the full EQIA, I hope to be in a position to have a final budget settlement. We will then need to look at where we invest the money, which will also be a political decision.
Ms Ní Chuilín: With the Deputy Speaker's permission, I will take questions 2 and 11 together. I thank the Member for his question.
The Windsor Park project is under construction, and work is progressing very well. Reconstruction of the pitch, which commenced in May 2014, was completed in August 2014. The demolition of the south stand is now complete, and construction of the new stand has started. Construction of the east stand started in September last year, and it is also progressing well. Provided significant delays with any unforeseen circumstances are avoided, the Windsor Park development can remain on programme, with completion of construction works planned for November this year.
Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Minister for that answer. What progress has been made on the adjacent development on the Olympia leisure centre? I realise that that is in partnership with Belfast City Council, but does she have any indication now of a start date, a timeline and a completion date, and what sort of project costs we are looking at?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The construction notice for the Olympia leisure centre programme has been secured, so that project will be launched in partnership with Belfast City Council later this month. I anticipate that the Member will receive an invitation to that, if he has not already had one.
As he knows, the project is a very exciting partnership between DCAL and Belfast City Council, in partnership with the IFA. The Olympia leisure centre project includes an investment of £2,750,000 — hundreds of thousands of pounds — from the IFA budget to this partnership with Belfast City Council. It should be completed around autumn 2016, but I do not yet have a definitive date.
This is the first of the partnerships that I anticipate with Belfast City Council on the stadia to be brought forward. When Belfast City Council is developing its leisure facilities, we are using the opportunity of capital development in my Department to make sure that not only are there seamless links but there is minimal disruption to local residents and enhanced opportunities for people living around the environment of the stadia.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. I welcome this project and the collaboration and joined-up approach between Belfast City Council and DCAL in terms of economies of scale. Indeed, I welcome the approach that Linfield and the Irish Football Association have taken in the development of Windsor Park as a national stadium. In welcoming those announcements, what progress has been made with Linfield Football Club and Midgley Park in the overall context of the development of Windsor Park?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I do not have any details on Linfield Football Club. I anticipate that not only Linfield but many other clubs in the Irish League will present facilities strategies to the IFA for subregional development. However, the development of Windsor Park is in relation to Olympia. I do not have any details on any other developments, but I am happy to write to the Member about those.
Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister for her answers, and I look forward to seeing the completion of the project. Will she clarify the circumstances around stadia money and whether any of it gets handed back for distribution in the monitoring rounds?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Unfortunately, due to the fact that we could not secure permission to build and develop Casement Park as a result of the judicial review in December, we have had to return some money in the monitoring rounds. I anticipate that the Ulster Council of the GAA will submit a new planning application, and, if it is successful, the remainder of the money will be spent on developing Casement Park.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. A scoping study funded by the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB) was commissioned by the Loughs Agency, Inland Fisheries Ireland and DCAL to explore the possibility of implementing an e-licensing project to meet the needs of anglers. The scoping study made recommendations for an all-Ireland e-licensing system and an online marketing platform to increase the efficiency of current sales, the efficiency of management and the processing of licensing.
A potential product arising from this work could be an all-Ireland e-licence for salmon and sea trout angling. The report provides a detailed analysis of the issues in setting out proposals for an all-Ireland licensing regime with the potential to purchase licences online. A business case has been commissioned to assess the most appropriate business and technical solution that is viable and aims to address issues of cost, benefits, risks, funding, affordability and other factors. It will also take into account the opportunity to integrate the inland fisheries group's current NI Direct IT project with a proposed all-Ireland solution.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answer. Perhaps she would keep us updated on any progress. Given the cross-border nature of the issue, could the Minister advise us of the current position on the investigation of the death of several hundred thousand elvers at the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) dam near Ballyshannon in the Erne system?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The fish kill in the ESB dam at Cathleen's Falls and Cliff in Ballyshannon last April was substantial. DCAL officials have been liaising with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) on the fish kill in view of its magnitude and in line with existing IFI policies. The IFI has referred the matter to its legal advisers. I am sure that the Member will appreciate that, in light of that, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on the ongoing investigation other that to state the facts of the fish kill. I would be happy to keep the Member updated on that.
Mr G Robinson: Will the Minister outline how costs and income from any such scheme would be divided between the two jurisdictions?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I certainly will. At the minute, there are three bodies involved in the commissioning exercise. My Department will be one of the bodies responsible, and, although it has yet to be fully tested and depends on the final outcome, I think it is the case that the three Departments and their associated bodies and agencies will have to work out a regime that makes it easier for people. The difficulty here is that we have 17 regimes for applying for a fishing licence, as opposed to one or two in the South. That is not fair on anglers, who want to fish in the waters and do not want to be caught out. We want to make sure that it is as simple and cheap as possible to get a licence.
Mr B McCrea: The Minister in her original answer talked about this as a marketing programme. Does she anticipate increasing the income from licences to make the fishing industry more sustainable? In other words, we would take the marketing income so that we could spread it more widely.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I know in my Department and from colleagues in other Departments that money accrued from angling is reinvested in stock, in the habitat for fishing and in fishing methods and conditions. That helps not only to sustain the environment but to provide a better outcome for anglers. We have been working with colleagues in DETI, Tourism Ireland, DARD and the inland fisheries group in Ireland to ensure not only that we have a good, sustainable product for anglers but that money accrued is put back not only to help our fishing product but to sustain the environment, particularly for anglers.
Mr Allister: On this question? My apologies. Does the Minister accept that any proposal to introduce an all-Ireland licence would require Executive approval?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Thus far, that has not been the case, as far as the findings in the business case are concerned. As with the many other pieces of work we conduct on an all-Ireland basis, all parties have agreed to look at ways to provide our goods and services in a much more efficient way. Since we are all bought into the all-Ireland institutions, this would be a matter, in the first instance, for an all-Ireland institution. I am surprised that the Member has asked the question, given that he has absolutely no interest.
Mr Swann: The Minister, in her previous answer, referred to a kill of elvers.
The Minister will know that I have written to her in regard to a fish kill in Portna. She promised me that the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute report would be published in December, but it still has not been issued. Will she give me an update as to when I can expect it?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I have not received the findings of that report, either. I reiterate the commitment: as soon as I receive those findings, I am happy to forward that correspondence to the Member. When I receive that, it will be forwarded to him soon after.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. Access to Strangford lough, including for leisure activities, is primarily the responsibility, as the Member will know, of DOE. That said, however, Sport NI has actively engaged with the Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership, the local councils and sporting organisations that make use of the lough and its beautiful coastline. I am pleased that the coastline and marine environment around Strangford is being used extensively for a range of sporting and leisure activities, including sailing, fishing and canoeing. DCAL and Sport NI will continue to develop sport and leisure activity, including access around the lough, in a sustainable and responsible manner. My Department and Sport NI are working closely with the Department of the Environment and the NIEA, which are key partners in the implementation of the Sport Matters strategy for the Department.
Mr McCarthy: I am very grateful to the Minister for her response. I noted that she described the coastline as "beautiful". I hope that, in that regard, she thinks about the residents who live along the coastline. Will she put out any initiative to ensure that our precious asset of Strangford lough can be used by all sporting organisations so that we can carry on with a good, healthy, outdoor lifestyle?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. He is right to make sure that we are all responsible. That is why I made use of the word "responsibility". The responsible use of the lough must be built in, because there are residents around our coastlines. The Member will be aware that, even through the work of the Lecale partnership and others, residents are heavily involved in that. That is the way it should be. DOE, NIEA and I have to ensure that, where local partnerships exist, they are part of any product in terms of services or goods in Strangford lough. It is important to be respectful of not only the environment but the residents who live around it.
Mr Nesbitt: I am sure that the Minister is aware of an entrepreneurial proposal for a trout fishery in Strangford lough, with Lough Cowey as a feeder site. Has the Minister formed an opinion of that? Is she in discussion with other Departments with regard to the feasibility of that project?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member needs to be aware that that is a question for his colleague Minister Kennedy, who has responsibility for reservoirs. We lease the fishing and angling rights from there, but reservoirs are within the gift of DRD —
Ms Ní Chuilín: It absolutely is. It is not within the remit of DCAL. If the Member did a bit more research, perhaps he would find that out.
Mr Humphrey: At the risk of being scolded, I return to sea trout. The CAL Committee visited Strangford lough a number of months ago, and it met groups lobbying for the development of sea trout fishing in the area for leisure pursuits. Will the Minister advise the House whether she has been in liaison with DETI, DARD and DRD about the development of sea trout fishing in Strangford lough to market Northern Ireland internationally and attract tourists to Northern Ireland?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member, as a member of the CAL Committee, will be aware that angling on the sea is the responsibility of DARD. It is not the responsibility of DCAL. He is also aware that salmon are described in legislation as sea trout and that, at the minute, there is a mandatory catch-and-release policy in relation to salmon and sea trout. I have not had any detailed discussions with my colleagues Arlene Foster or Michelle O'Neill on this, but I am happy to do so. Mr Nesbitt and you both asked about an update. I will furnish both Members with any details.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist. I thank the Member very much for the question. I have consistently highlighted the benefits that arts bring to individuals, communities, society and the economy, and I have continually made the case in funding rounds that arts should be properly supported and funded. I recognise that the current financial climate presents significant difficulties for organisations across my Department and I am aware of the potential impact of budget reductions on the future sustainability of arts organisations in the context of their ability to generate additional income. Decisions on how budget reductions are managed is a matter for the relevant board and its senior management. However, following the draft Budget consultation, which closed at the end of December, DCAL will work closely with, in this case the Arts Council, to minimise the impacts on jobs and front-line services where possible.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she examine how three-year budgeting and, perhaps, endowment programmes could be used to make the funding regime more sustainable in the longer term?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I will, absolutely. The Arts Council did this with the annually funded programmes. Each year, the programmes had to apply and go through the different sets, which really meant that they had nine months of the year to get on with the work that they wanted to do. When the three-year budgeting process happened, it came with a lot of difficulties, but, now that it has been instituted and established, it makes it easier, particularly for the Arts Council. Where there are gaps in the budget that it receives from DCAL, it can, if it is minded and in a position to make bids, apply to me as a result of any monitoring rounds. So, I am looking at the way in which the Arts Council has organised the annually funded programmes, but this really affects only arts and sports councils that are grant-giving bodies. I am happy to look at it to see whether there is something else that we can do. At the end of the day, this is about making it easier for people to access funds in order to make it easier for them to deliver goods and services on our behalf.
Mr McCausland: Will the Minister ensure, then, that the issue of financial sustainability is incorporated into the new arts and culture strategy that her Department is about to develop? Since the issue affects those across the arts and cultural sector, will she ensure that the process of developing that strategy is inclusive of all cultural traditions in Northern Ireland?
Ms Ní Chuilín: That is one of the key factors that we need to look at because we do not want a situation in which groups that are encouraged to apply for funding on the basis of need do not have the wherewithal or the technical support to comply with very strict guidelines and, sometimes, a very technical process. Some arts groups, for example, just want to get on with delivering arts. They are not accountants but they do their best in difficult circumstances. It certainly will be key to that. Arts funding for arts groups and cultural awareness groups is open to everyone, regardless of how they identify themselves. That will always be the case when we are running this Department.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answers so far. Will she expand on what help is in place to assist arts organisations in the current financial climate?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I think that, in answer to an earlier question, I mentioned to Judith Cochrane that the Arts Council, in fairness to it, secured an additional dedicated member of staff in November last year, purely to manage the Creative Europe funding stream, and this is really helpful for groups that, in the past, in very difficult circumstances, have not had a great experience even when trying to access information on support from Europe. This member of staff will work on a one-to-one basis with some of the arts and cultural awareness groups, helping them to complete applications and giving advice and guidance on procedures and eligibility. I think that this is really important. The groups have been asking for this for years, and the Arts Council delivered on that promise in November. Hopefully, not only this dedicated member of staff but other members of staff in different councils will help to give groups a better opportunity to apply for much-needed funds.
Mr Kinahan: I am really touching on a similar subject. As the cuts come through in the future, is the Minister putting in place training for those arm's-length bodies, including how to do better fiscal management, how to better business plan, how to fundraise and how to make the whole thing more efficient from a financial point of view?
Ms Ní Chuilín: We have asked the ALBs, and we will continue to scrutinise the way in which they help groups to do that. In fairness to the ALBs, over a period of years now, not only do they review the groups and look at their accountability and governance, but they have been very proactive in trying to help groups not only to do their returns in a better way but to do them in such a way that, at the same time, they gather up information that will help them with future funding applications. That is where you see the real tangible outcome. It is not all a process of putting in your forms and getting your returns done; there is actually an outcome that will help the groups in the long term.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Libraries employs nine temporary members of staff, all of whom are expected to remain in post for the duration of their contract. Libraries NI does not, therefore, anticipate that any will lose their job as a result of budget reductions. Indeed, Libraries will continue to work proactively and seek additional funding to extend the term of employment for some of those posts. That would allow work, for example, on the delivery of important health and well-being initiatives in the community to continue.
Despite the challenging financial environment, I remain committed to protecting the public library service as far as possible from the impact of budget reductions. I regard public libraries as a key front-line community service that needs to be maintained and sustained. I am delighted that the responses that my Department received on the draft Budget were strongly supportive and endorsed that position.
Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for that detailed answer and welcome what she has said. Is there any change in staffing planned in the libraries that got the self-service kiosks?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Absolutely not, as far as I am aware. Any additional services and support that went into libraries are about helping the customers, the clients, the people who use the libraries to access a better service. Those facilities have not been brought in to reduce staff. I know that there was some cynicism about it, but that has not been the case. If anything, it frees staff to do better one-to-one work with groups and people who come in for health and well-being, education and support. My colleague John O'Dowd and I visited a library in Lurgan where we saw some of the after-school work that is done with schools, library staff, parents and community groups. That is a good result.
Mr I McCrea: When the draft Budget process was announced, Libraries NI started a process of reducing the opening hours of libraries. As part of the bilaterals that the Minister has had with the Finance Minister, has she bid for additional funding for libraries to try to give them additional money to at least re-look at opening hours and try to sustain the libraries, especially in rural areas?
Ms Ní Chuilín: It will come as no surprise to the Member that I am not going to give him details of the discussions that I have had with my ministerial colleague, particularly when I am asking for money for a lot of services across the DCAL family. However — as an example, because he raised it — I pointed out the good work that libraries have done and explained why I protected Libraries more than the other ALBs in the draft Budget because of the service that they provide.
It is important that we try to ensure that opening hours are not reduced, particularly in rural areas. I am acutely aware that, in many rural communities, libraries are probably the only community service that they have. We need to make sure that those libraries are used not just for borrowing books and accessing the internet but, like the example I gave Seán Rogers, for after-school and community use and for health, well-being and education initiatives. It is important that we keep them open as long as possible.
Mr Cree: The Minister will remember that she initiated a review of the permanent staff timetables in September in order to minimise any adverse service impact from the Budget cuts. Minister, have you completed that work yet, and will it be brought to the Committee for consideration?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I have completed the majority of the work; there are still bits and pieces left to do. The work on the libraries is really about making sure that the staff we have, we can hold. In answer to Seán Rogers, that even includes temporary staff because they have already proved their worth and they are needed. When the draft Budget discussions have been concluded, we will focus on minimising any potential reduction in opening hours as much as possible to ensure that we have a full service and access to our libraries across the board.
T1. Mr McMullan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what the next steps are for the Irish language and Ulster-Scots strategies. (AQT 1921/11-15)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I aim to publish the strategies for the Irish language and Ulster Scots on the website by 30 January.
Mr McMullan: I thank the Minister for her response. Can the Minister further advise what her plans are for bringing forward an Irish language Act?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. He will know that I have stated on previous occasions that I intend to bring forward a draft Irish language Act for consultation at the beginning of February, so people can see for themselves exactly what is involved in an Acht na Gaeilge — an Irish language Act. They can feed into the consultation and make their own mind up.
T2. Ms McGahan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on developments from Sport NI on facilities for the Eoghan Ruadh hurling club, Dungannon. (AQT 1922/11-15)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I am aware of the Member's continued support for Eoghan Ruadh hurling club. She was there at at least one of the meetings that I had with the club, and I have responded to substantial correspondence from her on its behalf. Sport NI's small grants programme will close at the end of this month. I am not sure if Eoghan Ruadh has applied to that. At this stage, I can only ask if it has or not. The Member will appreciate that we need to wait until the conclusion of that grants process.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her response and for all the assistance that she has provided. Will the Minister agree to a meeting between the hurling club and Sport NI?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Certainly. I have met many MLAs across all the parties on a range of issues, along with representatives of DCAL's ALBs, and I am happy to facilitate that meeting when it is appropriate.
T3. Mr McKinney asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she will agree to meet the Health Minister to discuss setting up automatic referral programmes for parents, carers and family members to learn sign language and other methods to improve engagement and interaction, given that it is to be welcomed that she has agreed to meet the Rogers family from Newtownabbey who, while noting their child’s specific difficulties, have highlighted the lack of governmental services for the parents of children who are deaf. (AQT 1923/11-15)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I met the Rogers family yesterday. I just learnt of their situation on Friday when I watched the news at supper time, and I made contact with my officials and organised a meeting as quickly as possible. I was delighted to meet Emma Rogers and her baby son yesterday as a result of that. While I have a responsibility for providing money for sign language development, there is no framework or protocol for families. So I am happy to meet the Minister of Health, but rather than pass it from one Department to another, I will step up and take responsibility for it. I will pass it on to Health when appropriate and pass it on to Education thereafter.
Mr McKinney: In that context, can the Minister address how her Department is addressing inequality of arts provision for children who are deaf or have severe hearing difficulties?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I have not received any representation from anyone regarding the fact that children who are deaf or have hearing impairments have not accessed arts because of their disability. I am happy to try and get the Member details, but he will be aware that providing support for the arts, libraries and sports for people with disabilities has been one of my key priorities, and it will continue to be. If the Member has any specific details that he wants to bring to my attention, I will be happy to receive those.
T4. Mr McGimpsey asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she has any funding stream priorities for arts and creativity, given the new financial regime under which she will have to manage her Department. (AQT 1924/11-15)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. He will know from his experience in this Department and certainly in the Health Department that, after each Budget and consultation process, you have decisions to make. Some are based on, for example, a technical process such as an equality impact assessment; others are based on where the gaps are. That is what I intend to do, and I have done that since coming into the Department. Most Members can see the direction of travel, but not everybody agrees with it. We will certainly prioritise those who have been furthest removed from services and people who have not had or enjoyed as much access to the Department's support as they should have.
Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she agree that it is also important to attach priority to creative projects of major significance, such as film, the Lyric Theatre and the Ulster Orchestra?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Absolutely. Certainly, the arts, culture and the digital creative industries have helped to contribute to the economy and to regeneration. There have been opportunities from the very big to the very small. It is really important that we harness those opportunities, not only to sustain what we have but to try to get them additional money to ensure that they are economically viable for the future.
T5. Mr McCartney asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on the funding stream for the Foyle Valley gateway master plan in Derry, given that she will be well aware that it is one of the catalyst projects under the One Plan. (AQT 1925/11-15)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I am aware of the Member's ongoing interest in the project — in fact, he comes up with it up every time that I am on my feet. I anticipate discussions being progressed with Derry City Council. As the Member will be aware, the council has indicated that it intends to put in an application for the Brandywell stadium to the subregional stadium programme when it commences. I expect that as soon as the subregional money has been secured, which I anticipate will happen very soon, the Member will, along with members from Brandywell, Derry City Football Club and Derry City Council, be part of that delegation
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer and her ongoing interest in the project. She mentioned the Brandywell football stadium. Has she had any indication of when that application process will commence?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that there was an agreement in March 2011 to provide the three stadia, notwithstanding the fact that we are not there yet with Casement Park. Bear it in mind that the mandate was not extended, and it was anticipated that the money for the subregional stadia would become available in the next mandate. I have started the process by bringing together a team of experts in my Department to look at the subregional stadia. That will take place over the next couple of months. The process for application and how that can be accessed will be revealed soon after that. I will keep the Member updated.
T6. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she agrees that the management of the planning application for the redevelopment of Casement Park was handled in an incompetent manner. (AQT 1926/11-15)
Mr Dunne: That was a rather brief answer. I wonder whether you will treat the constituents of West Belfast in the same manner. Does the Minister agree that the GAA was just too demanding in trying to cram such a high-volume stadium into a high-density residential area?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I remind Members to confine themselves to asking questions rather than offering opinions, please. I call Mr Pat Sheehan.
Is it the supplementary? Gabh mo leithscéal. I beg your pardon, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not prepared for the question, so I think it better that I just sit down again.
T8. Mr Spratt asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on the buy-in from community groups to the three stadia. (AQT 1928/11-15)
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that there has been good engagement, albeit at different levels and at different stages, with residents and community groups on the development of facilities on the Cregagh estate and at Windsor Park for rugby and soccer respectively. I hope that that will continue. The redevelopment of Casement Park has gone beyond the current residents group. I have received a substantial number of requests to meet a number of residents and community groups in the vicinity in west Belfast and, indeed, the greater west Belfast area. I will be doing that in the near future. However, notwithstanding that, I appreciate that big developments cannot happen without the inclusion and the support of the local communities that they surround.
Mr Spratt: I thank the Minister for her answer. She mentioned the Cregagh area, particularly the Ravenhill Kingspan stadium. I promised the residents that I would do this, so let me say to her that they have had considerable cooperation from officials of her Department, and they appreciate that. However, can she give me an assurance that any final matters that need to be tied up will be tied up as soon as possible?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Absolutely, and I will continue to give the commitment to Mr Spratt that not only will that relationship, with accountability and transparency, continue, but I hope that, even well after the completion of the education centre at Ravenhill/Kingspan, the relationship will not end there and that it will be a long-term relationship. They are neighbours, and they need to be good neighbours, and I will ensure that that happens well after I leave this Department and with anyone else who comes into it.
T10. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what communication she has had with those people heading up the campaign against the budget cuts to the film industry and what her views are of the cuts and their impact on the Northern Ireland economy. (AQT 1930/11-15)
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that the response time for the draft Budget closed on 29 December. It should be no surprise to her to learn that, of the almost 10,000 responses that I got, almost 3,000 were about arts, and the majority of those were on NI Screen and any potential cuts to or impacts on delivery for those groups. I am looking at those, but just to give the Member some reassurance, I appreciate the work that groups like Cinemegic and many others do. I want to try to ensure that the worst impacts of the Budget are reduced for groups like that.
Mrs D Kelly: I appreciate the Minister's concerns. Have you had any communication with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on the economic boost that the creative industries bring to Northern Ireland? Is there a recognition of that in the Programme for Government commitment for the year ahead?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I have ongoing discussions with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and we have a very good relationship, particularly when it comes to looking at NI Screen and the whole creative industries sector. We are all waiting to see what the outcome of the draft Budget and the settlement will be, and as soon as that Budget settlement has occurred, I anticipate further discussions about the impacts not only with Minister Foster but other Ministers.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): As the next period for Question Time does not begin until 2.45 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. In a moment of reflection, could I appeal to those Members who are talking from a sedentary position to stop doing so?
Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 1, 2, 3 and 6 together.
My Department's draft 2015-16 resource budget outcome has resulted in a funding gap of £162·5 million, which represents an 8·4% reduction from the 2014-15 baseline. Clearly, achieving reductions of that scale within one year is extremely challenging, and maintaining all core services at current levels is simply not deliverable.
In reaching my decisions on the proposed budget reductions and the inescapable pressures to be funded, I have focused on protecting front-line services as far as possible. Hence, the reduction to the aggregated schools budget (ASB) is 7%, not 8·4%, and that reduces further to 6% when the additional £10 million of funding for targeting social need, which I propose to allocate next year, is included. Unfortunately, as the aggregated schools budget represents 59% of the total education budget, it has simply not been possible to protect it fully from reductions. I recognised that early communication was vital, which is why letters were issued to all schools on 2 December providing the indicative aggregated schools budget and illustrative per pupil funding values for next year.
Our focus — my focus — remains on raising standards and improving outcomes. However, the situation is clearly very difficult. That is why I will endeavour to do all that I can to make the case for increased investment in education as part of the final 2015-16 Budget negotiations.
Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for that response. Since the proposals were announced, I have been inundated with contact from schools in mid-Ulster, explaining how these cuts will have such a dramatic effect on education in the area. The Minister needs to recognise that this cut means mass redundancies, larger class numbers, less special needs provision and a poorer quality environment for education. As he said, the ASB amounts to 59% of the Department's budget. Does he not recognise that he must look for efficiencies in the other 41% of his budget?
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for that supplementary question. However, if I were to look for £162 million in the remaining 41% of the budget, the Member would be asking me questions about why the boards were facing such a dramatic reduction in their services. Those services include transport, special educational needs provision, free school meals entitlement, school meals, youth services, Sure Start, which would face a greater reduction than it currently does — the list goes on.
There is no easy answer to the difficulties facing the education budget. I have endeavoured to maintain the schools budget to the best level that I can. I am working and engaging with the Finance Minister on the final Budget outcome. I hope to be able to secure additional funds for education, and, if I do, the majority of that will go into schools.
Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat. Does the Minister agree that, for education to succeed in the classroom, it is also important to invest outside the classroom in areas such as extended schools and youth services?
Mr O'Dowd: Without a doubt. Before the lunch break and after Question Time, we began and will continue the debate supported by some Members on education funding. I think that the mistake and the flaw in the motion is that it simply concentrates on schools. Eighty per cent of a child's learning takes place outside school. The socio-economic background of a child impacts on educational outcomes in school, so we have to deal with all aspects of a child's life and all aspects of how a child or young person engages in education. Simply focusing on funding for schools will not make for a successful education system, and we are an education system rather than simply a schools-based education system.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. I hear what he says, but, if he looks at the situation in most schools, he will see that 90% of their money goes on staffing, and 10% is left for other things. Given the severity of the cuts, how can schools reasonably avoid cuts in their staffing levels? It is absolutely impossible, Minister. I ask you to respond to that.
Mr O'Dowd: I have never suggested that schools will not face reductions in numbers of staff, whether teachers or support staff. My officials have been open and frank about that from day one, and one of them was referred to at the Education Committee as being cavalier, which I think was unfair. My officials and I have been up front from day one, saying that the education budget will result in a significant number of losses of teachers, support staff and other staff from the boards and other support organisations as well.
As I said, the only solution — or rather, the long-term solution to our problem — is a change of Government in Westminster to one that has an economic policy that meets the needs of all citizens rather than those of the corporate businesses that operate out of the south of England. However, the short-term solution to our problem in education is that it receives an uplift as a result of the final Budget outcome. I can assure Members that the majority of any uplift that I receive will go into schools.
Mr McGlone: Further to that, can we have some detail on the projects that the Minister intends to deliver in the constituency, particularly the capital projects?
Mr O'Dowd: I am not sure how that relates to this question. Mr McGlone may be referring to a later question and I will be happy to respond at that stage.
Mr Lyttle: Will the Minister confirm that he is proposing a 100% reduction to the budget for community relations, equality and diversity (CRED) in education for 2015? What impact does he think that will have on schools' ability to contribute to improved community relations in Northern Ireland?
Mr O'Dowd: As the result of an extremely difficult Budget, I am having to look at alternative ways in which services might be delivered. We are looking at a significant investment in shared education programmes over the next number of years. Up to £25 million will be delivered across shared education programmes. I hope that the CRED policy could be delivered through the shared education programme. However, as a result of the equality screening of the Budget, one of the areas that has been flagged up for full equality screening has been my proposal to fully remove the CRED funding. I am taking a particularly detailed look at that proposal and will make a final judgement on it, based on all the evidence, including the equality screening, when I announce the Department's final budget.
Mr O'Dowd: In 2013, at my request, the NI Anti-Bullying Forum undertook a review of anti-bullying legislation, guidance and practice. The review made a number of recommendations that are being taken forward as part of an agreed joint work programme for DE and the forum. It highlighted the need for greater consistency in how all schools are tackling the issue. We know that some schools are making considerable efforts in that regard, but the review noted wide variations in the anti-bullying policies and procedures of individual schools and a lack of detailed information on the true scale and nature of the problem across all schools.
A key recommendation was, therefore, to bring forward legislation to address those weaknesses and help ensure that all schools understand and are using best practice to tackle bullying and support pupils. For that reason, on 23 June 2014, I announced my intention to introduce new anti-bullying legislation in the current Assembly mandate. A public consultation was launched on 5 January 2015 and will run until 27 February. Following that, it is my intention to introduce a Bill to the Assembly in May 2015.
This is a challenging timescale but one that I and my officials are working hard to meet.
Mr Brady: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he please outline the scope of the proposed legislation in schools? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr O'Dowd: The proposed legislation will provide a common definition of bullying; require all schools to centrally record incidents of bullying, their motivation and their outcome; and require boards of governors to identify and designate one or more members to be responsible for anti-bullying policies and processes in the school.
Mrs D Kelly: How can the Minister ensure consistency of application across different schools? I am sure that you are aware that, in your constituency, different boards of governors apply the current policies and procedures on a much different basis than you and I would understand. Will there be supplementary guidance notes to the legislation to explain how it should be applied?
Mr O'Dowd: One of the reasons why I asked for the review of our current policies was that, as a constituency MLA and, indeed, as a Minister, I have regular reports of concerns by parents and pupils about how bullying cases are dealt with in schools. We hear some harrowing stories. There are also many, many fine examples of where schools have acted appropriately and in the best interests of all involved in the bullying cases, sought resolution and helped all the young people involved. However, I think it is important that we bring forward the legislation. The legislation will define what incidents should be recorded, how they should be recorded and how policies should be outlined. Supplementary guidance etc will be provided to schools to ensure that everyone is familiar with and trained in how anti-bullying legislation should be implemented in schools.
Mr Beggs: I welcome the consultation on anti-bullying legislation to protect our children and young people. However, does the Minister not find it rather ironic that he as Sinn Féin Minister is leading this, given that, of recent times, his party supporters and, indeed, some of its elected representatives have been involved in the cyberbullying of Ann Travers and Maíria Cahill, not to mention his party's history of actual physical violence?
Mr O'Dowd: I think the Member belittles himself by making that comment. The Member is steeped in education; he knows education as well as I or many other Members in the Chamber do. He could come forward in this debate with a much more informed question or intervention than he just has. I do not know if it was your party management or who it was who put that question in front of you, but you should have had more sense than to read it out.
Mr McCausland: Cyberbullying has been highlighted quite a lot in the press in recent days. Will the Minister tell us what ideas are being considered in order to give schools some guidance in dealing with that?
Mr O'Dowd: The definition of bullying will include reference to cyberbullying. However, we also work with the Health Department, which is preparing more detailed information on it. The Department has also endorsed proposals by the Health Department for the Safeguarding Board here to develop an e-safety strategy. We expect that work to include consideration of cyberbullying in all forms and settings. We will want to work with it to ensure that our work and that of the forum is informed by and aligned with the safety board. So, we are working with other Departments in relation to the matter. The definition, which I hope to bring forward in legislation, will also cover the use of cyberbullying.
Mr O'Dowd: In my January 2013 capital programme, three schools in Mid Ulster were announced to advance in planning. They are Holy Trinity College, Cookstown; Gaelscoil Ui Neill, Coalisland; and Edendork Primary School, Dungannon.
A development proposal (DP) to increase the approved enrolment at Holy Trinity College, Cookstown has been submitted to my Department for consideration. The economic appraisal (EA) for the new school cannot be completed until a decision on the DP has been made. Work on that project is progressing in parallel with the DP process, with regular project meetings taking place to ensure momentum is maintained.
The EA for Gaelscoil Ui Neill has recently been submitted to my Department for consideration. The project will progress to the design stage when the EA has been approved.
Work is ongoing to appoint a design team to Edendork Primary School. When that has been completed, work will commence on the feasibility study and the business case for the new school build.
In February 2014, four schools in Mid Ulster were included in the school enhancement programme. They were Rainey Endowed, Magherafelt; Anahorish Primary School, Toomebridge; St Mary’s Grammar School, Magherafelt; and St Joseph’s Grammar School, Donaghmore. Site work on the Rainey project commenced in September 2014, with the project estimated to be completed in January 2016. Design work for the other three projects is at an advanced stage.
Mr I McCrea: The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I will ask him a question in respect of the Rainey Endowed. As the Minister will know, not only from his visit but, no doubt, from discussions in his Department, the Rainey Endowed has been in the system for quite some time. I accept that the schools enhancement programme funding will help the school at least to address some of the difficulties, but will the Minister give an assurance that he will do what he can to find the funding to try to ensure that a new build is given to the school?
Mr O'Dowd: All applications for new builds will be considered and the merits of each measured against the process at that time. Rainey Endowed has been successful in the schools enhancement programme. Work has commenced. I had a brief conversation about the works on the fringes of another meeting with the principal. He has invited me to the school to take a look at how work has advanced and, no doubt, to lobby me about other investment as well, as is his right. I look forward to undertaking that visit. I will listen to your concerns and those of the school about the fabric of the school, and we will do everything in our power to advance capital builds in that school and many others across the North that are deserving of new builds.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra chuimsitheach sin. Thanks very much to the Minister for his comprehensive statement. I also place on record my thanks to his officials for their help, particularly with St Joseph's in Donaghmore and the Rainey Endowed in Magherafelt. I have to put on record that they have been very efficient.
He mentioned Edendork earlier, but can the Minister give us some indication as to progress being made with Holy Family Primary School in Magherafelt?
Mr O'Dowd: I am aware that Holy Family Primary School has been seeking a new build for a considerable number of years. However, I cannot match the number of schools that are deserving of a new build with the capital project that I have. I have had to bring in a scoring matrix to try to provide fairness throughout the system. I have put all the proposals for new builds through that scoring matrix, and I have provided for new builds for those that score highest and against which I can match money. That does not mean that other schools are not deserving of a new build. It simply means that I do not have the required capital at this stage to build them, but I continue to seek further funds from all quarters for building programmes for our schools. Hopefully, through time, that school will be successful as well.
Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for the detail. He mentioned the capital project for Holy Trinity in Cookstown. Can he provide updates on the development plan in the area and on how the growth of that school might impact on other schools in the area? Will the Minister acknowledge any area-planning difficulties there as a result of the changes to the area covered by the board?
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for her question. As with any development proposal, particularly one involving a significant change in school character or enrolment numbers, there will be different views among key stakeholders in the area. I have received representations from both sides of the argument about the DP. I will make my decision in due course, taking on board all the relevant information that has been provided to me in the meetings in which I have engaged on the matter. I assure the Member that, when I reach a decision, it will be based on all information that has been brought to my attention.
Mr O'Dowd: Following an intensive process, I published a detailed draft budget for 2015-16 consultation document on Wednesday 26 November 2014. In reaching my decisions on the inescapable pressures to be funded and my proposed reductions, I focused on protecting front-line services as far as possible, promoting equality and raising education standards. I secured the contribution of specific programmes that reflect the Department’s statutory responsibilities. I continue to tackle social disadvantage and ensured that support for children with special educational needs is prioritised as much as possible. I have no further update to give other than to say that I will endeavour to do all that I can to make the case for increased investment in education as part of the 2015-16 final Budget negotiations.
Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for his answer. Clearly, and as other MLAs have said, there have been strong representations from local schools about concerns and fears. How is the situation being communicated to educationalists, unions etc?
Mr O'Dowd: I met the unions early in the process and outlined to them in stark terms the possible implications of the education budget. They responded in a very robust manner in defence of education and their members. As you will be aware, they have been holding a number of well-attended public meetings across the North, outlining to teachers, parents, politicians and communities what the implications of the draft budget will be if there is no significant change to it.
As I said in an earlier answer, we have corresponded with all schools and set out indicative budgets for them. Schools have been responding, as have the education and library boards in relation to how they feel the budget will impact upon them. To date, the education budget consultation has received 21,000 responses, so there has been quite a healthy and robust exchange of views in relation to the draft education budget.
Mr Rogers: Previously, Minister, small schools had some budgetary protection, but, in this draft budget, smaller rural schools will be adversely affected. How do you intend to address this issue?
Mr O'Dowd: The draft budget I have published has not made any comment in relation to the small schools element of the aggregated schools budget. That small schools budget continues into the future unless there is a consultation to change it.
Mr Allister: In pursuit of his austerity cuts, has the Minister given any thought to the dramatic impact on a school that has made a two-year commitment to deliver a course to parents and pupils but is suddenly told that, on foot of cuts as savage as this, it has to make huge savings that could result in the withdrawal of that course offer or the withdrawal of the staff to teach it? Has he thought through the long-term consequences of these severe cuts that he is proposing?
Mr O'Dowd: I am glad that comrade Jim has now joined the fight against austerity measures.
Mr O'Dowd: You are very welcome, if not very, very, very, very late to the cause.
It is always good to have a new comrade on board.
In relation to your question, I am acutely aware of the pressures being placed on our education system by the Budget we now face. Our education system in its totality, whether it be schools, youth services, extended schools, breakfast clubs, free school meals entitlement — all those things that go to make an education system — is under pressure.
I am engaging with my Executive colleagues and the Finance Minister on a way forward. No doubt, like every other Minister, I have scrutinised all the changes that have happened since the draft Budget was announced, including the autumn statement, which was made by the Westminster Government and which saw around £70 million in Barnett consequentials come this way. We are looking at other areas, including the £30 million change fund which was in the draft Budget; I made applications to that as well. We are also looking at other areas as a consequence of the Stormont House Agreement, which the Member was opposed to before the ink dried on the page. I am looking at all areas for additional funding for education, and I hope that the Member, comrade Jim, supports me in that.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I caution Members to address people by their proper names. I would also suggest that the Minister should make his remarks through the Chair. Finally, I ask Mr Allister not to make remarks from a sedentary position.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. He has said that there have been tens of thousands of responses to the consultation. Perhaps he would outline what types of responses these were.
Mr O'Dowd: Many have been reflected in the Chamber this afternoon, during Question Time and in the ongoing debate on education funding. Members of the public, teachers, parents and pupils are significantly concerned about the impact on schools. I have had representations from Youth Service, youth workers and people who use youth services. I have had contacts and representations from Sure Start projects that are concerned, and I have had representations in relation to the CRED policy, which was mentioned earlier. Across the whole gamut of educational services, members of the public and users of those services have responded, and we are now going through those in detail.
As I said, I will take into account the comments of MLAs in today's debate before I make any final decision in relation to my budget. I hope that, with fingers crossed, there is an uplift for the education budget. I recognise the pressure on schools; a significant amount of money will go to schools but there are other services that require an uplift as well.
Mr Cree: The Minister will know that special needs are a non-core issue. Despite that, Minister, have you any plans to protect special needs children in schools despite the budget cuts?
Mr O'Dowd: In relation to my budget, I have recognised at least £10 million of pressures from our education boards in 2014-15, which we managed to cover. I have included that in my estimates for 2015-16, so there is a reflection of that in the budget. One of the pressures on my budget has been the diversion of £10 million towards the boards for special educational needs. However, that may not be enough. There are rising special educational needs requirements, applications for special educational needs and identification of special educational needs that bring with them additional costs. We may have to identify further funds in the 2015-16 financial year for special educational needs as well.
Mr O'Dowd: My Department does not have responsibility for the development of the Irish language. That is the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. However, in my statement to the Assembly on 4 November, I outlined a vision for the strategic development of Irish-medium education based on creating educationally sound post-primary provision that enhances the significant benefit provided through the medium of the Irish language. The granting of the development proposal for a school in Dungiven will assist in filling a gap in the strategic development of Irish-medium post-primary provision. In particular, the pupils will benefit from a total immersion experience in the Irish language through formal instruction in all curricular areas and socially in corridors, dining halls, libraries etc. The development of the Irish language in the area will also benefit from the fact that there will be a shared, whole-school community identity, ethos and culture and a shared understanding of the philosophy of Irish-medium education.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I welcome the decision. Now that the development proposals have been passed, what are the next steps?
Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist. I thank the Member for the question. Officials from my Department met school representatives on 18 December 2014 to discuss the infrastructure needs of the schools. There are steps that need to be taken in relation to the business case process to procure the site and accommodation. In relation to the site, the next step is to complete a feasibility study. In relation to procurement of accommodation, a schedule of accommodation needs to be finalised prior to the completion and approval of the business case. It is anticipated that a further meeting will take place towards the end of this month to discuss progress on all these matters.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire fosta as ucht a fhreagra. Is í an cheist a ba mhaith liomsa a chur air ná an bhfeictear don Aire go bhfuil féidearthachtaí eile ann maidir le forbairt na gaelscolaíochta iar-bhunoideachais. I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he see any further potential for the development of Irish-medium education at post-primary level?
Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist. As I outlined in my statement in November when I was launching the report by the advisory group, we are seeing a growth in bunscoileanna and pupils attending primary schools in the Irish-medium sector. That is a matter of fact, and as a result of that we will see an increase in demand for post-primary provision.
I am expecting development proposals to come in from other areas, and they will be treated as any other development proposals. As I mentioned in response to a previous question, there are always those who are for or against in any debate around a development proposal, its impact on an area and its possibility for success, but I will make decisions based on the evidence before me and in the best interests of all the pupils involved.
Mr G Robinson: What additional capital investment is going into other post-primary schools in the Limavady and Dungiven area?
Mr O'Dowd: I will be very brief. I do not have the information in front of me, but I am happy to supply it to the Member.
T1. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of Education what opportunities the recent Stormont House Agreement will create for his Department. (AQT 1931/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: The political stability provided by the Stormont House Agreement is an advantage to our entire society and allows politicians to concentrate on the delivery of public services in a very difficult financial climate. As a result of the Stormont House Agreement and a united approach by the political parties in the Stormont House discussions, we have managed to secure additional funding for use by the Executive. In particular, I highlight again the £500 million that has been set aside over 10 years for capital investment in shared education and integrated education projects.
Mr Boylan: I thank the Minister for his reply. How can the shared education process benefit from the recent agreement? Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr O'Dowd: The Member will be aware from previous answers during this session that I have launched a shared education policy and shared education legislation, which I have put out for consultation and which I propose to bring before the House. That will put in legislation the definition of shared education, which will allow the Education Authority, which already has a duty in relation to the facilitation and promotion of shared education, to carry out its work. We have funds to literally build on that work and build facilities in relation to shared education campuses and shared education facilities for schools. We have significant investment here for both integrated and shared education going into the future.
T2. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of Education what steps he has taken to adjust the school curriculum to prepare pupils for the pattern of employment likely to exist in 10 years’ time. (AQT 1932/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: Flexibility is built into our curriculum to allow schools to adapt and respond to the varying challenges in society and in the economy. I accept that it is difficult to forecast what jobs are likely to be available in 10 years' time. Ten years ago, many of the jobs that are now available were unheard of in terms of the skills and the background required. However, we can make a reasonably firm prediction — I said this at the recent BT Young Scientist competition in Dublin — that, if you have a firm bedding of STEM subjects, you have an opportunity to adapt in the future in whatever career pathways you choose or whatever career pathways may open up.
Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister thus far. Recent Oxford University research shows that half of all occupations existing today will be redundant by 2025. What advice has the Minister sought on that matter, and what action does he propose to take?
Mr O'Dowd: As I have said, our revised curriculum allows for adaptation, both on a skills and an academic base, to prepare young people for the future. The emphasis of the Executive and the collaborative work between me and the Minister for Employment and Learning have raised the profile of the STEM subjects as never before. I encourage any young person who is looking at educational pathways to embed themselves in the STEM subjects. If you embed yourself in the STEM subjects, you are adaptable and have the skills base that current employers are looking for and which future employers will look for.
I was recently asked when I would review the curriculum. I do not believe that the time is right to review the curriculum, but one of the early tasks in the portfolio of the next Education Minister, whoever it may be, will be to review the curriculum to ensure that it is still flexible and adaptable to changes in the economy.
T3. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister of Education what support he is giving to early literacy interventions. (AQT 1933/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: The best support that we can give is through our investment in early years and in preschool places for all pupils and parents who want them and embed literacy in the pupils there. I have also launched an advertising campaign. The first two years of that concentrated on the home and the simple practice of parents, grandparents and guardians reading stories to their children at bedtime, counting with them in different scenarios and making that aspect of learning fun and enjoyable. I would like to have further funds to invest in projects, but, as has been debated widely here in the last 45 minutes, the education budget is restricted. However, there are ways in which parents and guardians can encourage their children to read and count from a very early age.
Mrs Cameron: Thank you for that response, Minister. I have to say that I was very disappointed to discover that Booktrust is having 100% of its funding removed in the draft budget, given the excellent work that it does and, as you outlined, the importance of parents and grandparents reading to their children. There is research to show that all children do better at school if their parents read to them. Given the tremendous work that Booktrust does, will the Minister reconsider the removal of 100% of its funding?
Mr O'Dowd: It is difficult to make decisions in relation to aspects of the budget. These are not significantly large budget lines, so I ask myself this question: if I cut it by 10% or 15%, will that have an impact that will make it undeliverable, so should I just cut the whole budget and go down that road? I am going to reconsider Bookstart. I cannot make any promises at this time. It will depend on the final budget settlement. I am aware, as I was when I signed off on it, that there will be concern about that matter; I had concerns about it myself. I will revisit it.
T4. Mr Girvan asked the Minister of Education who sets the priorities in the breakdown of the Education budget and decides where money will be spent and what input he has in that. (AQT 1934/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: I have full input and take full responsibility for it. At the end of the day, it is the Minister's responsibility to set the priorities in his Department and then match his budget against those priorities as best he can.
Mr Girvan: I thank the Minister for his answer. In a previous answer, he alluded to the fact that 80% of education time is not necessarily in the classroom. I appreciate that other areas were identified where spend is made. When did it become a statutory duty of the Department of Education to provide breakfast? That should be the parents' responsibility.
Mr O'Dowd: I suspect that the majority if not all of the parents in this room are responsible enough and have the wherewithal and finances to do that and have had the experience in their own life to know to do that. However, unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. It is not a statutory obligation of the Department of Education to carry out a significant number of functions that we carry out, but, when the evidence shows that funding initiatives outside the classroom benefits teaching inside the classroom, it is only right and proper that we do that. The 80% of learning outside the classroom may not be in a formal setting. It may be through the experiences of the child in the family home, which can be positive or negative. It may also be their experiences in the local sports club, youth centre, church group, Boys' Brigade, Girls' Brigade, scouts or whatever. All those things play a part in enabling a young person or a child to fulfil their potential.
T6. Mr Ó Muilleoir asked the Minister of Education what steps, in conjunction with CCMS, his Department can take to ease the considerable pressures on primary-school places in South Belfast and Carryduff. (AQT 1936/11-15)
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire maidir le cúrsaí oideachais i nDeisceart Bhéal Feirste.
Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist. I thank the Member for the question. The Member will be aware that I approved for September 2013 an increase in the number of pupils attending St Ita's primary school in Carryduff. That was as the result of a development proposal that came forward from CCMS. I am aware that there is concern, particularly in that area of the South Belfast constituency, that numbers are growing and need will not be met. If CCMS believes that to be the case, it has a statutory responsibility to bring forward proposals that will ensure that, moving forward, there will be education places for all children who require them.
I think that you are on the border of the Belfast Education and Library Board and the SEELB, so the two boards, working together, will have to put forward proposals if they believe that there is a requirement for an increase in numbers. The Education Authority will also have to do that in the future. Most likely, the Member is aware that I have improved the enrolment of Millennium Integrated Primary School, Carryduff and that there is also a development proposal with my Department to increase the enrolment at Forge Integrated Primary School in south Belfast. I have not yet made a decision on that.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas fosta leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Will the Minister continue to monitor that? There are really positive things happening. I suppose that we would call that outer south Belfast or Carryduff. It is a beacon, I think, for the way in which we would like communities to develop, and it is really important that there are enough primary-school places to let that community prosper.
Mr O'Dowd: I will continue to monitor the situation, and, through area planning, there is an ideal opportunity for all the sectors to work together to plan a sustainable schools estate in Carryduff, south Belfast or, indeed, across the entire North. I am aware of the concerns. They have been raised previously by members of the public and elected representatives, and I will again raise the matter with the authorities responsible — the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and, in this case, the two boards — to ensure that they have plans afoot to deal with those matters.
T9. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister of Education, following his references throughout Question Time to the impact of budget cuts on schools, for his assessment of the Youth Service, which makes an important contribution to assistance with social and post-educational problems in the inner-city areas of the North Belfast constituency. (AQT 1939/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: My assessment of the Youth Service is that it is an integral part of our education system. It is succeeding in creating and delivering opportunities for young people to improve and change their lives dramatically, particularly in areas of high social deprivation. During my time as Minister, I have increased funding to youth services. It was, however, with a heavy heart that I was in a position to reduce funding as part of the draft budget. It is one of the areas that I am monitoring in relation to any uplift in budgets for the education system. If I receive that uplift, I will endeavour to give Youth Service some of the money back because, as I said earlier, it is an integral part of our education system.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his response. Can he assure the Assembly that, when it comes to the reallocation of funding for the Youth Service, he will pay particular attention to inner city areas where its beneficial effect is most felt?
Mr O'Dowd: In the past, I have delegated funding to boards for youth services on the basis that they are used in areas of social deprivation. I keep that situation under review, and, regardless of the outcome of the final budget, I will still insist that any uplift that was given previously is used in areas of social deprivation. In the final budget, I want to be in a position to correct some of the £3 million that has been lost to various youth organisations and youth services as a result of the draft budget, and I will expect that money to be directed to where it is most needed.
Mr Craig: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, I owe you an apology because I did not realise that questions 1 and 6 on the list were grouped. It is entirely my fault for not reading the email. I therefore apologise to the House.
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly acknowledges the challenging financial environment in which education will operate in 2015-16 and the widespread concern amongst schools regarding the implications for the classroom of the Department of Education's draft budget; recognises that, from 1 April 2015, there will be a single Education Authority in place of the five education and library boards to oversee the allocation of the majority of the education budget; and calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that protecting the classroom is his first priority, that he uses the new administrative arrangements to achieve greater efficiencies within support services and, in so doing, devolves the maximum amount of the available budget to school level.
Leave out all after "operate" and insert
"from 1 April 2015 and the widespread concern amongst schools regarding the implications for the classroom of the Department of Education's draft budget; recognises that from 1 April 2015 there will be a single Education Authority in place of the five education and library boards to oversee the allocation of the majority of the education budget; and calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that protecting classroom practice is his first priority and to use the new administrative arrangements to devolve maximum budget autonomy to schools that have demonstrated sound financial management skills in order to achieve the best possible educational outcomes whilst ensuring value for money.".
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate that was tabled by the Members opposite. I particularly welcome the opportunity to speak on amendment No 1, which has been tabled by the SDLP.
Our schools have been subject to increasing budgetary pressures and substantial reductions in grant aid over the past number of years. First, I wish to commend the staff and parents who have supported our young people at a time when schools have been pushed to the limits. I have seen their tireless support first-hand, and it really is invaluable. Unfortunately, that support has not been reflected in the Department of Education's funding to schools, which has fallen by 4·2% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15, while there has been a 3·6% rise in the departmental administration budget during the same period.
Education forms the building blocks of our society and economy, and our schools simply cannot withstand any more cuts. As Mr Maginness said during Question Time, the education budget also funds our Youth Service. Youth work makes a significant contribution to the development of our young people, not least by keeping them engaged in the learning process. The disproportionate cut to the Youth Service's budget will drastically reduce the capacity of the youth sector to tackle underachievement.
In agriculture, we talk about the route from field to fork. In education, the fertile field is the classroom experience, where our teachers and other professionals create a stimulating learning environment. Surely, in times of austerity, and like in other jurisdictions, that must be protected.
The Minister's priorities must be questioned, given that he has proposed to cut the aggregated schools budget by £87 million, while taking just £3 million away from departmental administration. That amounts to 9%, but a reduction of about 29% to the entitlement framework budget.
I was shocked to learn in an answer to a recent question for written answer that, on average, departmental administration has cost £18·4 million per year over the last five years. The SDLP tabled an amendment to the motion to reflect the views of our schools. The extremely challenging financial environment that schools face is not exclusive to 2015-16. As Mr Allister said during Question Time, when a child starts their study at GCSE or A level, it is a two-year commitment. Schools are also expected to have a three-year budget plan. When a child begins P1, there is a seven-year commitment.
Unless the Department urgently re-evaluates its priorities and strategies, schools in Northern Ireland face a bleak and volatile future for a number of years. That will be to the detriment of society, with a generation of young people not receiving the highest quality education that our teachers can provide.
The concern and apprehension that was triggered by the draft budget was well publicised in the run-up to Christmas. No one can plead ignorance of the consequences that the cuts will have. The implications are clear: job losses; increased pupil:teacher ratios; less support for children with special education needs; and a substantial reduction in the resources that our children and young people need to thrive personally and academically.
I have spoken to many principals, teachers and parents in the past number of weeks, and their anxiety is palpable. They simply cannot understand how schools can cut back any more without sacrificing the quality of education that they deliver. Schools face the prospect of redundancies, which threatens the quality and range of subjects that our children can be taught.
A guarantee from the Minister that he will protect the classroom is not sufficient. Staff, parents and young people need an assurance that best classroom practice will be protected. That means acceptable class sizes with suitable pupil:teacher ratios, the right level of support for children with special educational needs and a good pool of well-trained and adequately supported teachers and support staff. Those are the real front-line services that Ministers should focus on.
Education is the chief opponent of poverty. The children's charity Barnardo's indicated that approximately 100,000 children in the North were living in poverty in 2012, and that figure is expected to increase in the coming years. Another report, by Save the Children, predicts that 38% of children in Northern Ireland will be living in relative poverty by 2020. Neglecting our education sector will exacerbate that and make the fight against poverty all the more difficult. A failure to invest in education is a failure to invest in the future of our young people.
The cuts to education are all the more insulting after seven years and almost £17 million wasted on the defunct ESA Bill. It is thus imperative that the new Education Authority prioritises an efficient and cost-effective strategy and eliminates duplication.
The draft Budget proposes that only 58·1% of the total education funding goes directly to schools, while the figure is nearly 80% in England. How is that protecting classroom practice? One key way in which the Department could reduce waste and achieve the best value for money would be to review the process in place for the procurement of goods and services in the sector, which is financially and temporally inefficient at present. In the current system, school principals have to go through the education and library board to procure suppliers, regardless of whether they can procure them locally, more cheaply and more quickly themselves. Where is the economics of a school in my area having a plumbing problem, and the plumber eventually came from Castlebar?
Principals who have demonstrated sound financial management skills could play a key role in achieving the highest quality education outcomes whilst opting for the most cost- and time-effective options. If schools had the option of buying in professional development for their staff, they would ensure that it was value for money and would meet the needs of all their staff. Devolving maximum budget autonomy to schools with proven records of sound financial management allows principals to draw on local knowledge and experience to make the best decision for each and every one of their children. When I asked a large group of principals in Ballymena last Thursday whether they wanted greater budget autonomy, the answer was a resounding yes.
The Minister of Education must take heed of the warnings issued so well by the sector, by schools and by parents. Any budget that does not prioritise classroom practice does not have our society or our economy as its priority. I urge the House to support the SDLP amendment to ensure maximum autonomy for the delegation of the education budget. Minister, as we were told last Thursday in Ballymena, we need to focus, and our education budget has to target educational need.
Leave out all after "schools" and insert
", youth services, early years providers and the broader community regarding the implications for education if the Department of Education's draft budget does not receive a significant uplift in the final budget settlement; recognises that from 1 April 2015 there will be a single Education Authority in place of the five education and library boards to oversee the allocation of the majority of the education budget; and therefore calls on the Executive to ensure that protecting education is a priority; and further calls on the Minister of Education to use the new administrative arrangements to achieve greater efficiencies within administration and, in so doing, devolves the maximum amount of the available budget to front-line education services.".
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I was struck by something that the Minister said during Question Time: we have an education system, not just a school system. That, in essence, is what our amendment is about. Everyone is rightly concerned about what might happen in the classroom. As recently as lunchtime today, I spoke to teachers who are obviously concerned about what will happen in the classroom in the face of these budget cuts.
In the Committee Chair's opening remarks, she said that the Minister had broken two golden rules. She actually broke the primary golden rule, insofar as when she spoke about the cuts, she did not put the blame where it firmly lies: with the Tory Government in Westminster. They have cut the budget and the block grant, and we have to deal with the consequences of that. However, it is always important that the people whom we represent understand that it is not us who are making the cuts. We are just dealing with the consequences of cuts that have been made by the Tory Government in London. We all know that, as a result of that, the education sector is facing a very challenging financial situation. Of course, given the extent of the cuts to the block grant, the challenges faced by the education sector will continue well beyond this Budget period of 2015-16. It is important, therefore, that, in that context, the Minister should protect front-line services as much as is humanly possible. However, we all know, given the breadth and depth of the cuts to the Budget and the scale of the Budget reductions, that it will simply be impossible to maintain all core services at their current levels. That is unfortunate, but it is a fact of life that we have to deal with.
Savings and efficiencies can be made. The establishment of the new single Education Authority in place of the five education and library boards is a welcome development. There will be savings, although some have already been made through cutbacks in staff and what have you. Other savings and efficiencies will be made, but they will not be short term, unfortunately. Even though most of us are confident that there will be savings, it is difficult to estimate how much.
All of us in the Chamber understand how important education is. For many, it is a route out of poverty and deprivation. I note that there was a letter in this morning's 'The Irish News' from you, Mr Deputy Speaker, saying that education is the greatest weapon against inequality. I would not disagree with that sentiment. However, we will not support the motion or the SDLP's amendment because we believe that they are much too narrow. They do not focus on the whole education system.
I said at the outset that the education system is much more broadly based than a school system. Take some examples of what is involved in the rest of the education system, where some of the resources go. Those of us who are on the Education Committee know how important leadership is in schools. Some funding from the Department goes towards governor training. Do we cut back on that? I see that Jonathan is laughing. If you ask educationalists, they would say that leadership is one of the most important factors in raising education outcomes in schools. Do we cut back on that? Do we cut back on free school meals entitlement? Do we send children into the classrooms hungry, where they will not be able to concentrate on their lessons because they are concentrating more on their empty stomachs?
Important resources go into youth services. Many young people who have fallen through the cracks in the ordinary school system benefit from youth services. They have not been able to fit in, for whatever reason, have fallen through the cracks and have come under the auspices of youth services, where they have been helped immensely.
There are other areas, like SureStart in early years. We also know from research that early intervention is crucial for a child's education. I listened to Paul Girvan's question to the Minister of Education earlier about breakfast clubs. Some parents send their children to school without breakfast. Children should not be held responsible for that. If schools are providing breakfast clubs, particularly in areas of high deprivation, it is something we should welcome. It is for the benefit of the children and their overall educational outcomes.
School transport is another area that receives a lot of funding.
We witnessed a terrible tragedy not long before Christmas in Cloughmills. Are we going to cut back on transport for children to schools? Those are the questions that we need to ask.
I was talking to some of the teachers at the lunch break, and I pointed out that we do not want to cut back in the classrooms but that there are other areas in the education system that are equally important. They said, "Well, you need to prioritise", but when you ask, "Well, where would you take the money from?", it is much more difficult for them to give you an answer. The answer to the question, and what is at the heart of this debate, is that the education budget needs to be ring-fenced. That is not within my gift, but it is within the gift of all the parties represented on the Executive.
I will finish at this point. We will not be supporting the motion or the SDLP amendment. I ask others to support the amendment that we have brought forward, which is in the interests, we believe, of doing the best that we possibly can in difficult circumstances for the whole education system.
Mr Kinahan: I am glad that we are debating this crucial issue on the second day that we are back. I am slightly disappointed with the motion. It is weak, and it is a bit of a masterclass in understatement. The Sinn Féin amendment calls for more money for the Education Department without earmarking which other Departments should give it. We will be supporting the SDLP amendment.
What a mess we have got ourselves into. We need to completely rethink how we are doing the Budget, but at least it is a consultation and a chance for everyone to have their say. Hopefully, there is some room to move. It should not be a blame game of blaming the Brits before the election, and it should not be — I hope that it is not — a bleak picture being painted so that everything looks a bit nicer when we come to a solution. I hope that the Minister is not playing any games of that type.
Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for giving way. He outlined that he is happy to support the SDLP amendment, which does not call for any extra funds for the Department of Education. Are the Ulster Unionists saying that they are satisfied with the funds currently earmarked for Education?
Mr Kinahan: No, I am not, but I am choosing that as the better of what we have in front of us. We need more money; you will hear more from me as we go into this.
When this came to the Education Committee, I remember listening and thinking, "Here we are, still trying to do absolutely everything that we're doing now but with vastly less money." That is absolutely daft. We have to rethink and look at what we are doing. We need a completely new approach.
The priority has to be to maintain the excellence of our teaching at every school. The pupils and the standard of education must come first. We have called for protecting the aggregate school budget. We did not support the ring-fencing of the whole budget because we thought that that was the wrong approach for starting the whole Budget process on the Executive. We need to try to find as much as we can of the £70 million that is being taken away from the coalface of education.
The message from the schools and the boards is that the cuts mean that they will not be able to deliver education the way it is today, particularly if it is carried out as proposed. That resulting failure will be cataclysmic. I wrote to all the schools, and I am very grateful for the replies I have received. Many of them are what the Minister will have received, with some extra points. I am also very grateful for the Ballymena meeting, which Mr Rogers referred to, and I am especially grateful to all the principals for their sturdy resilience when such cataclysmic cuts were thrown at them before Christmas. What a Christmas they and their colleagues had. I hope that the Minister will apologise to them for that.
Mr O'Dowd: Will the Member apologise for canvassing for the Tories, who are the authors of all our mishaps and misfortune at this time?
Mr Kinahan: I think that the Minister should realise that whoever had got into government would have had to be making those cuts. It could have been Labour. It is all of us. We have our sum of money, so we must not keep producing a begging bowl. We have to find a way to look after ourselves.
The 7% cuts are enormous, whether you are a large school or a small school. I will give you a flavour of the sorts of responses received, although those have been looked at already. It means a cut to all non-core teachers, which is most likely to end up affecting special needs. It means a cut to classroom assistants and a cut to all non-teaching staff. It means principals having to go back into teaching, larger classes, fewer specialised teachers, the dumbing-down of teaching, loss of excellence, higher stress, more absences, further stress and a complete unravelling of our excellent education system, despite all the efforts. We could have a complete failure of the education system, and, as one person put it to me, we are letting down a generation and decades of pupils and teachers, and it will then take decades to repair.
I know that the Minister always wants suggestions from all of us on how to do things, but, given the lack of transparency and the lack of detail, it is very hard for us to come up with detail. In one case, I saw something from one board that had not even got to the Committee. In future, can we please have all the information and all the detail so that we can all be helpful?
Mr Kinahan: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.
It also disturbs me that, in the lay-offs, we will lose skills. I am also told that some of the governors have said that they may not sign off on their budget. If they do not sign off on their budget, there is a whole further battle that will run on and damage our schools further. I hope that that will not be the case.
I have many suggestions, but I am running out of time. We have all got to get ready to park our sacred cows to find the things that we can drop to make schools work. So, the plea from the Ulster Unionist Party is to give as much as we can to front-line services, and then let us look at everything else to see what can we cut, what we can park and what we can do differently in the future.
Mr Lunn: I support the motion and the SDLP amendment, although it would not have been difficult to support both amendments. However, you have to stop somewhere, so we will run with the SDLP one. To me, the motion and the amendments effectively all say the same thing anyway, although the Sinn Féin one is slightly different from the other two, but not by much.
All three call on the Minister to ensure that protecting front-line services must be his absolute priority and that maximum devolution of the available budget to school level is vital. I fancy that the Minister will be able to confirm that he feels that he has been doing that all along, and, indeed, he confirmed it during Question Time. However I doubt that he has been faced with a funding situation — a crisis — on the scale currently proposed, with a draft budget indicating a 7% reduction in the aggregated schools budget and more huge reductions in the allocation for capital expenditure. I wonder how long the schools that have been listed for new builds or rebuilds in the past four years will have to wait, or even whether there is any point in listing more in each financial year. We appear to be long on announcements but a bit short on laying foundations.
Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that, as well as the uncertainty over the budgets for the classrooms themselves, there is the additional uncertainty over capital funding for schools such as Strandtown in my constituency, which has just got its planning permission through and now has no idea as to when it may be able to put bricks on the ground?
Mr Lunn: The Member makes a fair point. I suggest that Strandtown is earmarked for around 2024, because that is the way that things are going at the moment.
The Sinn Féin amendment is different, in that it refers to the need for a significant uplift in the final Budget settlement and calls on the Executive to ensure that protecting education is a priority. Given that the Minister's party is one of the two that make the decisions in this place, it would not be a surprise if the DUP and Sinn Féin were to find some extra allocation for education, but at whose expense? Which other Department can afford to give up part of its budget? That is what is involved.
Would it be DEL, for instance, or the Department of Justice? I have a particular interest. Just this morning, I heard the Finance Minister confirming that he wants to try to find some more money for DEL to protect the situation around universities. Every Department will have its defence mechanisms and its priorities.
We do not think that throwing more money at education or ring-fencing it, as Mr Sheehan said, is necessarily the way forward. To our minds, the problem is not the amount of money in the education budget but how it is spent. It is a fact that others have referred to — I think the Committee Chair referred to it — that education gets more money over here per capita but spends the lowest amount of any part of the UK on actual school provision through the aggregated schools budget. I heard the figures. I can see the Minister shaking his head and Mr Hazzard too, and I heard the figure of 80% versus 59%. It is probably a bit more complicated than that, but, at the same time, I think there is a difference. It indicates inefficiency in the Department; that is what it boils down to.
Maybe the new Education Authority, which we all welcome, can do something to rectify that imbalance, but I think that the problems go a bit deeper than that. Do we really think that the separation of our children into sectors and the failure to implement area planning in any kind of meaningful, cross-sectoral way does not have a cost? Do we think that the determination of the Catholic authorities to resist any cross-sectoral or integrated solutions does not have a financial consequence? Do those who point to sharing as some kind of panacea not recognise that sharing also comes at a cost and that Atlantic Philanthropies will not be there for ever?
Are we content with the situation? I have every sympathy with teachers in schools at the moment who face the prospect of losing their job, but should we continue, through our teacher training arrangements, to produce more teachers than we need? Frankly, I doubt it. Do the advocates of shared campuses such as Lisanelly — massively expensive new builds — not have any doubts that it might be better to take the hard decisions and merge schools instead? It would certainly normally be more cost-effective to have one school instead of two. It would be easier to deliver the curriculum, and it would have obvious societal benefits.
Since I joined the Education Committee in 2007 — eight years ago — we have had budget discussions galore. We have gone through two attempts at ESA, sustainable schools, area-based planning, sharing promotion, imbalance of funding between primary and secondary, integration growth being restricted and, in every aspect, the failure to take hard decisions. We now have more empty desks than in 2007, I fancy, and a real budget crisis that is, as it stands, deeply damaging to individual schools.
We will support the motion as amended by the SDLP. If that does not pass, we will be happy to support the motion as it stands. We are at a watershed in education. Hard decisions had to be taken to bring about the Stormont House Agreement, so I hope that the same attitude will trickle down to the Education Department. For now, I join others in asking the Minister to protect classroom practice, but it must go beyond that: we should be talking about the cost of division —
Mr Lunn: — in education as in so many other aspects of our activities.
Mr Newton: I want to make a number of remarks about what, I believe, is a very competent motion before the Assembly today.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
We often talk about the cost of education, and that seems to be the approach that we take, rather than what many of us actually think, which is that it should be about investment in education. Whether that is investment in the pupils who sit behind a desk or in the youth services that the education services provide, it is a benefit for our young people from the time they enter the school system until they leave it. You can criticise the system as much as you like. In fact, Mr Kinahan said in his opening remarks — he may well be right — that we needed a completely new approach. Mr Kinahan has not tabled any amendments today, but he spent six minutes on his speech. At the end of his six minutes, he said, "I have a lot of ideas, but I haven't time to share them with you", but in his opening remarks he said:
"We need a completely new approach."
We need to understand what that completely new approach might be, but we are dealing with the education system as it is.
The motion, which the DUP Committee members tabled and the Chair proposed, recognises that we work in a challenging financial environment. It also recognises that there is widespread concern in schools about the draft Budget. I doubt whether any Member has not been lobbied or contacted by schools or had telephone calls or letters from schools. An opportunity has now been presented to the Minister to make savings under the new Education Bill.
The Minister talks in the right ethos about that area and about investing in our children. In welcoming the Education Bill, in his press statement, he said that it was a significant way forward for children and young people. I agree, but action is required to make that happen. When he was speaking to the Catholic Principals Association, he also said:
"Children are at the heart of the education system".
I think that we would all agree with that, but teachers, principals and boards of governors do not currently recognise that in the proposals under the draft Budget.
The Minister talks about bringing about change. There is an opportunity to bring about change under the Education Bill, but change will not happen. I have expressed my disappointment to the Minister in Committee about the lack of progress that was being made under the Education Bill or ESA, as it previously was, to prepare for change. We need to profit from the change, as do our pupils and young people. In doing that, we need to adapt to changing circumstances. We need to control the changing circumstances and to make effective the change that that will bring about.
I referred to being lobbied by schools. I have been lobbied specifically, not by a school in my constituency but by a school that provides a service to pupils with difficult and challenging circumstances. That is Glenveagh Special School. I hope that we will meet the school in the not-too-distant future. I received a detailed reply from another school that indicated that, if the current budget were to go ahead, it would lose about £220,000, which would approximate to six teachers. The school would end up having to remove —
Mr Newton: — subjects from the curriculum and having to tailor other aspects of the school, which would result in the pupils losing out.
Mr McCausland: I am in a similar position to many other Members, in that I have received a vast amount of correspondence on this important issue. I find it hard to decide whether this is a tactical approach by the Minister or a ploy — I have to say that it would be a very callous ploy, if it is one — to present as difficult a picture as possible to extract more money out of the system. This question has already been asked: if there is more money, where does it come from? The Finance Minister is a politician; he is not a magician. He cannot conjure money out of thin air. If money is to be moved into education, it has to be taken away from some other Department. There is the challenge and the difficulty.
It may not be tactical: it could be simply political. It may be simply that the Minister wants to keep more money in the centre so that he has more money to run his pet projects and can lavish resources on them. I do not believe that that is the right way to run an education Department. Money should be directed to schools and to schools directly as far as possible. We should protect the classroom, and, certainly, there should be no reduction in the money going to classrooms. The cuts should be made elsewhere.
I have talked about the Minister's pet projects. I just looked at two examples that came to mind. This was not a case of going through the Department's entire budget very carefully: two things just stood out in the past while. Back in the October monitoring round, the paper stated that the Department of Education was transferring up to £1 million to DCAL in respect of the City of Culture and that the actual amount was being finalised. It did not tell us what it was for nor what the final amount was, but the Minister said that he was prepared to transfer £1 million from the education budget to the DCAL budget. If it is the case that this Department is strapped for cash and is facing a very strict, difficult and challenging time, why is the Minister suddenly handing away £1 million to another Department? I think that this is about the Minister having money in the centre — a slush fund or whatever you call it, money lying around — that can be put into pet projects or shifted off or decanted to another Sinn Féin Department. That seems to be the way in which money is dealt with in DE.
I also noticed that, a few weeks ago, the Minister announced that he was giving an extra £140,000 to Irish-medium youth work. In the scheme of things, £140,000 is not the biggest sum in the world. It is a big sum for most of us, but, in the scheme of the budget of the Department of Education, it is not that big an amount. We are talking about many millions of pounds. Bearing it in mind that, I think, around 1% of children go to Irish-medium schools — it is a smallish figure anyway — if you scale the £140,000 up, you are talking about putting the equivalent of £14 million into one of the Minister's personal party pet projects. That is what this is about to a large degree: keeping and grabbing as much as he can into the centre so that he can go around as Mr Bountiful, handing out money to projects that he personally likes. The victims in this and the people who suffer are the children, teachers and schools across Northern Ireland. They lose out on money so that he can fund his favourite schemes and lavish money on them as he does.
We should be in the business of empowering schools. As the Chair of the Committee said, we should be in the business of resourcing schools. We should not be in the business of having lots of special interventions. Quite frankly, the running of many of them is cumbersome, burdensome and is not necessarily being done most effectively. We should be moving towards the position in England of getting as much money as possible —
Mr McCausland: Yes. I have another 10 seconds, thank you.
We should be getting as much money as possible right there into the classrooms to benefit children.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Éirím an iarraidh seo le tacaíocht a thabhairt do leasú an SDLP. I rise on this occasion to support the amendment proposed by the SDLP.
There is no doubt about it: the proposed reduction in the aggregated schools budget — 8% at primary-school level and 7% at secondary-school level — is serious. That is no overstatement. The total figure amounts to £87 million. Although some Members have said that the Minister has embarked on a scaremongering crusade to blackmail his colleagues into coughing up more money, there is no doubt that the proposed cuts will negatively impact on every school, classroom, pupil and teacher.
If we look at the Department's stated aims, we see that the first of its primary aims is to raise standards for all. These cuts will lead to larger classes and to higher pupil:teacher ratios. How can we raise standards under those circumstances? The likely outcome of that situation is a drop in standards. The Department also aims to close the performance gap and to increase access and equity, but if we have a reduction in the number of classroom assistants and reduced special needs provision, how can we close the performance gap, increase access and achieve equity? The simple answer is that it is going to be extremely difficult.
The Department also seeks to develop the education workforce. If we had higher pupil:teacher ratios, we would have greater teacher workload, leading to greater stress on teachers and a reduction in absentee cover, all of which would create a dispirited workforce. There would not be much development for the education workforce under those circumstances. How will overcrowding in classrooms and fewer teacher/pupil resources improve the learning environment?
I spent 25 years teaching, and I know well from first-hand experience the impact that these cuts will have. If these unprecedented draft Budget proposals are imposed on the education sector, our schools' capacity to facilitate our young people's aspirations to take their place in the world and make a positive contribution will be seriously undermined. Others have referred to the fact that, to have a healthy economy, we must have a healthy, thriving, effective and efficient education system. These cuts will not lead to that. There was reference to the division of the education budget between the aggregated schools budget and the amount that goes to administration. The figures may be disputed, but perhaps the Minister will look at this area and attempt to give the schools more money. The schools know best how the money can be best used, especially at the chalkface.
The Stormont agreement has provided us with a pot of gold. How much of that pot of gold will go to front-line services? I note that £500 million has been apportioned to shared and integrated education. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what degree of flexibility there is within that particular pot of money. Perhaps some creative thinking on behalf of the Department will lead to some of that money being diverted to —
Mr D Bradley: — front-line services. That will alleviate the problems in the situation that schools, teachers and pupils find themselves in.
Mrs Overend: I will speak on the issue, and, as indicated, we will support the SDLP amendment.
At the outset, let me say that it must be remembered that, although the present acute financial problems appear to have emerged in the summer during the 2014 June monitoring round, we now know that the Executive were informed of their allocations for 2015-16 as part of the 2013 UK spending round in June 2013. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that the Minister has demonstrated a lack of transparency on budgetary matters throughout the 2011-15 budgetary period. At various mini-crisis points, he has found extra money from contingency funds. There has been no demonstration of financial prudence or of the Minister being proactive in making efficiency savings during his tenure in office. The most glaring example of that is, of course, the money that was spent on failing to set up ESA, the Education and Skills Authority implementation team and associated departmental costs. As of the end of the 2013-14 financial year, that came to £18·145 million.
At the start of this budgetary period, in 2011, the Executive exempted the Minister's Department from cuts on the basis that the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) had been commissioned to undertake work on the scope for and delivery of significant cost reductions. The PEDU report, published nearly four years ago, highlighted potential efficiency savings in administration. At the Education Committee on 7 December 2011, a departmental official said:
"savings could be used to ease pressures in the core areas of teaching and learning."
The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) was meant to have been culled and its responsibilities absorbed by ESA. Not only is this not happening under the Education Authority proposals but we now have a new sectoral body for controlled schools that, inevitably, will cost money and does not seem to have been mentioned in the draft Budget.
Moreover, recent Assembly questions have shown that the PEDU recommendations have not been implemented, the excuse being that they were predicated on the establishment of ESA. On 4 November 2014, the Minister, in reply to my party leader, admitted that he had not implemented the PEDU recommendations and that they had been put on hold. So, before we go much further, the Minister needs to quantify how much of the expenditure on ESA has not been lost and be clear on whether he expects the new Education Authority to implement the four-year-old PEDU recommendations. In that context, and when debating the draft education budget for 2015-16, we must interrogate the Minister of Education on whether he has demonstrated any financial prudence or acumen at all.
As has been highlighted, the proposed 7% cuts in the aggregated school budget have been met with understandable consternation amongst the teaching fraternity. However, even more stark are the threat to the preschool education budget and the proposed cut to the budget of the Youth Council for Northern Ireland. Preschool education faces a cut of £2·5 million, or 15%, and the Youth Council, which supports the youth work sector across the Province, faces a £3 million, or 20%, cut.
I highlight those two areas merely to put into some sort of context the Minister's recent decision to fund the opening of a brand new secondary school near Dungiven, at which it is proposed that pupils will be educated through the medium of the Irish language. In the development proposal for that school, which is available to read online, it is estimated that approximately 11 double mobile classrooms will be required at a cost of approximately £600,000, plus VAT, every year, with specialised accommodation increasing the cost. The school's estimated first year deficit is in and around £100,000, and that will have to be carried forward to subsequent years. For the Minister to approve this, against the advice of his officials and even contrary to that of the ministerial advisory group on advancing Irish-medium education, borders on farcical. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin Members pull on our heartstrings and say that the only alternative to the current budget proposals is to have children starve. Such financial flagrancy, as demonstrated by the Minister in his decision-making, gives the Ulster Unionist Party no confidence that he has any competence or responsibility in budgetary matters.
Mrs Overend: Sorry. The draft Budget 2015 must be completely redrafted. In the face of budgetary cutbacks, we certainly cannot afford party political decisions made by the Minister of Education.
Mr McCallister: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and apologies for not being here for all of the debate.
Several things strike me about the debate. It is a DUP motion, with an amendment tabled by the SDLP, mainly getting at a Sinn Féin Minister. Everybody is in the Government together, so this is a Government debate attacking a different part of the Government. No doubt, over the next few weeks, we will have a Sinn Féin motion against the DUP Health Minister or an SDLP motion against an Ulster Unionist Minister and so on. It is as though none of this is the responsibility of any of your party colleagues — it is as though the Stormont House Agreement and looking at the finances had never happened.
Mr Bradley talked about the pot of gold promised in the Stormont House Agreement. I would point out that a huge chunk of that pot of gold has to be repaid after a certain time. What effect will that have on our classrooms and schools? That, I think, is the crux of this issue. What options will the Minister have? What options will the Minister have to look at? We will have to wait and see how the Minister does it, how he manages his budget, what extra he gets from the Stormont House Agreement and how he decides to use that. There are going to be proposals that are going to involve difficult decisions, but I want to make sure that the Minister hears from the Assembly that he needs to prioritise the classroom and the front-line services in his Department. That is what we need to do. As we move forward, and he looks at various things, we see that he is getting more money for shared and integrated education. He has to make sure that that is not just about bussing children around the countryside but is meaningful and that it extends choice.
Some of the ideas that the Minister is looking at around consultation on transport could well have a huge impact on our children and on parental choice of what school their children will go to, because we are a long way from making every school a good school, as has been promised for many years by the party that is holding the education brief. That is one of our difficulties. If every school is not a good school, it is very hard to deny parental choice, because a poor school is not where parents and children opt to go to school. That is something that would be hugely regrettable and almost regressive in the tackling of our education system, dealing with its shortcomings and how we improve that choice.
All of that, Mr Deputy Speaker, comes back to the fact that, for almost eight years of the Assembly and Executive being in place, we have fundamentally failed to address public sector reform. We have not got to grips with it, despite the First Minister's efforts, when he was Finance Minister, with PEDU and the PEDU report, which Mrs Overend spoke about. There has been no buy-in —
Mr McCallister: That goes back to an unreformed Assembly and Executive. You do not have a proper Programme for Government and a proper ministerial, collective-cabinet Government.
Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis na Comhaltaí as an rún seo a thabhairt chun tosaigh, agus failtím roimh admháil Comhaltaí go bhfuil staid airgeadais dhúshlánach os comhair na hearnála oideachais. I thank the Members for bringing forward the debate and motion, and I welcome the acknowledgement by Members of the challenging financial position that the education sector is in. However, it would be true to say that there are parties in the Chamber that are of the view that the education budget will suffice. Their estimations, economic policy, education policy and philosophy says that the education budget will suffice, but they are saying that we have to make the cuts everywhere other than in the classroom. I will outline the implications of that during my address.
I do not support the motion because, despite some of the comments from even the sponsors of the motion, it is not seeking to protect or enhance funding to youth services. My mailbox in the Department of Education is full of letters from Members seeking more funding for youth services, but the motion does not seek that. In fact, as a result of the motion and comments by Members that all cuts should take place outside of the classroom and outside of schools, our youth services would be decimated. The aggregated schools budget takes up 59% of the education budget. Under the proposal that is before us today, and which Members are being asked to vote for, we are being asked to ring-fence that 59% of the education budget.
The Department of Education is facing cuts of 8·36%. If you translate that into 41% of the budget, that turns into cuts of 20% to youth services, the education boards, transport, SEN, free school meals entitlement, and 20% cuts to everything else. When Members vote, as they will, they have a choice of either the substantive motion, which in essence calls for cuts across the board everywhere but schools, or the SDLP amendment, which basically says the same thing.
Despite comments from the proposer of the amendment, Mr Rogers, that he is also concerned about youth services, and comments from Mr Bradley about the SDLP's concerns about the wider education system, they are not looking for further funds for education. They are looking to protect funds in the classroom. When you are lobbied by youth services, Sure Start, Bookstart and all those other bodies, be honest and forthright in your response to them and say, "No, no, no". If the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party and perhaps some of the independents in the Chamber vote for the motion, they will have to say, "No, no, some of us actually believe that the education budget will suffice, and we all believe that education in the classroom is the central core of education, and the cuts should come from everywhere else". That is because any other answer —
Mr O'Dowd: I will in a minute. Any other answer will be untruthful. If you support the substantive motion or amendment No 1, you cannot state support for services other than the classroom.
Mr Wilson: Does the Minister accept that, even with the aggregated schools budget, he holds so much money at the centre for a plethora of nearly 50 special initiatives — some of which are questionable, anyway — that, even if he worked on the aggregated schools budget and devolved more of that to schools, the kinds of issues that have been described in the Assembly today could have been overcome?
Mr O'Dowd: I was going to come to what the Minister holds at the centre for his devilish plan. Let us look at what I hold at the centre and what the centre is, because that is also quite interesting. The aggregated schools budget is 59% of the education budget; the ELB block grant is 20%; ELB-earmarked budgets are 12%; voluntary grammar schools and grant-maintained integrated (GMI) central support costs are 2%; other non-departmental public bodies and education services are 2%; early years provision is 2%; youth and community relations are 2%; and DE staffing and costs are 2%. Despite earlier comments that the Department of Education was overcome with bureaucracy and cutting less in departmental bureaucracy than in the aggregated schools budget, that is not the case.
The headline figure for the reduction in the aggregated schools budget is 7%. The Department of Education's overall budget is being cut by 8·36%. However, when you add £10 million to the aggregated schools budget from one of those central pots that I hold for targeting social need, the reduction is 7%. Let us look at what we are cutting in administration in the Department of Education. We are cutting 9%, which is above the overall cut to education. If you compare the Department of Education's budget — it is the second-biggest in the Executive — with other Departments, DE has far fewer staff, pro rata, than any other Department. Some of the Departments that are running on lower budgets than DE have many more staff, pro rata, than DE.
Where are you going to find this £162 million or £163 million? We are asking the wrong question. As I started out by saying, that is where some parties and their Members support the austerity policies of the Conservative Party. Some parties in the Chamber canvassed for them.
Mr Kinahan had the opportunity to apologise for canvassing for a party, that is now decimating our public services and our economy, and refused to do so. He said that we could not blame it on the Brits. I am not blaming it on the Brits; I am blaming it on the Conservative Party. I am blaming it on the Westminster Government, because they are the people who are delivering an economic strategy that is decimating not only their own people but people here as well — and you canvassed for them. So, no wonder you support their economic strategy. We are asking the wrong question about where the cuts should come from. I would like to think that the Assembly would support investment going into education.
We have a number of core services, health being one of them. My party and I have supported the ring-fencing of health funding. Indeed, during the draft Budget deliberations I and my party supported an additional £200 million going into health, because we see it as a core public service. The other core public service is education. As I have said in the Chamber many times, if we get education right we will lift the pressure off many other Departments. A well-educated individual is more likely to be employed, less likely to need the health service, less likely to end up in the justice system and more likely to be a positive contributor to society. So, let us get education right; but to get it right we need to invest in it.
I would have hoped that the parties in the Chamber would have set aside their narrow political positions and would have been able to have a long-term vision for our society and of the benefits of education going into the future —
Mr O'Dowd: — I will, in one minute — and not work on the basis which, disappointingly, the Alliance Party has worked on. It said at one point that it could support the Sinn Féin amendment, but had to ask where would the money come from and whether it would come from DEL or Justice. I am not suggesting that it should come from DEL or Justice, but what I am saying is that the Executive, the Assembly and society need to get their priorities right. If our priorities are the health and well-being of our citizens then we have to support the health service, but we also have to support our education system.
Mr Kinahan: I thank the Minister. I am listening to what you are saying, but all the way through all we seem to be doing is cutting everything by a percentage, whereas if we go to the point where we need a whole new approach, we then need to look at all the sacred cows and all the things we are doing and decide which things we are not going to do. Do you feel that it is all right just to keep trying to do everything that we are doing but cutting by not a little but a whole lot? We need to look at every single item.
Mr O'Dowd: I believe that, as we move into the future, we are going to continue to face financial pressures, but I also think that we have to stabilise our education system and bring forward a sustainable education estate. I am one of the only Ministers around the Executive table who have brought forward and delivered changes to their Departments and to the service delivery mechanisms — in this case, to schools. I have taken on the difficult decisions of closing schools or amalgamating them. I have taken on the public wrath in many instances around these matters.
Where else across our Administration are Ministers prepared to take those decisions? You cannot make a difficult decision one day and on the next day say that because of a poor public reaction you are going to reverse it.
Mr O'Dowd: You have to be prepared to make the decisions that are right for delivery of service, for protecting public finances and for building a stable education system for the future.
I will give way in one moment. If the forecasted projections in public spend are carried out, there is a strong onus on current Executive Ministers to put policies in place that will continue, as best they can, to stabilise public services. You cannot turn a blind eye to what is going on into the future. I am one of the only Ministers who have done that.
People, to be fair to me, say that the Minister has not done anything with the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) reports. The PEDU reports, if fully implemented, would save around £10 million, which is, a substantial amount in anybody's money. However, compared to what we need in education, it is chicken feed. The PEDU reports are based on two areas, the first of which is home-to-school transport. We published a substantial report on that and we will have to go out to public consultation on it. There are difficult decisions to be made in relation to public school transport, which covers a budget of over £70 million. Difficult decisions lie ahead.
The other area it covers is the delivery of school meals. If its most dramatic and drastic elements were carried out, it would save possibly £3 million or £4 million. I set it on the shelf because during that period we could have been saving tens of millions of pounds through the implementation of ESA, and nobody would move on ESA. So, I said that under no circumstances was I going to turn round and start reducing posts in one of the low-paid elements of our education system, namely those who work in free school meals. There was no justice or fairness to that whatsoever, so I make no apologies for putting that report back on the shelf and taking no action. Actions will have to be taken on school transport.
Mrs Overend talked about her concerns about the Youth Council, but you cannot have concerns about the Youth Council. You do not have any justified concerns about the Youth Council. You cannot turn round to the Youth Council and say, "I'm out fighting for you. Stick with me; I'll sort that out for you", because you are about to vote for a motion that says that classrooms should be protected and the cuts come from everywhere else.
Your party is also quite clear from your contribution, and from Mr Kinahan's contribution, that it is more than satisfied that education has a sufficient budget. It is quite clear from your contributions today that you are content with the education budget and that education does not deserve an uplift. You are quite content with it, so there is no sector outside schools where you can turn round and say, "We're fighting your corner", because you are not — and you are about to vote to prove that you are not.
I will let Mr Lunn in quickly.
Mr Lunn: It is a bit historical now, Minister, but you did comment that you were the only Minister who managed to take difficult decisions around school closures and that type of thing, and, by implication, that you had done something about the arrangement of the school estate. So, how come we still have 60,000 empty desks?
Mr O'Dowd: Because when I came into post, we had 80,000. I have taken action to reduce that number by 20,000; that is why. I put in place a programme in area based planning that makes decisions. Every time it makes a decision, Members in this Chamber jump up and down, saying, "Oh, you can't make that decision, you can't make that decision". I then say, "Well, what decision should I make?", and the answer is, "Uh, I don't know". You see, "Uh, I don't know" does not do anything. It does not solve any problems.
Members may disagree with what I do and with my decisions and policies, but at least I have policies and at least I make decisions. Mr Kinahan again came into the Chamber today and said, "I have a raft of ideas for you" —
Mr O'Dowd: — but I have not had the time to read them out. But I will give you an idea: do not canvass for the Tories and do everybody a favour. Thank you very much.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome this opportunity to make a winding-up speech on amendment No 2. I apologise to the proposer of the motion for not being here earlier.
It has been a positive enough debate in that we certainly learned something, namely that, for some, the vision is still far too narrow. I am absolutely baffled that the SDLP amendment was even accepted because it is exactly the same as the motion. It calls for the prioritising of funds for the classroom and devolution of the maximum amount of the available budget to the school. That is the exact same language as the DUP motion originally. Also, it does not ask for more funds to go into the system, which the Minister talked to. So, I am quite surprised that it was even accepted. Indeed, I am equally surprised that the Ulster Unionists and Alliance are happy enough to go with that amendment, although that is probably more for political reasons than anything else.
The motion and, indeed, the SDLP amendment have a narrow focus on that teacher:pupil relationship just inside the classroom. Of course, that is important, absolutely, and we need to put that at the centre of our education system, but the system as a whole is far bigger than that. We must not reduce the education system and the entire learning process of individuals and the children who we teach to that very small classroom. I have said numerous times in the Chamber that, from the age of 4 to 18, a child spends as little as 9% of those years inside the school gates. A total of 91% of a child's learning experiences are outside school.
Therefore, it would be a false economy if we were to attack the education budget everywhere but the classroom. Of course the classroom must be cherished and protected to a certain extent, but we cannot ignore the other things.
My colleague Pat Sheehan referred to a letter in the paper today in which it was said that education is the greatest weapon against inequality. The other side of the coin, of course, is that inequality is the greatest weapon against education. We need to look at the areas in which poverty outside the school permeates the classroom. We have touched on that today, be it attendance or anything like that, and that is what we need to keep at the forefront of our mind.
If we vote for the motion today, we are voting for an attack on Sure Start and an attack on early years provision. We will also be voting for a reduction in free school meal entitlement, which this year will see an additional 12,000 pupils receiving nutritional meals, benefiting their learning processes. We will also be reducing uniform grants for parents. Are we saying that we need to attack those things? Do we need to attack transport? Are parties in here today saying that it is no longer permissible for tens of thousands of kids to be bused into Belfast to the super-schools? Are parties saying that they do not want to see that happening?
Nurture units, breakfast clubs, extended schools, after-school clubs and youth services will also be affected. We know the great amount of work that youth services do in our community. As the Minister outlined, if we were to go ahead with what the DUP and others are saying here today, we would see a massive attack on youth services, and that would have a hugely detrimental impact on children's experiences. CRED, the community relations policy, and the various sports initiatives would also be affected. That is just not possible.
On the SDLP amendment, we all agree that there is widespread concern. Sinn Féin shares that concern. We have said from the outset that there simply is not enough money in the education budget and that we need to see more money. The SDLP has argued that the classroom needs to be a priority, but the vast majority of the education budget is spent in and around the classroom, on teaching and everything else.
There was mention made again of poverty. Poverty does not exist in the classroom, but the effects of poverty permeate the classroom and the teacher and child relationship. Therefore, if we do not address the effects of poverty outside the school and as the child comes into school, forget about the classroom, because it is too late at that stage. We have looked at the need to devolve the budget to the lowest point of the school, but that does not give the schools any more money. Yes, there are pros and cons to giving schools the autonomy to spend money on what they want. We should remember also that some of the schools —
Mr Rogers: I thank the Member for giving way. I have this one question: how can we maintain a quality learning environment in the classroom if we are to lose 1,000 teachers and 1,500 classroom assistants? That is the big question.
Mr Hazzard: I am not saying that that will not have an impact. That is why I am saying that we need more money in the system. What I am saying is that it is wrong to suggest that, if we simply protect the classroom, the child's education will be OK. It simply will not be, because all the other things, such as transport and early years provision, will be affected. That will affect vulnerable pupils especially and those who come from socially deprived backgrounds, because those things are the lifeblood of their education. We will be consigning a generation of vulnerable people to the dustbin if that is the case, and we simply should not be allowed to do it.
In the motion, in the SDLP amendment and from the contributions of various Members who spoke, we are still short on solutions. People come to the Chamber and are very quick to point out all the different problems. It may be the same in other debates, but I have heard no solutions for where £162 million would be spent elsewhere.
Mr Hazzard: That is what we seriously need to look at.
I want to finish by saying that the DUP's finance spokesperson, Paul Girvan, said yesterday that the education budget should be ring-fenced. I agree entirely.
Mr A Maginness: I thank Miss McIlveen for bringing about the debate. I support the SDLP amendment. It has been a good debate. The education budget means that there are clearly very serious pressures on the education system, but you cannot have it both ways. The Sinn Féin deputy First Minister said that the overall draft Budget was as good as it could get and that anyone who believed otherwise was living in a "fantasy world".
Those were his words. They were not my words but his words. The Minister of Education and his colleagues supported that view 100% with absolutely no dissent whatsoever. The Minister of Education voted for the Budget in the Executive.
If the Minister of Education is critical of his own budget, saying that that budget is inadequate, insufficient, imperfect or whatever way he wants to describe it, he is, in effect, the author of his own misfortune. That is the reality of the situation, and Sinn Féin Members have to come to terms with that. They, of course, look around and say, "Who is there to blame? Is the DUP to blame? Is it the Ulster Unionists? Is it the SDLP? No, it is not. It is the Tory Government at Westminster who are to blame". However, of course, the responsibility lies here in the Executive. The responsibility lies with Sinn Féin Ministers who supported this Budget. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that the Budget is wrong on the one hand and then still support it. If the Minister has problems with the Budget, cannot support it because he cannot deliver an education system with it — it is clear from what colleagues are saying around the House that the education system cannot be delivered properly with this Budget — it will create all sorts of problems down the line, such as more poverty, and, as Mr Sheehan said so well in his speech, education is a weapon against poverty, then the Minister should say, "Well, I cannot do this job. Therefore, I give up this post. I resign".
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for giving way. The Member is absolutely right: I did vote for the draft Budget. I believe that the draft Budget was the best possible deal in November, but in voting for the draft Budget, we were also conscious that we had a number of items in front of us that were unknowns. One was the autumn statement from the Westminster Government, which has produced over £70 million of Barnett consequentials, and the ongoing and planned talks in relation to a wide range of matters, including the finances and the financial relationship between us and the Westminster Government. All those things have now been settled, and we have an opportunity to increase funding in a number of areas in the Budget. Those parties that voted against the draft Budget at the Executive did not produce an alternative then and have not produced an alternative since. So, you cannot have it both ways either. Your strategy would have led to the collapse of the Executive. My strategy and my party's strategy gave the Executive and the Assembly breathing space.
Mr A Maginness: I go back to the original point that the Minister doth protest too much in relation to this. He knows that he is caught. He knows that he is caught by the commitment of his own leadership. Yet, he seeks to criticise the Budget. Yet, he seeks to try to ameliorate his own political difficulties by saying that it is the fault of other people. It is not the fault of other people; it is the fault of his own party's commitment to this Budget.
Mr Sheehan may be able to stand outside a school, protest against the cuts and seek to express solidarity with teachers and classroom assistants who are sacked. He may have the Minister's blessing and approval for doing that — I know that the Minister has said that — but that is not a truthful or honest position to adopt. It is disingenuous, to say the least, to adopt that position. That is why the amendment that the SDLP has brought forward, and which I believe will receive the support of the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance Party, is preferable.
I think that it is time for the Minister and Sinn Féin —
Mr A Maginness: — to get over the difficulties that they have created for themselves and to say that there must be a fresh start.
Mr Craig: As I listened in the Chamber today, it was quite clear that there is a huge challenge facing Members. That challenge is, of course, the cuts to public spending, which are coming from central government. I do not think that any of us can afford to adopt the emu approach that some people seem to think will work. There is £1·3 trillion of debt in the public sector in the United Kingdom. It is a matter of debate whether one agrees with the Tory-led coalition in Westminster and the speed with which they are cutting those budgets and the impact that it is having on the public sector. I know that many parties around the Chamber disagree with the level and speed of those cuts. There is huge debate, I think, in all political parties about what the correct level should be. There seems to be only one party in the Chamber that agrees with the speed with which they are doing it, and that party seems to comprise our colleagues to the right.
Most Departments, including Education, are facing these cuts. There is no question about that. The Executive made some hard choices in the draft Budget. One of those hard choices was to ring-fence Health. I do not think that anyone in the Chamber is saying that we should not ring-fence Health, given the impact that it has on individuals' lives. That leads to the impossible situation where, if you start ring-fencing other Departments, you will very quickly run out of options for where your public-sector savings come from.
Prior to the creation of the draft Budget, I listened carefully to what the Minister said regarding his own budget. I can clearly recall several occasions when he made it very clear that he would do everything within his power to protect front-line services. I am sure that I am not the only person in Northern Ireland who heard those comments. That is why, when the draft budget for Education came out, it came as such a surprise to me to see the level and extent of the cuts coming to front-line services. When we see what is regarded as a 7% cut to secondary education and an 8% cut to primary education, it is quite clear that those will have a massive impact on front-line services. It is hard to see how we will deliver the same high-quality education in Northern Ireland with fewer teachers, larger classrooms and ultimately a workforce that is demoralised because of the lack of finance for it. That is why, when we looked at that as a party, we asked, "Will those cuts to front-line services happen too deep, too quickly?", which, I have to say, is the same complaint that we have about the Tory party.
When we look at the back-room services, we see that we have to put a question mark over them. The Minister knows only too well that we do not get to see all the finances of his back-room services, so we cannot make those judgements. That is a judgement for the Minister. Could larger cuts be made to those back-room services that are there to allegedly support education?
Mr Hazzard: Thanks to the Member for giving way. I am interested in the Member's definition of a "back-room service". I presume that he is not talking about services such as Sure Start, breakfast clubs and others that are vital to the running of a school. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Craig: That is why I was careful to talk about front-line services. I regard those as front-line services.
However, as we all know, there are —
Mr Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he accept that, however he describes them — backroom services or money held at the centre — the fact is that, in Northern Ireland, we hold about 20% more at the centre than is held for the aggregated schools budget in other parts of the United Kingdom? That is why schools find themselves under pressure.
Mr Craig: I totally agree with the Member, and I thank him for coming to my next point in the speech, which is the level of finance that we hold at the centre. Efficiencies have to be found there before we look at front-line services. The balance between whatever level of cuts has to be made between those two needs to be rebalanced. As it stands, the draft Budget will have a major detrimental impact on front-line services, which will have a major impact on the quality of service that we deliver.
Cull the overheads and give the schools a chance. That is the message that we are trying to send out; that is the message from teachers, principals and the boards of governors to just about every Member. They want to be given a chance to deliver high-quality education.
I listened with interest to what Members had to say. I listened very carefully to what Pat Sheehan had to say about his party's approach, and he basically asked where and how we should make the cuts. The Minister has given us an outline of his thoughts on where we should make the cuts; that is what the draft Budget is. It is the Minister's choice. However, it is also right for us to question those choices and ask whether there is a better balance for them. That is why we tabled our motion and why we have said that we will support the SDLP's amendment.
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for giving way. I will make a quick point. Neither your motion nor the SDLP's amendment offers an alternative or supports funding going anywhere else other than into schools. Vote for what is on the paper rather than what you think you are voting for.
Mr Craig: Minister, ultimately, we are asking for a better balance of funding for front-line services. The Minister knows only too well that negotiations have taken place since the draft Budget was published. I would like to see not only the draft Budget but the final Budget.
I listened with interest to what Danny Kinahan had to say, and I am quite content that I do not share his views about the complete failure of education in Northern Ireland. That seems to be the Dr Doom approach —
Mr Craig: Hansard will correct me if I am wrong, but I know what I heard.
Trevor Lunn made the very important point that it is all about how the money is spent. Not for the first time, my colleague got it right. The debate is about how it is actually spent.
Mr Wilson: Does he accept that, rather than the Minister's contention, the motion makes it quite clear how the DUP would spend the money. It would give it to schools rather than leaving it with a Stalinist-type Department that wants to control —
Mr Wilson: — the money that is available to schools and, therefore, deny money to the front line.
Mr Craig: It is about how the money is spent. As my colleague quite rightly pointed out, we would look at the issue of how it is spent slightly differently from the party opposite. Maybe more than slightly differently.
My colleague Nelson also quite correctly pointed out that other choices are being made by the Minister. When you hand millions of pounds over to the City of Culture and £140,000 to the Irish language for different projects, no matter how justifiable those projects are, you are taking it away from front-line services.
Mr Craig: Different choices are being made. I will give you one chance, because I am out of time.
Mr D Bradley: During my speech, I mentioned that there was £500 million in the Stormont House Agreement for education. I know that that has been designated as capital, but previous negotiations have allowed capital to be converted into resource. That is an avenue that we should go down to get more money for education across the whole gamut.
Mr Craig: That is an issue for the Treasury to decide. What we are debating here is how the Minister spends his budget, and we have outlined our rationale behind the motion and our support for the SDLP's amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I remind Members that, if it is made, I will not put the Question on amendment No 2.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly acknowledges the challenging financial environment in which education will operate from 1 April 2015 and the widespread concern amongst schools regarding the implications for the classroom of the Department of Education's draft budget; recognises that from 1 April 2015 there will be a single Education Authority in place of the five education and library boards to oversee the allocation of the majority of the education budget; and calls on the Minister of Education to ensure that protecting classroom practice is his first priority and to use the new administrative arrangements to devolve maximum budget autonomy to schools that have demonstrated sound financial management skills in order to achieve the best possible educational outcomes whilst ensuring value for money.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs).]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes and all other Members will have approximately six minutes.
Mr Kinahan: Thank you very much. Did you say six minutes?
Mr Kinahan: Thank you very much indeed. I am very pleased to be having a debate on the post-16 provision in Antrim, and I thank the Minister for being here. I hope that this debate will be conducted in a more friendly manner than the previous one.
I want to highlight the lack of provision post-16 and to ask the Minister whether he will cause a study to be done and a long-term plan to be put together for Antrim. We have no regional college in Antrim. We have Parkhall Integrated College with no post-16 provision, St Benedict's College in Randalstown with no post-16 provision, Crumlin Integrated College with no post-16 education, and Antrim Grammar, which is full and only able to take 10 or 15 pupils each year at 16, so everyone else has to go somewhere else for their post-16 education.
As one key teacher put it to me, if you are academic and in Antrim Grammar, you are fine; if it is St Benedict's, Parkhall or Crumlin, you have to move schools and take a bus. If you are going for a vocational future, it is a bus to Newtownabbey or Ballymena, so you are second-class citizens unless you are academic. If you leave Antrim Grammar at 16, you may well have an even harder time scrambling for places in schools; whether they are in Belfast, Lisburn, Ballymena or Magherafelt, you have to scramble for places. So, I am asking the Minister whether we can look at having an Antrim solution.
Parkhall Integrated College is a really excellent school, despite its split site, and it is really pleased that it is getting its rebuild, which was published today. I do not want anything that I say today to affect that in any way.
St Benedict's, which is another great school, is doing its best but with creaking and windswept rooms. It is also very much part of Antrim, but is being undermined by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) approach to area planning. Area planning, which has caused sectors to merge together, has, in this case, led to arrangements to work with St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena, but which will likely lead to leakage to Ballymena and could threaten the very existence of St Benedict's in the long run.
St Benedict's and Randalstown are very much part of the Antrim borough, and part of the reason for this debate is to push for that Antrim solution and not to lose St Benedict's.
Crumlin Integrated College is another school dear to my heart and one that we have debated and discussed here at length. I am glad to say that it seems to be much closer to a secure future as a grant-maintained integrated (GMI) school, subject to the development proposals and, of course, the Minister's decision.
Some 1,100 pupils leave Crumlin every morning, costing just short of £1 million in transport. When canvassing, it became very clear that, if Crumlin had post-16 provision, parents would think twice, and think seriously, about sending their children further away. I remind everyone that parental choice is what we all believe in. Keeping a child at the same school throughout their post-primary life must be a very high priority when choosing schools. I wonder whether a study has ever been done on the effects on children of changing school at age 16. There is much food for thought there. We have to keep in mind that, if Crumlin were to have post-16 provision, that would affect Parkhall and, indeed, the other schools. It is the right thing to look for, but we need to consider it properly. That is why I am asking in today's debate for a long-term plan.
Antrim Grammar is full and very successful academically. It works very well with its neighbour, Parkhall Integrated, but can take only 10 or 15 pupils from the surrounding schools each year. It has not been allowed to expand. When I explored this, the indication was that parents were not queuing up because of the lack of facilities. The sporting facilities in the Antrim area are extremely poor, and, if you have the chance of a school for the full time with better facilities, of course, you are likely to go there.
The new principal has, quite rightly, looked at choosing from AQE and GL separately. Not only will this spread sharing in Antrim, it will improve the school's links with the excellent Catholic schools nearby. The review that I am calling for should take all this into account. If there were more post-16 provision and better facilities, I think that very many parents would want to stay in Antrim. An excellent report by Parkhall argued for post-16 provision, but it was shelved because of the rebuild. All those comments, however, still stand. Just because a development plan does not exist, it does not mean that a long-term view or plan is not needed.
As I said, we no longer have a regional college. We have a very good area learning community, but, without a regional college, it has one vital limb missing. We also have an integrated learning community, which includes Sperrin and Slemish schools. Despite excellent close relationships between the schools, there is a lack of vocational and skills training in certain subjects. If expansion were allowed, these skills or subjects could be offered. When visiting Antrim Grammar and talking to pupils who had got excellent results, it was sad to hear one or two saying that they could not do physics at A-level. The school could not offer it because not enough pupils wanted it. Were it to expand, it could well offer physics.
I know that we are in a time of austerity, but we still need to plan a way forward. We are in the middle of a transport review, and initial suggestions seem to target reduced travelling. The cost of transport is very likely to go up in the long term, so we should be looking at how we reduce everyone's travel.
I referred to the 1,100 pupils leaving Crumlin every morning, and I am told that we have 1,000 leaving Antrim. Some 200 leave the Antrim district at post-16 — 200 scrambling for those places. In times of austerity, there has to be a better way. A needs assessment study in 2011 showed some 4,108 primary places, growing by, depending on how you read the document, between 7% and 9%. Yet it refers to just under 2,000 post-primary places, so some 2,500 are moving. In the same needs analysis, we see that there are some 240 empty places — probably more now — but some of those will be due to the development plan mechanism and others to the lack of services that I mentioned.
I wonder whether a study has ever been done on not having post-16 provision. All those whom I talk to in the education world feel that parents prefer schools with post-primary provision to age 18, and especially so in today's climate, when jobs are hard to find.
I also wonder whether any study has been done on the effects of absenteeism, early starts and years of travelling, especially for teenagers. When you think about nightlife and the way that many live now, that would make it especially difficult to get up early every day. Think of those 200 every year.
Minister, today's debate is a request for a constructive long-term view of Antrim and to plan for joined-up thinking on its provision. Antrim town and district is not well served, and the scramble for places for the less academic is wrong. Can we have a proper study and a plan? It is our duty to provide choice. That is what we should be doing to avoid that scramble for places.
Mr Clarke: I thank the proposer of the topic. It is very timely. I am pleased to be part of the debate today. Reference has been made to Parkhall Integrated College. I put on record thanks to the Minister for listening to the delegation from the Antrim area from all the political parties in support of the Parkhall site. Education in the Antrim borough has been ravaged. It is about time that that tide turned. More should be done now in post-primary education.
I had a slight chuckle when I heard the proposer of the topic say that there was no regional college. I remind him that it was his Minister who removed the regional college from Antrim back in 2010; he made that announcement. It was disappointing, because it served Antrim particularly well. Even though it was the newest of the sites at the time, it served the people well. That aside, the Member's point in relation to post-16 education in Antrim, Randalstown and Crumlin — I will just call it the Antrim borough — was well made. We have been served poorly. Reference was made to the provision that Antrim Grammar received. As the Member said, that provision is quite small. We are appealing for the Minister to do whatever he can to deliver more post-16 education for our constituents in the Antrim council area.
Another statistic that the honourable Member mentioned was the number of people who decide to get on buses to leave Antrim town, Crumlin and some of the outlying areas every day. That is very unfortunate. We can talk about austerity and how we can save money, but it is a sad and unfortunate indictment on our society. The Member talked about choices. I had a choice: I grew up in that area, and my children were educated in it. When the Member made that point, I had a chuckle because he chose to go outside not only Antrim but the whole island to educate his children. That is just an aside.
The problem, Minister, is that the schools estate in our area has been ravaged. We need development in the area. I support the point that the Member well made in relation to Parkhall. We all support Antrim Grammar because it is the only grammar school that we have left in our area. When people, parents and children look at education now, they are looking for post-16 provision. It could be suggested that, for that reason, some people choose to get onto a bus every morning and their children are bussed to Belfast, Ballyclare or Ballymena. Children are making those choices because they are deciding what they are going to do post 16. That has to be addressed. I support the proposer of the topic in dong whatever he can to help to address that situation. In the long term, there will be savings for the Education Authority in the amount of money we spend on transporting our children across the Province. There is an opportunity for Antrim Grammar, Parkhall and Crumlin to assist by providing more post-16 education to keep our kids in the area and prevent them from having to get up early in the morning to set off on long journeys and not get home until late in the afternoon. I support the proposal.
Mr Girvan: I thank the Member for proposing the topic this evening. It brings me back to something that has happened in the town that I went to school in. To offer a full curriculum of opportunities to young people in years 13 and 14, Ballyclare Secondary School and Ballyclare High School have combined so that they can offer a wide range of subjects. If physics is not offered in the secondary school, pupils can transfer to the high school for physics. That opportunity is available, and it could be used in Antrim, which has been bereft of such an opportunity for young people.
Encouragingly, young people are staying on at school to get qualifications, and, as a consequence, parents are making judgements. If a child is not offered the opportunity to get an A-level or AS-level qualification in the subjects that they want to study, parents will vote with their feet. As was said, a large number of parents are sending their children to schools outside the area. That is not because quality education is not available. Unfortunately, as the Member who secured the debate said, it is because they do not like their child having to move halfway through a course to another school. That is a big upheaval, maybe involving a change of peer group and everything associated with that. That is vital.
I ask that a study be carried out to evaluate the best available options at the least cost to ensure that we can deliver a full curriculum of A levels and AS levels to the young people of Antrim and the surrounding area. It is a growing area in which the population has not been stagnant. Populations tend to go through cycles in certain areas. I think of what has happened in one of the largest estates in Europe, which was built in the 1960s: Rathcoole. It had three schools at one time, and now it has none. Families are starting to come back into the area, and a lot of young people have to be bussed from Rathcoole to other areas. It is important to plan properly and ensure that it goes forward.
We have requests for additional sports facilities, and we know that, for pupils in Antrim who want to do PE, as I call it, at A level, the facilities are not there. We can do something when we are dealing with the redevelopment and the new school at Parkhall to ensure that adequate facilities are available for others to use as well. It is important that a report be brought forward to address the issue so that we do not spend a lot of money for young people to sit on buses to go from one area to another. There are good facilities on their doorstep, but parents will make a judgement that they do not want their child to have to move to another area when they finish their fifth year — year 12. It is important to assure people that we have invested in the facilities in the area and that the courses that are available will be shared between Antrim Grammar and other schools. There are a number of very good schools in the area that can and should be able to deliver AS level and A-level courses. We should make that provision, so I support the topic. I ask that the Minister tasks the Department to do a report on provision of sixth form — years 13 and 14 — facilities in the Antrim catchment area.
Mrs Cameron: I also support the topic, and I thank my fellow Member for South Antrim Danny Kinahan for securing the Adjournment debate.
We are all aware that the education system in Northern Ireland is well renowned for producing world-class academic achievements and is the envy of education systems throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. It is unfortunate, however, that young people in my constituency are being let down by the lack of learning provision once they have reached the age of 16 and wish to continue their education. Antrim Grammar, Parkhall Integrated and St Benedict's College have a combined enrolment of around 2,000 pupils, yet only Antrim Grammar offers A level or Key Stage 5 post-16 further education. I should say at this stage that all three of my children, who are all now over the age of 18, were fortunate enough to have been able to avail themselves of the opportunity to study for their A levels at Antrim Grammar, which is a very successful school.
However, that opportunity is simply not there for all of our pupils in the Antrim area. This leaves many pupils adrift, following their GCSEs without proper structure or direction to their academic future. I know of several pupils who are either forced to enrol and travel to other schools as far afield as Larne and Carrickfergus or take up a place at Newtownabbey or Ballymena regional colleges, or at Belfast Metropolitan College.
My greatest fear is that the inconvenience and upheaval is resulting in young people leaving the education system altogether and joining the not in education, employment or training trend. During those formative years, many young people do not have the confidence to leave the security of the school that they have attended for the last five years and are simply dropping out of the education system through lack of support and provision for their futures. I fully appreciate that every student is not suited to the post-16 formal school system and feel that the possibility of some vocational training also needs to be explored for the young people of Antrim. For a young person, it is a huge leap from school to working life, and I believe that local schools could also look at providing support for those who wish to pursue apprenticeships or begin the search for employment.
To put it bluntly, the lack of post-16 education in Antrim is failing the young people of my constituency. It is also planting the seeds of economic inactivity, which will have ramifications for generations to come. I am concerned that, by allowing that impasse to continue, young people, through no fault of their own, will put additional pressure on our already stretched welfare system, which we all know creates a cycle of reliance on benefits and is detrimental to the confidence of young people who are just starting out towards their adult lives.
I implore the Minister to look at the long-term consequences that the lack of post-16 education will give to the current and future generations of young people in Antrim. I feel that a more strategic view is needed for the town to continue to prosper economically and socially. The young people of Antrim need to continue to contribute to and be proud of the education system that we have in Northern Ireland. I hope that the current situation will be rectified in the near future.
Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): I welcome this opportunity to set out my position on the planning of post-primary school provision and, in particular, the focus on post-16 provision in the Antrim area. In responding to the debate, I wish to put on record that I have noted the issues raised by Members on area planning. I will pass on their concerns and ask for a report from the relevant planning authorities in the area, the board and CCMS.
The Antrim area, as Members will know, is served by four post-primary schools; one grammar school providing 11-18 education, and three secondary schools providing 11-16 education. There are strong links between the schools, the NRC and the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise.
I have often said, and I am happy to repeat again, that the vision that we have set for education here is aimed at ensuring that all of our young people have the opportunity and are encouraged to reach their full potential. This is particularly important for young people at 16 years old as they start to think about the courses that they will undertake in years 13 and 14 —
Mr O'Dowd: Just give me one moment and I will — and look forward to their preferred pathway for further study, training or employment. I will give way to the Member.
Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for giving way. I am picking up on the point he has just made about being well served by the NRC. That is the point I was trying to make. We had an NRC that served us well in Antrim, but we are still in the same scenario. The children in that area, whether in Templepatrick, Crumlin or Antrim town, actually have to get on the bus and head to Ballymena. The grammar provision in Ballymena is no different. We need the post-16 education service in the Antrim area rather than expecting our children to get on to buses every day.
Mr O'Dowd: I take the Member's point on board. He will also accept that I am not responsible for the regional colleges. It may be a good argument for bringing further and higher education into DE, but that is a debate for another day.
As I said earlier, I have tasked the education and library boards, working with CCMS and other sectors, to plan for high quality education that meets the needs and aspirations of young people in any given area, including Antrim town. I expect all boards — and, in the near future the Education Authority — and CCMS to be aware of the future needs of young people and plan to meet them.
In the Antrim area, the North Eastern Education and Library Board has worked with all other sectors in bringing forward the area plan. Development proposals have been brought forward for a number of significant changes at post-primary level, and I am aware that there are more in the pipeline.
So, it appears that the North Eastern Board is working to its plan and is planning to bring forward proposals.
Currently, there are two development proposals being considered by my officials. Both relate to Crumlin. One is to close the controlled integrated school, and the other is to establish a grant-maintained integrated school, which, I know, Members in the Chamber, including Mr Kinahan, have expressed interest in.
You will understand that this is a statutory process and, as the final decision maker, I am not in a position to discuss the detail of the proposals. I wish to emphasise that, when making my decisions, I will be focusing on the best interests of the young people and not institutions. As I have said time and time again, it is the responsibility of the planning authorities — in this case, it is the North Eastern Education and Library Board and CCMS — to bring forward robust proposals that will provide viable and sustainable schools that will provide high-quality education well into the future.
As I said at the start of these deliberations, Members have raised concerns about sixth-form provision in Antrim town and their desire to have young people accessing sixth-form provision there. I will raise those matters with the North Eastern Education and Library Board, and I will also raise them in conjunction with CCMS, and ask them to report back to me as to how they envisage the provision post-16 meeting the needs of young people from Antrim in Antrim town. I will inform Members of that report when I receive it.