Official Report: Tuesday 20 January 2015


The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Resolved:

That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for Tuesday 20 January 2015. — [Mr Weir.]

Mr Speaker: The next item of business is the election to fill the vacant position of Deputy Speaker. Before we commence, I would like to remind Members that the election of the Deputy Speaker will be conducted using the procedure set out in Standing Order 4.

I will begin by asking for nominations. Any Member may rise to propose that another Member is elected Deputy Speaker. I will then ask for the proposal to be seconded by another Member, as required by Standing Order 14. If this occurs, I will then verify that the Member so nominated is willing to accept the nomination. There will not be an opportunity for speeches at that stage.

I will then ask for further proposals and follow the same procedure for each. When it appears that there are no further proposals, I will make it clear that the time for proposals has passed. If Members indicate that they wish to speak for a debate relevant to the election, the debate may then take place in which no Member may speak more than once.

At the conclusion of the debate, or of the nominations if there are no requests to speak, I will put the Question that the Member first proposed shall be a Deputy Speaker of this Assembly. The vote can only be carried on a cross-community basis. If the proposal is not carried, I will put the Question in relation to the next nominee, and so on, until all nominations are exhausted. Once a Deputy Speaker is elected, all other nominations will fall automatically. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Do I have any proposals for the office of Deputy Speaker of this Assembly?

Mr P Robinson: I propose Mr Robin Newton as a Deputy Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Is there a Member to second the nomination?

Mr Weir: I second the nomination.

Mr Speaker: Will the Member accept the nomination to be a Deputy Speaker?

Mr Newton: I will, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Is there any further proposal?

The time for proposals has expired. A number of Members have indicated that they wish to speak. I remind Members that they may speak only once in the course of the debate and that the Business Committee has agreed to allow each Member wishing to speak up to three minutes. I call Mr Peter Robinson.

Mr P Robinson: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have known Robin Newton for many decades. He has been a close friend and colleague and, of course, one of my colleagues in east Belfast. He was, I think, first elected to Stormont in 2003, so he has many years' experience of working under the procedures of the Assembly. Even before that, of course, he was a member of Belfast City Council, with long experience there. That is a training ground for many politicians. He certainly learnt the ropes in the city council. This will be a clincher for the nationalist Benches: he was recognised by Her Majesty The Queen and honoured with an MBE. Of course, in the House, he has been a junior Minister in OFMDFM, and, at one stage, he led our team on the Policing Board. He has a lifelong experience of parliamentary procedures. How shall I put it? He is not a divisive character; he is the kind of person who wants to resolve disputes. Most of all, he will bring integrity to the position. He will show fairness in the way he carries out those duties, and, importantly, because there is a Speaker's panel — a team of Deputy Speakers under the Speaker — he is a team player. He will not in any way shirk his responsibilities in doing his duties.

For all those reasons, I believe that my colleague is a suitable candidate for this job. I believe that he will carry it out in a fashion that will be recognised by the whole House as independent and fair. I urge colleagues to support him.

Mr Speaker: We will move straight to the Question.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Mr Robin Newton, as the only candidate proposed, shall be a Deputy Speaker of this Assembly.

Mr Speaker: I formally declare that Robin Newton has been elected as a Deputy Speaker. I take this opportunity to congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

As the requirements under Standing Order 5(1) have been fulfilled, it is now appropriate to move on to the election of the Principal Deputy Speaker.

Mr Speaker: The next item of business is the nomination of one of our Deputy Speakers to act as Principal Deputy Speaker; the process will be conducted in accordance with Standing Order 5A.

I will begin by asking for a nomination. Any Member may rise to nominate one of the Deputy Speakers to act as Principal Deputy Speaker. I will then confirm that the person nominated is willing to act as Principal Deputy Speaker, and then a debate relevant to that nomination will take place. The Business Committee has agreed that only one Member should speak on behalf of each party in the debate. At the end of the debate, I will put the Question on the nomination and the vote will be on a cross-community basis. If the proposal is not carried, I shall ask for a further nomination, and the process will be repeated.

Do I have a proposal for a Deputy Speaker to be nominated to act as Principal Deputy Speaker? Members should rise in their place.

Mrs Foster: It is with great pleasure that I put forward the name of Robin Newton MBE MLA.

Mr Speaker: Mr Deputy Speaker, Mr Newton, do you agree to act as Principal Deputy Speaker?

Mr Newton: I do, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. Standing Orders provide for a debate to take place on the nomination. Members may speak only once in the debate. Standing Order 5A(7) requires the debate to be relevant to the nomination. I will not therefore allow Members to stray into any other area. Members will have up to three minutes in which to speak.

Mrs Foster: I endorse everything that the First Minister said in his proposing of Mr Newton as Deputy Speaker. Robin was a Belfast city councillor for 29 years, representing the Victoria district electoral area (DEA), so he has a long history of working in local government and in the so-called dome of delight, which is Belfast City Council.

He was first elected to this place in 2003 and then re-elected in 2007 and 2011. As has been said, he has served as a junior Minister and on the Policing Board. It was my pleasure as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to work with Robin in his capacity as a member of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee. As a member of the Committee, he was always very fair and attentive to detail, and he dealt with issues in a very impartial way. I have no doubt that, if Robin succeeds in becoming Principal Deputy Speaker, he will show that fairness, attention to detail and knowledge of the areas that he is dealing with.

He is a very well-respected Member, not just within the ranks of this party but for his work in the local community in east Belfast and beyond. He has, of course, served on other Committees as well. My knowledge of him is particularly through the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, but he has served on the Employment and Learning Committee, on which I know that he took a particular interest in the promotion of skills in working-class communities. He has also served on the Education Committee for a number of years. It is with great pleasure that I ask the House to endorse my proposal that Robin Newton be elected as Principal Deputy Speaker.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the nomination of Mr Robin Newton. Martin McGuinness would be doing this, but he is out of the country on party business.

Sinn Féin supports the nomination of Mr Robin Newton. Tá Sinn Féin ag tacú leis an Uasal Robin Newton mar Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. It is good, and this will send out a very important signal to wider society today about the importance of power-sharing in the posts of Speaker and Principal Deputy Speaker. This is part of the working out of that agreement on power-sharing. It is a step forward and progress is being made.

I have no doubt that Robin Newton will act impartially or that he will understand the important role of the office. I have worked with him on a number of Committees and organisations, including the Policing Board. Sinn Féin welcomed the nomination. The Sinn Féin team very much looks forward to working with Mr Robin Newton and, indeed, the full Speaker team, under the leadership of our Speaker, Mitchel McLaughlin.

Go n-éirí an t-ádh leat. Our doors are open to work in any way with you to fulfil your duties.

Mrs D Kelly: I begin by congratulating Robin Newton on his appointment as a Deputy Speaker. I have worked alongside Robin for some time now on the Policing Board and, indeed, have seen his skill in trying to resolve difficult situations in practice on the board. I hope that he will carry those skills through as he seeks to determine many a contentious issue as well as the matters that will inevitably be referred to your office, Mr Speaker.

Once again, nonetheless, I have to place on record the SDLP's opposition to the appointment of a Principal Deputy Speaker. There is no such post in any other jurisdiction. No case was presented to the House or the public as to why there should be such a position. Rather, it is symbolic of the continued carve-up between Sinn Féin and the DUP.


10.45 am

I am not too sure whether Caitríona Ruane spoke with tongue in cheek or with absolute sincerity when she said that it was an example of power-sharing. I nearly collapsed with laughter at that one, Mr Speaker, because it really is more symbolic of the continued carve-up and the hierarchy of Speakers in this House.

It would also do members of Sinn Féin well to reflect on the words of the deputy First Minister over the weekend about equality and parity of esteem. I really do not know where Sinn Féin get off, I really don't. Saying that today and over the weekend, yet we have them endorsing the position of Principal Deputy Speaker — a clear hierarchy of positioning and power within this House.

Unfortunately, and without any slur or slight on Mr Newton's appointment as Deputy Speaker, we in the SDLP do not support this position. We do not believe that the House is better managed as a result or that it adds anything to the good temper or business of the House. Instead, it creates wider consternation among Assembly Members and, indeed, the wider public at the continued lack of inclusivity, collective decision-making and real power-sharing that ought to exist as a result of the Good Friday Agreement and the endorsement of the people of Ireland.

Mr Ford: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Can I start by congratulating you on your election as Speaker, since this is the first time I have spoken in the Chamber since your election?

I congratulate Robin Newton on his election as Deputy Speaker. I do not need to add to the tributes that were paid by those who proposed him for both the offices for which he is being proposed. Certainly, we will be very happy to work with him in his role as Deputy Speaker, alongside others.

I do, however, share many of the reservations that were just expressed by Dolores Kelly about the concept of Principal Deputy Speaker. When you, Mr Speaker, were appointed Principal Deputy Speaker, it was clear that you were there as an understudy as part of an agreement that the post of Speaker was to be shared in this Assembly term. You perhaps had a rather longer apprenticeship than might have been expected initially, but it was an understanding that the position was changing and an understanding of full buying-in to the institutions by members of Sinn Féin. That does not mean that we need to continue forever with the presumption that the two largest parties will have a carve-up of what should be a post and a series of posts — the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers — to represent all of the House, to stand for the House as opposed to the Executive, and to stand in a different position. On that basis, the concept that, because there is now a Sinn Féin Speaker, there must be a DUP Principal Deputy Speaker, with no specific role, is not something that appeals to me.

I shared the views that Dolores Kelly expressed when I heard power-sharing being mentioned by Caitríona Ruane. When the two largest parties take everything, down even to nominating a Principal Deputy Speaker, which is of no more significance than a Deputy Speaker, it does rather look as though it is not just a matter of an understudy coming into place a few years ago, but it is now an intention to hold on to the top office between the two of them.

That raises real questions about the way that the Assembly functions and the attitude of the two largest parties to it. So, like Mrs Kelly, I cannot support the concept of a DUP Principal Deputy Speaker now being an automatic expectation because there is a Sinn Féin Speaker.

Mr Newton is very welcome as Deputy Speaker, but if we are to have a Principal Deputy Speaker, it should be a post that is shared and not carved up.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Allister: I do not quibble at all on the appointment of Robin Newton as Deputy Speaker. He is well experienced and skilled in the performance of those duties, I have no doubt, and I congratulate him as Deputy Speaker.

I do most certainly quibble over the appointment of a non-post Principal Deputy Speaker. It is a pointless and purposeless position. It is a position that the Assembly found it did not need for many years, and then, suddenly, through a deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin, this bauble was created. It was created to keep Mr Hay as Speaker for another couple of years. The buy-off for that was the creation of a title for those who used to eschew titles but are now stewards of this and all sorts of things. For those who used to eschew such baubles, this non-post of Principal Deputy Speaker was created. Now that the DUP has enthroned a Sinn Féin Member as Speaker of this House, it is its turn to don the bauble and title of Principal Deputy Speaker. It is a vanity post; nothing more.

Of course, because Sinn Féin has the Speaker, the DUP must have the Principal Deputy Speaker. This has got to the very point of ridiculousness that the Principal Deputy Speaker is going to be someone who has never even sat on the Speaker's Chair. We have Deputy Speakers who have been performing the role for years, but they are not worthy. They are not worthy, it seems — [Interruption.]

— to be called "Principal Deputy Speaker", and so we must have this madness and carve-up of elevating because a post that was specially created for Sinn Féin is being maintained for its counterpart.

Mr P Robinson: Is that it?

Mr Speaker: That is it.

I remind the House that cross-community support is required.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to
.
Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the nomination of Deputy Speaker Robin Newton to act as Principal Deputy Speaker be approved.

Mr Speaker: I offer my congratulations to the Principal Deputy Speaker, Mr Robin Newton.

Ministerial Statements

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement to update Members on the review of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and wider tourism structures. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Members need to leave the room quietly. Sorry, Minister. [Interruption.]

Quiet.

Mrs Foster: We have seen unprecedented success across the tourism sector over the last few years. What I am announcing will consolidate that success and prepare us to take the tourism industry forward to even greater achievements and to meet our goal of growing it to a £1 billion industry by 2020. Over the next few months, the outworkings of the review will take a strong organisation, NITB, and make it stronger, with a new name, new leadership, new partnerships and a future new strategy.

The review has been undertaken against the backdrop of rapid change in global tourism, with increasing competition between destinations to attract visitors and a growing number of new emerging trends in what tourists want to see and do. Northern Ireland has seen significant growth in visitor numbers and, more importantly, in tourism revenue over the last five years. Our challenge is to maintain the momentum that has been generated and continue to increase the economic benefits that are derived from tourism.

That challenge will be made all the more difficult given the very tight budgetary climate in which we have to operate. The implementation of the review recommendations will be delivered during a period of severe financial pressure on budgets, and it is clear that those recommendations that are designed to increase efficiency through improved integration and collaboration have become even more of a priority. Opportunities to contribute to the reform agenda must be maximised, and all options for the sharing of services must be given full consideration. Given the importance of tourism to the local economy, my priority is to ensure that we have the right structures in place to maximise the benefits that that crucial sector can bring across Northern Ireland.

I am pleased to say that the Hunter review has been welcomed by stakeholders in their responses to the consultation, and there is widespread support for the implementation of the report’s recommendations. I am, therefore, content to accept the review recommendations, which fall broadly into the three themes of setting the strategic direction for tourism; building relationships in the tourism sector; and closer alignment with Invest Northern Ireland.

I will work with the tourism industry to bring forward a new strategic plan for tourism that will coordinate the work of key partners in the industry and in central and local government. That will be crucial in achieving my long-term goal and that of the industry to make tourism in Northern Ireland a £1 billion industry by 2020.

A number of John Hunter’s recommendations are concerned with building strong relationships within the sector. That includes developing a more client-facing tourism body for the tourism industry and improving relationships within the tourism sector. The Hunter review also recommends changes to the name, structure and culture of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

This is a significant time of change for NITB. The competition for a new chair is under way, and the chair will be appointed by April 2015. A competition for a new chief executive has just been advertised, and both posts will be crucial in taking forward the review's recommendations and implementing the organisational change programme that is envisaged in the Hunter review. To signal the start of that important change process, I have decided that the name of the organisation should be changed to Tourism Northern Ireland.

By implementing the review recommendations, Tourism Northern Ireland will have a much greater presence at a local level and will develop strong relationships and increase its knowledge of the needs of local tourism partners. That is particularly important given the imminent changes in local government, with increased powers for the new councils and their responsibility for community planning, including local economic development. Collaborative working with the new councils and the establishment of strong partnerships must be a priority for Tourism Northern Ireland to maximise the tourism potential of each of the nine key tourism destinations across Northern Ireland. The Hunter report recommends the development of a tourism growth fund jointly supported with the new councils. I will work to establish such a fund in the next Budget period.

Another focus of the review looks at the opportunities for greater alignment with Invest Northern Ireland. The review highlights that there is already good cooperation between the two organisations, but points to the need to deepen the existing relationship. This will be very important going forward, and I see the joint initiative to develop a Northern Ireland economic brand as an example of the benefits that can be achieved through joint working. I have tasked both organisations to deliver a new brand strategy, which, I believe, will strengthen the competitive position of Northern Ireland through inward investment and tourism. A new brand will support Tourism Northern Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland in the development of complementary marketing strategies and targeted advertising in key markets.

There are also practical steps that will be taken to better align the two organisations. I agree with the Hunter review recommendation that the two organisations should look carefully at the opportunity to collocate when leases expire in 2016, and that they should maximise the opportunities for common back office services. These issues are particularly relevant in the current budgetary climate.

A number of the review recommendations are currently being implemented or refer to work that has already commenced. An example of that is the excellent work to date on improving air connectivity and visa arrangements. The British-Irish visa scheme was officially announced by the UK and Irish Governments in October last year, and, under the first phase of the scheme, Indian and Chinese nationals applying in their countries of origin will be able to visit the UK and Ireland using one visa. Improving air access to Northern Ireland is a key priority for the Department, and work continues on a number of different fronts to develop policy and work with the airlines to support air route development through the provision of cooperative marketing assistance for new routes and to support existing routes.

Further detail on the outcome of the Hunter review can be found on the DETI website. This includes information on the public consultation exercise and a summary of the outcome of each of the recommendations.

The Hunter review rightly highlights the impressive progress made recently in local tourism and the important role played by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in the development of new policies and in securing the completion of new tourism product. The review also recognises the significant contribution made by the board in the recent substantial growth in tourism numbers and revenue.

I believe that the implementation of the report’s recommendations will make Tourism Northern Ireland an even stronger and more dynamic organisation and will allow it to further develop its leadership role in tourism by concentrating on its core functions. It will be able to reap efficiency gains by collaborative working and sharing services with Invest NI, which will allow Tourism Northern Ireland to focus resources on key priority areas for tourism.

I now call upon NITB, as it was, to lead the way in the implementation of the recommendations from the Hunter review and create Tourism Northern Ireland, a dynamic, efficient and collaborative organisation to lead the development of tourism in Northern Ireland.

In concluding, I would like to reiterate my thanks to Mr Hunter for his work in carrying out the review. I have no doubt that the implementation of his recommendations will help to ensure that the organisational structures for tourism delivery, both within the DETI family and more generally within Northern Ireland, are improved. That will enable us to maximise the benefits that tourism brings to the local economy in terms of increased visitor numbers, tourist revenue and employment opportunities.

I commend the statement to the Assembly.

Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for her statement. Obviously, we will drill down into more of the detail at the Committee.

The focus of the review looked for greater opportunities for alignment with Invest NI, and there is reference in the statement to the fact that practical steps will be taken to better align the two organisations. Will the Minister expand on what, in her mind, those practical measures might be and on any direction or ideas that she might have? Obviously, that has to follow through with the outworkings of both organisations, but it would be helpful if she could give us some indication of the Department's thinking on the practical measures that could be taken.


11.15 am

Mrs Foster: Work has already begun between what was NITB and Invest Northern Ireland. The management teams of both organisations now have quite regular meetings to see where the synergies are in how they can sell Northern Ireland. Since Invest Northern Ireland has been administering accommodation grants now for some time, there has had to be some interaction between the two organisations. However, there is more scope for extra integration between the two organisations because they often overlap. You could have a tourist organisation that is looking to expand and therefore needs help from Invest Northern Ireland for job creation, and which, at the same time, is looking to Tourism Northern Ireland for marketing support. It is my hope that the two will now integrate and work more closely together.

As well as that, as I indicated in the statement, leases expire in 2016, so there are opportunities for the collocation of the two organisations. That will allow them to have shared back office services, such as human resources, payroll and issues like that, so that they can create efficiencies in the two organisations as they work together in the longer term. So, there is a strategic need for the two of them to work together, particularly in the development of brand Northern Ireland. There are also more efficient ways, certainly in administration, in which they could work better together.

Mr Dunne: I, too, welcome the statement today, and I thank the Minister for it. I think that we all recognise the important work of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. We should rightly recognise the outgoing chair, Howard Hastings, who is about to finish his term. We put on record our thanks and appreciation for what he has done to bring tourists to Northern Ireland.

Will the Minister give us some information as to how she sees the new Tourism Northern Ireland body working with the 11 new super-councils in what will be a very important role? Does she see measures being put in place to avoid duplication and to ensure the best use of resources to bring more tourists to Northern Ireland?

Mrs Foster: I join you in acknowledging the work of Dr Howard Hastings in his leadership of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Most chairs of organisations have the opportunity to work with a number of Ministers during their tenure. Unfortunately for Dr Hastings he has had me throughout his tenure as chair of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. I know how much energy and dynamism he has brought to that role, and I put on record my thanks to him for his leadership. I also thank the staff of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and their management; they have managed some tremendously exciting events over the recent period. Of course, ni2012: Our Time Our Place was an outstanding year for tourism in Northern Ireland, as was the Giro d'Italia last year.

Working with the 11 councils is very important. It is a new start for the new councils, but it is also a new start for Tourism Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is a good time for both of them to work collaboratively. The management of NITB has already been working with the new chief executives of the 11 councils to talk about their tourism plans and be part of their community-planning discussions. Memorandums of understanding will be put in place between Tourism NI and the new councils so that they will work in a very strategic way so that the new nine key destinations can be developed in a very meaningful way.

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement, and I hope that we can build on the success that we have seen over the past number of years. I particularly welcome the increased collaboration of all concerned organisations. The decision to collocate is a good one. Has the Minister given any thought to that location being Newry? It is a strong border city right in between the two main airports, and it is in the middle of the North/South economic corridor. It would be a good location.

Mrs Foster: Thank you for the welcome for the collocation. Of course, that will be a matter for the boards of Tourism Northern Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland. We will work together with both organisations so that they make an impact right across Northern Ireland.

Tourism is one of those industries that happens right across Northern Ireland. There is not a constituency on which it does not have an impact. Through using the nine key destinations and working in collaboration with the 11 new councils, we want to move tourism on a step change, particularly given the new themes that we are looking at. Outdoor activities will be very important to the Member in Newry in particular. The bike trails that have been set up in her constituency have been a great success, and we want to see more people looking to Northern Ireland for outdoor activity holidays. We think that there is a good market there, and, again, that leads on to the need to have direct air access into Northern Ireland so that we can attract people here, particularly from Germany. I heard one of our colleagues on the radio — I think that it was yesterday — referencing the need to have connectivity to Germany because it is a huge market for outgoing tourists. That is absolutely right, and it is one of my key objectives to have a route into Germany in the very near future.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for her statement detailing some significant changes to Northern Ireland's core tourism body. I, too, recognise the good work and dedication of the outgoing chairman, Howard Hastings, and former chief executive, Alan Clarke.

I want to ask the Minister for some detail on the new Tourism Northern Ireland's future links. Can the Minister tell us whether it will have a role in promoting Northern Ireland as a destination with overseas markets, or will it be solely a smaller brother or sister of Tourism Ireland?

Mrs Foster: I acknowledge the Member's words about Howard Hastings and Alan Clarke, because it is right to acknowledge what has brought us to this point in the development of tourism in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has certainly worked very well in that regard.

The Member will know that, under the Belfast Agreement, Tourism Ireland was set up to market Northern Ireland overseas and, therefore, the principal role of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board has been to work in the Northern Ireland market — the domestic market — and in the Republic of Ireland market. It is my hope that, in collaboration with Tourism Ireland and, indeed, with Invest Northern Ireland, we develop a Northern Ireland brand that is a standout brand for us here. I see that as a collaborative piece of work. Therefore, I very much hope that what has been envisaged in the Hunter review will move tourism forward and give us that standout brand right across the world so that we can bring more visitors to Northern Ireland.

Mr Lyttle: Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker — Mr Speaker. Apologies. I thank the Minister for her statement and add my acknowledgement of the work that Howard Hastings and Alan Clarke have done. I recognise the work done around ni2012: Our Time Our Place, which I think was a great success. I wish the Minister and Tourism Northern Ireland every success going forward.

The tourism events fund played a vital role in advancing cultural and events tourism in Northern Ireland, so I ask the Minister whether she will use any of the additional £2·2 million funding that she received in the 2015-16 Budget to reinstate the tourism events fund for 2015-16 and, if so, how much?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his comments about the management staff and the board leadership given by the individuals that he mentioned. I will make an announcement about the events fund later on, and let us hope that everyone is happy with that announcement.

Mr Frew: The House should welcome the Minister's statement and, indeed, the Hunter review, as well as the efficiency gains and collaborative working that will be met out of that report and the Minister's statement.

Will the Minister reassure the House that, although there will be costs from the rebranding exercise, those will be negated by the work, efficiencies and collaborative working that will come out of this and that it will not become the shambles that Roads Service became when it was rebranded as Transport NI?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. There will certainly not be any money wasted moving from NITB to Tourism Northern Ireland. The idea is that we will have actually have efficiencies in Tourism Northern Ireland working alongside Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland. I would say that, at the very worst, it will be cost-neutral, but, at best, I hope that we will see savings, moving forward.

Of course, it is not just about savings; it is about being innovative in how we market ourselves, putting the desire in front of people to come to Northern Ireland for holidays and wrapping it up alongside Invest Northern Ireland's message about the fact that this is a good place to live, work, study and visit. We want to have that holistic approach to Northern Ireland so that we can increase the number of people who come here to visit for their holidays and, indeed, increase the amount that they spend when they come to visit Northern Ireland.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. Thank you, Minister, for the statement. I look forward to seeing more detail around the brand. The new organisation, Tourism Northern Ireland — Turasóireacht Thuaisceart Éireann — is a good move. You talk about a closer alignment between Invest NI and the new organisation. Can we get a guarantee that it will really be a partnership and that Invest NI will not smother the smaller organisation, that they will work together and Invest NI will help to grow it? We see the common interest in, for example, transatlantic routes into Belfast. That seems to be an area of common purpose for the new organisation and Invest NI. Can we get that guarantee that one will not take over the other?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. It is certainly not the intention that that should happen. This is not some sort of secret plan for Invest Northern Ireland to swallow Tourism Northern Ireland. I actually hope that it will strengthen Tourism Northern Ireland and that it will grow as an entity, because its focus will be solely on growing the number of tourists who come to Northern Ireland.

You are right to mention the collaboration between the two bodies on trying to attract more flights. It is often the export market that drives flights in and out of a destination, so, if the cargo is there for a transatlantic flight, a flight to the Middle East or a flight to Germany, that really strengthens the case for getting the airline to look at Northern Ireland, and then we add the tourism dimension.

It is really about having a whole story to tell about Northern Ireland, so you are not just looking at an issue of tourism on its own; you are looking at what Invest NI has to offer and what else is happening in Northern Ireland. That is really where the impetus for the economic brand for Northern Ireland is coming from.

Mr Givan: I thank the Minister for the statement. It is an important statement that will help move tourism forward again. Whilst it is right that we acknowledge the work of Howard Hastings and Alan Clarke, ultimately, they were working to the strategic priorities established by our Minister, who has provided leadership for a number of years that has brought tourism to where it is. This is now another step change in promoting tourism.

The statement refers to the tourism growth fund that is to be jointly supported with the new councils. How can the Minister assure those new councils that they will all get equal benefits from that? There will be some, particularly in the greater Belfast area, given past experience, who will feel that, at times, Belfast — I can understand it, as it is a premier destination — may get more treatment than the other supporting councils. How can the Minister assure those other councils that it will be a fund that they should support and buy into because they will get collaboration and support that will help their own council area?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. As I have already said, the management team in the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the new chief executives have already started to have those conversations around what the tourism fund will look like, where tourism sits in the economic offering of the new councils and where it sits in the new community development plans. It will be a story that will build over the next period and allow the new councils to put forward their proposals. I hope that they will put forward innovative proposals for tourism in their areas.

As you know, the new councils are not coterminous with the nine key destination areas. That presents some challenges — I accept that — but I hope that, in the spirit of working in partnership, the new councils will also work together where there is an overlap between the key destinations so that we can get the greatest benefit out of it for our citizens on the ground. That is what it is all about — providing that economic driver.


11.30 am

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. I welcome the closer correlation between the organisations that has been outlined. Indeed, I echo the sentiment regarding the headquarters in Newry, but I want to touch on the allusion to the BRIC economies and to Invest NI and tourism working more closely. I think that is a good idea, but, very often, a lot of our local tourist providers do not have the infrastructure in place to meet that market, especially the Chinese market, which wants particular banking facilities that are not available to a large part of our local tourism providers. Will the Minister bring forward any schemes or ideas on how we can equip our local tourism providers to meet the demands of those emerging markets?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. That is exactly why I think that the synergies between Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland will work very well. Invest Northern Ireland is very used to providing advice and assistance for small firms that are going into new and emerging markets, so they will be able to work with the tourism providers as well. I hope that, if someone raises an issue with Tourism NI around banking, they will be signposted to the appropriate adviser in Invest Northern Ireland to give them that help. It is just about joining up the two resources and making the best use of them. Rather than having two silos, they will work more collaboratively together.

Mr McKinney: I welcome the statement and concur with colleagues in their acknowledgement of the good work thus far. I want to highlight the point that, while it is worthwhile updating the structures, the real prize here is the brand, as the Minister said. Should that not include a politically tolerant community at peace with itself, reflecting common ambition? Is it the price of failure to arrive at that that those who come may leave?

Mrs Foster: I do not accept the premise that we do not have an area that people feel comfortable in and want to visit. I have been working hard to get the message out that Northern Ireland has changed and is confidently moving forward. Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Invest Northern Ireland and I cannot do that on our own; we need everyone to buy into the fact that this is a changed place, that we are welcoming to visitors from outside Northern Ireland and that we live up to the reputation of this place as a friendly place where people enjoy themselves, have a good time and want to come back again. It is the repeat visits that are critical. We will continue to work in the context of where we are. We cannot do everything, but we will try to make the most of everything that we have.

Mr Nesbitt: I, too, would like to put on record thanks to Alan Clarke and Howard Hastings. The Minister will be aware that the Stormont House Agreement made no reference to air passenger duty in the basket of tax powers that the Executive parties would like to see devolved to the Assembly. Does the Minister have an assessment of the extent to which that might shackle Tourism Northern Ireland going forward?

Mrs Foster: We were fortunate enough to have band B air passenger duty devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. Long-haul flights that are ex-Europe now do not have to pay air passenger duty when they leave Northern Ireland. The Newark flight does not pay any air passenger duty, and, indeed, any other flights that we are able to bring to Northern Ireland airports from the Middle East and from the Americas will not pay air passenger duty.

We have asked for an examination to be carried out in relation to band A air passenger duty. We would have to pay from the block grant if we were to have the devolution of air passenger duty on band A, just as we had to pay for band B. My position on air passenger duty is that the United Kingdom in general needs to look at the whole area. If you are coming to London as a tourist, you are prepared to pay air passenger duty, but other areas around the UK suffer as a result of air passenger duty, not just Northern Ireland, and we do suffer as a result of air passenger duty.

I feel that the other regions of the UK really need to make the case to the Chancellor that he should look at abolishing air passenger duty. I know that that is certainly the view of other regions around the United Kingdom as well. So, whilst it is not immediately in the Stormont House Agreement basket, it is certainly one for the whole UK. As I said, the band B aspect of air passenger duty has already been devolved.

Mr Humphrey: I, too, pay tribute to Howard Hastings's contribution as chairman of the Tourist Board. From my time as a director of Visit Belfast, I know the energy and enthusiasm that he brought to that role.

The Minister mentioned the strategic direction for tourism, including the synergy between the new Tourism Northern Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland. I welcome that joined-upness, the economies of scale and the collaboration that that will bring.

Marketing for Northern Ireland is essential. Will the Minister tell the House how the review will positively affect the marketing of Northern Ireland nationally and, vitally, internationally?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I have always said that there is very much a need to give standout to Northern Ireland, particularly in the markets closer to home. For example, we need to say to the rest of the citizens of the United Kingdom that they are very welcome to visit this part of the United Kingdom. Sometimes there has been a view that that has not been the case with Tourism Ireland because it markets as part of the island of Ireland. We very much want to see a standout brand for Northern Ireland so that we can welcome more visitors. I hope that, in the collaborative work that takes place between Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland, we will see that developing.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for the very positive statement. It refers to a new brand to support Tourism Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland, the development of complementary marketing strategies and targeted advertising. Does that mean that there has been room for improvement and that it might signify a more formalised joint approach between North and South?

Mrs Foster: I think that there has been a need for some improvement in Tourism Ireland's marketing, particularly in Great Britain, for the reasons that I just indicated to Mr Humphrey. We are in close proximity to the rest of the UK; therefore, there is a need to give Northern Ireland that standout instead of just being marketed as part of the island of Ireland strategy, which Tourism Ireland sometimes does. I have had some very good conversations with Tourism Ireland about how we can move that forward to bring more visitors in.

That is what this is all about: bringing more visitors to Northern Ireland and the tourism industry here. We have had some very successful years. The tourism industry is growing. We employ, I think, around 40,000 people in the tourism industry in Northern Ireland, and I see an opportunity to increase that. In particular, for those people who may be economically inactive at the moment, there is a real opportunity for skills development by bringing them into the tourism industry and allowing them to flourish in that way. So, there are good reasons why the tourism industry should develop across Northern Ireland.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her statement and welcome the Hunter review. One of the major inhibiting factors to the development of tourism, particularly in south Down but also right across, is the VAT rate here compared with that in the South. What discussions have you had with the Treasury about getting a more competitive VAT rate for our hospitality and tourism industry?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. It is certainly an issue that continues to grab the industry's attention, particularly in border constituencies. I have been lobbied a number of times, including most recently by the Hotels Federation. Of course, VAT is not a devolved matter, so, as such, it is for Treasury to determine the VAT rates. We have and will continue to make Treasury aware of the impact that the VAT rate is having on the tourism industry in Northern Ireland. Clearly, the reduction in VAT for the industry in the Republic of Ireland has been a success. It is enjoying growth off the back of that reduction.

We will continue to work with some of the UK-wide bodies to try to point out the very different circumstances that we have in Northern Ireland. Again, it is a case of London and then the rest of the United Kingdom. London is a very specialised market for tourists. It does not matter what you charge, tourists will come to London; it is not price sensitive. However, the rest of the regions are price sensitive and therefore we need to continue to make that point.

Mr Cree: I also welcome the Minister's report. It certainly looks like the start of a new, exciting chapter for tourism. The Minister referred to the link between the councils and Tourism Northern Ireland. Will she confirm whether there will still be a role for the subregional bodies — the Causeway Coast and Glens comes to mind, and others — and whether that will change in any way?

Mrs Foster: There is still very much a role for bodies such as the Causeway Coast and Glens, which has been a very successful organisation in representing the views of the industry in that area. In my area, Destination Fermanagh will certainly continue to work. If there is one word that sums up this statement, it is "partnership", and I hope that those bodies will work in partnership with their councils.

When answering a question before, I made reference to the fact that there are nine key destinations and 11 new councils. So, there will have to be collaboration across the piece on how we move tourism forward in Northern Ireland. At a strategic level, Tourism Northern Ireland will work with the bodies you speak of, local councils and Invest Northern Ireland to see where there are synergies to move economic development forward.

Mr Allister: The Minister may use different language, but I suspect she would agree that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, or whatever we now call it, is hamstrung in promoting Northern Ireland by the Belfast Agreement arrangements in that it cannot even promote Northern Ireland in Great Britain. Given that this is going to continue as the strategic context — sadly, no change was made to that in the Stormont House Agreement — could she explain more fully what she means by the greater alignment with Invest NI? Invest NI has a global role and Tourism Northern Ireland is going to be restricted to a very parochial role. How does the synergy of that work and is this really an announcement of change that is more form than substance?

Mrs Foster: No, I would not agree with that last comment. What we are trying to do is work within the parameters that we have. He is right: I did not agree with the Belfast Agreement; I did not agree with the structures set up under the Belfast Agreement. I would not start from here. What I am trying to do is create synergies between Tourism Northern Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland.

When I go on trade missions, I invariably have a tourism event, whether it is meeting journalists from the industry or having an event to try to encourage expats to talk positively about Northern Ireland and its tourism market. That interweaves with Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland. I hope now that Tourism Northern Ireland will be part of that as well. It is about creating a whole story and a holistic vision of Northern Ireland. It does not matter whether you are in Northern Ireland, Great Britain, China or the Middle East; we have to tell the story of Northern Ireland and entice people to come to invest or visit. That is the important point.

Mr B McCrea: Minister, if I could follow up on the point that has just been made, I take a slightly different view of it. I think that it is a clever move that you are bringing them together, but I do wonder about the opportunity to reach out to international markets. There is some problem for Northern Ireland, in that we are really not the destination. A lot of people land in Dublin and head south. Is there any way that we can enhance the role of Tourism NI to reach some markets that, sadly, have been a little bit neglected in the past?

Mrs Foster: The Member is again referencing the fact that we need more direct access into the Belfast airports. He will find no argument with me on that one. That is why I was pleased to see the recent arrival of new carriers such as KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and the other airline — it begins with V, but I cannot remember its name — in Belfast City Airport. In any event, it is good to have new airlines coming to Northern Ireland and adding to the offering that we have, but we still need to put some strategic places on the map. Germany, Canada and those sorts of places need to be put on the map for Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland reasons. The two can come together to make the point to the airlines and the airports that we should have those people come to Northern Ireland. Today's statement will strengthen the collaborative working between those two organisations and, importantly, with Tourism Ireland as well, which has the remit of promoting Northern Ireland internationally.


11.45 am

Mr McCallister: I welcome the statement. The Minister will be aware, from various questions for written answer that I have submitted, of the disparity in spend in our existing council areas such as, for example, the huge difference between Banbridge and Fermanagh district councils. She will also be aware of areas like Kilkeel having difficulty supporting a hotel. I will go back to the point about partnership. Government sometimes does not have a happy track record of delivering good collaborative partnerships. How will she ensure that councils get their share of the spend? Will there be special strategic targets set for them to deliver on some of that and to get the numbers of tourists and the amount of spend per tourist up significantly in each area, where we lag dramatically behind the rest of the UK?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. He will know that proposals for new hotels and for development often come from the private sector, so there is an onus on the private sector to step forward. Some of the spend that he referenced has come through applications to the Tourist Board, maybe under the capital schemes that were available at that time for development. Those came forward from the private sector, and government money then supported them.

I cannot make people look at putting hotels into south Down, as much as I would love to see hotels developed in south Down and, indeed, in Newry and Mourne. There is a need to look at that whole area, but the private sector needs to come forward. I hope that you are not suggesting that government starts to create hotels, because I am not sure that the public sector is well placed to run a hotel, but there is certainly a need to identify opportunities and what makes particular areas a place to visit. Tourism Northern Ireland can help local councils to develop that sort of thing, and, from that, projects that we can support will hopefully be identified.

Ms Sugden: I generally welcome the Minister's statement, because I think that tourism is Northern Ireland's unique selling point, and, up until now, I believe that it has been underutilised. It is widely acknowledged — Mr Allister mentioned it — that the difficulties with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board are due to how it has provided, subsequent to the Good Friday Agreement. Is a new name enough to overcome those difficulties?

Mrs Foster: It is not just about the name, although I think that we had reached a time when we needed to align the names of Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland. I hope that, by doing so, a message is sent out that those two organisations are there to support Northern Ireland and to develop, on the one hand, tourism economically and, on the other hand, the general economy. As I said, I would not have started from here, but I have to deal with the reality in front of me, and I hope that there will be more collaborative working between all three organisations.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, I wish to make a statement on the outcome of the negotiations at the Fisheries Council held in Brussels on 15 and 16 December, which determined fishing opportunities for 2015.

EU quota negotiations take place every December and involve decisions on a wide range of stocks, including in the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the Celtic Sea. This year, fisheries Ministers George Eustice, Richard Lochhead and I attended the Council. In the annex to my statement, Members will find a map of fishing areas; a summary of the main total allowable catches (TACs) and quotas of interest to the local fleet; and a provisional summary of the landings made into the County Down ports by the fleet in 2014.

Discussions between officials from the four fisheries administrations and key stakeholders helped to shape our negotiating priorities. Underpinning those priorities were our key principles: following the best available science, achieving sustainable levels of fishing and reducing discards. Ahead of Council, fisheries Ministers agreed that our top negotiating priorities would be to ensure that the freeze on fishing effort secured for 2014 was carried forward into 2015; to reduce the 41% TAC cut proposed for Celtic Sea haddock in this mixed fishery with cod and whiting; to agree more flexible arrangements to fish the haddock stock between fishing areas VI and IV; to oppose the proposed TAC cut for Irish Sea nephrops and seek an agreement that supports an increase in the number of stocks fished at FMSY in 2015, subject to evidence-based exceptions for North Sea cod and Celtic Sea haddock; to apply an evidence-based approach to management of data-limited stocks to gain improved proposals on these; and to agree interim measures for sea bass management, proportionate to the impact of the recreational and commercial sectors.

This was the first December Council for the new Commissioner, Karmenu Vella, who took up his post on 1 November. It was also the first Council at which fishing opportunities would be set under the new rules of the common fisheries policy, which aims to have all stocks fished at sustainable levels. This year, agreements had been reached ahead of Council with both Norway and the Faroes on North Sea stocks and stocks such as mackerel. This meant that the Council was able to take decisions on the full range of total allowable catches.

Negotiations on the first day took place at plenary session and then during trilateral meetings between individual member states, the Commissioner and the Italian EU presidency. My colleagues and I were involved in the first trilateral meeting of the day, and we each outlined our priorities. I pointed out that the Commission's proposal for a 14% cut in the area VII prawn quota would represent a loss of £1·74 million to the local fleet on the basis of its current quota share. Members are doubtless aware that the nephrops prawn stock is key to the economic well-being of our fleet and the processing industry that depends on it. There are seven individual nephrops stocks in area VII. These are assessed separately, taking account of the particular circumstances of each stock, and scientific advice is provided for a catch level that results in the maximum sustainable yield from each stock. The Commission's initial proposal for a total allowable catch of 18,118 tons represented the sum of the catch advice for the seven individual stocks.

Member states that have an interest in area VII nephrops receive a fixed percentage share of the TAC each year, but fishing patterns have changed, and France and Spain no longer take their quota. In these circumstances, if the TAC were set at a level equal to the catch advice, the stock would be underexploited. Consequently, the approach supported by the Council over the last number of years has been to set the TAC at a higher level. I pointed this out at the trilateral and pressed for the TAC to be set at a level that provides a quota share capable of accommodating current fishing patterns by member states with an interest in this stock. These patterns demonstrate that the landings by fleets that are exploiting the stock are in line with the scientific advice and have been for some years. I know that the Commission understands these arguments very well, but, each year, we seem to have to go through the same ritual, in which the Commission makes an unreasonable starting proposal and this is improved gradually through a series of compromises.

The TAC should not only be set higher than the sum of the scientific advice but should move in line with changes to that advice. For 2013, we were able to secure an increase of 6% because of a comparable improvement in the scientific catch advice. For 2014, we experienced a 9% cut when the scientific advice suggested that catches should be reduced by 8·4%. This year, the catch advice was up by 3%. I made it clear at the trilateral that it was my expectation that the TAC should increase accordingly.

In the afternoon, there were further negotiations between our officials and Commission officials on some technical issues. We maintained good contact with my Southern counterpart, Simon Coveney, and his team on our shared interests.

The first compromise proposal was presented on the morning of Tuesday 16 December. A number of key priorities were secured at that point, including the freezing — rather than the reduction — of the number of days that fishermen are able to spend at sea under the cod recovery plan and some movement from the Commission to mitigate the proposed reductions to TACs for a number of key stocks. This initial compromise saw the proposed cut to area VII nephrops drop from 14% to 7%.

Further negotiations took place throughout Tuesday with the presidency and the Commission. The outcome was that my ministerial colleagues and I secured all our key priorities on TAC and requests for rule changes or flexibilities. The outcome for area VII nephrops was an increase of 3% in the quota available for 2015.

One of the issues that we had been working on with the Commission in the lead-up to the council was to secure an Irish Sea cod quota to enable us to carry out some fisheries science. The cod plan rules reduce the TAC by 20% year on year if the stock remains below a critical level. That reduction in the cod quota means that there is no longer a directed fishery for cod in the Irish Sea. Consequently, there is limited data available to inform scientific advice. Quota limitations have also restricted our ability to continue with an industry and science partnership that conducted an Irish Sea spring cod spawning survey under current arrangements. That survey, which ran continuously from 2004 to 2013, is accepted as a valuable survey for stock assessment purposes. Prior to Council, I secured support from Simon Coveney to ask the Commission to provide an additional 20-ton cod quota to allow that work to continue. I am sorry to say that, despite a positive reaction and encouragement from the Commission, I was told during the trilateral at Council that the Commission had no legal mechanism available to it to enable that to happen. That was extremely disappointing. Everyone wants this survey to happen, and, incredibly, the Commission appears to be content for fish caught during the survey to be thrown back. That is bizarre, given that the new CFP aims to gradually eliminate discards through the imposition of a landing obligation. The idea of having a scientific quota is that the fish could be landed and sold and the proceeds used to offset the cost of the survey work. As I indicated in my press release following Council, we intend to press the Commission on that again to re-examine options.

All fisheries Ministers had a shared interest in ensuring that the Commission used the best information available rather than adopt a policy of making an arbitrary cut to a TAC because an analytical stock assessment was not available. I wanted to ensure that area VIIa haddock was not subject to the proposed 20% cut because of that policy. While it does not have an analytical assessment, the stock trends are very positive. Following record recruitment last year, it is expected that there will be a large increase in the biomass over the next few years. The fishery is currently prosecuted by one specialist white fish vessel that has demonstrated that it can target haddock cleanly, with less than 1·5% cod by-catch. I was, therefore, pleased that the pressure maintained during negotiations resulted in no cuts for the haddock TAC in the final agreement

Business was concluded by Council by about 9·00 pm on Tuesday. The package resulted in an increased quota in the North Sea and west Scotland for haddock and angler, for Irish Sea nephrops and for hake, which is assessed for a number of wide-sea areas.

The annex to my statement details the TAC movements to other fish stocks that are landed by the local fleet, but they are of much less importance than nephrops. Members will be able to see the relative values of the different species landed into our ports from the table on the last page.

The continued application of the discredited cod recovery plan resulted in a 20% reduction in the cod TAC. There were further cuts of 10% in plaice and 5% in sole, which is a reflection of the concerns expressed in the scientific advice. The reduction in herring of 8% was in line with the science and the maximum sustainable yield for that stock. There was a welcome increase of 11% in hake, and the fishing opportunities for other quota stocks remained unchanged.

I am grateful for this opportunity to inform Members about the outcome of the 2014 fisheries negotiations as far as they affect our fleet, and I am satisfied that we got a good outcome for the local fleet. I put on record my thanks to my colleagues George Eustice in DEFRA, Richard Lochhead in the Scottish Government and Simon Coveney in the Twenty-six for their strong support throughout the negotiations.

Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): I refer the Minister to the reference made to discards at paragraph 17 and the clean fishing of haddock at paragraph 18. As we know, the use of selective gears will be very important, especially as the common fisheries reforms come into play in 2016. What work is being done with the industry on that issue?

Mrs O'Neill: The commitment that I made three years ago, with the cooperation of the industry, around selective gears saved us from unacceptable technical measures being imposed on the local fleet and gave us breathing space to develop selective measures that were more suitable for the fleet. We now have several more acceptable gear types that are capable of reducing cod catches to below 1·5%. They allow vessels to become completely exempt from days-at-sea restrictions. Our commitment remains the same. Even without exemption, all our prawn vessels must use highly selective gear in the cod recovery zone. That allows us to buy back enough days at sea to allow our vessels to take their full quotas. The focus is moving to reducing overall discards as well as cod catches, and we will continue to improve those gears from now until 2019.


12.00 noon

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, on behalf of the local fishing industry, I congratulate the Minister on her hard work during the recent negotiations in Brussels. Today's statement highlights the work that was done there for the fleet. Will she now provide us with an update on the European Fisheries Fund (EFF)?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes. The current fund is coming to an end and is now closed to applications. The new funding, under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), will support the development of the fishing and seafood sectors until 2020. The bulk of the funding will go towards common fisheries policy reform and measures to improve the industry's economic and environmental sustainability. Important areas such as technology to reduce fish discards and modernisation of vessels to improve health and safety are a welcome inclusion in the funding proposals.

I have agreed an allocation for DARD of 10% for EMFF core funding, and that is consistent with DARD's spending under the current EFF programme. I have ensured that we have received a fair share based on the size of our industry and the investment needs that it has demonstrated through the use of previous European funds for fisheries.

The fisheries administrations are working on a draft operational programme, and a public consultation was launched back in March of last year. The Department will be active in its engagement with the local industry and its representatives during the consultation round. If progress is made as planned and everything runs according to plan, the EMFF should be open for applications this summer.

Mr Byrne: I welcome the Minister's statement. However, I recognise that some parts of it are good, while some are not so good. I welcome the 3% increase in the prawn quota. We are concerned with area VIIa, but will the Minister tell us what the net change was for the other regions, such as Scotland or England? In future, is it possible that a scientific assessment can benefit the recovery of the Irish Sea for fishing for our fleet?

Mrs O'Neill: The decisions that are taken on quotas are very much based on the scientific advice. Area VIIa is the area that is relevant to our local industry only. Something over 95% of the industry is dependent on the nephrops stocks, so that is our main priority when it comes to dealing with the discussions as part of the December Council. The fact that we were able to secure the increase is a welcome development for the industry.

The cut that was proposed at European level would have equated to almost £2 million of a loss to the industry. That would have been quite substantial, given that we have a small fishing industry and a small fleet that is almost wholly dependent on nephrops. Therefore, it is good news to the local industry.

The other stocks that I have outlined in the annex to the statement, where it refers to cuts, are of less importance to the industry. There is a combination of reasons for the cuts. It may be that the science did not stack up, so that there needs to be a sustainable approach to the stocks, or it may be that stocks are being fished at maximum sustainable yield. There is a combination of reasons, but suffice it to say that this is a good news story for the local fishing fleet.

Mrs Dobson: Following on from Mr Byrne's question, in your press release you describe the 3% increase in the prawn quota as an:

"additional £450,000 of fishing opportunities."

What additional support do you plan to provide to the industry to help it grasp those opportunities and therefore deliver a prosperous future for fishing in Northern Ireland?

Mrs O'Neill: I very much want to see a prosperous future for the industry. We will be able to work with the industry through the new EMFF package that we hope to open in about June this year. There will certainly be opportunities there, particularly around the selective gear and the sustainability of fishing communities. We will be able to highlight quite a range of areas as part of that programme.

As I said in the press release, there will be £450,000 of fishing opportunities. The fishing and the processing are all part of that, and the 3% increase is something that the industry wanted to see.

I would like to see Europe taking a different approach to how this is done. Fishermen find it difficult to plan for their business future, given that they have to wait until each December to see what they will be able to catch in the following year. That does not make for good long-term planning for any business. The approach to that is an issue that we share with other member states, and it is something that we have to continue to challenge.

Mr Buchanan: One of the key negotiating priorities, as outlined in your statement, was to agree:

"interim measures for sea bass management, proportionate to the impact of the recreational and commercial sectors."

Are you satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations on that priority? How do the measures now sit alongside the recreational and commercial sectors?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I am satisfied. It is less of an issue for us than for Scotland in particular. All the priorities that I listed at point 6 in my statement were achieved, so that is a good outcome for the negotiation.

The industry locally is almost wholly dependent on nephrops as its main stock. That was our priority in my approach to the discussions, and we secured a good outcome for that.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement, like Members before. Given the need for the Department to continue its work with the industry and to work more closely, can I ask the Minister to give an update on the fisheries task force, please?

Mrs O'Neill: The task force interim report has been published on the Department's website, where you can read it in full. The task force met on five occasions to consider the following: factors affecting the profitability of certain fleet segments and actions required to address those; the future challenges faced by the fishing fleet and on-shore businesses and the action required to meet those, particularly the EU landing obligation; and priorities for funding under the new EMFF, especially the elements of the operational programme.

The task force's three main recommendations are that highly selective gear trials should continue until 2019 to assist the industry with the implementation of the landing obligations; that the Department starts to develop a case for further flexibility in implementing the landing obligations within the member state discard group and the Commission; and that DARD carries out an assessment of the balance between available fishing capacity and the fishing opportunities for the Irish Sea nephrops fleet during 2015.

Officials will be studying those recommendations over the coming weeks. We want to be in a position to issue a full response by the end of February. I am quite encouraged by the work that the fishing industry task force has done, and we will continue to work with it over the next year to take forward what has been identified as a vital piece of work for the industry.

Mr Poots: The cod quota has been reduced by 20% every year since 2006-07, so there has been a significant failure on the part of the Department in each of those years. The evidence coming from the sentinel fisheries programme is that there has been a recovery of cod. So why is the evidence being ignored when it comes to the dispensing of quota, and why are we not using the science that is available to us?

Can the Minister assure the House that the change to the new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund will be seamless with the end of the current European Fisheries Fund and that there will not be a gap between those two funds?

Mrs O'Neill: In relation to the point that it is, perhaps, a failure of the Department in relation to the cod cuts, maybe the Member does not understand, but there is a cod recovery plan in place at a European level. That plan sets out that year on year there will be a 20% cut in cod quota. That is why we are where we are.

I have argued the case every December that I have been there. I think that was maybe my fourth Council meeting. That the cod recovery plan does not work is an issue that is consistently on the agenda. Other member states agree, but until Europe reviews the recovery plan, and we accept that there has been movement on that recently, we have to continue to drive home those points, and I will continue to do that. Unfortunately, we are stuck with it until there is a replacement, but I assure the Member that it is something that I am equally concerned about.

In the sentinel fisheries scientific cod study that we asked for, there was some sympathy for the idea. We have been told by the Commission that this is not legally possible. However, we have not parked the idea and will continue to pursue it with the Commission. I said that publicly after the December Council meeting. That is the commitment that I have made to the industry, and I will continue to challenge them.

I believe that this is counter-intuitive in terms of what Europe wants on discards. They are actually encouraging people, with this cod recovery plan, to throw fish overboard. That is not acceptable, so there needs to be a bit of realism and common sense applied to the sentinel fisheries.

Mr Rogers: Following on from that, the 20% year-on-year cut to the cod TAC is really limiting the availability of scientific information and making a nonsense of the cod recovery plan. I acknowledge your attempts, along with Simon Coveney, to get a 20 ton cod quota, but what representations have you made since the Fisheries Council meeting to ensure that we have sustainable management of cod stocks in the future?

Mrs O'Neill: I do not disagree: the Irish Sea cod quota is far too small for us to be able to manage a central fishery. This is something that has been ongoing for years. We have consistently raised the issue with the Commission as part of the ongoing discussion that we are having with it. At the December Council meeting, things were made very clear, particularly for the new presidency. They had an understanding of the nonsense of the argument that they had been making; they accepted why we need to do it, but legally could not find a way to do it. We need to find a way around that.

I intend to write to the Commission on the back of the December Council meeting to follow on from that discussion. It is not a new conversation; it is an ongoing one.

Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for her statement. The table at annex A shows that mackerel is the second most important catch of our fishing fleet. You referred to further agreements with Norway and the Faroes on the mackerel stock. Can you update us on when that is expected to happen, and what will Northern Ireland's negotiating position be?

Mrs O'Neill: The Norway/Faroes issue has been going on in relation to North Sea stocks, such as mackerel, for quite some time. We were glad that, before we got into the ins and outs of the December Council negotiations, there was movement and progress on that. That meant that the Council was able to take the decisions on the full range of catches outside the Norway stock.

There are possibly two main boats that catch mackerel and are affected by that, so they watch with interest how the Norway/Faroes situation, which has been going on for quite a number of years, is playing out. I am glad that that was sorted out in advance of the Council meeting, because it meant that we were able to get stuck into the detail of all the other catches.

Mr Allister: Can the Minister shed any further light on the bizarre claim by the Commission that there is no legal mechanism to enable it to facilitate the cod catch that is necessary to allow the ongoing spawning survey? Surely, under the TAC regulations, the Commission has the inherent power to recommend upwards or downwards. Where is the legal basis for that assertion? Has the Minister got to the bottom of that with the Commission, or is this just the latest wheeze by the Commission to finally extinguish all cod fishing in the Irish Sea?

Mrs O'Neill: Getting to the bottom of it is the process we are involved in. We submitted a proposal to the Commission, which was supported by the South and would have allowed us to take forward a sufficient quota that would also have allowed us to have a sustainable scientific fishery. The Commission said it was not possible to grant the quota under the current rules, but it did offer a solution that would allow a spring survey to proceed without requiring an additional quota. That would at least get us moving. We are studying that proposal at the minute, with the aim of being able to open something for the spring cod spawning survey.

So at least we can get things moving, but I do think it is a nonsense, and I agree with you about the Commission's approach on this issue. It accepts that we need to gather the science, because without that we cannot make decisions, yet it finds legal barriers to increasing the quota. That is an ongoing process, but we are able to make some progress and get a spring spawning survey opened up over the next number of months.

Mr B McCrea: There has been a lot of discussion about the scientific basis for the decision-making. How important is scientific analysis in our discussions? When we talk to the Commission, does it challenge the science, or is there just no information available — in other words, there is no science? Where is the gap in our understanding?

Mrs O'Neill: It is not that there is a gap. The one thing that I recognised very early on was that you cannot go out to Europe and argue your corner unless you have science to back up what you are saying. Taking the last three years, the science was there to support an increase two years ago, when we were able to secure that increase. Last year, the science said something different. You cannot make one argument one year when the science is favourable and then make a counterargument the following year if it does not suit your argument. It is about consistency.


12.15 pm

We have very strong science. The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute scientists who come out with me every year to be part of the negotiations and to challenge the Commission provide excellent background work with the industry and have been very helpful. They were very helpful this year in our being able to achieve that increase. As I said, it is not that there is a gap in science. Europe will have its view, and we will have to bring our own scientists. When it comes to arguing your corner, you have to fight science with science.

Executive Committee Business

That the Second Stage of the Regeneration Bill [NIA 43/11-16] be agreed.

The Regeneration Bill will allow the conferral of powers to tackle deprivation and undertake regeneration and community development in local government and the transfer of functions relating to Laganside to the new Belfast City Council. The Bill sits in the context of the framework provided for local government reform by the DOE's Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014, which received Royal Assent last year. I believe that these new responsibilities will contribute significantly to the aims of local government reform, which are to provide a stronger and more efficient local government that delivers more effective services to its communities. It will give councils the opportunity to really shape service provision for their citizens, whom they have been elected to serve, and to adapt to the local needs of those communities.

I have had some useful discussions about the content of the Bill with a number of Executive colleagues over the last number of months since taking up office. This has resulted in the Executive agreeing to remove the housing provisions in the Bill and retitling it the Regeneration Bill. However, the timescales around these discussions meant that it was not possible to secure the Executive's agreement in time to allow me to have this legislation in place for 1 April 2015, as originally planned. Therefore, with Executive agreement, it is now planned that these responsibilities will be conferred on local government a year later, from 1 April 2016.

DSD's powers and functions will not transfer in April 2015, but, as Members will be aware, a number of key functions from other Departments will transfer. These include planning, local economic development and tourism, which fit well with the responsibility for regeneration. Although DSD powers will not be conferred until 2016, I am committed to working closely with the new councils to make sure that our regeneration and community development activity fits with the plans, which will be developed locally, and that we are fully engaged in the community planning process that councils will take the lead on. As part of that process of engagement, I intend to embark on a series of meetings with each of the new councils shortly.

The issue has been raised by a number of Members. Members will also be aware that a panel was established some weeks ago. I attended that panel along with other Ministers and representatives from local government. I gave a commitment on that occasion that I would endeavour to ensure that there was consultation and collaboration with local councils and that, despite the perceived difficulty with the transfer of functions and powers as of 1 April 2016, we would do all in our power to make that transition as seamless and uneventful as possible so that we have a good working relationship. That is what I am committed to, and that is the reason why I have been in consultation and in contact with the local councils over the last number of days.

I mentioned that it was decided, after some discussions, to remove from the Bill the housing functions that were earmarked for transfer. While those functions were of a relatively minor nature relating to unfitness and housing in multiple occupation, I want to make it clear that the intention was never to transfer to councils any responsibilities for determining housing need or providing social housing.

Those responsibilities and powers rest with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the housing associations, and that situation will not change as a result of the Bill. Since coming into office, I have been well aware of the concerns that there are about housing and of Members' fears, worries and suspicions around the issue. I trust that Members will reflect on the work that we have done to bring the Bill to this stage. I have worked to ensure that those concerns, fears, worries — whatever they are — are allayed, but that needs to be repeated and rehearsed because, sometimes, that is necessary for some Members to understand that what we are saying is exactly the case. So, we have made progress on that matter, and those powers will stay as they are.

What current DSD powers and responsibilities will go to local government as a result of the Regeneration Bill? The new councils will have the power to carry out regeneration schemes and projects, public realm and environment improvement schemes and they will take the lead in tackling deprivation and delivering community development in their area. In a number of areas, some of that work is already being undertaken in partnership with my Department and existing councils, but, in the future, all councils will have the lead role. They will be able to decide on priorities and where the budget should be expended. All of that will be within the wider context of the new duty of councils to develop community plans for their area.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for giving way. I am conscious that he is talking about finance and the budget. Will the budget be devolved from DSD to the councils as well? Who will have overall control of it?

Mr Storey: Yes, the budget will be devolved. It would not be in keeping with good practice to decide to give councils the power but not give them the wherewithal to do it. Obviously, there will always be an issue about the amount of money. We have heard it in the House already today. In some cases, it seems as though there is never enough. I am well aware of concerns about finance. However, I am endeavouring, even in my discussions with the Finance Minister in the pre-consultation for the Budget, to make sure that we give this the concern and priority that it deserves so that the budget will transfer.

I will continue. All of this, of course, will happen. This is an important point to make. There is another concern about when we transfer the powers: that this will happen somehow and the Department will walk away from all its responsibilities. However, it is right to say that this will not be without support from my Department. The Bill will give the Department power to publish strategic guidance to which councils must have regard in exercising their functions, under the 'Urban Regeneration and Community Development Policy Framework', which was published in July 2014. It provides the strategic direction for regeneration and community development policy. The Department will also support councils by publishing guidance on related issues, such as the evidence base and best-practice interventions in respect of regeneration and community development. It should be clear, however, that councils will be left free to decide how best to deploy these in the context of departmental guidance. It is important to underscore and underline that. If there is a document that should become one of ownership for the new councils, it should be the 'Urban Regeneration and Community Development Policy Framework', because it gives much of the context and detail of how we see these things rolling out over the years ahead.

Some Members may ask why we do not proceed to say when and where councils should decide to support schemes or projects. However, in my view, that would be contrary to the whole ethos of local government reform. The Executive have decided that decisions affecting local people should, where possible, be made by local people at a local level.

Members will also have received correspondence in the last 24 hours about the community investment fund. I want to take a minute to say something about that correspondence, as it is worthwhile placing these comments on record in the House. In that correspondence, concerns centred on the fact that, as a result of the transfer of the programme to councils in 2016, an opportunity may be lost to integrate the community investment fund with the rural development programmes managed by DARD. I will write to Members about that issue shortly, but perhaps I should make a few initial comments.

While I understand the points raised in the correspondence, in my consideration of the issue I have been mindful that the agreed position of the Executive is that responsibility for regeneration and community development at a local level should rest with local government. The transfer of the community investment fund to councils fits well within the overall ethos of local government reform, which, as I have said, will allow local people to make decisions on the priorities for their area at a local level.

In relation to the concerns about the integration of urban and rural programmes, it is important to note that community planning will also place a duty on key Departments and agencies to be engaged in the community planning process and to have regard to the community plan when considering how best to deliver services locally. Community planning will have the form of achieving the proper integration of urban and rural support programmes. So, given the strong link between the community investment fund, community planning and the subregional nature of the programme, there would need to be a strong reason not to proceed with its transfer to the new councils.

From the consultation responses and meetings with the councils, it is clear that there is significant support for the principles of the Bill, the transfer of these responsibilities to the new councils and the conferral of these powers on local government. On that basis, I hope that all parties can give the proposals their full support.

Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also congratulate you on your elevation to the post of Speaker. I have no doubt that you will do a very good job along with the Deputy Speakers and the Principal Deputy Speaker.

Very briefly, I would like to thank the Minister from bringing the Second Stage of the Regeneration Bill to the House. I welcome the vast bulk of his comments.

To repeat, on 8 January the Committee received a comprehensive briefing from departmental officials, who outlined the key areas of powers that would be transferred. Ultimately, the Committee agreed in principle with the principles of the Bill. Whilst Committee members addressed a number of concerns — I will touch on a few of those in a moment — nevertheless, the Committee unanimously wants to see the Bill being given a fair wind, local government being effective and powers being transferred successfully. Most Members will have had their political origin in local government and will be acutely aware that councillors work with local communities, are very close to the ground and have a clear understanding of what is required in local areas. However, they often do not have the necessary powers to change those wishes into reality. Hopefully, the Bill will help them to do that.

The Minister has outlined the process of getting the Bill to where it is, which has included removing the housing elements from the original intention of the Bill. As the Minister said, a number of those powers, particularly the regulatory powers, will be introduced at a further stage. Most people would like the regulatory powers to be transferred to local government, and there certainly would be no obvious contention on that. However, that was a wise decision, and the Committee was of the view that the Minister's decision to proceed with the Regeneration Bill on that basis was correct. The Committee will want to work with the Minister and his Department over the next weeks and months to make sure that we get the Bill right.

The Minister fully addressed some of the concerns in his opening remarks around the question of trying to make sure that each council adopts the powers progressively and proceeds on the basis of seeking to tackle disadvantage in its area. It is important to state that, although they were concerned about how those powers might be utilised in local government, Committee members wanted to see some consistency right across the 11 councils. The Department and the Minister retain policy powers, and they will look at ways of monitoring local government to see how those powers are exercised in the time ahead.

It suffices to make the point that the Committee raised concerns with the Department, a number of which have been fully addressed today by the Minister. He has made it very clear to the Committee and the House that the Department will work with the Committee, all Members and all parties across the Chamber over the next period to make sure that we get the Bill into law so that we can move ahead in April 2016 and transfer the powers to local government to allow councils to be much more effective and responsive in tackling need in their area. Obviously, there are issues around transferring the budgets. There is a mechanism and a formula for doing that that the Minister will deal with in due course.

On the basis that we want to see successful legislation enacted, the Social Development Committee will want to work cooperatively with the Minister and the Department in the time ahead to finalise the Bill.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time. Paula, you will be the first Member called to speak after Question Time.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.31 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): We will start with listed questions. Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Corporation tax can be a major stimulus for jobs and investment in our local economy. Bringing about a step change in economic performance is not possible without implementing new powers. My Department commissioned the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, which was formerly the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy, to look at the benefits of moving to a corporate tax level of 12·5% from April 2017. The economy overall is expected to be 11% larger, driven by growing the private sector.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for her reply. I am sure that we all welcome the announcement on corporation tax, but given that the earliest that a reduction can be brought into effect is 2017, what does the Minister feel that Invest NI could do between then and now to take advantage of the reduction?

Mrs Foster: It is indeed the case, as you pointed out, Mr Weir, that the earliest that the rate can be reduced is probably around April 2017. Before that time, we need to have very clear messaging around when precisely the new regime will come into place and what rate it will be set at; we are talking about the date and the rate. Once we have both those aspects clarified by the Executive, Invest Northern Ireland will be able to sell the proposition right across the world. The work carried out by Ulster University is saying that, because it takes time for businesses to make decisions around moving, if we go out early and sell the lower corporate tax level, we may see firms coming before the tax rate is reduced. We may see benefits coming even before the costs to our block grant kick in. It is important to have the date and rate set, and we are looking forward to a discussion at the Executive in relation to both issues in the very near future.

Mr B McCrea: Minister, on 11 January on the BBC, in relation to corporation tax, you stated:

"that means people will have an extra £3,000 in their pay packet per year".

How did you arrive at that figure? Is it for all of us?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. Again, it is referring to the work carried out for me by the then Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy. The work it carried out very clearly indicated that productivity would rise in the economy overall. Based on the work that it carried out, it made the assumption that productivity would rise by 5·9%. If you look across the economy, that means a general increase of £3,000 per annum into employees' wage packets. Obviously, it is very generalised; I accept that not every single person will see that increase. Some will see bigger increases. The Member will understand that the productivity issue has long been a drag on the economy here in Northern Ireland. We really want to see a closing of the gap between productivity levels in Northern Ireland and those in the rest of the UK. I firmly believe that the lowering of corporation tax will enable us to do that.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she give the House some indication of the assessment that she has made of the cost to the block grant of the reduction of corporation tax to 10%, as she has advocated?

Mrs Foster: I believe in a 10% rate — I understand that we have to come to Executive agreement on the matter and that it may not be the case that we settle at 10% — in relation to competitiveness with our closest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland. As you know, it has set its rate at 12·5% for some considerable time now and has benefited greatly because of that. The work that was carried out by the Ulster University economic policy group took the assumption of 12·5%. Therefore, the work that I have received is based on that 12·5%. If you were to extrapolate it down, it would give us even more of a competitive advantage.

I think that the important thing to recognise is the fact that Invest Northern Ireland has had a very strong proposition over this past couple of years based on the talent of our young people. What we have now is a proposition of tax and talent so we have both of those elements in our armoury now. Given that we have both of those elements, I think that we have a very strong proposition for going to the United States and, indeed, other places and bringing even more inward investment into Northern Ireland.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I have somewhat of a follow-on from the previous question. Does the Minister have any idea of how the money against the corporation tax reduction might be offset against the block grant?

Mrs Foster: The work carried out by Ulster University points out that we may start to see a benefit of about 5% to 10% to the Northern Ireland economy before we actually take the hit with the block grant. I welcome that, because we will see more people investing in Northern Ireland even before the corporate tax rate is lowered. Therefore, we will see more investment into Northern Ireland, and we will benefit as a government because of that. On the hit to the block grant, work is continuing between the Department of Finance and the Treasury Ministers to bottom out the very precise figure of what it will mean for our block grant. Of course, those are all matters that will be discussed in the next comprehensive spending review. At that stage, we will have a completely clear picture of what it will mean for the block grant. We will then look to see where we can make savings to offset what will be a big hit on the block grant.

I have to say to you and to the House that I believe that we are in a situation now as an economy where we cannot just sit back and do nothing. We have to do something different, and I believe that doing something different is to use the corporate tax reduction to bring more investment into Northern Ireland. I think that the whole economy will grow as a result of that. People will have more money in their pay packets, and that will help everyone, not just big business. I have heard it said by some that big business is going to benefit from this, but, really, for the Executive, it is about job creation and creating more jobs right across Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster: The estimated overseas visitor figures quoted by Tourism Ireland for 2014 are very positive, and I remain confident that we will meet the targets set for tourism in the Programme for Government. The next set of official statistics for Northern Ireland visitor numbers, for the first nine months of 2014, is due to be published on 22 January 2015.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for her answer. Minister, figures released by Tourism Ireland on 30 December showed an increase in overseas visitors to the Republic of Ireland of 8·6%, whereas there was only an increase in overseas visitors to Northern Ireland of 5%. Can the Minister tell me what steps she has taken to try to close that balance and increase the numbers of overseas visitors coming to Northern Ireland?

Mrs Foster: Again, it is around collaboration between Tourism Northern Ireland, Tourism Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland about getting the package for Northern Ireland completely right. I welcome the fact that there has been an increase in overseas visitors, and I welcome the fact that we are now very strategically focused on bringing more visitors to Northern Ireland. To make that happen, we have to have more direct access coming into our airports, and that is something that I am very firmly focused upon. I have said very many times that I would like to see a route to Germany, a route to Canada and a route, perhaps, to the Middle East. Those are all areas that we are working on with the airports and with a number of different airlines.

Mr Ross: The Minister and the whole House will, obviously, be aware of the Gobbins path project in east Antrim, which is due to open later this year. How important does the Minister think that that project will be in attracting more overseas visitors to Northern Ireland?

Mrs Foster: I do welcome the progress that is being made on the Gobbins path. I think that it will be an absolutely outstanding visitor attraction when it is completed, and one that will invoke some of the memories that you get when you look at some of the old photographs of the Gobbins path. I think that it will be simply outstanding. Actually, at the last international visit that I had, I was talking about the Gobbins path, and a lot of people were very excited about the prospect of being able to visit the path again. I think that it will very much add to the Causeway Coast and Glens experience — an experience that already is outstanding. I was going to say that it is a new facility; it is, of course, a very old path, and bringing it back to life will add to the offering that we have to put on the international stage. I look forward very much to it coming online, hopefully later on this year.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that the retention of a reduction in VAT rates for tourism services in the South has contributed to their success down there. Will she update us on any discussions she might have had about a reduction in the VAT rate here for the tourism industry in the North?

Mrs Foster: A reduction in VAT was raised earlier in the House. Members will know that VAT is a national matter that is dealt with at Westminster. A number of organisations and individuals have lobbied me about a reduction in the rate of VAT. It has been a great enabler in the Republic of Ireland; there is no getting away from that. We must continue to make the case to the UK Exchequer that it would help not only us but other regions of the UK and would enable them to be competitive in a very competitive market.

Mr Lyttle: How much of the additional £2·2 million that the Minister received for tourism in the 2015-16 Budget will she allocate to a tourism events fund for 2015-16?

Mrs Foster: The Member can ask that question, but another question is coming up later, and I will answer it then.

Mrs McKevitt: In answer to an earlier question, the Minister spoke about EU countries and trying to increase the tourism level. What conversations has she had with the Irish and British Governments on expanding short-stay visas for Chinese and Indian visitors to the common travel area to include visitors from countries outside the EU?

Mrs Foster: I am sure that the Member will join me in welcoming the pilot initiative for Chinese and Indian visitors. It is probably a little too early to know whether it has been a success. I imagine that it will be a great success, because we are obviously keen to attract those visitors up to Northern Ireland from Dublin. In the past, the official advice was that you needed two visas, and it was certainly a drag on the number of visitors who visited Northern Ireland from Dublin. I look forward to seeing how that has made a difference to the number of Chinese and Indian visitors. I would welcome the opportunity to expand that to other countries as well.

Mrs Foster: Invest Northern Ireland is able to provide information only on new business starts to which it has provided support. From 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2014, Invest Northern Ireland provided free advice and guidance to 422 new business start projects in the Upper Bann constituency through the regional start initiative, formerly known as the enterprise development programme. A further 25 new business starts received financial support from Invest Northern Ireland.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for her response. Given the proactive role that Invest NI has played in Craigavon in the recent past, is she confident that that can be sustained in future years, given the enormous potential for Craigavon, not least in its considerable land bank?

Mrs Foster: I know that the Member will want to join me in congratulating the indigenous businesses in Craigavon and the way in which they have moved forward. Indeed, two of the top indigenous investors for 2014-15 are in Upper Bann: Almac and Thompson Aero Seating. He should be very proud of those two companies being in the top five. There is a very entrepreneurial base in Craigavon, and we want even more business starts to come forward. We look forward to working with the new council to see what value added we can bring to its new economic development powers.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for her warm words of encouragement to businesses in Craigavon. Have there been any further discussions about the extension of enterprise zones? Will she consider Craigavon as an area that could benefit from such a zone?


2.15 pm

Mrs Foster: We have not completed the journey in relation to the enterprise zone in Coleraine as yet. I am a little disappointed around that. We have been trying to facilitate the discussions that are ongoing in Coleraine around the enterprise zone, so we really need to focus on achieving that part of what was the economic pact. Once that is in place, other areas will want to look at enterprise zones as well. There is nothing to stop a local council, with its new economic development powers, looking at how it can market its own particular area to attract inward investment. I hope that the new councils will work with Invest Northern Ireland in looking for the unique selling point of each of the different areas of Northern Ireland so that we can look at that subregional growth and move it forward in that respect.

Mrs Foster: The Royal and Ancient (R&A) announced on Monday 16 June 2014 that Royal Portrush Golf Club had been invited to join the rota to host the Open Championship. It is hoped that the first event will be hosted as early as 2019, however, that is still to be confirmed by the Royal and Ancient and Royal Portrush Golf Club. It is subject to securing planning approvals for course improvements and completion of the works. The full planning application for the required course improvements was submitted to DOE Planning Service at the beginning of December 2014 and is currently progressing through the consultation and approval process. Once approval is secured, it is hoped that works will commence on site later this year.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for her response. Can she outline what consultation she has had with the R&A to ensure that the golfing world and others are satisfied with what the north coast has to offer?

Mrs Foster: That was very much part of our preliminary conversations before they announced that they would come to Royal Portrush. The fact that we were able to host the Irish Open at Royal Portrush back in 2012 gave them a great degree of confidence that we were going to be able to deliver on the promises that we were making for the Open.

A number of planning issues need to be sorted out over the next period of time. I am confident that we will move those forward. As I said, the planning application just went in at the beginning of December, so there is a little bit of time, but, hopefully, the new council and the planning authorities will look on the application sympathetically because it will be a tremendous opportunity if we can bring the Open to Northern Ireland in 2019.

Mr G Robinson: There has been much talk in the media about hotel development on the north coast. Is it essential for further hotels to be developed on the north coast in order to have the Open come to Portrush in 2019?

Mrs Foster: Obviously, I would like to see more hotel facilities put in place on the north coast. There are gaps in the five-star market in that area. As the House will be fully aware, the Runkerry development had received planning permission, but the estate and the grounds that were earmarked for that application have now been sold by the Macnaghten estate to Dr Peter FitzGerald. The land that the Runkerry development was to be developed on is now part of Dr FitzGerald's portfolio. Therefore, it is uncertain what will happen to that particular application, but I hope that others will look at the opportunities in and around the Open coming to Royal Portrush and whether they can develop hotel facilities there as well.

I do not think that it will damage our ability to host the Open one iota, because people who attend these events are well used to travelling. Indeed, when many of them go to other courses, they have to travel for over an hour to get from their accommodation to the event. So, I do not think that not having a hotel there will damage that particular event. Notwithstanding that, obviously I would like to see more development of hotels in and around the north coast.

Mr Nesbitt: I want to follow on from the Minister's last answer on comparative travel times. In terms of comparative economic impacts, she will be aware that, when the Irish Open was at Portrush, some felt a little disappointment that spectators maybe did not spend as much time and money in town as traders might have hoped they would. Can she compare the economic impact of the Irish Open at Portrush with, for example, the last Open at Royal Liverpool or, indeed, the last Irish Open at Fota Island in County Cork?

Mrs Foster: The issue of people not being able to get out and integrate with the town and the surrounding area has now been addressed by the European Tour; it is now saying that, if people want to leave the course and come back, they can. I very much welcome that the issue has been resolved. I regret that people were not able to leave Royal Portrush, go into Portrush and return; they had to stay on the course. That has now been sorted out; therefore, it will have more of an impact when we have the Irish Open at Royal County Down, which we are very much looking forward to hosting this year and, of course, in Enniskillen in 2017.

Mrs Foster: The waterways of Northern Ireland have the potential to become an integral part of the tourism experience in Northern Ireland. The proposed Ulster canal development could provide opportunities for canal boating as well as supporting infrastructure to support walking and cycling, all of which would benefit our visitors and the local area.

Although the project is being led by DCAL, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) continues to work with the Ulster canal inter-agency group through the Destination Fermanagh steering group and with the Clones Erne East Blackwater project to try to maximise the tourism benefit that this project could bring.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the Minister for her somewhat encouraging answer. Does she agree that, because the canal goes through Monaghan, Fermanagh, Cavan and Tyrone, both tourism boards on the island of Ireland should work closely together to ensure that it is a success?

Mrs Foster: As I said to the Member, this is being led by DCAL and, indeed, by its counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. The TD for Cavan-Monaghan, Heather Humphreys, has taken a particular interest in the matter, as you would imagine. It is in part of her constituency, as it is in part of ours; therefore, she is keen to move the project forward. When I last spoke to her, she again mentioned the need to push ahead on the Ulster canal. So, I think, generally, there is support for the project. I suppose that the big challenge for us all is funding. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board — or Tourism Northern Ireland, as we should now call it — will work with its counterparts to assist and make sure that all the tourism benefits are put into any business case that is put forward.

Mr Humphrey: The Minister is quite right that the primary responsibility lies with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Is Fermanagh District Council taking a collaborative approach to the cross-border element?

Obviously, in the current economic climate, budgets are tight. Has the Department looked at the possibility of funding from the European Union, given that it is a cross-border venture?

Mrs Foster: I simply do not know is the answer, because DCAL leads on this issue. However, I do know, and I have been advised, that some €54 million would be needed to secure the project to get it completed within 21 to 24 months. It is a large sum of money. If there are options to look elsewhere for funding, we would of course be supportive of them being explored.

As I understand it, Fermanagh District Council is part of the Clones Erne East partnership, which seems to be driving this initiative. Of course, the Erne East councillors will be part of that partnership.

Mr B McCrea: As you said, Minister, finance is the real nub of the issue. Are you in favour of raising funds from users of inland waterways, for example, through a boat tax, in much the same way that we raise money through car taxes, provided that the money is used specifically for enhancing inland waterways?

Mrs Foster: I am not sure that that is a matter for me as tourism Minister. I want to encourage more people to come and use the inland waterways. Of course, I want them to use Lough Neagh and Lough Erne in particular.

It is probably a matter for the Executive as a whole, but principally it is a matter for the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Mrs Foster: Due to the difficult financial challenges facing the public sector, the Executive required Departments to make significant savings. Given those circumstances, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's tourism events fund open call for the 2015-16 financial year has not yet been launched.

However, as events play a key role in driving tourism to Northern Ireland, I am delighted to announce that I have secured £1 million for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's tourism events scheme next year.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mrs Foster: Tourism NI, as the Northern Ireland Tourist Board is now, is currently working up the detail of that, and I expect the scheme to open in early February.

Tourism NI provided funding for the Walled City Tattoo in 2013, totalling £50,000, and a further £30,000 was provided in sponsorship support via the Northern Ireland Tourist Board tourism events sponsorship scheme for the 2014 event.

Mr Devenney: I thank the Minister for her response, in particular the announcement that the events fund will reopen. That will be welcome news for the people in Londonderry and across Northern Ireland. Will she outline what support for tourism her Department has put into Londonderry over the past number of years?

Mrs Foster: It is very difficult to know where to start when it comes to the support that we have put into Londonderry. We have put a lot of support, not just finance, into the tourism product in the city, in particular through the built heritage programme and the development of the Walled City lighting strategy.

We put £8·1 million into the built heritage programme, the total project costs of which were £24 million, and another £1·6 million into the lighting strategy. Six projects were identified for financial support under the built heritage programme, and the Member will be very aware of those, because, when he was a local councillor, he lobbied very hard for a number of them. Those projects are the Apprentice Boys' Memorial Hall, First Derry Presbyterian Church, St Columb's Cathedral, Áras Cholmcille, the Playhouse theatre and the Guildhall. We will continue to support investment in the north-west, and, indeed, across Northern Ireland, in our tourism product. I believe that we have a very strong product and a very good story to tell in Londonderry.

Mr Lyttle: I welcome this U-turn by the Enterprise Minister on the fantastic tourism events fund. It will be welcome news to the many organisations across Northern Ireland that provide vital cultural and socio-economic development in our community. For what is, I think, the third time today, I ask the Minister this: how will she ensure that the fund is placed on a more stable footing so that we do not have to revisit that budgetary reduction on an annual basis?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question, but he should cover his blushes, because it is no thanks to the Alliance Party that I have £1 million extra —

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mrs Foster: — in my events fund. It voted against the Budget.

Mr Humphrey: No wonder that he has his head down.

Mrs Foster: It is no wonder that he has his head down. It is absolutely outrageous that somebody can accuse me of doing a U-turn when it was me who went to the Executive and argued for extra money to be put into the events fund, with no help — zero help — from his party. I will take no lectures from the Alliance Party on the events fund.

Mr Kinahan: We have just heard from the Minister about a mass of good-news projects, but when are we going to get a tourism strategy that shows everyone in Northern Ireland how it all links together so that everyone, everywhere can really feel part of it, be that those with bed and breakfasts or others?

Mrs Foster: Perhaps if the Member, who is a member of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, had been in the Chamber this morning for my announcement on Tourism NI, he would have heard precisely what we are doing on the tourism strategy. Perhaps he would like to read Hansard to find out.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.

T1. Mr Allister asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what action she has taken since the closure announcement from JTI Gallaher and whether she has any good news to bring to the House on that front, given that she will be aware of the very heavy economic cloud that the looming closure has left hanging over North Antrim. (AQT 1961/11-15)

Mr Allister: As is my wont, I will take the Minister back into calmer waters.


2.30 pm

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for raising that hugely important issue. I had a meeting with management from JTI Gallaher last week. They are finishing their consultation and they promised to come back to me and to the Minister for Employment and Learning before they finished the consultation. We had a very useful meeting in relation to where they think JTI is going, and we stand ready to help in any way we possibly can.
The Member will be aware that there has been some very good work — and I do not like to call it a counter-proposal — carried out by local management and local staff in relation to a proposal that was put forward. It was brought to me and other members of the Executive, and I could see great merit in it, and have indicated again that I stand ready to help in any way that I can. The meeting took place up here at Parliament Buildings. I had offered to go to Ballymena to meet the folk, but it suited better, in terms of flights etc to have the meeting here. It took place just last week.

Mr Allister: If all efforts fail and we have that closure, it underscores the great importance of attracting foreign direct investment, specifically into North Antrim. In the last five years, despite the fact — and I gladly acknowledge it — that we have had very good help from Invest NI for businesses like Wrightbus, there have been only eight visits to North Antrim on matters of foreign direct investment in contrast to 739 in the same period to the four Belfast constituencies. How can that record be justified and does the Minister stand over it?

Mrs Foster: I have said many times in the House that, when there is a pool of skills, we can market that to international investors, and we will do exactly that. Whilst Randox is not in the North Antrim constituency, it is a very short hop from it, and I hope that he will join me in welcoming the 540 new jobs that we announced in Antrim last week. If best efforts fail in terms of JTI Gallaher, there may be opportunities close at hand for some of those workers, some of whom may have transferable skills, to go into Randox. But we will work in a strategic way with the Department for Employment and Learning.

If it comes to the point that JTI Gallaher decides to close and leave North Antrim, we will work in a strategic way with the company. It has made its decision early for reasons that have been rehearsed in the House before, and that gives us some time to work in a very strategic way. We often do not have time to plan for the future, but we do have time to plan for these workers and that is what we intend to do.

T2. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment how she encourages tourists to visit Upper Bann. (AQT 1962/11-15)

Mrs Foster: That subject came up for discussion earlier, as to how Tourism Northern Ireland will work collaboratively with the new councils, particularly in relation to community planning, to see where the unique selling points are for tourism around Northern Ireland. He will know that we have nine key destinations across Northern Ireland, and it is certainly my hope that all 11 super-councils will work together collaboratively with Tourism NI, Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland to market their own areas.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for her reply thus far. As the Minister will know, Lurgan has Northern Ireland's largest and most beautiful urban park, and the only outdoor ski slopes at Silverwood. Are those really being promoted as well as they could be, Minister?

Mrs Foster: The parks very much form part of what we are trying to move into now in Tourism Northern Ireland, because the outdoor activities piece is becoming more and more a selling point for tourism and for marketing purposes. A lot of families now like to get outdoors and enjoy it together. Therefore, when we welcome international visitors, we need to be able to market it well with Tourism Ireland, Tourism Northern Ireland and councils. It is about collaboration, partnership and getting the message about the nine key destination areas that we have to offer over to the international market.

T3. Lord Morrow asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for an update on the Gas to the West project. (AQT 1963/11-15)

Mrs Foster: I can indeed give that update. There is very exciting news about the Gas to the West project. The preferred bidder has been announced, and, as I understand it, the licence will be awarded in early February. A period will then follow when the company will engage with the local community on the gas network. I think that it will be a tremendously exciting time for areas of the west, which, frankly, have been forgotten about in relation to infrastructure. Indeed, over the past number of days, we have seen how the water infrastructure has been left in a very poor way. Many of our constituents are being left to their own devices and to fend for themselves. I am determined that the Gas to the West project will move ahead and will do so in a very timely manner.

Lord Morrow: I thank the Minister for her very positive response. I welcome the news that she is able to deliver to the House today. When this project was first mooted, the Clogher valley was one of the areas that seemed to be excluded. Can the Minister tell us whether there are any proposals to ensure that the Clogher valley is not forgotten about in this project, as it is very much the gateway to the west?

Mrs Foster: I am delighted to tell the Member that the most recent route map that I have seen includes the Clogher valley. Therefore, the Clogher valley will now be very much part of the transmission network. We look forward to it delivering for Dungannon, the Clogher valley, Enniskillen, Cookstown and Strabane. That Gas to the West project has not been talked about much, but it really will make a difference to a lot of people right across the west of the Province in our industrial firms and domestic homes. We look forward to it being delivered.

T4. Mr Douglas asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to join with him in congratulating Harland and Wolff in securing the major contract for the upgrade of the Byford Dolphin oil rig. (AQT 1964/11-15)

Mrs Foster: I do indeed welcome that announcement. I understand that the company is also to take on 60 permanent staff due to an upturn in business. I very much welcome that increase as well. What I really welcome is that trainees are now coming out of the Department for Employment and Learning's welding academy and will work in Harland and Wolff. We remember that, on the last occasion that Harland and Wolff secured a contract, there was quite a hue and cry about workers coming into Northern Ireland. I welcome that DEL has put that welding academy in place and that trainees are actually now going into Harland and Wolff. That is to be very much welcomed.

Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. Apart from the 1,000 possible jobs that will be created on the rig, will she outline the wider opportunities that will flow from this development on Queen's Island?

Mrs Foster: Again, if there are people working in Queen's Island on the Harland and Wolff contract, they will need to be fed and to have somewhere to stay. There are therefore knock-on impacts for the hotel industry and, indeed, the hospitality industry. I am very encouraged by the fact that this welding course has been made available because, as I visit small manufacturing companies right across Northern Ireland, one issue that comes up quite frequently is that young people in Northern Ireland do not really have that skill any more so experienced welders are having to be brought in from elsewhere. Therefore, I welcome that fact. I think that this is a good news story for east Belfast and, indeed, for Northern Ireland.

T5. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what her Department is doing to create greater economic activity in Armagh city and district and what assurances she can give to the people in Armagh that they will benefit from her departmental spend, bearing in mind that she will be well aware of the recent decision by Tesco not to locate in Armagh and the anticipated job losses that that will create. (AQT 1965/11-15)

Mrs Foster: The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment does not usually get involved in retail development. I know that a number of people were disappointed by Tesco's decision not to go ahead with their planned store in Armagh. However, when one door closes, perhaps another opens. Other retailers may be interested in locating in Armagh. I know, for example, that one of their competitors looked at Armagh and then decided that, because Tesco was going there, it would not. There may be opportunities. Probably it is something for the local Chambers of Commerce and, indeed, the council to take up. As I say, we do not usually get involved with retailers. We do, however, get involved in the supply chain to retailers. I know for certain that their margins have come under great pressure from the likes of Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's. A lot of our agricompanies are very much feeling the pressure in the supply chain as well, and it is something we are keeping an eye on.

Mr Boylan: I thank the Minister for her reply. A lot of people in the Armagh area talk about transport infrastructure and infrastructure itself. These are barriers that prevent economic investment in Armagh. Can you give an assurance that you intend to talk to other Ministers to try to overcome those barriers to economic growth and development in the Armagh area? Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mrs Foster: I would have thought there was another Minister you would be well placed to mention that to. I understand he is a constituency Member for Newry and Armagh. The Regional Development Minister is responsible for transport links. I agree with him that, when you look at economic development across Northern Ireland, infrastructure is critical. That is true whether it is roads or telecoms. I know the Member has mentioned telecoms to me on a number of occasions, but on this occasion he mentioned road infrastructure, and I support him in developing the road infrastructure right across Northern Ireland.

T6. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline her implementation plan for the tourism growth fund, which the Hunter report recommends should be developed with and supported by the new super-councils. (AQT 1966/11-15)

Mrs Foster: The joint fund will be taken forward by the new chief executive and the new chairman of Tourism Northern Ireland, in collaboration with the new super-councils when they are in place after March. We look forward to their proposals, as we will then, of course, want to support any bid that they make to the Executive to procure a joint tourism fund.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Ms Lo for a supplementary and ask her to be brief.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for her response. It is a great idea for councils to work together. The Ramblers Association has always said that there is huge potential for Northern Ireland to develop walking tours, except that various councils do not work together to promote a joined-up approach so that we can walk around the coastline of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister commit to looking at this?

Mrs Foster: Any councils that want to work collaboratively to put forward walking routes in the nine key destination areas will find us very supportive, because outdoor activity holidays, as I have indicated, are very much in vogue, and we want to make sure that we have the right infrastructure — there is that word again — in place for our tourist visitors.

Environment

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will combine my answers to questions 1 and 4.

Driver licensing is a transferred matter under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Under the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, my Department has responsibility for a broad range of matters relating to the licensing of vehicle drivers, including the form of the driving licence.


2.45 pm

In 2012, when the UK Government announced their intention to include the Union flag on Great Britain driving licences, Transport Minister Mike Penning wrote to my predecessor to advise him of that intention. Minister Penning's letter noted that driver licensing is a devolved matter but that DVLA prints our driving licences under contract. Minister Penning indicated his intention that DVLA would continue to print Northern Ireland driving licences without change to the existing design. He asked for a view on that.

Further to that correspondence, officials in my Department engaged with DVLA to ascertain whether it would be possible to provide individuals with an option to choose whether to include or exclude the flag. DVLA, however, indicated that that would not be possible, as the costs involved in making the system and associated changes required to offer such a choice were prohibitive. The same approach has, I note, been taken in Britain. The flag will be applied to all GB driving licences, with no ability for individuals to opt in or opt out.

Having considered the issue, the response to DfT, in December 2012, confirmed agreement with DfT's intention to continue to print NI driving licences without any change to the existing design. Given that no change was brought forward, no further consultation occurred.

My Department heard no more of the UK Government's plans for GB driving licences until a letter from Transport Minister John Hayes to me, dated 23 December 2014 —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. Am I assuming that the Minister needed extra time?

Mr Durkan: I apologise for not pointing that out at the start, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have combined two questions and two answers, so extra time is much appreciated and required.

A letter from Transport Minister John Hayes to me, dated 23 December 2014, indicated that the plans for the GB licences would be announced over the Christmas period and that Northern Ireland driving licences would continue to be issued without the Union flag.

Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for his answer. Why did the Minister not consult the Executive? Does he realise that by pulling this stunt he has offended over half the population of Northern Ireland? It is now up to him to apologise to the people of Northern Ireland for not allowing the Union flag on our driving licences. I hold the Minister responsible for this; I think he is ducking and diving.

Mr Durkan: Thanks, I think, to Mr Easton for that supplementary. I am not sure how much of a supplementary it is or whether the question was written before my previous answer. I thought I outlined quite clearly that this was not a decision taken by me. I did not consult Executive colleagues: driver licensing is a transferred matter for which the Department of the Environment is responsible. Since no change of policy was proposed and the matter was not and is not cross-cutting, no consultation with ministerial colleagues was necessary. I am not ducking and diving at all on this matter.

I know that the vast majority of the public will look on this today as they will have been when they were listening to the radio a couple of weeks ago when this story broke. There will be sheer disbelief that, a day after hearing about a Budget that will result in thousands of job losses and massive cuts to public spending and having heard this morning about our most vulnerable pensioners having to rely on a fortnight's worth of frozen meals —

A Member: You are hiding behind them.

Mr Durkan: — we are here talking and arguing about flags.

A Member: Because it matters to people.

Mr Durkan: There has been a lot of lecturing of late in the Chamber and outside it on the need for political maturity. I ask this: where is the political maturity here and where is the immaturity?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Mrs Brenda Hale. Before Brenda asks her question, I remind Members that the rules are still the same here: whatever the subject, you do not shout from a sedentary position.

Mrs Hale: I do not know whether to thank the Minister for that very diverting answer. Can the Minister advise who said that consultation was not needed, given that this is a sensitive subject? The people should decide; it should not be an SDLP policy.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. As no changes were made to the current driving licence, there was no need to issue a public consultation. I am not sure when the DUP became champions of consultation; I am not sure how much regard it pays to consultation. I could not help hearing a news item on the radio this morning about flags again — surprise, surprise — in Craigavon Borough Council, where a consultation was held. The response to that consultation overwhelmingly stated that no flag should be flown, but that was completely ignored. So I do not know whether the DUP favours consultation or not [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I am sorry, this is a final warning to some Members who are still shouting from a sedentary position: they may find in future that they will not be called.

Mrs Overend: For a party that espouses equality, the Minister, unfortunately, has let himself down. Will he tell us whether it is too late to go back to the DVLA and the Department for Transport at Westminster to ask for an opt-out option?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mrs Overend for her supplementary question. As I outlined in my initial answer, that case was made to DfT by DOE officials. They proactively sought an opt-out or opt-in option, but the option option was not an option and is not an option in GB either. [Laughter.]

That was, I might add, much to the ire of Scottish and Welsh nationalists, who would rather not have the Union flag on their licences. I know that it is the subject of an early day motion in the House of Commons from Plaid Cymru.

Mr Eastwood: Could I ask the Minister a question that might matter to some people in Northern Ireland? Jobs were lost in the DVA, and promises were made by all the Ministers at the Executive table to decentralise other jobs and bring them to that area. How many jobs were decentralised and by which Departments?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his pertinent and relevant question, which is relevant to me and to people outside here. The issue of the DVLA assuming responsibility for the delivery of vehicle licensing services is well documented and rehearsed in the Chamber. However, we all know that over 300 jobs were lost, and here we are talking about flags. In conjunction with the Finance Minister, I might add, we asked all Departments to explore their ability to find jobs for those affected. Unfortunately, no jobs were found by any Department, with the exception of 100 temporary jobs from DSD that have now passed. I was able to find work in my Department for 120 of those people, but I am sorry to say that that was it. With the Executive's agreement, we were able to set up a voluntary exit scheme confined to the north-west to assist those who had lost their job as a result of the centralisation. The uptake of that has been huge, with over 500 people across the Civil Service expressing an interest in trying to get out, if you like, depending on what is on the table. That is being looked at by DFP.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá ceist áirithe agam ar an Aire. Following Mrs Overend's reference to the word "equality", does the Minister agree that, in this matter and in all matters to do with symbols and emblems, the underlying principle for his Department and all Departments should be equality or neutrality?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. Equality should be at the core not just of everything that my Department does but of everything that we do individually and, in particular, collectively as an Assembly. The Good Friday Agreement states:

"All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division. Arrangements will be made to monitor this issue and consider what action might be required."

Taking account of that, I believe that it was appropriate for my predecessor to retain the status quo rather than seek to introduce additional symbols and emblems onto the driving licence. I believe that the decision was a sensitive and a sensible one.

Mr Durkan: I am fully committed to working across government and with all sectors of our society to agree on measures that can help to address current and future climate change. I chair the cross-departmental working group on climate change, which is responsible for developing and implementing the wide range of policies and measures that each Department has committed to in our action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This includes key actions from my Department, such as continuing to develop and implement the EU emissions trading scheme and the carbon reduction commitment, which aim to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the organisations that use most energy; introducing waste policies and strategies and providing support to local authorities to help to achieve much higher recycling rates, which will reduce emissions from landfill sites; changes to planning policy to ensure that planning decisions take account of climate change impacts before any development is approved; and the use of voluntary prosperity agreements with strategic organisations that explore novel ways to work together to deliver economic and environmental benefits. I have also published the North's first climate change adaptation programme, which sets out measures to address the highest-priority risks from climate change.

Whilst all this progress is welcome, I recognise that further work on climate change remains if we are to achieve my vision of a better environment and a stronger economy. I firmly believe that legislation can play a significant part in delivering that vision, and that is why I continue to look at how best to progress a climate change Bill.

Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister for his full answer. Could he explain to the House why he thinks it is so important to legislate on climate change?

Mr Durkan: As I said in my answer and as I have constantly and consistently said, my vision is for a better environment and a stronger economy. Given the dynamics of today's global economy, the threat of climate change should be viewed not just as an environmental challenge but as an economic opportunity. The low-carbon market for environmental goods and services is vast and is growing fast. Globally, it is estimated to be worth £4 trillion. Businesses and organisations that do and can recognise that opportunity will create social, economic and environmental prosperity for all our people.

I believe that having our own climate change legislation would provide greater clarity and the long-term certainty that business and industry need, creating the environment to drive and encourage innovation, to effectively plan and invest in the technology needed and to generate employment as we make the transition towards a low-carbon economy and, in doing so, deliver a better environment and a stronger economy.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Given the increasing instances of flooding in our local communities, something that the people of Newry unfortunately experienced recently, what role is the Department playing in partnership with other Departments and public bodies to alleviate the worst impact of that flooding?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Brady for that question. I am well aware of the incidents of late in Newry and the difficulty that has caused for people living and working in that area.

While I have been able to provide some assistance with emergency flood payments, I would rather not have to do that. We would rather avoid the flooding in the first place.


3.00 pm

It is important that we build resilience and maximise the benefits of our changing climate. My Department published a Northern Ireland climate change adaptation programme last January. The programme presents a proportionate and flexible response to the impacts of climate change here and it focuses on new and existing policies within government under the primary areas of water, flooding, agriculture and forestry and natural environment. The adaptation programme will help Departments to become more aware of and more resilient to climate change impacts in the future.

My Department is continuing to take the lead in ensuring that we continue to adapt and be better prepared for future changes in our climate and the extreme weather events associated with them. We are working with other Departments to measure the performance of the adaptation programme and to obtain more local information and data to develop the next adaptation programme in 2019.

Mr Beggs: Climate change regulations can increase energy costs and contribute to fuel poverty, so care is required. When I say that great care must be taken to avoid inconsistent outcomes that lead to greater fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, I am thinking about the all-Ireland study into bituminous coal and about a constituent who relies on a coal fire because they cannot afford an oil fill.

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Beggs for that question. The subject that he raises will be the subject of a debate in the Assembly later today. In response to a media query this morning, I said that Sammy Wilson, who is bringing the debate to the House, is jumping the gun a bit. Mr Beggs is jumping the gun even further but the point that he raises is fair enough.

It is vital that a balance is struck, or at least sought, between conservation requirements and commercial and domestic realities. What do people actually need to do? The evidence is that solid fuel, to which the Member referred, has a detrimental impact, not only on our environment but on human health. The all-island study of the impact of smoky coal that he referred to has not even been published yet, let alone that I have had time to consider its recommendations. I will come onto that in more detail in the Assembly later on.