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Official Report: Monday 02 February 2015

The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed with business, I would like to return to comments made by Mr Phil Flanagan during the debate on Union flags on driving licences last Tuesday, 27 January 2015.

I was not present for the debate, but I have since considered the Official Report of Tuesday's plenary session and reviewed the relevant Standing Orders and Speaker's rulings. That has left me in no doubt that Mr Flanagan was challenging the authority of the Chair, which is in breach of Standing Order 1(2).

For the avoidance of doubt for Mr Flanagan and others, let me clarify the position on speaking from a sedentary position. There is nothing in Standing Orders that addresses comments from a sedentary position. What is in Standing Orders is that it is for whoever is in the Chair to manage order in the Chamber. The Deputy Speakers and I do that in the context of the debate. Members have to be heard, but this is a debating Chamber in which there is a level of cut and thrust. No Member can expect to be heard in silence without reaction, particularly if they make provocative comments, as Mr Flanagan did. Standing Orders expressly state that the Speaker's decision on all questions of procedure, including on maintaining order, is final and that the authority applies equally to the Deputy Speakers.

Managing debates from the Chair is not always easy, but regardless of the circumstances of a ruling from the Chair, and whether Members like it or not, Members are obliged to abide by it. I made it very clear last month that I would not allow the procedures of the House to be abused. The authority of the Chair is central to the way in which business is conducted. Therefore, in accordance with Speaker's rulings, I will be restricting Mr Flanagan's speaking opportunities. He will not be called to speak until further notice. Should Mr Flanagan choose to apologise to the House, I will be happy to reflect on the duration of the restriction. Let us move on.

Ministerial Statements

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mr Speaker, with your permission, I wish to make a statement, in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, regarding the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) inland waterways meeting that was held in Armagh on 27 November 2014.

The Executive were represented by me, as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and by junior Minister Jonathan Bell from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Irish Government were represented by lead Minister Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and Joe McHugh TD, Minister of State with special responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs. The statement has been agreed with junior Minister Bell, and I am making it on behalf of us both.

The meeting dealt with issues relating to Inland Waterways and its constituent agency, Waterways Ireland. Ministers noted the approach being adopted by Waterways Ireland in attempting to maximise the benefit of EU funding opportunities. The Council received a progress report from Dawn Livingstone, chief executive of Waterways Ireland, on the activities of Waterways Ireland, including that the management and maintenance of waterways continued, with over 95% of the navigations open for the period from April to September. Revised draft canal by-laws for the South were prepared following a public consultation process, and consultation on revised Erne by-laws was scheduled for winter 2014. Capital expenditure is focused on major infrastructure repairs, with replacement lock gates at Tarmonbarry on the Shannon. Bridge repairs on the grand canal are ongoing and new floating moorings are installed at Crom on Upper Lough Erne.

The 2014 sponsorship programme continued, with 105 events supported. There was 20·4 kilometres of towpath enhancement on the Royal canal and Grand canal through partnerships with local authorities to fund the developments. There was the development by Waterways Ireland of the Shannon blueway, Ireland's first blueway, which is a multi-activity trail running alongside the water between Drumshanbo and Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim in conjunction with the National Trails Office, Canoeing Ireland, Leitrim County Council and Leitrim Tourism. There was expansion of the schools education programme with the development of a schools walking tour exploring the history of the Grand canal dock. Two new community partnerships to care for the waterways continue to be developed with Mountjoy prison and Dublin Institute of Technology. There has been development of two new businesses along the waterways, with a new cruise hire business on the Shannon-Erne waterway and a new lunchtime food market licensed to use Charlemont Place in Dublin.

Ministers received a presentation on how Waterways Ireland is developing the blueway product and brand development to maximise the use of inland waterway property and infrastructure through the creation of multi-activity trails on and alongside the navigations. That included the potential economic and recreational benefits that long-distance routeways can provide.

Ministers agreed the 2013 indicative budget of €29·47 million, which is £24·17 million, as a baseline for 2014-16 draft budgets. They also noted Waterways Ireland's 2014 draft business plan and budget provision, 2015 draft business plan and budget provision, and the corporate plan for 2014-16. In noting the progress with the business plans, Ministers also approved a number of key priorities for Waterways Ireland for 2015 and noted that the draft business plans and budgets will be brought to a future NSMC meeting for approval.

At a subsequent NSMC language body meeting on 18 December 2014, the Waterways Ireland corporate plan 2014-16, business plan 2014 and business plan 2015 were taken as an additional paper. At that meeting, Ministers also approved the Waterways Ireland 2014 business plan and recommended budget provision of €28·04 million, which is £24·11 million, for 2014; the Waterways Ireland 2015 business plan and recommended budget/grant provision of €27·12 million, which is £21·96 million, for 2015; and the Waterways Ireland corporate plan 2014-16. It also noted the indicative draft budget/grant provision of €25·94 million, which is £22·31 million, for 2016, which will be subject to budgetary considerations in each jurisdiction.

The Council received an update on plans to restore the Upper Lough Erne to Clones section of the Ulster canal. It also consented to a number of property disposals.

Finally, it agreed to meet again in inland waterways sectoral format in spring 2015.

Mr McCausland (The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure): The figures quoted in the statement are £24 million for 2014 and almost £22 million for 2015. Given what is being delivered, is it not the case that Northern Ireland is being short-changed? How much are we putting in, so as we can assess whether we are being short-changed?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Chair of the Committee for his question. I do not believe that we are being short-changed at all, but I am happy to provide him with a breakdown of the figures on spend in the North. I will also provide a breakdown of plans, which should be outlined in future budget bids for spend in the North, so that he can see that there is a start, and possibly a middle and an end, to some of the current spend and proposed future spend.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith again, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas seo ar maidin. I thank the Minister for her statement. She mentioned that Waterways Ireland plans to consult on the navigation by-laws for Lough Erne. Can she give us some indication of the current situation and the impact of any proposed amendments?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The consultation will open on, I think, 9 February and run until April. It concerns the by-laws on the Lough Erne stretch, which cover things such as marinas, parking, washing areas and speed limits, about which Waterways Ireland has received a number of complaints from people who want to use the water. The by-laws will help produce instructions and guidelines for larger boats that are using the Erne system, which is too small for current needs.

This is a welcome development from Waterways Ireland, and the CAL Committee and other Members will be notified when the consultation opens.

Mrs McKevitt: What impact, if any, will the weakness of the euro at the moment have on the work of Waterways Ireland here?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question, which is an important one, given that most of the budget allocations are very prescriptive. The fluctuation in exchange rates will have a bearing, but Waterways Ireland's staff and its governance arrangements are excellent, and I think that it has allowed for that. I will investigate the Member's queries, not only to see whether what I have said is correct but to determine whether there is any other information, which, if there is, I will happily forward to her.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for the update. I notice that there is a gradually reducing budget for Waterways Ireland. Has that been ongoing for a number of years? Can she provide at some stage the Waterways Ireland budget figures for the past 10 years to establish whether its budget has been constantly reducing?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I am sure that he appreciates that I do not have those figures here with me, but I am happy to get him the figures for 10 years ago. He can compare them with the latest statement, and I anticipate a raft of questions based on the evidence that I will forward to him.

Ms Lo: The Minister mentioned EU funding opportunities. Will she elaborate further on the possibilities of North/South proposals for funding?

Ms Ní Chuilín: As the Member is aware, North/South institutions are all-Ireland in nature. If Waterways Ireland sees an opportunity to put in for European funding, as it did for INTERREG IV, it will certainly do so. It is looking at opportunities, particularly to open up blueways, which is the use of waterways along towpaths to create tourist opportunities with local councils. Waterways Ireland is also investigating the possibility of receiving some European funding for the restoration of the Ulster canal.

I know that it is also looking at potential sources of funding that will not only help with the maintenance and upkeep of the waterways but develop other opportunities, particularly with local and county councils, to increase investment in those areas, because, as the Member will know, on a lot of occasions, these areas do not see the investment that they feel that they are entitled to. So, yes, Waterways Ireland is actively engaged in pursuing all opportunities for European funding.

12.15 pm

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for her statement. Can the Minister explain why the indicative budget for the 2013 draft business plan was agreed? Does it show the system to be dysfunctional?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I do not quite understand the Member's question. During responses to a statement that I made on a sectoral meeting, he asks why a budget was agreed. The budget was agreed because the right efficiency savings were met. The budget was agreed because, in order to receive the next year's budget, the previous year's budget needs to be agreed.

Mr Dunne: It was for 2013.

Ms Ní Chuilín: For 2013, and 2014 and, hopefully, 2015 will ensue. I am happy that I achieved the level of efficiency savings that was previously agreed.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire, agus cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire. I thank and welcome the Minister's statement. An dtig leis an Aire sonraí a thabhairt dúinn faoi na buntáistí a bhaineann leis na hócáidí urraithe seo sa Tuaisceart? Can the Minister give some detail on what benefits the sponsored events will have in the North?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I am happy to write to her in more detail, but I know that the Waterways Ireland Riverfest, which took place at Christie Park in Coleraine on 9 and 10 of August last year, saw over 100 participants and almost 7,000 visitors. In the past, areas along the waterways, particularly Coleraine, have hosted events with Waterways Ireland. Even areas in the city of Derry, and others along the waterways, in conjunction and in partnership with groups like Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland the Tourist Board, and others, have seen an increase in events. I am happy to try to get a breakdown for the Member and to forward those details.

Mr Hilditch: I welcome the statement this afternoon. I am looking at the blueway product and the development of that. Can the Minister give us any more information on that? Will there be any benefit here in Northern Ireland?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. The presentation that we received at the last sectoral meeting in November was very impressive. I know that, in conjunction with some of the local and county councils, they are trying to maximise the tourist potential and are using their local landscape, in this case the local waterways, and looking at events. An example in Dublin is that they are using some of the space to hold a food market. They are getting a licence to do that and to try to encourage more people. I will get the Member a breakdown of all the events that have happened so far. Indeed, I will try to get a breakdown of some of the proposed events for, certainly, this year and, possibly, next year.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas seo ar maidin. The Minister mentioned the Ulster canal in response to an earlier question. Can she outline what progress has been made on the Clones to Upper Lough Erne section of the canal?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. As I said in the statement, it is a standing item on the agenda of the ministerial Council meeting in waterways sectoral format; the Council constantly receives progress reports on the restoration work to the Clones to Upper Lough Erne section of the Ulster canal. At this stage, it is noted that Cavan County Council, Clones Town council and Monaghan County Council have granted planning permission, and approval has been granted by DOE's Planning Service here. I know that the sponsor Departments are reviewing and updating the business case for the restoration of the canal, in light of the change of financial environments, particularly in the South. Waterways Ireland has developed a draft programme of work which takes into account the likes of planning, obviously, environmental impact, land acquisition and the tender and letting of a contract for construction. So, it has been engaged in some preliminary work, despite the fact that we still have not received, and the Irish Government, whose responsibility it is to start the first phase of construction, have not received, the appropriate finance from their government. Certainly, all the work that we need to do in anticipation of that funding being realised, is well under way, and good progress has been made.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas fosta leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis inniu. Anuraidh, thug an tAire cuairt ar Iúr Cinn Trá, agus chonaic sí an obair mhaith atá ar siúl ansin ag cumainn éagsúla. Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire an dtáinig forbairtí ar bith as sin? The Minister very kindly visited the Newry canal last year and saw the excellent work being carried out there by the Portadown and Newry branch of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. She also visited the Albert Basin and saw some of the work of the Newry Maritime Association. Were there any developments from that visit and those meetings?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. As he will appreciate, the Newry canal is not part of the business of the North/South sectoral meeting, although that is probably part of the Member's frustration. I will talk to officials and get an update. Needless to say, I was very impressed with the trust — a group of volunteers — who put an awful lot of work in. I could see the amount of support that they had from across the whole community in getting the Newry canal opened up. I anticipate that officials from DCAL, Waterways Ireland and Newry and Mourne District Council will, at some stage, have a joint meeting to see what, if anything, can be done. I will keep the Member updated.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for her report, which was very interesting. She referred to a number of key priorities for 2015 being approved; perhaps she could share some detail of that with us.

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member can see from the statement that, for example, the percentage of the navigation system that is open is increasing year-on-year, which is to be welcomed. The key priority is to settle down and get a better sustainability of budget, if not increase the budget. We also need to look at ways in which we can enhance the tourist product. Waterways Ireland, in conjunction with partners the length and breadth of the island, needs to look at the role we can play because we believe that tourism and the waterways have a good product to offer, particularly to local people and local businesses.

We also want to look at ways in which we can receive and secure additional funding but also target and secure European funding, particularly for the areas that I outlined to Anna Lo such as the restoration of the Ulster canal and the Blueways and the tourist product. Massive work is under way to look at bylaws, and a consultation on the Erne system will happen fairly soon. That will help us to get a better understanding of the guidelines and rules and regulations for our waterways and help people who want to enjoy them. It will also help people who live and work in the area to understand what impact, if any, it will have on their businesses and their community life. A lot of work is under way, and I congratulate Waterways Ireland, not only for meeting the priorities that is has been set but for exceeding them.

Mr Humphrey: I welcome the statement and the progress on the maintenance of the Erne system. I appreciate that tourism is not in her portfolio, but to what extent is there a joined-up approach between councils in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic, and between DETI and its equivalent in the Irish Republic, on the promotion of the Erne system as a tourist destination, nationally and internationally?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I will take his last point first; I accompany his colleague Minister Foster to the tourism sectoral meetings and, as he would expect, she is very robust in ensuring that the Erne system is part of an overall tourist product. At those meetings, and certainly at the meetings that I attend as one of the lead Ministers involving Waterways Ireland, there is a constant correlation and partnership between Fáilte Ireland, the Tourist Board and Waterways Ireland. To go back to the Member's first point, I am unsure exactly what the relationship and the connections are between the councils or how often meetings take place between them, but I am happy to find that out.

Needless to say, at all the meetings I attend, as a senior Minister or an accompanying Minister, on the issue of the Erne and the waterways around it — the Ulster canal is an example — all colleagues sing from the one hymn sheet.

Mr Wilson: Looking through the list of capital projects, I see lock gates on the Shannon, bridge repairs on the Grand canal, enhancements of the Grand canal towpath, the Shannon Blueway and the multi-activity trail at Carrick-on-Shannon. Nearly every one of these projects is in the Irish Republic. Does the Minister see her role as fighting for projects in Northern Ireland or simply sitting there, handing over our money for projects in the Irish Republic?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I would like additional money to be spent in the North. There has been spending on Camagh Bay and Crom in Lough Erne, and the jetties at Knockninny, Gallon and Carrybridge have been upgraded. One of the bigger capital projects will mean spending on the North, namely the restoration of the Ulster canal. I appreciate the Member's frustration that a lot of money is being spent on developing works in the South.

The Member should know that I do not go to meetings just to nod my head. I will make sure that investment in the North is at the level that it should be, if not exceeded. As the Member will also know from his previous walk of life, when it came to making sure that the Irish Budget and the impact of that on the North that was proposed by the Irish Government, I stood my ground to make sure that the North was not affected. It is a pity that some others did not do the same.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mr Speaker, with your permission, in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) language body meetings, which were held in the NSMC headquarters, Armagh on 27 November 2014 and in Stormont Castle, Belfast on 18 December 2014.

At both meetings, the Executive were represented by me, as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and by junior Minister Jonathan Bell from the Office of the First and deputy First Minister, at the Armagh meeting and Minister Simon Hamilton at the Belfast meeting. At the Armagh meeting, the Irish Government were represented by lead Minister McHugh TD, Minister of State with special responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs, and Heather Humphreys TD, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Minister Sean Sherlock, Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs with special responsibility for North/South cooperation, represented the Irish Government at the Belfast meeting.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)

This statement has been agreed with junior Minister Bell and Minister Hamilton, and I am making it on their behalf for both meetings. I will report on each meeting separately.

At the meeting held on the 27 November 2014 at the NSMC headquarters in Armagh, Minister McHugh TD chaired the proceedings. Following the usual introductory comments and words of welcome, the meeting dealt with issues relating to the language body and its two constituent agencies.

Ministers noted that the agencies of the language body are actively engaged in the identification of possible opportunities to maximise the benefits of EU funding. Ministers noted progress reports from the chairpersons and chief executive officers of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency, which included achievements in the period from April to October 2014.

Foras na Gaeilge reported on further progress on the new funding arrangements, including eight meetings of the partnership forum, two meetings of the language development forum and agreement of an overall high-level strategic plan in addition to three-year plans for each of the six strategic areas.

Another achievement was the launch of the new online newspaper, 'Tuairisc', which has a budget of €1·2 million under a four-year contract, and the online lifestyle magazine, 'Nós', which has a budget of €204,600 under a three-year contract.

Targets continue to be met in the new English/Irish dictionary flagship project for the publication of 70% of the final material, including sound files, on the live site before year end and the development of the app specification, which will be available early this year.

12.30 pm

A contract has been awarded to carry out analysis of the results of the 2013 major all-island survey on attitudes to the Irish language. This work will contribute significantly in identifying future priorities and policy formulation generally. The consultation exercise on the review of the 2015-17 Irish-language community scheme — scéim phobail Gaeilge — ran from mid-July to 24 November 2014. Foras na Gaeilge is considering the responses received and the timetable for implementation. The process also incorporated consultation on Irish language networks — líonraí Gaeilge.

Development of the new Discover Ulster-Scots Centre at the Ulster-Scots hub in the Corn Exchange building in Victoria Street in the Cathedral Quarter was developed in conjunction with a number of partners. It will maximise the opportunity for collaboration in the Ulster-Scots sector and provide a modern showcase on Ulster-Scots culture for the general public.

Two east-west school twinning projects between primary schools in Ulster and Scotland have commenced: twinning on the theme of shipbuilding heritage between Cregagh Primary School in Belfast and Castlepark Primary School in Irvine; and twinning on the theme of Robert Burns and Ulster-Scots poetry between Glynn Primary School, Larne, and Catrine Primary School, Ayrshire.

Funding and support for 22 summer schools, an increase of seven on 2013, were provided at a range of community venues, with an outreach to over 1,000 young people. Involvement in the area of education has increased to in excess of 100 schools in Ulster this year, including ongoing delivery of 29 after-school clubs and funding for music and dance tuition programmes from September to December 2014 in 49 schools, including five in border counties.

The Ministers also noted progress on collaboration between the Ulster-Scots Agency and Foras na Gaeilge on projects including the development of a six-week pilot programme, commencing in December 2014, in four integrated post-primary schools, exploring the concept of culture generally and more specifically in regard to different aspects of Irish and Ulster-Scots culture; and ongoing inter-agency cooperation on governance issues and promotion of the work of the language body, including finance matters, commemoration projects such as the James Duffy blue plaque project in Donegal and meetings of the full language body board.

Ministers agreed the 2013 indicative budgets of €16,514,672, that is £13,542,031, for Foras na Gaeilge and £2,662,080, that is €3,246,439, for the Ulster-Scots Agency, which are used as the baseline for the 2014-16 budgets. The Council also noted the 2014 draft business plans, with budgets of €15,358,645, that is £13,208,435, for Foras na Gaeilge and £2,475,734, that is €2,878,761, for the Ulster-Scots Agency; the 2015 draft business plans, with budgets of €15,193,498, that is £12,306,734, for Foras na Gaeilge and £2,449,114, that is €3,023,597, for the Ulster-Scots Agency; the draft corporate plans 2014-16 for Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency, with indicative budgets of €14,532,911, that is £11,771,658, for Foras na Gaeilge and £2,342,630, that is €2,892,136, for the Ulster-Scots Agency in 2016, which will be subject to budgetary considerations by the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive; and the positive outcome arising from the use of the 2013 indicative baseline, with the proposed 2015 allocation bringing the budgets for 2014-15 in line with the overall cumulative requirements for efficiency savings agreed by the Finance Departments.

In noting the progress with the business plans, Ministers also approved a number of key priorities for the agencies in 2015 and noted that the draft business and corporate plans and budgets would be brought to a future NSMC meeting for approval.

The Council noted that the 2012 consolidated language body annual report and accounts were laid in the Houses of the Oireachtas and in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 24 October 2014. Ministers also noted that the field audits in regard to the 2013 accounts have been completed, and, following work by the Comptrollers and Auditors General to finalise accounts for each agency, it is envisaged that the 2013 consolidated language body annual report and accounts will be laid by spring 2015. Ministers noted that both agencies are on target to submit their draft 2014 annual report and accounts to the sponsor Departments by 31 March 2015.

Ministers noted that Foras na Gaeilge and Bòrd na Gàidhlig are committed to continuing the delivery of the Colmcille project in support of Gaelic language development initiatives in both jurisdictions and in Scotland. The Council approved new administrative arrangements for Colmcille, comprising the following key elements: Foras na Gaeilge will continue to promote Colmcille in both jurisdictions and Bòrd na Gàidhlig will continue to promote Colmcille in Scotland, without direct budgetary and administrative links; an inter-agency joint working group will be established to focus on strategic projects and to discuss funding priorities and other collaborative initiatives, as well as to share best practice and create sustainable community links; and ring-fenced co-funding for Colmcille will continue to be provided to Foras na Gaeilge annually by the two sponsor Departments.

Ministers received a presentation from the CEO of the Ulster-Scots Agency, outlining the Bruce Heritage Trail project to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Edward the Bruce in Ireland, and acknowledged that this project complements the agency’s ongoing work in the areas of education and cultural tourism.

On 18 December 2014, in Stormont Castle, I chaired a single-item agenda NSMC language body meeting, which was also attended by Minister Simon Hamilton MLA and Minister Sean Sherlock TD. Ministers noted that Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency, as constituent agencies of the language body, have applied the efficiency savings to the corporate plans 2014-16 and to the business plans and budgets for 2014 and 2015, in accordance with the guidance issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Finance and Personnel.

Ministers approved the 2014 business plans for Foras na Gaeilge and for the Ulster-Scots Agency and recommended budget provisions for 2014 of €15,358,645, that is £13,208,435, for Foras na Gaeilge and £2,475,734, that is €2,878,761, for the Ulster-Scots Agency. They approved the 2015 business plans for Foras na Gaeilge and for the Ulster-Scots Agency and recommended budget/grant provisions of €15,193,498, that is £12,306,734, for Foras na Gaeilge and £2,449,114, that is €3,023,597, for the Ulster-Scots Agency. They approved the corporate plans for 2014-16 for Foras na Gaeilge and for the Ulster-Scots Agency and recommended indicative budget/grant provisions of €14,532,911, that is £11,771,658, for Foras na Gaeilge and £2,342,630, that is €2,892,136, for the Ulster-Scots Agency in 2016, which will be subject to budgetary considerations in both jurisdictions.

Ministers also discussed Waterways Ireland's business plans and budgets of 2014 and 2015 and its corporate plan of 2014-16; the Special EU Programmes Body's (SEUPB) business plan and budget 2015; the Food Safety Promotion Board (Safefood) business plan and budget 2015, and the appointment of chair to its advisory board.

The Council agreed that its next meeting in language body format will take place in spring 2015.

Mr McCausland (The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure): The Minister referred to the Colmcille project, which dates back quite a number of years to the days of direct rule and the Northern Ireland Office. I understand the arrangements — I think — that are being put in place, but no budget is set side against Colmcille. Does that mean that it is a separate budget or is that money being subsumed into the figures that are quoted here for the North/South body? The problem always was that, on top of what was given to the North/South body and Foras na Gaeilge, there was top-up money for Gaelic culture and language, with no equivalent for the Ulster-Scots and Scots traditions.

Ms Ní Chuilín: It is subsumed in the budget; that is why I said in the statement that it was ring-fenced in Foras na Gaeilge. On my watch — not on yours or that of any other colleague — I ensured that, when it came to Ulster Scots, there was an east-west dimension. I am sure that your colleague Sammy Wilson can adhere to that. I took the bull by the horns and ensured that there was some aspect of Ulster-Scots culture and heritage, east-west, as well. In answer to your primary question, it is subsumed in the budget.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a dara ráiteas inniu. I thank the Minister for her second statement today. What effect does she think the new councils will have, particularly on the language officers, who are currently funded by Foras na Gaeilge?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I am concerned that the Irish language posts funded successfully in partnership with Foras na Gaeilge and the councils will be vulnerable when the new councils fully assume their responsibilities. Foras na Gaeilge shares those concerns, as do many other groups. Foras na Gaeilge has put in place a proactive programme of action, which includes the chief executive and deputy chief executive arranging meetings of all the new council chief executives and their senior officials to raise the issue.

Foras na Gaeilge has, as part of its statutory function for responsibility in the promotion of the Irish language, tasked Conradh na Gaeilge, the lead organisation for the responsibility of awareness, protection and representation, as well as the six core-funded groups, to work with the new councils in drawing up best practice for councils. I certainly endorse that. I am not surprised that the Member asked the question, as there is a fair degree of concern in the community. However, existing and new councils realise that they have statutory obligations and duties, and ensuring a continuity and continuation of their obligations to the Irish language is one of them.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an ráitis seo. Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire an féidir léi sinn a thabhairt suas chun dáta maidir le Slí Cholmcille: an tionscnamh a bhfuil sé mar aidhm aige turasóireacht idir Éire agus Alba a chothú agus naisc a chur ar bun idir pobail teangan in Éirinn agus in Albain? Will the Minister update the House on the three-year plan for Slí Cholmcille, the Colmcille trail, which is part of the project to encourage cultural tourism between Ireland and Scotland and to establish links between language communities in three jurisdictions?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I am certainly happy to provide him, and indeed other members of the CAL Committee, with an update on Slí Cholmcille. I know already, through my contact with colleagues in the Scottish Government, whom I met as part of the City of Culture, that this project, celebrating the life and times of Colmcille, and indeed other working relationships, have been mentioned as valuable. There is a strong desire for those to continue.

We have a lot to learn from each other as well. The children involved in the Colmcille project that I mentioned have looked at language, culture, heritage and tourism.

I will update the Member. I will get as many as possible of the details that he asked for and send them to him. I will also share them with the CAL Committee.

12.45 pm

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for the statement. Minister, you referred to the 2013 indicative budget and said that that was carried through into the draft business plans for 2014 and 2015. You also referred to key priorities. Will you expand on what, on the face of it, looks like a confusing picture?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am sorry that the Member is confused. I will take his question, have a look at the detail and see whether I can provide further clarity.

Some of the accounts in the business plans are not in sequence because I could not agree to some of the efficiency proceedings. That is why the system almost looks out of sync. However, notwithstanding that, the work proceeded as planned and as outlined in previous business plans, and, indeed, in the overall corporate plans for Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency.

Some of the key priorities outlined in the statement have been very encouraging, particularly the work done between the two agencies and the work that both are doing in post-primary schools on the Irish language and on Ulster-Scots culture and heritage.

However, I hear what the Member says, and I will certainly try to provide more clarity and more detail, which hopefully will help. If it does not, I anticipate the Member asking me a further question or even knocking on the door of the private office.

Ms Lo: I am really pleased to hear about the two agencies collaborating to look at different aspects of Irish and Ulster-Scots culture in four integrated schools. That is precisely where that should take place, so that our young people can learn from each other. What is the next step, given that it is just a pilot programme?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. Previous to that project, work carried out by the two agencies was done in primary schools. We have now gone into post-primary schools, and that is very important and encouraging. The feedback from the primary-school children themselves is that they value language, culture and heritage and have a great curiosity. That curiosity needs to be nourished.

In post-primary schools, the programme involves looking in particular at what the Irish language and Ulster-Scots culture and heritage mean to each of the children and their communities, but, again, it also about satisfying their curiosity. The message from both agencies, in all that they represent and bring, is that working together has been very positive. Although it is a pilot programme, I anticipate it being continued, and I believe that it will prove as successful as previous joint work undertaken by the two agencies.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for her statement. I want to ask about the agreed budget for the Ulster-Scots Agency. I understand that the agency has to pay for the development of educational materials in schools, while your Sinn Féin ministerial colleague is putting large investment into Irish-medium materials in schools.

Will the Minister encourage the Education Minister to fund such educational materials for the Ulster-Scots culture in order to promote cultural and financial equality?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I met the Ulster-Scots Agency to discuss how we can have better working relationships and better outcomes for it across the board. I understand that Minister O'Dowd, the Minister of Education, has met or is in the process of meeting the Ulster-Scots Agency as well.

I have absolutely no doubt that the members of the agency will articulate some of their concerns and some of the areas of work that they wish to see developed in partnership with the Department of Education. What was very clear to me was that the Ulster-Scots Agency, particularly its board and senior staff, did not want any political point-scoring or meddling on the issue. It wants seamless links, it wants support and it wants to get that done in an environment in which people are not involved in one-upmanship. If you are not too sure what that looks like, I suggest that you talk to the Ulster-Scots Agency.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an dara ráiteas aici inniu. An dtig leis an Aire soiléiriú a thabhairt ar an dóigh a ndéanann Gníomhaireacht na hUltaise cinnte nach dtugtar maoiniú do bhuíonta ceoil a ghlacann páirt in iompar frithshóisialta seicteach?

Can the Minister provide clarity on how the Ulster-Scots Agency ensures that funding for bands is not awarded to those who participate in antisocial, sectarian behaviour?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I know, for example, that my Department and the Ulster-Scots Agency are committed to the promotion of equality of opportunity and good relations. That is not just in relation to the Ulster-Scots Agency, although I recognise the Member's right to ask the question, particularly in relation to the statement. Any organisation receiving funding from my Department and its arm's-length bodies must comply with equality and good relations policies. The Ulster-Scots Agency and the Arts Council have advised that they do not, and will not, fund or support any bands that do not fully comply with those requirements. As part of the application process, the Ulster-Scots Agency also checks individual band websites to ensure that there is no evidence of content that would breach those guidelines. I hope that satisfies the Member. If she wants to write to me to receive further details, I am happy to receive that and to try to furnish her with the information.

Mr Hilditch: I welcome the statement. Foras na Gaeilge appears to be launching two new online publications. The Committee received evidence on difficulties facing the printed newspaper. Has there been any review of the problems and why it did not work? Was it due to figures?

Ms Ní Chuilín: To be totally honest, I am not really too sure what the update is, but I will certainly get that for the Member. I would also like to find out what the update is. My understanding is that there were issues in the past and that they have been sorted out. However, I want to make sure, and I will let the Member know in writing or I will get in contact to give him the information.

Mrs McKevitt: Does the Minister see the reduction in the language body budget, coupled with the weak euro, as having an impact on the delivery of the business plan and programmes?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member asked the same question in relation to the waterways, and I gave her an assurance. I have confidence in both organisations — Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency — to manage the fluctuations of the euro. With regard to the reduction in the budget, I ensured that the levels were set as agreed in 2011 by both Finance Departments. Had I not done that, both agencies would have seen a decrease in the funding that they were awarded. In relative terms, that would have had a bigger impact on the Ulster-Scots Agency than on any other. I am happy to say that is not the case, but I will be keeping an eye on the rate of the euro to see whether it has any impact on the overall budgets.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for the statement. I note the issue of budgets and the equivalent between the agency and Foras na Gaeilge. Unfortunately, that disparity continues. The Minister will be aware that, last year, I asked for a Líofa equivalent project to be brought forward for the Ulster-Scots Agency because Líofa came forward from the Department to Foras na Gaeilge, which refused to take it forward and declined to do that. That has meant an extra £625,000 for the Líofa project coming straight out of DCAL and two extra staff. Where is the extra resource that will go into Ulster Scots, and why has she asked the ministerial advisory group on the Ulster-Scots Academy (MAGUS) to take that forward and not come forward with suggestions, as she did in terms of the Irish language equivalent?

Ms Ní Chuilín: First, I am not too sure why the Member has not got his facts right, but I will certainly clarify something for him. First, Foras na Gaeilge did not refuse to take a Líofa project on, and if it is telling you that it did, that is news to me. From September 2011, when I launched Líofa from DCAL, I met the Ulster-Scots Agency on several occasions and asked it for an equivalent. I understand that it is not going to come in the form of a language, but certainly a project in relation to the Ulster-Scots culture and heritage. I asked it for an equivalent, and I told it that I would support it financially. Nothing came.

I fund very generously the ministerial advisory group on Ulster Scots, which I did not ditch coming into the Department; I kept it on and gave it increased funding. I asked it to bring something forward because nothing came from the Ulster-Scots Agency. Short of going into both departments and doing it myself, which I have not got time to do and am not qualified or equipped to do, I want to have it done with due regard and respect, and if the Member has any influence or any ideas to bring forward for both those agencies, independently or together, I am happy to hear them. However, we are now in 2015, and I asked for that from September 2011. The delay is not my fault, and it is not in my Department; it is with the Ulster-Scots community. I remain open to an initiative coming forward. Like the Member, I am very excited to see what that is, if it happens at all. It is certainly not my Department's fault.

Mr Wilson: I note that, despite the cuts in the budgets for schools, health, education and roads in Northern Ireland, the agreed budgets for 2014 and 2015 do not see one penny reduced from the budget for the language bodies. It is going to be spent on very important things such as lifestyle —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. This sounds very much like a speech. It is questions to the Minister.

Mr Wilson: I am coming to the question now.

Mr Wilson: Can the Minister justify not one penny being reduced from the expenditure of Irish language bodies while, at the same time, schools in Northern Ireland are crying out for funding to keep teachers and special needs facilities in place and hospitals are looking for money to deliver operations and accident and emergency services?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I note the Member's concern for budgets. It is very touching; he did not have the same passion and commitment for the Irish language, schools or education previously. The Member raises a very interesting point. He obviously did not listen to an answer I gave to one of the MLAs who asked about the budgets before. Had I agreed to the massive impact of 12% and more of cuts to the language bodies, the Ulster-Scots Agency, in particular, would have seen a huge impact, which would have meant that the work of the Ulster-Scots Agency would become unviable. If the Member feels that I should initiate that level of cut to Ulster Scots, he needs to talk to his colleagues right beside him who are arguing for additional money. Again, it is the betwixt and between nature of the DUP when it comes to language, culture and heritage. Some like it and some do not. Some want funding and some do not. Others do not really know what they are doing, depending on what day they walk in here and what question it is.

Mr Allister: The last time the Minister reported on the sectoral meeting of the language body, she did a lot of grandstanding about having refused to approve the business plans because of the level of cuts. Will she bring some clarity? Has she now, in these business plans of 2014 and 2015, approved cuts? Did she roll over, or did someone else roll over? Will she shed some light on that?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The term "roll over", as far as I am concerned, relates to the Member's narrative around most of the things in here that he is not involved in. I did not grandstand at the last sectoral statement or any statement before. I expressed and renewed my commitment to ensuring that the Ulster-Scots Agency, in particular, was not going to be hit by the worst impact of the Budget suggestions. The 1% that was agreed previously has been maintained. That is a good-news story, but obviously the Member is not happy with that; he would much prefer that we wipe out the agency in order for him to say that we can achieve financial stability for other areas. Once it is the Ulster-Scots Agency, it will be Foras na Gaeilge, and we will then go up his list of things that he thinks are surplus to requirements. I do not. I think the Ulster-Scots Agency and Foras na Gaeilge do excellent work. They are as entitled to a budget as any other function in the Assembly. I am quite pleased that we have kept the level of reductions to the least possible level, and I will continue to do that. It is my role as Minister to ensure that those budgets are kept at the level that was agreed.

Mr Humphrey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In answer to the question that I placed to the Minister, she said that I should get my facts right in relation to the Líofa project. I suggest that she might review the evidence given by the chief executive of Foras na Gaeilge to the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee only a few weeks ago.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I do not believe that that was a point of order.

Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up.

One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

1.00 pm

That this Assembly acknowledges the key role our further education and higher education institutions play in growing the local economy and delivering on the Programme for Government's cross-cutting priorities; and calls on the Executive to affirm their commitment to support and invest in the local higher education and further education sectors.

The Committee for Employment and Learning unanimously agreed the wording of the motion to ask the Assembly to reaffirm its commitment to investing in our future by acknowledging that our universities and colleges create a framework for prosperity and contribute significantly to securing growth and providing opportunity to Northern Ireland. In recent months, the Committee for Employment and Learning has received evidence from the higher education and further education sectors, stressing the impact of the proposed cuts to their budgets. No witnesses were more vocal than the students, who articulated their concerns about the threats to numbers and to further student supports.

Given our current financial situation, savings must be found in all areas, and higher and further education can be no exception. However, in doing so, we must ensure, first, that we send a strong message to our universities and colleges that we value their contribution and, secondly, that, in acknowledging their benefit to Northern Ireland, we do what we can to limit the impact of cuts on their work. Every day, our universities and colleges succeed in turning aspiration into reality. They support and bolster Northern Ireland’s ambition and purpose. They provide innovative education that expands the horizons of our young people and equips them to take their place in the wider community. Central to the Programme for Government is the regeneration of the Northern Ireland economy, specifically the creation of a strong, vibrant, knowledge-based economy. Further and higher education are key to this.

In the knowledge economy index, Northern Ireland is the region with the second fastest growing knowledge economy in the UK. The quality of our universities and graduates is Invest NI’s number one selling point in attracting foreign investment and jobs to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland universities have formed 550 knowledge transfer partnerships with local companies, helping them to generate over £132 million in profit and £73 million of investment in equipment. Nearly 700 jobs for graduates and over 1,000 other jobs have been created, and training has been provided for over 8,200 staff. Higher education has created over 110 spin-out companies, generating several thousand high-value jobs, and Queen’s University and Ulster University are planning to invest £750 million in capital development over the next 10 years, creating 14,000 construction jobs.

Ulster University has a national and international reputation for excellence in higher education and innovation and for its engagement with business and industry. It is currently home to over 26,000 students and over 3,000 staff. Despite the economic challenges of recent years, one of the success stories has been the continued growth of the creative industries in Northern Ireland, and Ulster University provides the vast majority of creative graduates for the visual and applied arts and design professions, which are the backbone of that industry.

The Open University specialises in providing flexible and accessible part-time higher education, with almost 4,000 undergraduate students in Northern Ireland. It offers a route into higher education for anyone with a desire to learn, thus creating a more highly skilled society and workforce, regardless of social background. This part-time study is vital in supporting our economic recovery. The Open University offers opportunities to upskill and reskill the current workforce in Northern Ireland by offering work-based learning programmes in health, management, education, IT, science and other economically relevant subjects. The Open University caters for students whose education needs are not met elsewhere: 15% of Northern Ireland students have a disability; 73% are in employment; and 23% of students live in 25% of the most deprived areas.

Our universities engage in research of global significance, and they are the stimulus for growth for Northern Ireland. Our colleges support our school leavers by providing the skills, drive and enthusiasm needed to engage at the highest levels in the global job market.

Mr Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. He made a very compelling case for higher education in Northern Ireland, but does he accept that there is still room for efficiencies in universities and for selling the excellent services that he outlined, especially research opportunities and the income that could be generated from those? Perhaps we should also question whether the university route is suitable for over 50% of the population, when some of the required skills could be delivered by other education institutions.

Mr Swann: To back that up, I will provide further examples of the excellent work that our further education and higher education sectors do in assisting the Assembly to meet its Programme for Government commitments. It is all too easy.

In the most recent research excellence framework for 2014, which assesses the quality and impact of UK higher education institutions' research, Queen’s received the following accolades for the breadth and depth of its research excellence. It was ranked eighth in the UK for research intensity and seventeenth in the UK for research power. In that same research excellence framework for 2014, Stranmillis University College also demonstrated that, with 72% of the college’s research assessed as being internationally recognised to internationally excellent in standard. The proposed loss of the premia for the university colleges plus a funding reduction of some 10·8% in the 2015-16 Budget was discussed in Committee, but no Committee view was agreed.

Teaching the teachers is also a vital aspect for the future economy of Northern Ireland, because, as we all know from our own schooldays or those of our children, a love of learning, enthusiasm and desire springs from the quality of teachers in our schools. In that, Stranmillis and St Mary's University College have proved their excellence. The contribution to the FE sector fulfils the principles of the Programme for Government and all related strategies such as the economic strategy, the innovation strategy, Together: Building a United Community and a shared future.

The further education sector is also a vital cog in the machinery of the local economy, and the six regional FE colleges provide a vital service for vocational and technical training in Northern Ireland. Skills are a crucial element in rebuilding and rebalancing our economy, and the FE sector has been driving that agenda for the last decade, working with many large employers, all of which are supported through various initiatives run by the colleges themselves.

Between them, our six regional further educational colleges offer provision to over 90,000 learners across 142,000 enrolments. From 2008 to 2013-14, there were a total of 45,742 apprentices across Northern Ireland, the majority of whom trained through one of the six regional colleges. That picks up on Mr Wilson's intervention, and there is an alternative route through the colleges. FE colleges are the main providers of vocational and technical education and training in Northern Ireland. The sector plays a central role in raising levels of literacy and numeracy and provides progression routes to higher education, training and employment. Colleges also play an increasingly important role in supporting local business and industry through knowledge-transfer activity and bespoke training. The further education sector and its contribution to economic development and growth through the provision of higher-quality education and training is central to rebuilding and rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy.

In conclusion, without a commitment to support the further and higher education sectors and everything that they stand for, Northern Ireland would be a much poorer place. For those reasons, I ask the Assembly to support the motion and the House to fight for —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Swann: — and ensure that the impact of the budget cuts to the FE and HE sectors is kept to an absolute minimum.

Jim, I want to make a contribution as party spokesman for the Ulster Unionist Party on the motion and the amendment.

As the Ulster Unionist Party spokesperson, I acknowledge the concerns that have been raised across Northern Ireland about the number of student places that could have been cut in HE and FE: 1,000 university places and 16,000 college places.

The amendment has been tabled by Sinn Féin Committee members, and I ask that Members look at it in the context in which it has been tabled. The topic was debated last week in an Adjournment debate, and there was an opportunity, during last week's Budget debate, to put it in as an amendment. Given that the amendment does not stipulate an amount that Sinn Féin would want to be reallocated to the premia, which Sir Reg Empey assigned to the colleges when he was Minister for Employment and Learning, we are prepared in this case to support the amendment to bring forward support to Stranmillis and St Mary's so that money is put in the budget to give both colleges the time to implement one of the four recommendations of the international panel that the Minister invested in, rather than using the opportunity of the Budget to bring forward his own party's agenda. He knows that I have made that call to him a number of times.

Jim, I will take a quick intervention.

Mr Allister: On that point, I am glad to hear the Member reiterate support for the premia. I think that, particularly in regard to Stranmillis, it is crucial to the viability of that very important college, and I trust that the Member and the House will recognise that. I hope that, one day, even the Minister will recognise it.

Mr Swann: Thank you for that intervention. I think that that will be one of the points that will be made clear tomorrow. I thank the Minister for agreeing to come in front of the Committee tomorrow in regards to the budget and, specifically, the budget on that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member's time is up.

Mr Swann: I am sure that members of the Committee, and of this House, will question him on that.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I beg to move the following amendment: At end insert

"; and further calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to reinstate the premia payments to St Mary’s University College and Stranmillis University College."

These colleges face eventual closure, due to the fact that the Minister intends to withdraw the special premia. I urge the Minister to withdraw this threat and begin discussions with both colleges to secure their future.

As a strong advocate of the merits of lifelong learning, and having myself benefited from our local further and higher education sectors, I always take the opportunity to voice the benefits of such, especially in the development of skills that assist with building greater self-confidence and employability for all those citizens wishing to re-enter the labour force and meet the challenges of working in an economy that is forever changing, given the process of globalisation.

I believe in the power of further and higher education to promote women's independence and help break through the barriers that society often attempts to put in our way. Quality training and education provision help women and marginalised sections of our society to have a chance to play important roles in the labour economy, while often helping to break the cycle of poverty for many families. Given the fixation of David Cameron's cabinet of millionaires to advance the European-wide conservative agenda of austerity, such chances for impoverished women and others are becoming increasingly diminished. We have only to look at the monumental task that we, as legislators, have in front of us to protect front-line services, given the year-on-year cuts to our block grant by Cameron's millionaires. We see the impact of that, for example, on St Mary's and Stranmillis colleges. We are also watching the rise of hard-working families being designated as the working poor, as poverty wages are paid to those working in many service industries. Hence this debate on the important matter of investing in the higher education sector and creating quality employment opportunities with good remuneration.

I visited, for example, South West College, with MEP Martina Anderson, and we were impressed by the great strides that that college is making in enhancing its reputation in our community as a first-class provider of quality training, as well as of further and higher education. In particular, the college's ongoing commitment to the strong, local, specialised engineering sector is immense and to be commended.

We are not without our challenges, but the creation of a vibrant economy is at the heart of the Executive's Programme for Government, with the further and higher education sectors playing a pivotal role in the creation of a sustainable knowledge-based economy. Our education providers play a key role in meeting the skills needs of our local economy by providing a skilled workforce, as well as by making a positive contribution to cultural life here in the North. Those providers include St Mary's University College and Stranmillis, which are facing a disproportionate cut to their funding. The roll-out of the higher education strategy needs to be part of an integrated approach to providing skills, enhancing education outcomes and supporting trainees and students, while making a massive contribution to the creation of jobs. There are challenges ahead of us. We are tasked to lead and grow our economy while at the same time creating positive social change.

1.15 pm

Our economy is demanding a higher level of relevant skills, and economic success is increasingly dependent on knowledge transfer and innovation. A recent report by Copius highlighted that there is a huge gap in practical skills and that the current level-2 qualifications in those disciplines being offered in the North's further education colleges are insufficient in having potential workers skilled up to carry out work opportunities that we can grow.

When I last addressed the House on these important matters, nowhere in the North qualified welders for the highest levels needed for specialist engineering work. That has led to companies going outside the North to attract skilled people to carry out the work here. The skills gap is not only in practical skills; it is developing across all areas of employment, from information and communication technology, agriculture, retail, hospitality and construction.

Business and employers' organisations have all pointed to opportunities for the future, given the right investment and the right emphasis on skills. For example, Momentum indicated that it could create 20,000 jobs in the next five years, and CBI research pointed to a range of future opportunities as follows: 10,000 jobs in the ICT sector; 7,500 in the agrifood sector; about 6,000 in health technologies; 1,700 in advance manufacturing; 21,000 in tradeable services; 10,000 in tours; 11,700 in creative industries; 1,600 in green tech; 7,000 in renewables, power and energy; and circa 49,000 induced direct jobs as a result of consumer spend. That is about 125,000 jobs.

The increased demand for STEM qualifications must be met to help to fill the potential of much-needed job creation. I believe that that is an area that would enhance St Mary's and Stranmillis if they were provided with the funding to diversify. We need to develop a programme where further education providers work in harmony with newly emerging industries and prospective investors so that real training needs can be identified.

Finally, lifelong learning should be the cornerstone of our education system. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Irwin: I do not think that anyone will disagree with any of the sentiments contained in the Chairman's motion before the House today, especially given the sterling service that our further and higher education establishments have provided through the years. In my constituency, the Southern Regional College is a treasured local provider across a number of sites. I know that, from my time in Armagh council, we were very aware of the achievements, commitment and determination of the FE sector to continue to grow.

When one considers that three out of every four students who enter the FE sector gain a full qualification, it is clear that the structures and systems in place across our complement of providers are working and ensuring that our students are attaining and advancing. That is very positive for our economic growth.

We have heard many very positive job announcements in recent times, led by our hardworking Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister. When a company spokesperson is asked, "Why Northern Ireland?", the response has been consistent, "Because our workforce has the skill sets required, the knowledge and the experience." Do not underestimate the power of that message in unlocking yet further opportunities in attracting further inward investment. That being said, there is obviously a great importance attached to maintaining such a solid reputation. Our economic recovery and the need to continue to grow our economy is firmly attached to the performance and resources available to our further and higher education sector, which can underpin our future economic stability.

To further illustrate the contribution of our universities and FE colleges, it is interesting and encouraging to note that the knowledge economy index ranks the region of Northern Ireland with the second highest knowledge growth in the UK. Take the amazing research being undertaken at Queen's, which has been consistently ranked world leading, with 76% of work either three or four star in its value. Those statistics are hard fought and represent a massive commitment by our students and staff, who continually strive to achieve ever higher standards. The key to the success of our further and higher education providers also lies in maintaining the very broad diversity of curriculum that is offered. That enables a wide variety of interests and skills to be developed. Many of our institutions maintain very close links with local businesses and industries, enabling our colleges and universities to better respond in their provision of bespoke training and skills development to match the ever-developing world in which we live.

The current exercise on the reorganisation of Executive Departments will be an important piece of work for ensuring that cross-cutting roles and responsibilities are effectively brought under the jurisdiction and responsibility of one new Department. Having key DETI and DEL functions combined in a new Department will, I feel, assist in focusing attention on issues and areas of greatest need. Whilst there is a lot of work still to do on any such proposal, it should hopefully lead to significant and positive changes. In the meantime, there remains a need to support our further and higher education sector, and, as contributors have already pointed out, the knock-on effects of maintaining a top-level complement of colleges and universities will ensure that we continue to grow our economy and attract quality inward investment. I support the motion.

Mr Ramsey: I support the motion and the amendment. The Chair reflected very well the Committee's position in our discussions since the Budget.

Given their importance to every city and village in Northern Ireland, I welcome the motion's focus on higher and further education, because they are the key to economic regeneration. However, they must complement each another if we are to have a strong pool of diverse and skilled workers, particularly among our young people. Day to day, we hear of many more young people forced to go across the water, while many more are forced to emigrate to either Australia or New Zealand. The Executive need to do more to make Northern Ireland a much more attractive place for them to live, study, work and bring up a family, even without a Programme for Government for 2015-16.

We had a fairly healthy discussion last week when the Confucius Institute came before our Committee. The level of investment that China is making in higher education is making it the predominant force across the world at the present time. It is investing billions of pounds in universities and, more importantly, in research departments. As a result, the Chinese universities are accelerating up the league tables when it comes to students and academia. China is clearly emerging as a leading economy.

Our further education colleges, universities and teacher-training colleges are facing cuts that threaten their existence. The amendment is timely, and I encourage the Minister to have a change of heart on the issue. The removal of the premia payments is hurting a lot of people who work in the college or who are educated at St Mary's or Stranmillis. Genuinely, Minister, there is no appetite, political or otherwise, for your plans to be brought forward. As Jim Allister said, the premia payments are crucial to the viability of both colleges. You have to come to a bit of sense and realise that that is not what the people of Northern Ireland want.

Some 90,000 students are studying an economically relevant further education curriculum via the flexible approach of Colleges Northern Ireland, which states that 70% of those students are entering employment. Therefore, the colleges are serving their purpose of helping to retrain and reskill, and, for many of the young people who possibly have not done so well at post-primary school, the colleges are filling the vacuum. As the Chair said, the colleges work collaboratively with the business community and industry to try to meet their needs.

More than one in five learners is studying entry level 1 on enrolment at an FE college. Those learners have no prior basic qualifications. Are we to remove that provision? There is concern across the colleges, and I am sure that all Members have been spoken to and have heard concern expressed about the detrimental effect that the removal of the premia payments could have, particularly when one of the key areas on which the Employment and Learning Committee focused was young people not in education, employment or training. That will have a detrimental effect on progression, and it ultimately led to the Executive's NEET strategy, which will now fail unless adequate money is given to our colleges. Almost one in two students — 43% across the North, 50% at the North West Regional College, and 54% at the South West College — are in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland. The college network and the Ulster University respond to the need and the changing needs of industry.

I have a few minutes left. I heard the Minister on Radio Foyle this morning speaking about the Magee campus. It is important that, when economic regeneration occurs in the major cities, such as Belfast in particular, we have regional balance. The biggest project coming out of the One Plan — Minister, you know what it was — was the development of the Magee campus. I think it is important that the north-west — not the constituency — has its turn. It is an important motion and something that has concerned the Committee for some time. We have helped showcase —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member's time is almost up.

Mr Ramsey: — champion and advocate in events as well as in this House. It is important that the Minister and Executive be mindful of our concerns through this motion.

Ms Lo: I support the motion but oppose the amendment. The Programme for Government's top priority is to expand our economy. Corporation tax varying power is coming down the line in two to three years to attract more foreign investment and boost our local businesses. Invest NI has shown a record level of inward investment over the last two years. Clearly, we are seeing steady growth in our economy.

We realised a long time ago that we can no longer compete with other countries, such as China or India, in manufacturing goods dependent on cheaper labour. We have therefore adapted and moved to a knowledge-based economy: Northern Ireland is the region with the second fastest growing knowledge economy in the UK in recent years, according to the knowledge economy index. A knowledge-based economy needs a highly educated, creative and skilled workforce, capable of reacting to new ideas and challenges in a fast-changing world. Foreign investors are not just attracted by subsidies or low taxation offered by government; they want staff with the right know-how and ambition for success.

Our three universities — Queen's, Ulster University and the Open University — are excellent institutions, providing quality tuition to undergraduates and postgraduates. Their research outcomes are also recognised in the recent Research Excellence Framework 2014. The universities have a proven track record of strong partnerships with local business and industry, enabling them to innovate and improve performance for increased profitability. Research and development in higher education has led to many spin-out companies, generating thousands of high-value jobs.

The six further education colleges offer a wide range of vocational and other courses for our young people to become skilled employees in many different fields. They also have strong links with local firms and are sensitive to gaps and new trends in the job market, as the Environment Committee saw during a visit to the environmental skills centre in the South Eastern Regional College.
It is imperative that we provide adequate funding for further and higher education to ensure that our workforce has the knowledge, skills and confidence to meet the demands of a growing economy. Funding cuts to HE and FE are short-sighted and have dire consequences for the vision of a vibrant and progressive economy. Fewer FE and HE places will mean a smaller workforce capable of high-end jobs. Those who cannot get a third-level place will leave our shores, which will only serve to escalate the decades long brain drain of our brightest students, who could have remained here if we had cared to invest in them.

For many, it may mean the end of their hopes and ambitions for third-level education. Investing in higher education and training must be a top priority for the Executive, not just to enhance the economy but to enhance young people's life chances.

1.30 pm

The amendment is similar to last week's Adjournment debate. Our current system for teacher training is fragmented and not cost-effective. We are producing too many teachers who will not find teaching posts in Northern Ireland. Therefore we only educate and export them elsewhere. The premia act as a subsidy to the teacher training colleges in recognition of their smaller size. It is hard to justify that at the best of times, but certainly not in times of pressures on budgets, when university and college places are in jeopardy.

Mr Hilditch: Like others, I support the motion. I will take cognisance of the amendment as the debate progresses. It is a fairly generic motion and wide-ranging through the sector, and it should receive wide support across the Benches. I doubt if there are many Members who would not acknowledge the key role that our further and higher education institutions play in growing the local economy and, more importantly, delivering on the Programme for Government and its cross-cutting priorities.

I declare an interest as part of the management of the Michael Hughes Academy, which, in partnership with the Northern Regional College, delivers a sports/academic initiative with the Newtownabbey campus. Indeed, it is when you sit down locally to discuss the various projects and local initiatives that you are given a flavour of the challenges facing those in the sector who are responsible for the front-line delivery, from staff contractual issues through to overly cumbersome procurement matters.

The motion comes with a backdrop of a substantial budget reduction, although it is a little better than the original 10·8% that was initially expected, thanks to the recent budgetary settlement that was reached after intense negotiations. Nonetheless, I acknowledge the difficulties faced by Minister Farry, the Department and those in the structural pyramid who are responsible for delivery in the further and higher education sector. I further acknowledge steps taken by the Minister which will, hopefully, reduce the impact and, potentially, safeguard the success of further and higher education in Northern Ireland, and I support those establishments as, collectively, we attempt to grow a sustainable economy in line with the cross-cutting priorities contained in the Programme for Government. Therefore it is with a great deal of interest and anticipation that, as the Chair said, we look forward to the attendance of the Minister at tomorrow's meeting of the Employment and Learning Committee to get a better grasp of his overview of the landscape.

As 2014 drew to a close and the extent of the budgetary pressures facing the Department in particular, and the Executive in general, became clearer, a lobby began with the Committee, mainly involving the higher education institutions. Serious conversations took place regarding funding, which, I believe, must be extended to all stakeholders as we look for long-term solutions in an attempt to close the significant funding gap in the sector in Northern Ireland, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. I feel the institutions have more to bring to the table, other than the bland message we received on one occasion: "Reinstate the funding, or the student fees rocket."

I fully appreciate the role that higher education has played in working with Invest NI in attracting foreign investment and in the successful period of job creation that there has been over the past two years, coupled with the many spin-out companies that have helped support local business and industry. I also appreciate the planned capital developments over the next decade, which will create thousands of construction jobs. Sustainability of the sector lies with all stakeholders.

I welcome the recent response paper from Colleges Northern Ireland, which gives an overview of the further education sector in the Province and the important role that it plays in supporting local business and industry. Further to that, colleges provide crucial support to local schools and communities, helping to tackle social deprivation, the NEET category and the key area of STEM. Some 43% of students are from the most deprived areas, yet high percentages of retention and achievement rates are obtained. For many, further education is a lifeline. It gives them a second chance of achievement, plays a crucial role in their intellectual lives and gives them opportunities to engage socially, economically and culturally.

The development of the soft skills is also important, and the sector can play its part. While the emphasis is on passing exams and graduating, training in the soft skills of the workplace is also necessary. Timekeeping, behaviour, attitude and simply dealing with other people can sometimes be a struggle. I know that the Department is also keen to deal with that.

Mr Attwood: I thank the Member for giving way. I understand that there has been some consideration by all parties of the premia to St Mary's University College and Stranmillis University College in Sinn Féin's amendment. Will the Member indicate the DUP's intentions when it comes to the amendment in support of the reinstatement of the premia, which would extend to Stranmillis University College?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member has an additional minute.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Member for his intervention. I think that we will look favourably on that.

It is crucial that the Executive affirm their support for the sectors to place Northern Ireland to the fore and give it a competitive edge. I support the motion and the amendment.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Beidh mise ag tacú leis an rún agus leis an leasú. I support the motion and the amendment. It is very important in the lives of our young people that they have the opportunity to partake of third-level education and improve their life-learning opportunities here in the North. We want to ensure that those establishments remain and that we give them our full support so that young people and mature students have the opportunity to be educated locally and do not have to go away from home or go into low-grade employment without having had the advantage of third-level education.

I also wish to call for the reinstatement of the premia for St Mary's and Stranmillis. That is very important, because these smaller university colleges are unique: they provide very specific education and training opportunities for people here across the North, not just Belfast. It is important for their local economies, which have a wider impact, that they remain as a vibrant part of those communities. It would be the death knell for those communities should the premia be removed and those circumstances bring about the ultimate downfall and closure of the colleges. That is the context in which I place my remarks.

I want to put a wee bit of emphasis on the particular role of St Mary's in the provision of Irish-medium education. It is unique in that regard, and it would not be wrong to say that the Irish-medium sector's strength today is because of the role that St Mary's has played in providing excellent teachers for that sector. St Mary's has provided lots of unique projects over the years to the Irish-medium sector and in pursuit of other educational outcomes that are not limited to the Irish medium. That is very important, and I would like to emphasise that and place great importance on the fact that St Mary's offers unique provision in that regard. It is also located in the Gaeltacht quarter, which is a vibrant part of west Belfast. Also, an tÁisionad, which is an establishment that provides resources and books for the Irish-medium sector and schoolchildren, is located in St Mary's.

I want to emphasise the fact that we have two establishments here: St Mary's in west Belfast provides for that community and is a vibrant part of the linguistic, cultural, social and economic role of that community; and, likewise, Stranmillis plays a vibrant and essential role in the south Belfast community. I call again on the Minister to rethink his decision to withdraw the premia.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. I have listened intently to her contribution. Does she accept that the teacher training institutions need to provide on a regional basis for everyone in Northern Ireland? Does she also accept that, as the independent report set out, there is a need for reform and that the status quo is not an option? What are Sinn Féin's alternative proposals for reform?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member has an additional minute.

Ms McCorley: I accept that our teacher training provision is for everybody across the North: it is not just for one community. The Irish-medium sector, which I have been talking about, provides for Irish-medium education across the North and beyond.

The university colleges are more than just establishments: they are part of the community and provide essential services. They are the heartbeats of their communities, particularly St Mary's, which plays a vital role in the social, economic, linguistic and cultural fabric of the community. Likewise, Stranmillis plays a similar role in the south Belfast community.

It is not just about what those two establishments provide in education. Education is important and is their primary reason for existing, but it is much more than that. It is about being part of, providing for and being central to the community so that young people who attend those establishments benefit not just from the establishments but from the richness and vibrancy of the communities. In turn, those young people give back to those communities, so it is a two-way street and is not just about one aspect. There are many aspects to education and to the provision of third-level education, and I emphasise the role of local communities in third-level education.

Mr Anderson: As a recently reappointed member of the Committee for Employment and Learning, I support the motion. In 2007, when devolution was established, I was delighted that the economy had been placed at the heart of the Programme for Government. That remains the position in the current 2011-15 Programme for Government.

The economy is the key to progress as we continue to seek to move Northern Ireland forward. In recent years, despite serious world economic downturns that have inevitably affected us all, we have made significant progress in our economic growth. One of the essential ingredients in any plan to deliver sustained and deep economic growth is education, particularly third-level education. We must not underestimate the crucial role of the local further and higher education sector in producing the well-educated and highly skilled workforce that we need.

We are often accused of being stuck in the past, but sometimes it is useful to glance back. During the dark years of the Troubles, when our society suffered so greatly from terrorism, our economic infrastructure was seriously damaged, and we lost many of our brightest and most capable young people. Once they left school, they left Northern Ireland to study in universities and colleges in the rest of the United Kingdom or in the Irish Republic. Many of them got jobs outside Northern Ireland, settled down and never came back. For too long, we endured what became known as the "brain drain". In more recent years, that haemorrhaging has been reduced — perhaps even reversed — but we have to be very careful to ensure that it does not return with a vengeance.

Priority 1 of the Programme for Government addresses economic growth and the need to achieve long-term economic growth by improving competitiveness and building a larger and more export-driven private sector. The Programme for Government states:

"we must rebuild the labour market in the wake of the global economic downturn and rebalance the economy".

If we are to meet that central target and rebalance the economy by reducing the public sector and developing our business base, it is imperative that we have a properly educated and skilled local workforce. Indeed, priority 1 refers specifically to the need for a better, more highly skilled, competent and confident workforce. One of the first questions foreign companies ask when assessing their investment options is: "What sort of existing workforce is there in that location?" or "Is there a pool of skills that we need?"

During the Budget planning and consultation process towards the end of last year, I became very alarmed by some of the dire warnings about cuts in third-level education coming from the Minister for Employment and Learning. I raised it with him during questions for oral answer on 20 November when he said that he, too, was concerned but that it was due to the cuts in his departmental budget. I am glad that my colleague the Finance Minister was able to announce that the Department for Employment and Learning will now receive an extra £33 million to develop the skills that are vital to our workforce.

1.45 pm

The winds of change have had a big impact on our further and higher education sector. However, I have been impressed by the way in which the sector has adapted to changing needs and financial pressures. I am in favour of diversity in the curriculum, which will offer a broad range of subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. However, in times of financial pressure and to meet the demands of business, we must focus our efforts on key subjects such as the STEM subjects, law and modern languages.

Having met representatives of the further and higher education sector and considered briefing papers submitted to the Committee, I am impressed with the strategic vision of our colleges and universities. I want to see that develop and grow. I want to see more of our local young people studying in Northern Ireland, getting good secure jobs in Northern Ireland, and staying in Northern Ireland. I urge the Minister to make full use of the extra money now available to him by investing wisely and well in further education and higher education. However, as the motion alludes to, this issue is bigger than the Minister and the Department. The Executive as a whole must rise to the challenge.

Mr Attwood: I apologise to the House for not being here for all of the debate. Mr Anderson referred to the past. I and other people were down at the High Court in Belfast where the families of the victims of the Glenanne killings, of which there were over 100, had a hearing in respect of a judicial review. So, I apologise for missing much of the debate.

It is curious that the motion from the Committee refers to:

"the key role our further education and higher education institutions play in growing the local economy and delivering on the Programme for Government's cross-cutting priorities".

Sometimes, debates on higher and further education are somehow reduced to the issue of the skills necessary to grow our economy. That is going to become pretty acute in the event that our Government go over the wall in respect of corporation tax and do not do it on the right terms, of which there is a real risk. More immediately, the cuts that the Tories in our Government have imposed on HE and FE provision and Departments here will have an impact on growing the local economy and cross-cutting priorities. Nowhere is that more true than in an area of disadvantage on the Falls Road, given the potential impact of reductions of the scale that has been proposed by the Minister, part of which is the result of the Tory Budget that the Executive pushed through a couple of weeks ago but most of which is a result of what the Minister has been proposing. The consequence for growing the local economy on the Falls Road, and for that local community in respect of cross-cutting priorities, will be catastrophic.

It has been estimated that, if the Government push on with the proposal to make up to 20,000 people redundant as part of the voluntary exit scheme (VES) that might be a consequence of the Stormont House Agreement, the consequence will be a further loss of 20,000 or 40,000 jobs because of the multiplier effect of the loss of public-sector employment. That is why we need to be very vigilant that, if VES is rolled out, it is rolled out on the right basis and subject to the right principles. However, if the Minister's decision and the DUP and Sinn Féin's decision when it comes to the Budget are rolled out, that will have immense consequences for the local economy in west Belfast and for cross-cutting priorities beyond the consequences for St Mary's college and its staff. The multiplier effect of cutting staff and students in an area of need and disadvantage is going to be immense. Indeed, it will be compounded by the fact that it is an area of disadvantage.

Secondly, whatever the ethos of St Mary's, and I welcome the Minister saying that he wants to protect it, part of that ethos is the fact that St Mary's University College is a centre of excellence for the Irish language and for Irish teaching, as well as being an open and inclusive college for all other traditions and viewpoints in this part of the world. When we are meant to be promoting equality and parity of esteem, the proposed cuts will consequently have a disproportionate impact on the Irish language, culture, teaching and sports at the centre of excellence that is St Mary's College.

I ask the Minister this: when he says that St Mary's should sustain its student numbers through its reserves, is that the principle that he has urged upon other FE and HE institutions in Northern Ireland that are subject to his and DUP/Sinn Féin cuts? Are they also being urged to rely on their reserves? If so, I would like to know how that is working through for the Ulster University, which, I understand — whether rightly or wrongly — has an issue about reserves, given the proposed move to York Street.

I say to the Minister, as I said to him on the last day, the three principles of resolution around the issue of St Mary's are: first, the legal autonomy of the college; secondly, its financial autonomy; and, thirdly —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member's time is almost up.

Mr Attwood: — the protection of all its diverse ethos. That is the way through this, and if the Minister applies his mind to that, we will find a way through.

Mr Nesbitt: My colleague and Chair of the Committee Mr Swann has outlined in some detail the impact and importance of higher and further education to our economy, and let us remind ourselves that this debate is about growing the local economy.

There has been some welcome focus of late on corporation tax. The House needs no further reminder that this was an Ulster Unionist proposal. It was our idea that the Assembly should have the power to set a corporation tax rate for Northern Ireland, as a key policy lever for rebalancing our economy. It was, however, never going to be a silver bullet. Corporation tax rates alone are not the fix that will grow the private sector; rather, a basket of measures is required. Every economist I listen to says that there are two major issues that we need to address: one is the lack of A-grade office accommodation; the other, and bigger, issue is the skills base of our workforce. If we get those right, the economy will prosper. In fact, get those right and we will not even need to match, never mind beat, the Republic's corporation tax rate. With the right skills and other factors that investors seek, we need lower corporation tax only to the point where the differential is no longer an issue to potential investors.

Empowering our young people with the right knowledge and skills is the key. Yet, as many, including Ulster Bank's chief economist, Richard Ramsey, pointed out recently, since 2012, Northern Ireland's youth unemployment rate has consistently been above 20% — more than one in five — and the unemployment rate for the 18-24 cohort is likely to remain close to 20% throughout 2015. That is a failure, a grave and serious failure. It is a failure of our young people and a failure of our commitment to keep the economy front and centre of all that we do. That is why the Ulster Unionist Party was so critical of the draft Budget 2015-16 when it was proposed in December.

In the draft Budget, there was to have been a reduction of 10·8% to the Department for Employment and Learning in the financial year ahead. With around 70% of the Department's budget going to the further and higher education sector, the devastating effect on universities and regional FE colleges was obvious. The much quoted figure was that 1,000 university places were to be lost and that 16,000 FE places were under threat. One thousand five hundred and sixty people responded to the Budget consultation, and concerns were raised about its effects on FE and HE. To some extent, the revised Budget has improved the situation, in that an extra £20 million has been allocated to DEL, in recognition of the importance of our economy having a skilled workforce. However, the Department for Employment and Learning still faces a 6·4% reduction in its non-ring-fenced resource departmental expenditure limit. Perhaps the Minister will update the House on the revised Budget's effect on his ability to fund further and higher education.

In responding to the consultation on the Budget, the Ulster Unionist Party said that, in the context of rebalancing the economy, targeting FDI and growing the private sector while slashing training and skills is counter-intuitive and counterproductive. It creates a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the draft Budget for 2015-16 and should add impetus to the need to create a single, joined-up Department of the economy. It has long been the policy of the Ulster Unionist Party that there should be one, joined-up Department for the economy. Indeed, it was a recommendation some six years ago by the independent review of economic policy, but that recommendation was not acted on. On the bright side, recent announcements on the reconfiguration of Departments following the Stormont House Agreement seem to suggest that it is finally being taken forward.

In conclusion, on the motion, I believe that the Executive must determine whether they still wish to produce the highly skilled workforce that Northern Ireland needs if it is to take advantage of foreign direct investment and the anticipated and much-needed expansion of our private sector.

On the amendment, the Ulster Unionist Party has said that it will not be obstructive to change and the rationalisation of teacher-training provision in Northern Ireland as long as it is done on a fair and equitable basis. Both St Mary's and Stranmillis must be treated fairly and equitably. Therefore, although we are critical of the party that brought forward the amendment, and perhaps even question its motives —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member's time is almost up.

Mr Nesbitt: — we will not seek to divide the House by rejecting it.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, so I suggest that the House take its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member called to speak will be Mr Jim Allister.

The debate stood suspended.

2.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

Mr Speaker: We will start with listed questions.

Mr M McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle — Mr Speaker — I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer that question.

Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): In keeping with the community-based ethos of the social investment fund (SIF), zonal steering groups made the final decisions on projects that were selected for their area plans. Individuals or groups who were involved in concepts that did not make it into the area plans were advised at the time by the consultants who were appointed to support the steering groups or by the steering groups themselves.

The area plans were submitted in February 2013. When the zonal allocations were subsequently announced, the steering groups were asked to prioritise their area plan projects within their assigned budgets. That process was completed by November 2013, and it was the responsibility of the steering groups to inform those involved of the decisions. If some individuals or groups have indicated that they have not been informed, they should contact their respective steering group, details of which are available on the OFMDFM website. Details of the chosen projects are also available on the OFMDFM website.

Mr Elliott: I thank the junior Minister for that. Has the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister no responsibility to inform those behind the early projects that did not progress in the scheme? Was it entirely up to the steering groups or the consultants?

Ms J McCann: The Member will know that, from its initial stages, the social investment fund was always led by the community and statutory organisations that designed it from the bottom up. There is a SIF board, and it was primarily responsible for informing those community-based projects whether they were successful. So, it was really up to the steering groups to inform them, rather than OFMDFM.

Mr I McCrea: Is there a timeline for the groups that have been allocated funding to be issued with letters of offer? What is the process for that?

Ms J McCann: The Member will know that 23 letters of offer were issued last year and that that went up to 24. A further nine projects were approved on, I think, 20 January and letters of offer for four of those projects have gone out. When a project is approved, we try to get the letters of offer out as quickly as possible to progress the whole project in the sense of the money and everything else. So, while there may not be a dedicated timeline as such, we try to do that, but it all has to be part of the process. That is the way the process has to evolve.

Mr Lyttle: Does the Minister accept that the level of information that flowed from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister made it extremely difficult for the area steering groups to update applicants about the scheme? I declare an interest as a member of an area steering group.

Ms J McCann: If there have been difficulties and problems, I give the Member a commitment that I will look into that.

The initial announcement of the approved projects was in February 2014. Once the economic appraisal is completed and the project is approved, we get the letter of offer out as quickly as possible. However, there is a point when it comes to the actual SIF steering group that the Member has said he is a member of — I have some knowledge of the steering group in my area — and the onus is on that group to inform the local projects that are part of the bigger project.

I take on board what you said, and I will certainly look into it. If there have been issues, I will certainly talk to the Member outside Question Time.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. What is the Minister's view on the tabling of an amendment to the motion on the Budget last week by the Ulster Unionist Party, which effectively would have seen finance to the social investment fund reduced?

Ms J McCann: I was somewhat dismayed by the Ulster Unionist amendment to the Budget motion because it effectively sought to take money from the social investment fund — a fund that will ensure, at a very grass-roots community level, a realisation of area plans that local steering groups deemed appropriate and prioritised according to need in their zone. It is the right thing to do — we have talked about it in the Assembly on numerous occasions — to work with communities and in partnership with communities, and in this case the steering groups, to ensure that we get these projects right and maximise the impact that they have. However, the main point is that these projects were designed and chosen from the community up, and it is essential that we listen to what the local community needs. Indeed, it is only the people who live and work in those areas and have a stakeholder sense of those areas who know what they need. In my opinion, we should listen to what the community needs. I was quite dismayed when that amendment came forward.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. Given the recent proposals on the reduction of Departments and the rejigging of the Executive, are there any plans to move the social investment fund to a Department that many people felt it should have been in before — a Department that has direct responsibility for disadvantage in our communities?

Ms J McCann: No, there are no plans in the first instance. However, the social investment fund and the area plans never worked in isolation of other community-based planning that was already there, including neighbourhood renewal. I know that some of the neighbourhood renewal partnerships worked very closely on the steering groups and vice versa, so I think that there was already a joined-up sense of it when the social investment fund was initiated and designed. I think that that continues to be the case. As I said, community planning has to come from the people who live and work in those communities and who have a stake in those communities. It cannot be something that is put down from the top to tell people what they need. People in those communities need to choose and bring forward projects and proposals, and I think that all those other community planning groups and boards are already interlinked.

Mr Speaker: I inform Members that question 3 has been withdrawn within the appropriate time frame.

Mr M McGuinness: The situation in Syria has become one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time. Despite very significant humanitarian contributions from the international community, the pressure of over three million refugees is taking its toll on Syria's neighbours. Those pressures are severely damaging the quality of life for ordinary people. While resettlement could never help as many as aid has, we recognise the need, in common humanity, for us to explore what we can do to make a difference for the most vulnerable. Accordingly, we are engaged in exploratory discussions with the Home Office, other devolved Administrations, other Departments and relevant non-governmental organisations about whether we can play a role. I feel that we should respond positively to the call for help by the United Nations Refugee Agency. Germany has offered 30,000 places, and the Irish Government have committed 300 places. Sadly, the Government in London have not yet committed to taking refugees, but I note that Scotland is appealing to them to allow refugees to come there, and I feel that we should do likewise. In such circumstances, we would, of course, speak to the British Government about funding for such an initiative.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Go raibh agat, a LeasChéad Aire, as an fhreagra sin a thabhairt dúinn. Tá éigeandáil ar leith ag gabháil ar aghaidh sa tSiria, agus is gá freagra a thabhairt uirthi. It is appropriate to say that the racial equality unit in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has done great work in this regard. It would be great to get a breakthrough. Does the deputy First Minister agree that the benefits to Belfast, certainly to the North, of taking refugees would be considerable and that it would be a blessing to Belfast to be able to take in refugees from Syria? Of course, it would be a lifeline to those in greatest need in the refugee camps.

Mr M McGuinness: Go raibh maith agat. The Member and Reverend Bill Shaw have written to the First Minister and me about the catastrophic situation in Syria and how we here in the North can hold out the hand of support to people who are going through incredible trauma. According to United Nations figures, between 190,000 and maybe even more than 200,000 people have been killed in Syria as a result of the conflict.

I unreservedly condemn the murder of two Japanese citizens by ISIS over recent days and send our sympathy to the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Of course, these situations are highlighted as individual tragedies for families. The effect of all of that is seen all over the world, but when you look at the figure of something like 200,000 Syrians who have lost their lives, it really brings home how terrible the situation is in that country. The fact is that other nations are exploring the possibility of bringing in people who have been affected badly by the ongoing conflict in Syria. It is important that we here in the North, if at all possible, make our own particular contribution. That would send out a very powerful message about where our sympathies lie in how that terrible conflict has affected ordinary people.

Mr Ramsey: I welcome the question from the Member for South Belfast. Given that the deputy First Minister gave very stark figures in his responses, and given the ever-increasing persecution of Christians especially, has there been any discussion with the London Government or the Dublin Government to ensure that we have the capacity to take that leadership role in encouraging and motivating those refugees to come here?

Mr M McGuinness: The discussions thus far have taken place in the context of the original question. Discussions are taking place between our officials, the Government in London and other devolved institutions. It is very important that we do so. It is also very important that we understand that there are almost two conflicts happening in Syria: the internal Syrian conflict, which has taken something like 200,000 lives; and the activities of the barbarous group ISIS, which has been targeting people because they have not signed up to its jihadist extremism. Of course, a lot of Christians and people of other denominations in Syria have lost their lives at the hands of that group.

It is an enormously complicated situation. My view is that a lot of what we are witnessing had its roots in the invasion of Iraq. I think that all who studied the conflict have now come to acknowledge that it is at the core of the traumas that people are suffering, particularly at the hands of ISIS and its activities in Iraq and Syria. Those discussions will continue. We do not have any delusions of grandeur about how we can make an impact. If we can do something, it will be symbolic, but I think that it is important, through a symbolic gesture, to send a message to the rest of the world that the rest of the world also needs to do something.

2.15 pm

Mr D McIlveen: I thank the deputy First Minister for his answers so far. I also welcome his condemnation of the murders of two hostages by ISIS in Syria. Also, at the tail end of last week, two other murders took place in Syria. Two Israeli soldiers were murdered by Hezbollah in the southern part of Syria. Will the deputy First Minister join me in also condemning the murders of those two Israeli soldiers?

Mr M McGuinness: Over the last number of years, the First Minister and I have been very focused in our conversations with people from another conflict situation in a different part of that region. We have always been of a view that the conflict there should be brought to an end and that the solutions can be arrived at only through dialogue and negotiation. I absolutely condemn the killing of Palestinians and the killing of Israelis. I think that it is hugely important that all of us, particularly those of us who have been through a successful peace process in bringing an end to conflict on our streets, reach out to people and implore them to recognise that they can either resolve their conflicts now or wait for 10, 15, 20 or 50 years, during which time many hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. We can all engage in the condemnation of all that, but that will not resolve the problems. What will resolve the problems is the willingness of people to come to the negotiating table and the willingness of the big powers to play their part in a constructive way to help to bring these conflicts to an end.

Mr M McGuinness: The reduction in the number of Executive Departments from 12 to nine in time for the 2016 Assembly election is a commitment in the Stormont House Agreement. Subsequently, the Executive agreed to commit to implementing the measures in the Stormont House Agreement at their meeting on 15 January. A proposed nine-Department structure was presented to the Executive on 15 January, and a further discussion was held on 22 January, when the Executive agreed the number of Departments and their functions. The only exception to this were the functions of OFMDFM, which will be the subject of further consideration. Further detailed work on the functions allocated to each Department can be carried out whilst working through the legislative process. The timetable for the implementation of the reduction in Departments is extremely challenging. That is why we have taken key decisions as early as possible to allow as much time as possible for legislation to be progressed and for the proper planning and implementation of this major change programme. We must not underestimate the challenge that is ahead. We are trying to implement significant reform at a time when we are reducing the size of the Civil Service. That said, it also presents us with a huge opportunity to streamline the Civil Service and create better cohesion between and within Departments, resulting in quality key services being provided to citizens.

Mr Buchanan: With the streamlining of the Civil Service and the reduction in the number of Departments, does the deputy First Minister agree that there is still time between now and the election in 2016 to reduce the number of Assembly Members? Is he willing and does he have the appetite to take this through the Executive?

Mr M McGuinness: I think that the Member will be aware that there is a commitment in the Stormont House Agreement for a reduction in the number of Assembly Members for the election in 2021. I think that, during the Stormont House negotiations, some parties wanted that to happen more quickly than others. During negotiations, it was important to try to get as much agreement as possible so that that issue would not become a matter of contention between us.

So, the Stormont House Agreement does refer to the challenge that is before the parties in the House in terms of meeting that commitment. My sense of it is that, given the spirit that has been apparent in the implementation meetings that the First Minister and I have participated in with other party leaders, it is obvious that all of that is eminently achievable.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What steps are being taken to ensure that the concerns of staff are addressed as the process moves on?

Mr M McGuinness: That is a very important matter, because the impact on staff has been an integral factor of the work to date. The head of the Civil Service is keeping staff regularly informed and trade unions have also been consulted. That engagement will continue in the time ahead. While we understand that there may be some apprehension, particularly among staff within those Departments that will cease to exist, I would like to reassure them that the very valuable public services and functions that they deliver will continue and that every effort will be made to address any concerns that may emerge as the process continues.

Mr Allister: Welcome as any reduction in the number of Departments would be, what about OFMDFM addressing the squander in its own Department on the excessive number of special advisers? The entire Welsh Government have eight special advisers. OFMDFM has eight special advisers, costing us almost £1 million a year. What is the need for that? Will that be addressed by means of reduction?

Mr M McGuinness: Obviously, as a result of the decision to reduce the number of Departments from 12 to nine, we are all undergoing a process of change. In the context of resolving the situation within OFMDFM in terms of what functions it retains or lets go of — which will obviously be more complicated — that is something that will obviously be taken into consideration by the First Minister and me.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an LeasChéad Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur: an féidir leis an Aire a chruthú dúinn a bhfuil moltaí dá réir aige i dtaobh comhoibrú Thuaidh/Theas? In regard to the recent Stormont House talks, what further issues or new issues around North/South cooperation does the Minister have in mind for the next agenda of the North/South Ministerial Council?

Mr M McGuinness: I think the Member, like all Members, will be aware that the issue of North/South cooperation was a major subject of debate during the Stormont House negotiations. We have set ourselves a work programme, which is about agreeing, for the purposes of the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, how that will be further developed in the time ahead. So, I am confident that, when the North/South Ministerial Council meeting takes place in a few months' time, it will deal with the work programme that will fall at its door as a result of the negotiations that we were involved in prior to Christmas.

The challenges are there for all of us to see. The head of the Civil Service in the South and the head of our Civil Service are very focused and are working together on an ongoing basis to ensure that we continue to develop relationships North and South. One area that there has been a lot of focus on is the north-west gateway and the decision that was made that there will shortly be a meeting of Ministers North and South to consider how to take forward what is a very important project for all of us.

Mrs Overend: What discussions has the deputy First Minister had with the First Minister with regard to the future of OFMDFM and, in particular, with its ceasing to be a service delivery Department and becoming one that adopts a more coordinating approach?

Mr M McGuinness: The matters that the Member referred to are presently under discussion between us in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I believe that they will be satisfactorily resolved, and that we will see a very smooth transition through the agreements that we have made in relation to, first and foremost, reduction in the number of Departments and, secondly, their functions.

Obviously, OFMDFM was always going to be a wee bit more complicated than the other Departments, but I do not see anything that will, in any way, prevent us from reaching an agreement as to how we will move forward. Of course, subjects under consideration include: whether functions will be retained; whether some functions will go to other Departments; and what the overall role of the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister will be in relation to how we take all that forward. That is still a work in progress, and I believe that, as we were successful during the Stormont House negotiations, we will be equally successful in the implementation of all this.

Mr Speaker: Mr Oliver McMullan is not in his place for question 5, Mr Sammy Wilson for question 6 or Mr Stewart Dickson for question 7.

Mr M McGuinness: As I mentioned in answer to question 4, the reduction in the number of Civil Service Departments is a commitment in the Stormont House Agreement, the implementation of which has since been agreed by the Executive. A proposed nine-Department structure was presented to the Executive on 15 January, and on 22 January the Executive agreed the number of Departments and their functions. The only exception to that is the functions of OFMDFM, which will be the subject of further consideration. Further detailed work on the functions allocated to each Department can be carried out whilst working through the legislative process. So we must not underestimate the challenge ahead, including a demanding timetable and the fact that this significant reform comes at a time when we are also reducing the size of the Civil Service. That said, it is also a huge opportunity to streamline and create better cohesion between and within Departments.

I am very conscious that I have just repeated myself. [Interruption.]

Mr Nesbitt: I missed that last bit.

Mr M McGuinness: I am very conscious that I have just repeated my answer to the earlier question.

Mr Nesbitt: At the risk of further repetition, I acknowledge the deputy First Minister's comments to date, not least on the future of OFMDFM which, I acknowledge, is under further consideration, apart from the other restructuring. Having worked in the Department since 2007 and having been down at the castle for that time, the Minister must have formed some sort of opinion on the way forward. I wonder whether he would be prepared to share that with the House.

Mr M McGuinness: The most appropriate mechanism for taking this forward is to share my views and thoughts with the First Minister and, similarly, he with me. We do that on a regular basis. Obviously, the challenge is for us to agree how this Department will be taken forward. There are big challenges, but I believe that we will arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

Out of respect for the implementation group — the ministerial subgroup that we established, and which the Member is part of — it is very important that, rather than go public on how we envisage that being taken forward, we do this in concert with our colleagues in the ministerial subgroup, and that includes the Member who has just spoken. So I think that, out of respect for that group, it is important that, when we reach a conclusion, it is apprised of it before the public are.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat. I ask the Minister to provide an update on the deliberations regarding what OFMDFM functions can be dispersed to other Departments.

Mr M McGuinness: That sounds like an attempt to complement the earlier question from the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Members know that there are sensitive and cross-cutting matters within OFMDFM's area of responsibilities. The answer is that more consideration must be given to the appropriate split of functions to ensure that the optimum service is provided to the public.

As I said, discussions are ongoing, and Ministers have had the opportunity to review and comment on OFMDFM's functions. We intend to bring a paper to the Executive soon, articulating in more detail the proposed future responsibilities of our Department. For the time being, that is as much as we can put into the public domain.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.

2.30 pm

T1. Mrs McKevitt asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they agree that the inclusion of the words "culture" and "arts" in the title of an Executive Department signals Northern Ireland as a place where the creative industries are welcome and that the loss of such a title would cause concern in the industry. (AQT 2021/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: As the Member knows, we are in the process of agreeing the names of the new Departments, and there will be huge change impacting on a number of Departments. Whatever title we agree on, people who may have concerns about whether "culture", "arts" and, indeed, many other aspects of government will appear in titles, can rest assured that those will be adequately dealt with not just through the title of the Department but the way in which the Department is described by the particular Department that is undertaking new responsibilities.

From our perspective, at this stage, it is fair to say that there are serious discussions taking place. All parties in the House are represented on the Executive's ministerial subgroup, and the titles that we finally agree, in many ways, will deal specifically with the major responsibilities of a Department. Also, in the context of the outworking of those titles, there will be a very clear explanation of where responsibility lies departmentally for aspects of government, such as culture and arts.

Mrs McKevitt: The proposed new Department of social welfare, communities and sports will amalgamate functions of DSD, DCAL and some functions of DEL. Could the move mean that the budget allocated to the arts and the creative sector will be further squeezed when competing for funds, particularly in the Department that will be responsible for housing and benefits?

Mr M McGuinness: I am obviously not going to go into detail about where areas of responsibility are moving from or to; that will become clear eventually, and the House will be notified. However, I assure the Member that, first and foremost, we take very seriously the huge economic challenges that we face, particularly in the context of how our Budget has been reduced by the coalition Government at Westminster. At the same time, we are determined to ensure that we provide essential front-line services for everybody who makes a contribution to the enrichment and enhancement of our lives, including people who are involved in sport, culture and arts. So, I do not believe that, under any circumstances, changes to the number of Departments will in any way inhibit Ministers' ability to deliver for those very important aspects of our lives.

Mr Speaker: Question 2 has been withdrawn within the appropriate guidance.

T3. Mr Devenney asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they have any plans to extend the Delivering Social Change signature project on improving literacy and numeracy, which is due to expire in several months’ time. (AQT 2023/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, Mr Speaker, junior Minister McCann will take that question.

Ms J McCann: The Member will be aware that the Delivering Social Change signature projects, including the one on literacy and numeracy, which the Member mentioned, were very successful. We are looking in the budget to continue that project in this and in the next financial year. We have had conversations with the Department of Education and the Minister of Education on that. We are working within the Delivering Social Change framework. We are hopeful that Departments and their Ministers will look at their core budgets and see where those six signature projects, which were a success, fit into them and then take them forward. We are in conversations with the Department of Education and the Minister on that specific topic.

Mr Devenney: I thank the junior Minister for her answer. Does she agree that, if we are minded not to extend the literacy and numeracy project, that will have a detrimental effect on our schools?

Ms J McCann: I certainly agree that it was a very successful project. I and junior Minister Bell visited several schools. That project and the nurture groups project, which is also one of the signature projects, were in place. Having talked to some of the new teachers that were brought in, as well as to pupils and other teachers, we are confident that, as an Executive, we will be very mindful of the fact that, when we put in place something that works and is beneficial to young children, schools and children's educational needs, we need to make sure that it is continued.

T4. Mr McKay asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the progress being made on the implementation of the various commitments in the Stormont House Agreement. (AQT 2024/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: As Senator George Mitchell famously once said, it is one thing making an agreement but a whole other exercise implementing it. If that was true in the context of the various agreements that we have made in the past, it is also true of the Stormont House Agreement. I am tremendously encouraged by the attitude and spirit of all of those who have a duty and a responsibility to implement the agreement. As I said earlier, it was put to the Executive that all Ministers should endorse the implementation of the agreement, and all Ministers did. Similarly, the First Minister and I have been involved in two meetings of the implementation group, and, just last Friday, we met the British and Irish Governments.

We all recognise the good work that is being done and the huge challenges that implementing the agreement present for all of us. Prior to Christmas, various correspondents were saying that there was not a snowball's chance in hell of us getting an agreement, and yet we have reached a comprehensive agreement. I would have liked it to have been even more comprehensive than it is, but the reality is that we have reached an agreement on the way forward, and people have set about the work involved in a very serious-minded way.

Important decisions are being made. We have spoken about some of them today, such as the reduction in the number of Departments, the commitment to deal with the number of Assembly Members by 2021 and the whole issue of how we protect people on welfare benefits who would face the brunt of the austerity agenda being deployed by London. Excellent work was done on that, and people will see its outworkings in the time ahead. Of course, in the intervening period, we have had people —

Mr Speaker: Two minutes is up, Minister.

Mr M McGuinness: — try to scaremonger about the voluntary exit scheme from the Civil Service and public sector. People have been talking about compulsory redundancies, sackings, and so on, none of which bears any resemblance whatsoever to the truth. The process that we are involved in will be totally and absolutely voluntary.

Mr Speaker: I have been informed that Members at the back of the Chamber are having difficulty hearing. Ministers should make sure that they are speaking into the mics, and perhaps the sound engineers can try to rebalance the system to assist.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the deputy First Minister agree that it is important to make progress swiftly on the Stormont House Agreement to help retain the public's confidence in the Assembly and the institutions and to send out a positive message domestically and internationally?

Mr M McGuinness: I think that we are all agreed that, unless we keep to the timelines and the commitments made in the agreement, the danger is that forces outside these institutions will try to portray divisions among us.

I have not identified any divisions amongst us thus far, so I am confident that we will manage to keep to the commitments and the timelines that we set ourselves. The test of all that will happen very shortly in this Assembly.
The First Minister and I are very focused, as are the leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party, on ensuring that we implement this agreement. That is what people want to hear. People are fed up to the back teeth of controversy and accusations that we cannot take decisions; they want to see decisions being taken. We now have an agreement, and I, who represents probably the most optimistic wing of the peace process, am confident that we can get this done.

T5. Mr Campbell asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how they see the timeline of the Stormont House Agreement unfolding over the next 18 months, given that the deputy First Minister has indicated that he is optimistic and was tremendously encouraged by the agreement. (AQT 2025/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: There are so many challenges for all of us. The Member mentioned the next 18 months. We have set ourselves a challenge to establish a commission, which will look at the issues of flags, symbols and identity. That has an 18-month timeline for delivery from around June of this year.

There are other challenges in relation to the timeline. I will not go into all of them in detail, but one of the targets we had to deal with was the passing of a Budget in this Assembly. Another is the passing of the approach to welfare, on which all the parties did good work to protect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. Of course, we all face the huge challenges of establishing the bodies that will deal with the past and so forth; namely, the historical investigations unit (HIU), the independent commission for information retrieval (ICIR) and the reconciliation and implementation group. Challenges are there, but thus far there is a commitment; it is obvious that there is seriousness, and we are looking to get this done within the time frames that we have set ourselves.

Mr Campbell: Given, then, that the deputy First Minister is tremendously encouraged and optimistic — he mentioned the HIU — is he now in a somewhat different position from the one he was in a couple of years ago, when he said that he could not outline what he had been engaged in in the past: the murder and the attempted murder of dozens if not scores of innocent civilians and members of the security forces? He said then that to do so would destabilise the institutions. Does he now feel confident enough to do so without threatening stability?

Mr M McGuinness: I should have anticipated, and I did, that a discordant note would be sounded during the debate. I accurately predicted which Member it would come from. During the course of his contribution, he may have attributed remarks to me that I never made. That said, people should be assured that I am committed, as are others, to the implementation of this agreement.

Given the Member's track record of supporting British state forces, it is quite obvious that he has been very supportive of many of the activities of those people, which resulted in many people losing their lives. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. If you ask a question, have the courtesy to listen to the answer.

T6. Mrs Cameron asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on how OFMDFM is tackling sexual and domestic violence in Northern Ireland. (AQT 2026/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: Junior Minister McCann will answer this question with your permission.

Ms J McCann: The Member will know that there is now a ministerial group looking at tackling domestic and sexual violence and, indeed, there is a strategy. There was a consultation with many of the stakeholder groups. People had some issues with the strategy as first drafted, but they are now well advanced with the incorporation of that strategy. That strategy will be going forward, not as a separate domestic violence strategy but as a domestic violence and sexual violence strategy.

2.45 pm

Mr Speaker: There is just time for a supplementary. Hopefully, the Minister will be kind enough to give you a written answer.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the junior Minister for her answer. Can she give us more detail on what protections within that strategy may be available for children living in households affected by domestic violence?

Mr Speaker: We must now move on.

Social Development

Mr Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn.

Mr Storey: When providing permanent or temporary sites for Irish Travellers, the Housing Executive has legal obligations to take into account the needs of both the Traveller community and secure tenants.

Under article 28A of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1983, the Housing Executive has obligations to provide such caravan sites as appear to be appropriate for the accommodation of caravans of the Irish Traveller community. Under article 40 of the 1983 Order, the Housing Executive has obligations to consult with secure tenants about changes that affect them. The Member will be aware that an Adjournment debate on temporary housing sites in Antrim has been tabled by Mr Trevor Clarke and scheduled for Tuesday 3 February. That follows on from correspondence I received from Mr Clarke in relation to the issue.

Mr Kinahan: I thank the Minister for his answer. When I put this question in, we were not sure when the debate was going to take place, so I know that there will be a little bit of duplication. There are rights and responsibilities on all sides. Have other sites in Antrim actually been considered? Are you or your Department considering other sites for the future, if indeed it is a temporary application?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for the supplementary. Considerable concern has been expressed by the council and elected Members in relation to this situation. This is an operational issue for the Housing Executive. It raises the way in which situations like this occur under emergency regulations and procedures. I have read through some of the comments made and concerns raised, and they certainly give the impression that it would have been a better approach if it had been identified with the community rather than imposed on the community. This is an operational issue for the Housing Executive, and I will check with the Housing Executive, before the debate tomorrow night, what other sites were considered prior to the decision to use the current site in Rathenraw.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, in your response, you talked about the Travellers' rights. However, each and every MLA will be inundated with enquiries about the rights of ordinary individuals who have housing stress and housing need. What is the Housing Executive doing to address their needs? Are we going to see more camps set up to alleviate the pain and suffering of ordinary individuals within our communities who are under housing stress?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question and for the way in which he has raised the issue, following on from concerns that he has raised.

We always need to have a balance in respect of rights. No particular group has an exclusive right in these situations. We need to ensure that the concerns that are raised by local residents in a stable and settled environment are not completely ignored and that those concerns are taken on board. Yes, as I said, there is an obligation on the Housing Executive to operate within current legislation, but that should not in any way undermine or underestimate the right that it has to take into consideration due regard to other people who live in settled accommodation.

Mr Dallat: In the interests of equality and balance and given that there has been a lot of representation on the side of the community, may I be so bold as to ask about the rights of the Travelling community and how their needs are assessed? They have been travelling the roads of Ireland for, perhaps, hundreds of years, a lot longer than some of the people who complain about them.

Mr Storey: I assume that there is a question in there somewhere. Let me answer it because there is almost an assumption in what the Member says that the issue is ignored and is somehow being treated in a trivial way. It is not being treated in a trivial way. Maybe we could have an understanding of who it is that determines, for example, the accommodation needs of the Travelling community. The Housing Executive has responsibility for establishing the accommodation needs of the Travelling community through the comprehensive 'Travellers' Accommodation Needs Assessment', which is a fairly wordy description of trying to meet the needs of a particular section of the community. The Housing Executive commissioned comprehensive assessments in 2002 and 2008, and I understand that a third is expected soon, which will give us a view of the current needs of the Travelling community.

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister distance himself from the highly offensive comments made by his party colleague Mr Trevor Clarke, when he referred to "ordinary" people?

Mr Storey: Comments have been made about the Travelling community issue. I prefer to address the core issue, which is how we have come to a situation in which these concerns have been raised. How do we work with the community, including some of your colleagues on Antrim Borough Council, who have expressed concerns about the situation, to find a resolution in a way that addresses the needs of Travellers?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. Indeed, this question is quite topical, as Members may be aware that the issue will be the subject of a Public Accounts Committee meeting on 11 February. Trinity Housing Association received an advance land purchase grant totalling £835,215 on 27 February 2008 for the purchase of a site at 19 Downpatrick Road, Crossgar, on the basis of a 12-unit social housing proposal. Due to a prolonged process with Planning Service over site character issues, objections and amenity space, the site has not been developed. OakleeTrinity is drawing up its proposal for refunding the grant, which will be submitted to the Housing Executive this month for its consideration and approval.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer and for his work on putting in place plans to recover the funds. Of course, the funds were given to meet the demand for social housing in the south Down area, particularly around Crossgar and Loughinisland. Will he now pledge to use the money, once it is recovered, to ensure that the social housing need in Crossgar and Loughinisland is met?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary. Obviously, I am keen to see a resolution of the issue. It is a substantial amount of money. I do not want to pre-empt anything that will happen at the Public Accounts Committee, but some interesting information will be conveyed at that meeting.

As for meeting the needs in the area that the Member referred to, I remain committed to ensuring that, when that need is identified and brought to the attention of my Department, the housing associations, the Housing Executive and, indeed, Co-ownership, which provides another means of ensuring that we deliver good housing to our communities, I will not be found wanting in ensuring that, when possible, that need is addressed.

Mrs McKevitt: Surely, Minister, you have had an assurance from the Department of Finance and Personnel that, if this money is recovered, it will be spent on social housing.

Mr Storey: It would be only due diligence on my part to wait until we have a conclusion to the matter. The Housing Executive has been closely monitoring the scheme's progress and has been aware of issues surrounding it, such as planning issues. This has been going on for a considerable time, and the Housing Executive wanted to afford the then Trinity Housing Association every opportunity to achieve a successful planning outcome. However, we find ourselves in the position where the housing association will have to come back and put plans before the Housing Executive on how it will address the issue. When that happens, decisions can be made on what happens in the future.

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer so far. Since the introduction of advanced land purchase, how many have been unsuccessful and required settlement?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her question. This is part of a good news story, but it is also one of the challenges of ALPs. There have been only two ALPs to date when a grant has been paid out but schemes have not progressed. One of those was with Trinity for the site referred to earlier at 19 Downpatrick Road, Crossgar. The other ALP was for a Helm site on Great George's Street in Belfast. A settlement plan has been put in place to ensure the full settlement of the grant paid. The figure for that is substantially more than for the site on the Downpatrick Road. The figure for the Great George's Street site will be £8·1 million by the end of 2016-17, which will involve the offsetting of the ALP grant paid against future schemes. To date, £1·54 million has been recovered in that scheme.

The Housing Executive has advised me that it is not aware of any cases other than the ones in Crossgar and Great George's Street in which the ALP scheme was approved and an ALP payment was made and subsequently removed.

Mr Storey: There are no targets, league tables or incentives used in determining whether individual claimants will have their benefits sanctioned. A decision to impose a sanction on a benefit claimant will be made by a decision-maker in the Social Security Agency and will be based on the relevant regulations and individual circumstances of the case.

I refer to the nine previous answers on the matter of sanctions, the latest one being in November 2014, which also state that there are no targets, league tables or incentives used in determining whether individual claimants will have their benefits sanctioned.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Minister for his answer. The reason why he has faced persistent questioning on the issue is that similar assurances were given by UK Ministers, but evidence is coming forward that, whilst the policy was not to use incentives, they were being used in practice. Has the Department undertaken any investigations to ensure that the practice of using incentives and league tables is not operating?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member. Obviously, we are in a process in which we are constantly viewing the issue in terms of what happens in the rest of the United Kingdom as far as the roll-out of welfare reform is concerned.

It is something that we endeavour to keep ourselves apprised of on a day and daily basis.

3.00 pm

It might be useful to outline to the Member what proposals on benefit sanctions will be brought forward under the proposed Welfare Reform Bill. As Members know, the Bill will come back to the House next week. I am sure that you will all appreciate that I am looking forward to that. I want to ensure, as the deputy First Minister said previously, that we make progress on this issue; that is vital.

Under universal credit, for claimants who are subject to all work-related requirements, there will be three levels of sanction: higher, medium and lower. The higher level sanctions will be imposed on claimants who fail to comply with their most important labour market requirements, such as applying for a vacancy or accepting an offer of work. The sanctions will be three months for the first failure, six months for a second failure, and 18 months for a third failure committed within 52 weeks of a previous failure that resulted in a 26-week sanction. Currently, sanctions for these types of failure are generally set on a case-by-case basis and can be between one and 26 weeks. The reform makes the consequences of failure clearer and stronger. I am well aware that I am running close to the end of my time, so I will give the Member the full answer on the higher level, the medium level and the lower level after the debate.

Mr Speaker: Indeed you were. I call Maurice Devenney.

Mr Devenney: How is Atos incentivised to meet its contractual obligations?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. Atos provides medical support services under a contract with the Department for Social Development. The contract has a robust performance management regime and includes joint monthly, quarterly and annual performance review meetings. Atos does not make decisions on benefit entitlement. It provides professional medical advice to the Department's decision makers who use this and all the other available evidence to make a decision.

There are a number of contractual service levels, such as length of time to complete an assessment, quality of assessment, and claimant satisfaction. Where performance does not meet the contracted levels, financial penalties are imposed. The level of reported customer satisfaction is consistently above 90%. Each month, an independent market research company randomly selects claimants and seeks written feedback about the Atos assessment. Atos performance is also independently monitored and evaluated by the Social Security Agency health assessment, and Atos is currently providing a high standard of medical quality.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, you attempted to outline some of the flexibilities pertaining to the sanctions. Can you give the House an assurance that we will have our own bespoke model of sanctions and not impose the higher rate of sanctions outlined at Westminster?

Mr Storey: It is vital that, when the Bill comes back to the House next week, Members see that every effort has been made to ensure two things: first, that we have parity with the rest of the United Kingdom in the framework of the legislation; and, secondly, that, following on from the Stormont House Agreement, we have put in place mitigating measures to deal with areas of concern.

Members need to remind themselves that there is a five party leaders' agreement in relation to this issue. A lot of work will have to be done in terms of the regulations. I can assure the Member that there are many hundreds of regulations on how we roll out what is a very complex and challenging process, in both legislation and timetable. I assure the Member that I am doing all I can to ensure that people are informed and that my Department manages this process in a way that focuses on the people of Northern Ireland, to whom it will deliver a service.

Mr B McCrea: The Minister said that he is keeping abreast of things on a day and daily basis in the United Kingdom. Is he aware of evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee that you are much more likely to get sanctioned than to find a job and that, in fact, sanctions are ineffective? Would he care to give his assessment of that evidence?

Mr Storey: I referred to this earlier. We have seen a number of ongoing judicial reviews. There seems to be a difference in elements of implementation in parts of the rest of the United Kingdom in how it is being played out. The Commons Select Committee is taking evidence, and there have been comments in recent days about sanctions. We need to keep the focus here on ensuring that our welfare system is constructed in such a way that it is not a barrier to work and society does not become dependent on having access to that welfare system, but it is there as a safety net for those in need. I sit comfortably with that. I also believe that in such a system, where necessary, sanctions are appropriate and should be used.

Mr Storey: The task force chair is scheduled to brief the Social Development Committee on the task force report on 12 February, and my Department will publish it shortly after that. Given this, it would be inappropriate for me to comment extensively on the task force’s recommendations until then. However, I can say that my Department takes the task force's recommendations very seriously and has begun to take forward some actions on a number of the recommendations. We are working on an action plan to implement, as soon as possible, the remainder that fall within the Department’s responsibilities.

Before Christmas, my Department also responded to a request from the Housing Rights Service, which runs the mortgage debt advice service, for additional funding of £15,000 this year to meet an increase in demand for that advice service.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. Thank you, Minister. If I caught you right, you said that you acceded to the request for £15,000, and I welcome that. It is clear from the Minister's answer that our sympathies are with those who find themselves in negative equity or who lose their homes, sometimes through no fault of their own. We are talking about ordinary people, as the Minister understands. The people that we serve are all ordinary; we do not distinguish between Traveller or settled, black or white, or whatever religion people have. Will the Minister continue to push as hard as possible for those who have really lost out in the boom? As the Minister knows, we helped the banks that made the loans. Will he give a continued commitment to make sure that we give as much help as possible to those who lost their homes?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his comments. The task force made 20 recommendations covering a broad range of issues. Many different sectors and organisations — including mortgage lenders, borrowers, the advice sector and government — have a role to play in improving the position for borrowers in mortgage arrears.

The task force work focused on the two core objectives of helping and encouraging people to help themselves and increasing the number of people who seek help early. When the report is published, I think that the Member will see that the focus is on ensuring that we use all possible mechanisms and means to help those in need, and that those who have a responsibility will not be allowed to, in any way, abdicate their responsibility. Collectively, we will try to ensure that we put together a package based on the recommendations that is there to help and not hinder.

Mr G Robinson: Who is to blame for Northern Ireland having the highest level of mortgage arrears in the United Kingdom?

Mr Storey: Well, now, there is a question that could take some time to answer. It maybe follows on from the comments made by the Member opposite. It is neither possible nor perhaps appropriate for me to assign blame to a single sector or group of people. We came through a very difficult and challenging time. The housing market bubble from 2004 to 2007 and the subsequent downturn were a result of a number of factors. All those involved — I have made reference to them already, whether it be the mortgage lenders, the regulators, the banks or the borrowers — contributed to the current mortgage debt landscape. It is a challenge for us and something that we should not, in any way, underestimate. That is why we were keen to set up the task force and why the recommendations will be helpful.

There is an onus on all the organisations that I mentioned to learn the lessons of the past and not to replicate them. I do have concerns, particularly when I see the housing market in parts of the rest of the United Kingdom beginning to heat up again. It would not be long until we found ourselves back in a cycle where families were facing challenges. Caution is always a good policy and, on this one, should take us to a place where people recognise their responsibilities and realise that they need to display a responsible attitude so that we do not repeat the problems of the past.

Mrs Dobson: Minister, people facing mortgage arrears in the rest of the UK have access to a wide range of interest-free loans and other initiatives not available to homeowners here. Even a £2 million fund could offer support of £5,000 and help 400 families here. That compares favourably to the £10 million co-ownership scheme in next year's Budget, which will allow up to 330 new homes to be purchased. Minister, why do you believe that a relief scheme is not important in Northern Ireland?

Mr Storey: We need to use various tools to address the problem. I am always cautious not to put all our eggs in one basket. We need evidence that will lead to a decision based on an assurance that we are going to get an outcome. I have had discussions with the co-ownership people in Northern Ireland and intend to meet them very soon.

One of the big challenges that Northern Ireland will face in the next months is the future of our housing policy. The Member will be aware, as is the House, that a review is going on into where all that may take us. I have decisions to make that will structure a framework for the future delivery of good, affordable housing, not only in the public sector, for which we have a responsibility, but in ensuring that we create an environment for the private sector where progress can be made. I honestly think that we are not going to exclude any potential plan or scheme. However, there needs to be an evidence base to show that, by introducing a particular scheme, we will get the necessary outcome and buy-in from the sector, which will give it the confidence that progress can be made and that we will deliver a good product.

3.15 pm

Mr Speaker: Order. We are just short of time to allow the next listed question. We therefore move on to topical questions.

T1. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister for Social Development, given that his Department takes the lead on fuel poverty, to explain why, although there have been substantial reductions in the wholesale price of energy, these have not been passed on to our people, and to further explain how he plans to tackle this issue. (AQT 2031/11-15)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. I am glad that he thinks that I have such power over the suppliers of oil and gas that I can command them to reduce their prices. We have, though, seen a reduction in the price of home heating oil and some of the other forms of energy supply.

The Member referred to fuel poverty, and we should not underestimate what a huge issue that is. The three contributory factors to fuel poverty are income, fuel prices and energy efficiency. My Department has introduced the new affordable warmth scheme to improve the energy efficiency of those vulnerable households that are most at risk from fuel poverty, and it is primarily targeted at households with an income of less than £20,000.

The 2011 house condition survey stated that the rate of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland was 42%, compared with 15% in England. However, almost 70% of households in Northern Ireland rely on oil as their main source of heating. Although I welcome the fact that home heating oil costs are now at a five-year low, having reduced to 2009 levels, which will have a positive impact on low-income families, we wait to see whether costs will be further reduced. If we can encourage suppliers to continue to go down that road, we should do so, because it will certainly have an impact.

A piece of work that we are now doing is looking at the impact of the reduction in the price of home heating oil on the fuel poverty figures.

Mr Speaker: Your time is up, Minister.

Mr Storey: I hope to be in a position to give some response on that very soon.

Mr B McCrea: The Minister seems to be a trifle confused on the matter. He finished by saying that there has been a fall in the wholesale price of energy. However, that has not been passed on to consumers. Some 42% of households in Northern Ireland are living in fuel poverty, but that is because we use the 10% measure. Does the Minister think that that is the appropriate measure to use to assess fuel poverty, or should we adopt the English model? Should we be doing more to make sure that our most vulnerable people get the benefit of falling energy prices?

Mr Storey: I certainly believe that we should take every opportunity to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society get the advantage of falling prices. However, we also need to remember that we have a high dependency on one particular fuel.

You are not comparing like with like when you compare Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom, because many in the rest of the United Kingdom have access to gas, and have had for a long time. The Member will know that the concentration of the gas network in Northern Ireland is primarily around the city of Belfast, and we have not seen the possibility of that being made available to other parts of Northern Ireland. I would like that roll-out to be done quicker so that it could have an impact on fuel poverty and benefit consumers here.

I remind the Member that the three components for identifying fuel poverty are still income, fuel prices and energy efficiency. It is not all down to the one particular element that the Member focused on.

T2. Mr Eastwood asked the Minister for Social Development whether the social housing new-build target will be met. (AQT 2032/11-15)

Mr Storey: It will be a huge challenge for my Department to meet the target for social housing. Every Minister who has come to the House in recent days has used the same reason, which is the Budget.

The reduction in my Department's budget has created a challenge, and I have concerns that it will be a challenge to meet that target. However, that will not deflect from the focus that we need to have on delivering on the targets that we have set. I am more interested in ensuring that we continue to focus on the delivery of good, affordable homes for the people in Northern Ireland and that we do it in a way that gives them confidence that we are moving in the right direction. In the next number of weeks, the Saville report will give us a stock condition survey of where we are, and when you look at those who are currently in Housing Executive properties, you will see that there is huge need for a huge investment, not only in new builds but in existing stock.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for his answer. Some people would say that, even if we do meet the targets, we are still not meeting the real number that we need to build across the North, and, in my constituency in particular, that is very stark. Some people suggest we could alleviate that by allowing and supporting the Housing Executive to find creative ways of borrowing money or whatever to build new houses. Does the Minister have a view on that?

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for that. In terms of the reform programme that the Housing Executive is engaged in, I have met the board. Last week, I met the chief executive and the chair, and they are in the process of presenting us with an interim investment strategy and looking at the overall and long-term future of the Housing Executive. I am keen to listen to the plea, almost, that was made to me by the Housing Executive, which was that we give it new tools and structures that would enable it to do more in terms of investment.

The Housing Executive believes that it has not been able to do what others have been doing, and it has felt somewhat undermined by that, and I think that it has good reason to make that argument. I would like to make progress in the coming weeks and months so that I would be in the position to give the Housing Executive a different model of delivery, not only in terms of new builds but in the way in which it generates money, so that it can be invested in the current stock. No one should be under any illusion about the huge maintenance challenge in the Housing Executive.

All Members are well aware of the complaints and the issues that Housing Executive tenants raise with us. I am keen to create a new future for the Housing Executive. To give the Member some sense of where the Housing Executive is at on the issue: it has now divided its operations into landlord function and regional function. I think that that should have happened a long, long time ago. So, the executive, I believe, is making progress on that —

Mr Speaker: The two minutes is up, Minister.

Mr Storey: — and I hope that that will contribute to a new model in the future that we can all agree to.

Mr Speaker: Mr Ross Hussey is not in his place.

T4. Mr Devenney asked the Minister for Social Development for an update on the Tullyally community centre in Londonderry. (AQT 2034/11-15)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his interest in this issue in his constituency. I also thank him for giving me the opportunity to visit the city of Londonderry some time ago and to see at first hand what was going on, not only in Tullyally but in other parts of the city. I know that the Member also has an interest in what goes on in the Fountain. I believe that we will have some good news regarding the Fountain. You will know that an announcement was made about an urban village, and my Department is going to work through that.

We have provided £200,000 to meet the majority of the costs of the refurbishment of the Tullyally community centre. They say that you should never look a gift horse in the mouth. However, the £200,000 was a substantial investment and a lot more than the city council contributed, which was £20,000. It was disappointing that all it could find was £20,000. However, the work is now progressing. We will put back into the heart of Tullyally a centre that will give that community hope and a focal point where a wide variety of activities will take place. I was very encouraged by the work that was going on on the day that I visited Tullyally. I look forward to going back very soon when the work is completed and the building is up and is being used for the benefit of the community.

Mr Devenney: I am delighted with the Minister's response. I ask the Minister to come down and visit the centre when the work has been completed to see for himself the good work that will be carried out in that centre. It is a very vital community resource for Tullyally.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for the invitation. I am always glad to be on the road. It makes a change from being in the city. Since I came to office, I have spent a considerable amount of time in the city — east, west, north and south. I am planning to go to the south next week. I thank the Member for the invitation.

On a serious note in terms of Tullyally community centre, it is disappointing that it got to the point it had reached in terms of the condition of the building. I am well aware that there were huge challenges around legal issues and all that. I pay tribute to my staff in the north-west regeneration office for the hard work they did to get us to the point where all of this has been delivered and the money was secured. I look forward to going to the maiden city and to visit Tullyally.

T5. Mr Dallat asked the Minister for Social Development to tell the House what sense of urgency there is about the terrible and shameful problem of homelessness, given that he will be aware that homelessness is back in the news today, with 18,000 people, one third of whom have children, presenting themselves as homeless. (AQT 2035/11-15)

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. He is absolutely right: over the last number of days, there has been a particular focus. You will be aware of the event that was held in City Hall, where there was a call by the current mayor of the city for a coordinated approach. You will have seen the comments that were made in terms of the need that there is.

I am happy to give the Member the assurance that this is an issue of vital importance. It cannot be ignored. A huge amount of good work has been done by organisations to at least deal with the issue in an interim period. We will always have the challenge of how we deal with this issue in a long-term and very strategic way. The Housing Executive has its strategy. Strategies are all well and good; they have to be implemented and managed.

I certainly believe that we need to continue to keep the focus on the issue of homelessness in a way that keeps people at the centre. Let us always remember that, when we use statistics and phrases like "homelessness", we are talking about real people who have particular, and sometimes very complex, issues. I do not underestimate the challenge that that creates for us all.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer. Clearly, he demonstrates a sense of compassion for those people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves without a home. Will the Minister assure us that, in the future, voluntary organisations such as the Simon Community, St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and others are central in helping to solve this terrible problem?

Mr Storey: Yes, there is clearly a vital role for those organisations and others. I visited an organisation — I will not name it — in the city just before Christmas that does an outstanding job in terms of the way it provides for people who present themselves as homeless. I intend to do more work with that organisation and others, and I assure the Member that the organisations that he referred to and others will continue to work with my Department, the Housing Executive and other statutory agencies, because this is an issue that we cannot ignore. It is an issue that will not go away and one that, collectively, we need to keep a focus on.

I repeat this, and I do not want Members to think that I do so because these are simply words: let us remember that we are dealing with real people here. Just before Christmas, I saw a Simon Community billboard that said that we all need to remember that we are only one wage packet away from homelessness. Some people could be very dismissive of that, but I think that it is a telling reality. When I went to a particular location in this city and walked through the door, I saw someone from my town whom I never thought that I would see in such a set of circumstances. That was a very stark reminder to me of the issue that we face as a society.

3.30 pm

Question for Urgent Oral Answer

Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary.

Ms McCorley asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for his assessment of the cancellation of operations at Musgrave Park Hospital, including what action he is taking to remedy this.

Mr Wells (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Like health services across the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland, we continue to face considerable pressures on our emergency departments (EDs), and this has been particularly true over the last number of weeks. This has resulted in the health trusts having to postpone some elective procedures in order to provide the additional bed, staff and theatre capacity needed to manage and maintain the safety of patients.

I regret that a number of non-urgent elective orthopaedic procedures have had to be postponed in the Belfast Trust, and I apologise to the patients affected. The Belfast Trust has had a 12% increase in fracture patients, all of whom required an immediate operation and post-operative care in hospital. The trusts will continue to make every effort to deliver effective, high-quality care to the people of Northern Ireland and to reschedule these patients as soon as possible.

My Department, through the work of the unscheduled care task group, has been working closely with Health and Social Care (HSC) to ensure that our emergency care services are better prepared for this winter. Considerable progress has been made in better planning for periods of increased demand; better access to specialty services, thus avoiding emergency departments; and developing indicators and standards for services, including those for our frail and elderly.

My Department has allocated £5 million of additional funding to the HSC this winter. In addition, £750,000 has been made available from the Health and Social Care Board's baseline funds and allocated equally to each trust to support the delivery of unscheduled care services this winter. The Health and Social Care Board continues to work with the trusts to address the increasing trauma and orthopaedic pressures and recently agreed an additional £4 million for this service, which will increase capacity in the Southern Trust and help to alleviate pressure in the Belfast Trust.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for that answer. A local newspaper has reported that, rather than this being a one-off or rare occurrence, since November, Musgrave has, at times, been used as a holding bay and seems, at times, to be hiding an overspill of patients from the RVH. How does the Minister respond to that report?

Mr Wells: First, I think that the honourable Member for West Belfast needs to look at the statistics. In October, November and December 2012, our EDs treated 54,606 people.

In 2013, the equivalent figure was 55,057 patients, and, in 2014, it was 56,656 patients. I make it absolutely clear that Musgrave Park was not used as a holding bay for the elderly. Patients in Musgrave Park received the same extremely high quality of care as they would have received in any other Belfast Trust hospital.

I resent the comments made by that newspaper. It is very sad that a member of staff from Musgrave Park took it on himself or herself to give an anonymous interview to the paper. It is simply not true. It is a totally unwarranted criticism of the staff of Musgrave Park Hospital. The hospital was quite rightly acting in a very difficult situation to relieve the pressure on the Mater, the City and the Royal to get over a tremendously difficult period, as is traditionally the case. What I can say — the figures verify it — is that our hospitals in Belfast treated a significantly larger number of people and did so without the emergency situation that arose on 8 January last year, and I pay tribute to them.

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for tabling the question for urgent oral answer, which is a very important question to the Minister. As we know, Musgrave Park Hospital services all of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister assure the House that all those postponements will be dealt with in a timely manner?

Mr Wells: I certainly can. We have given an undertaking that the 179 cancellations for all of Northern Ireland will be rescheduled for between three and six weeks after the original date. That gives a clear certainty to those people. I know that it is difficult and that many of them had to arrange care facilities and had to organise so many aspects of their lives to be booked in for those elective procedures and then found that they had been cancelled. However, one has to remember that, every month in Northern Ireland, 4,600 procedures of that type are carried out in our hospitals. That gives an indication of how small a percentage 179 represents: it is about 3% or 4%. That, plus the guarantee that their procedure will be carried out very quickly, is, in my opinion, the best that we can do for those people in very difficult circumstances. We are making the same commitment to the people in Musgrave that, as soon as we can, they will be back on the list for their procedure.

Mr Speaker: I call Ms Maeve McLaughlin. OK, and we move on. I call Basil — sorry, I beg your pardon — Fearghal McKinney. I beg your pardon, Basil. You caught my eye.

Mr McKinney: We should all feel the utmost sympathy for those who have found themselves not able to have the operation that they were promised and also angry that we find ourselves debating these issues once again on the Floor. Will the Minister agree with me that, just like last year's A&E crisis, this situation is simply another symptom, not a cause, and that the real cause is a failed plan with no funding?

Mr Wells: The honourable Member has considerable contacts in the Republic of Ireland. During the same period, when our staff were managing very effectively in terribly difficult situations, there were 600 patients on trolleys in hospitals in the Irish Republic. Twelve health trusts in England had to declare emergency situations, yet they were not experiencing the growth in demand that we had — 7·5% or over 200,000 extra patients — on top of a huge rise in January 2014. It is not a question of a failed plan. It is that we cannot build capacity in Northern Ireland to cover every eventuality. When you think about it, for maybe 20 days a year, we have that huge demand on our services. If we were to build that capacity into our hospitals, you would be financing capacity that was not being used for the rest of the year. That is the difficulty that we face. We will inevitably encounter those difficulties at the start of each year. All I can say is that we overcame them much better than the Republic of Ireland did, much better than parts of southern England did and much better than last year.

Mrs Dobson: Like the Member who tabled the question for urgent oral answer, for which I commend her, I think that it is concerning that Musgrave Park is turning into a holding centre for the overspill from the Royal. These are real people, Minister, and a cancelled operation very often represents another person left waiting longer in agony. Will the Minister confirm or deny that the waiting time at the Belfast Trust for spinal appointments is sitting at 44 weeks? If that is the case, what is he going to do about it?

Mr Wells: I think it unfortunate that the honourable Member for Upper Bann has repeated the accusation that the patients in Musgrave believe that they are being treated in a holding bay. That is demonstrating an attitude to patients that I do not want to see in any part of the health service that I am responsible for. It is entirely unacceptable, and, indeed, it is untrue.

I agree that we are facing high pressures, but the stats tell us that. They tell us that we have a 7·5% growth in demand. No one can contest that; it is a fact of life. Therefore, it is bound to put pressure on our clinicians and lead to an increase in waiting times. However, the point is that, by adopting the flexibility of postponing the non-urgent orthopaedics and other operations and having the flexibility to move patients around the various hospitals in the Belfast Trust, we managed to avoid a very critical and damaging situation. Therefore, rather than criticising the chief executive and directors of the Belfast Trust for what they have done, we should be congratulating them because, as a result of their action, we avoided a major emergency situation. At the end of the day, whilst it is very distressing for the individuals, the numbers are a very small proportion of the 56,000 people who were treated.

Mr Dickson: First of all, Mr Speaker, I offer my apologies for not being in my place for an earlier question.

Mr Speaker: Can I just point out that this is not the appropriate time to do that? I accept the apology in the circumstances, since I called you to your feet. However, we usually wait until after Question Time to deal with such matters.

Mr Dickson: Minister, thank you for your answers so far. But 110 scheduled operations have been cancelled since November in Musgrave Park. Patients have been left with nowhere to go because you were not able to provide care packages for them. Elective surgery has been cancelled again today in Belfast City Hospital. Is this simply not an indication of the abject failure of your predecessor? Your honeymoon period is over. What are you doing about it?

Mr Wells: Some day, Mr Dickson, you may have the privilege of standing at this podium, and you will just see what is going on with pressures in the Belfast Trust. Let me mention to you that, currently, only seven fracture patients are receiving care in Musgrave Park Hospital: that was the position at 30 January 2015. At one stage during the holiday period, there were 35 such patients. These fracture patients have been treated in the fracture service in the Royal Victoria Hospital. It is worth saying that a recent report has indicated that 220 operations are postponed every day in England. We are talking about seven operations in Belfast, but that happens every day in England, where there is much more resourcing, much more concentration of services and bigger acute units. So, I still maintain that what our staff achieved over the last month has been remarkable. Indeed, I have written to every chief executive and every chair of the five boards, plus the Ambulance Service trust, to say, "Well done. You faced enormous pressures, and you managed to overcome them without the meltdown that many of my detractors predicted."

Mr B McCrea: Minister, you seem a little frustrated in the way that this questioning is going. Do you feel that the press has unnecessarily sensationalised this issue and that, were people to be fully apprised of the matter, they would come to a different conclusion about the response of your Department and the people who work for it?

Mr Wells: I thank the honourable Member for that question. I find it frustrating, as I go round all the hospitals and trusts, that so much excellent work goes on and I find it very difficult to attract press interest to cover that. Part of the problem that the press faced in January was that we did not have the situation that emerged in early January last year, so, effectively, there was not much of a story. I well remember a headline that pleased me; one that appeared on the front page of 'The Irish News'. On day one, it criticised me because we did not have enough staff to deal with the huge waiting list. On the following day, reporters went to the waiting room in the Royal and there were only two people there. Then I was criticised for having so many staff on to treat too few patients. You simply cannot win in this business.

At the end of the day, we are down to a small number of people who, quite rightly, are annoyed that their non-essential, non-urgent procedure — sorry, non-urgent, not non-essential, procedure — was postponed for a short period to enable many thousands of people to be brought through the system and treated at EDs. I think that was the right decision, and the scale at which it was being implemented was right. It, therefore, indicates that the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), who is now the chief executive of the Belfast Trust, felt that he had the flexibility to do that. He will not receive a single word of criticism from me for doing what he had to do. That is why I kept out of that debate. My role is only to get involved when things are not going right. I was getting messages at all times of the morning from the chief executives telling me how it was going, and, in my opinion, they were doing a good job and did not need political interference.

3.45 pm

Mr Allister: Is it not time that the Minister faced up to the fact that at the heart of this problem is the Department-driven policy of reducing the number of beds, so that every time there is a logjam to which that contributes in A&E, you then have the knock-on effect of the cancellations, which are very severe for those affected? Is it not time to review that and to reverse that policy of continuing to reduce the number of beds?

Mr Wells: I have a lot of time for the honourable Member, but every time he sees light at the end of the tunnel, he goes out and orders more tunnel. There is always darkness, gloom and doom. The problem recently was not the lack of beds; it was the difficulty in getting people out of hospitals through care packages, intermediate care beds etc. Therefore, at any given time, there were people who were perfectly able to leave hospital, but the difficulty was in finding somewhere they could be cared for. We had enough beds to deal with them.

It is worth saying that, in the Southern Trust, there was only one cancellation of an elective procedure in the entire trust area. I think that is quite remarkable. The number of beds in Northern Ireland is still in excess of the UK average. The Appleby report recently indicated that we are 25% over-provided for in comparison with the rest of the nation. So, you can hardly accuse us of under-provision. The honourable Member should at least recognise that, since Mr Poots was appointed Minister, we have taken on 780 extra full-time equivalent nurses, who are on the ground, providing care in our hospitals for ED and elective surgery. Will he at least recognise that that indicates that we are genuinely committed to the service and are doing all that we can in difficult circumstances?

Mr Poots: Sir Liam Donaldson's report last week identified people wanting to sensationalise. Does the Minister agree that, today, there are those in this Chamber who are seeking to sensationalise? Will he join me in congratulating the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Nursing Officer and all those who have given leadership and ensured that we have had a much better winter this year as a result of a lot of hard work that has been carried out over the period since last year?

Mr Wells: Absolutely, and I pay tribute to the work that the Member did as Minister. After the situation that developed in the Royal last year, he asked the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) to step in and do a very important piece of work in order to make life easier this year. We also had the College of Emergency Medicine coming in and providing expert guidance on the matter. As a result of those steps, we were able to deal with a terribly difficult situation.

It was mentioned earlier that I was in regular contact with the various chief executives. When I say "in contact", I mean it was not unusual for me to get a text message at 2.00 am from a chief executive who clearly was still on duty and was walking the wards and telling me what was going on in Daisy Hill, the City Hospital, Craigavon or wherever. Indeed, as I mentioned in Question Time the other day, the CMO/chief executive of the Belfast Trust — because he is still carrying on both roles — was seen walking the wards of the Mater and the Royal on Christmas morning. He was never asked to do that by me. It was not part of his job description, but, such was his commitment to making certain that we came through this very difficult period, he was on the ground.

We risk belittling the huge effort that was made by staff. Therefore, we should not take the opportunity to give the staff a good kicking; we should be saying, "Yes, life was tough, but we admire the way that you overcame a terribly difficult situation".

Mrs Overend: My constituent Archie Thompson, who was on the BBC news last week, feels as if he is on a waiting list to get onto another waiting list and is not actually getting onto the list for surgery. With 110 cancelled operations, how many more people like Archie will require an apology from the Minister for delayed operations and delays in progressing onto the surgery list?

Mr Wells: As I said to the House earlier, we are now down to seven people in Musgrave Park in that situation. We are working our way rapidly through the 179 who had their procedures postponed, and we have given the commitment of three to six weeks. If the lady would like to write to me about that gentleman, I would welcome that because I am always keen to hear about individual cases, and we will see where he stands on the present list. Be careful because, of course, some of those patients have been assigned to two clinics in the private sector, and we have reinstated those who had a date and an expectation. We are working our way through those. Indeed, we expect that all of them will be out of the system by the first quarter of 2015-16. The difficulty comes next year, because we allocated £63 million to elective surgery in the private sector last year, and I do not see where we will get another £63 million to fund that in 2015-16.

Mr McGimpsey: I agree with the Minister that staff have performed wonderfully for us in Belfast in the A&Es. However, I point out to him that, even though we have highly professional, dedicated staff, we still have, in terms of four-hour waits, the worst A&E waiting times in the UK. We look forward to seeing the new figures coming out in a week's time. Is it not an indictment of the board of the Belfast Trust that the Chief Medical Officer has had to be drafted in as chief executive of the Belfast Trust? The board had one year to appoint a replacement to Colm Donaghy and has failed to do that. Is that not an example of that board dropping the ball?

Mr Wells: I should let the honourable Member know that the four-hour waiting list in December 2012 was 75·4%. At the minute, a very similar figure of 76·7% of patients are seen within four hours. So, there has not been a cataclysmic drop in performance. On the 12-hour waiting times, the overall trend for 2014-15 to the end of December continues to improve, with a 32·4% reduction in the number of patients waiting more than 12 hours over the last period.

We have grasped the nettle — in fact, some hospitals go many months without a 12-hour wait. Therefore, real work is being done on the ground to reduce waiting times. We all want to meet the UK target, but, remember, there is a difference in the measurement of some of the waiting times between ourselves and the rest of the UK. You are not comparing like with like, but we have achieved significant progress on the 12-hour waits.

Mr Speaker: Members will now take their ease while we change the Table.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)

Committee Business

Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly acknowledges the key role our further education and higher education institutions play in growing the local economy and delivering on the Programme for Government's cross-cutting priorities; and calls on the Executive to affirm their commitment to support and invest in the local higher education and further education sectors. — [Mr Swann (The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning).]

Which amendment was:

At end insert:

"; and further calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to reinstate the premia payments to St Mary’s University College and Stranmillis University College.". — [Ms McGahan.]

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I inform Jim Allister that he has five minutes and that there is no capacity to take interventions.

Mr Allister: I support the motion and the amendment. One of the craziest dimensions of the draft Budget was the attempt to reduce radically the funding available to deal with skill provision in Northern Ireland. It was a draft Budget that had lost the run of itself, perhaps in its enthusiasm for the devolution of corporation tax. It totally ignored the fact that, for any incoming investor, the real key is to have a skilled and effective workforce, which it then attempted to stymie through funding restrictions. I am glad that that has been considerably ameliorated by the proposals in the final Budget, but it indicated a very wrong-headed direction of travel. Of course, our further and higher education institutions are vital to providing and preparing people with those skills.

On the amendment, I in my time have visited and seen the ongoing work of both Stranmillis and St Mary's, and no one can deny the enthusiasm, professionalism and skill with which students are trained and treated. Therefore, the reaction from St Mary's to the proposition that it should be denied the funding that the Minister sought to take from it came as no surprise to me. It was disappointing that, in circumstances in which there was equally just cause for dismay and protest from Stranmillis, which also faces potential closure at the behest of the Minister, there was a much more muted reaction. I think that that in part that comes from the controlling mechanisms that the Minister has in place in Stranmillis, in contrast to St Mary's, which has its own governance arrangements. In the case of Stranmillis, it is the Minister and the Department that appoint the chairman and vice chairman of the board of governors, and, as we saw last year during the selection process, which was run twice, if they do not get applicants of sufficiently compliant ability, they simply go out and look again for someone else. It is a matter of disappointment to me that we have not heard the same level of protest from, for example, the chairman of the board of governors at Stranmillis as we heard from others.

It is no secret that this Minister has an agenda for teacher-training colleges. His agenda for Stranmillis, which he tried to promote from his very first day in office, is to expunge it by subsuming it into Queen's University. He was thwarted and now seems to have adopted the age-old strategy of starving the university colleges of vital funds. Instead, he should recognise that the policy course that he wishes to follow is not available to him and desist from trying to implement it by other means.

He should recognise in the case of Stranmillis just how vital a strategic role it plays and how important its independent status is to the delivery of that role, and desist from his constant attempts by whatever means to do the college down. I trust that the Minister will not be as churlish and vindictive as this attempt to withdraw the premia funding would suggest and will recognise that that college needs the funding — the modest funding — that it has been getting —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Allister: — in order to continue to produce the excellent out-turn that it has.

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): I thank the Committee for Employment and Learning for tabling this important motion for debate today. In the main, I welcome the fact that most contributors have attempted to give the original motion due consideration, although, no doubt, people were tempted to focus some of their comments on the amendment.

4.00 pm

At the outset, I want to make clear the implications and consequences there will be if the call made by the amendment is followed through. The budget for my Department is fixed for 2015-16, so I have to make choices about how best to employ the scarce resources that are available to me. I have made a commitment to seek, as far as is possible in the circumstances, to protect the aspects of the work of my Department that most support the economy and to protect services to the most vulnerable in society.

I am disappointed that no one voicing support for the amendment has recommended what deeper cuts should be made to preserve the premia subsidy payments. Am I to cut front-line university places or college places, including teacher places? Am I to cut from services for the unemployed or those with disabilities? Are we to slow down the potential expansion of Magee? Are we to forgo aspects of our strategy around dealing with those who are NEET? Those are questions that people need to reflect on very clearly, and they need to understand the implications of what they are saying if, indeed, they shortly walk through the Lobbies in favour of an amendment in support of the premia. They are asking for subsidies to go into certain institutions that others do not get. They are asking for certain subject areas to be more generously funded than many others, including the areas that are most relevant to the expansion of our economy. They are advocating a situation in which even deeper cuts will have to be made to our universities and colleges, which would be manifested in a reduction of places. That would mean more of our young people having to leave Northern Ireland to study and probably never returning home or more young people having no chance to study at all: wasted opportunities, wasted lives, wasted economic potential. There is a very clear contradiction between the thrust of the motion and the implications of the amendment. I urge Members to reflect on that and the signal that is sent about how genuine or otherwise Members are about supporting the transformation of our economy and investing in our young people.

I turn now to the main substance of the motion. I am always grateful for the opportunity to reiterate the key role that our further and higher education sectors play in growing our economy and supporting the priorities of the Programme for Government, but I believe this debate is even more important, given the financial difficulties that we now face. Our colleges and universities are key aspects of the economy and wider civic life in Northern Ireland. They are key delivery partners for the economic strategy, and the skills and research they provide are a key driver of economic change. They help local companies to grow and now, perhaps, provide the key aspect of the inward investment narrative. Universities and colleges also have a major direct impact in terms of spending power and a multiplier effect in supporting other jobs. Our universities and colleges are also key agents of social change and the development of a vibrant and diverse civic culture.

Since 2012, Northern Ireland has had a higher education strategy, Graduating to Success. It has encapsulated that increased economic focus for all the higher education providers. In that regard, it is important to note that our FE colleges provide almost 20% of higher education qualifications in Northern Ireland.

The further education sector has had an overarching strategy — FE Means Business — in place since 2004. A new FE strategy is now well advanced in its development and will shortly be issued for public consultation.

Our skills strategy is very clear on the need for higher-level skills in our economy. While, of course, those can come from many different routes, including apprenticeships, for example, our universities and colleges each year produce 20,000 high-level qualifications and over 80,000 intermediate qualifications.

Traditionally, our universities have been major providers for research capacity locally and, in recent years, have further consolidated in that role. It is also worth noting the growing research and innovation capacity of our FE colleges.

I pay tribute to the achievements of the local universities in the recent Research Excellence Framework. Seventy per cent of research submitted was rated as world-leading or internationally excellent. That marks a significant improvement in Northern Ireland's relative position. It is also worth noting that, in the context of the UK, Northern Ireland is punching well above its weight in knowledge transfer and business and community engagement.

I have been pleased to be able to build on the strong base in higher education and further education. The universities have also begun to rebalance their preexisting offer to place greater emphasis on subjects with economic relevance. This is a key aspect of the higher education strategy.

We also seek to double the number of publicly supported PhDs over this decade and are already more than halfway along that process. In 2010, for example, Northern Ireland ranked twelfth out of 12 regions for PhDs per capita under the knowledge index. In just five years we have risen to tenth, with the aim of reaching the top half by 2020. I have also been pleased to facilitate an increase in funding for core qualitative research (QR), the higher education innovation fund, Connected 3 and the employer support programme.

In terms of directly supporting inward investment, our Assured Skills programme, which works with the HE and FE sectors to provide bespoke skills solutions for companies and sectors, has increasingly been recognised as a game changer. Looking ahead, there are opportunities for universities and colleges to engage with our new apprenticeship strategy and the forthcoming new youth training system. In particular, further education colleges will be the provider of choice for off-the-job training, but I also want to develop hybrid apprenticeship degrees. There is also a more general requirement to better develop employability skills.

The greatest challenges relate to funding. It is important to note that there has not been any meaningful increase in FE funding for the best part of a decade. There have been emerging pressures in the higher education funding regime for the universities that predate the current year's and next year’s Budget situation. There is a structural gap of between £1,000 and £2,500 per place when Northern Ireland is compared with the GB average. We must ensure that quality in Northern Ireland is not compromised. In different parts of the UK, different approaches have been taken to higher education funding, with a higher fees regime in England and, on the other hand, increased direct investment in universities in Scotland. Northern Ireland has fallen between those two approaches, and we must now reflect on what we can do to refresh our local approach.

The funding situation has now been made worse by the Budget outcome. While I welcome the reallocation of £20 million to my Department and the £13 million from the change fund between the draft and final Budgets, we are still in a very difficult situation. I am discussing the implications further with the Employment and Learning Committee tomorrow. While we have been able to mitigate to some extent the impact of the revised Budget cuts on the front line, we are nevertheless going to have some major reductions in provision. This sends out a very negative message about the importance of the skills agenda. My officials and I plan to engage with stakeholders over the coming months to discuss the future resourcing of higher and further education. In doing so, we need to be mindful of the next Budget period and the opportunities and challenges that come from a lower corporation tax regime and ensure that we can meet increased demand for skills.

Returning to the amendment, I want to make it clear that I am working to achieve a world-class system of teacher training that is financially sustainable and consistent with the development of a shared and integrated Northern Ireland. Our current system of teacher training is fragmented. It costs considerably more to train a teacher in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK, and it costs almost one third more to train a teacher in the two teacher training university colleges — Stranmillis and St. Mary’s — than a teacher or other higher education student in Queen’s University and Ulster University. Our current system is good, but we are not keeping pace with international developments and, in particular, the trend that teacher training is best located in a university setting to take best advantage of the research interface.

While all our institutions are technically open to all, there is in practice considerable religious separation in the settings in which we train our teachers. The premia payments are subsidies that go to the university colleges. In effect, we pay more than is necessary for a divided and fragmented system without reaching our full potential in terms of quality. While I recognise that the removal of the premia will be very challenging for the teacher training university colleges and will involve major reassessments of future delivery, there is no immediate prospect of either institution closing, whether we are speaking of April or September of this year. I want to put to bed the myth that either is on the brink of closure: both are sitting with significant reserves.

A report by an international panel of experts that I commissioned produced a range of alternative configurations for our teacher education system. I am open-minded on any alternatives that may carry consensus, are financially sustainable, increase sharing and integration in training and deliver a greater relationship with research in line with international best practice.

Mr Swann: Minister, thank you for saying that you are open to the alternatives that are put forward. In the Adjournment debate last week, you indicated that Stranmillis and St Mary's were not talking at this stage: have you done anything to get them round the table to try to progress this?

Dr Farry: We have had meetings with all the providers over the past week, building on previous engagement with the stakeholders. I regret that, for various reasons, there are not ongoing discussions between the two university colleges at this time. We are considering how best to take forward the next phase, and it may well involve round-table discussions with all the providers. The precise format is still to be determined.

One of the other key considerations is to ensure that a reformed teacher training system can provide for a diverse and pluralist education system and society, including provision for faith-based education. Northern Ireland will clearly continue to have faith-based primary and secondary schools. I want to make it very clear that any potential reforms to teacher training will not pose a threat to that.

A reformed system could conceivably include a Catholic or other faith-based institution that is more tightly tied to a stronger, overarching framework. Equally, there are no compelling reasons why teachers cannot be trained in a shared and integrated environment, either with distinct strands that can cater for the needs of particular sectors or through all teachers being provided with the skills and knowledge to work across all types of school in our education system. I stress that all the points that I have made in relation to faith-based education can also be applied to the Irish-medium sector.

In essence, we do not necessarily have to have a Catholic — or otherwise — institution to ensure that we cater for all faith-based schools, including those in the Catholic maintained sector. It is very important that we understand that point. In recent years, Catholic teacher training colleges have amalgamated with universities — for example, in Glasgow. In Dublin, the Catholic and Church of Ireland sectors have come together, with specific provisions agreed and introduced to ensure that training for the specific requirements of faith-based schools is addressed. The Ulster University at Coleraine already prepares teachers for all sectors, with requirements for working in faith schools integrated into the curriculum. No doubt, people will want to ascribe all those changes to the Alliance Party policy on teacher training, but of course they all happened either before my time as Minister or entirely independently of the situation in Northern Ireland. However, you see a wider international picture emerging, with examples very close to our own shores. That raises this question: if it is good enough for Dublin and Glasgow, what is so different about Northern Ireland? Are we simply prepared to say that Northern Ireland is the way it is and always will be, so we have to continue to train our teachers in the same way? What signal are we sending out about the society that we want to build in Northern Ireland? What signal are we sending out about the importance that we place on developing shared and inclusive education across a range of models, from integrated schools to shared campuses? How can we expect our children to learn together if we are not prepared to face up to the opportunity for our teachers to learn together?

Let me be very clear: what we have with the amendment is a call to support institutions. It is not an amendment to support access to education and training opportunities, nor is it an amendment designed to create a system of teacher training in Northern Ireland that has long-term financial sustainability. I am clear that providing a system of teacher training that is high-class, sustainable and reflects the needs of our society is achievable —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Minister to bring his remarks to a close.

Dr Farry: — but it is vital that, in achieving that, we rise above the narrow interests of institutions and focus on the interests of future students.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Beidh mé ag tabhairt tacaíochta don rún agus don leasú agus cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo inniu.

I support the motion and the amendment. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and congratulate the Committee for Employment and Learning for bringing the motion to the Floor.

4.15 pm

Education is probably the best gift that we can give our young people. Whether it is preschool education, primary education, post-primary education, further or higher education or lifelong learning, we can give no better gift to our young people. Even if they were not connected to the economy, learning and education in themselves are a great thing. Every debate in here these days has a context, usually cuts and pressures on budgets. This debate is no different. The context here, of course, is that Tory cuts in London are affecting everything that we do, including education, and we have to deal with the consequences.

The following are not my words but those of the principal of Stranmillis University College:

"Budget cuts ... will damage the current teacher education infrastructure ... to the detriment of the future economy and ... society".

The 30·8% budget reductions for Stranmillis and St Mary's are totally unfair. The Minister argues that the premia are not justified and that these university colleges are unsustainable. He is asking them to take a cut of 30·8%, which is impossible. He stands there and says that they are not in imminent danger of closing. No, they are not in imminent danger of closing, but they will wither on the vine. They cannot survive without the premia, and the Minister should take that into account. They get 1% of the overall DEL budget, but the Minister wants to make 3·5% of efficiencies in his overall budget through cutting the premia to the two university colleges.

The Minister has said regularly over past weeks and months that it costs much more to train a teacher here than across the water. Figures that I saw at the weekend show that it costs 3·7% more to train a teacher here than in England and Wales. Is that a bad deal considering that school students here regularly outperform their counterparts across the water at GCSE and A level? I do not think that it is a bad deal.

I mentioned in the debate the other night that all sorts of graduates are having to emigrate: graduates in law, pharmacy, medicine, the arts and humanities, engineering — you name it. They are all away to England, Australia, Canada and so on. None of them is a graduate of St Mary's, because 94% of St Mary's graduates get a job within three months. However, nobody is saying that we should cut the budget to the law faculty, the engineering faculty or whatever else.

We then come to what is effectively the Alliance Party doctrine of forced integration. I support integration. I think, instinctively and intellectually, that it is a good idea. However, I also think that diversity is a good idea. I support diversity, instinctively and intellectually, because diversity brings a richness to our society. Difference is good, and the difficulty is when one set of ideas tries to dominate another. That is wrong, and that is when conflict is created. That is what happened here, and that is why we are not Dublin or Glasgow. We are still a society coming out of conflict, and that has to be taken into account. If we want to turn out clones, let us all do the same. Let us forget about music in schools. Let us forget about the arts. Let us force all the kids through STEM subjects, because that is what everybody is saying that we need. We need diversity. We need musicians as much as we need engineers or people involved in ICT.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call on the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Sheehan: All those things are important, and I ask the Minister to reflect on that. Integration is good; forced integration is bad.

Mr Buchanan: In making my winding-up speech on the motion, I thank Members who took part in the debate for their contributions and interest in it. I also join the Chairperson in thanking the Minister for Employment and Learning for responding on all of the issues and concerns that were raised in the House today. It is clear that further and higher education institutions play a very important role in growing the local economy and delivering on Programme for Government commitments. As all the contributors to the debate have outlined, the importance of the further and higher education sectors in Northern Ireland cannot be overestimated. Of course, that was evidenced by the arguments put forward by the Committee Chairperson, Mr Robin Swann.

I note Ms McGahan's support for lifelong learning and for the FE and HE sectors in supporting this and in developing people's self-confidence and employability, at whatever their level or age and across all barriers. If we want to increase the number of young people getting into employment, it is of course extremely important that support is given to build self-confidence in people across all barriers.

My colleague Mr Irwin focused on the importance of the Southern Regional College to his constituents and of the work of the FE and HE sectors, which have allowed Minister Foster to argue strongly for inward investment in Northern Ireland. Mr Irwin also made the point that the joining of DEL and DETI as one Department would help to strengthen this argument for the future. It is important that we have a stronger Department with an outward vision that can help to strengthen the sector and get it moving forward.

I also note Mr Ramsey's view that the Executive should do as much as they can to prevent students from leaving Northern Ireland to receive their education and pursue careers elsewhere. The challenge that this Department and Executive have is to do more to ensure that our students are kept in Northern Ireland, that they study here and that there is work for them when their studying is done. I think that one way to do that is through greater employer engagement. Pursuing that greater employer engagement may also need to be taken on board by further and higher education colleges, because that is one of the ways in which we can help to retain our young people here.

Mr Ramsey also referred to the recent briefing to the Committee for Employment and Learning by the Confucius Institute in the Ulster University. He rightly pointed to it as an example of how proactive China has been in supporting education, even outside its own borders, because it sees the benefits of that investment. Again, that is very true. He also made the argument that our colleges fill a vacuum for individuals, failed by our schools, who can gain some qualifications from their local college. He said that increased cuts could leave such young people stranded and have a detrimental effect on their future employment and the future of the economy, which is a real concern. He said that this could detrimentally affect young people, who could end up in the NEET category, and that goes completely against the Minister's NEETs strategy.

In supporting the motion, Anna Lo noted that Northern Ireland needs a highly skilled workforce and our colleges and universities are key to that. Ms Lo also made the point that failure to support the FE and HE sectors will increase the brain drain from Northern Ireland. Again, no one can argue with that.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Will the Minister give way? Sorry, will the Member give way?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Earlier, you mentioned employer engagement, and you are talking now of the benefits to wider society. Do you accept that one of the flaws in the Minister's approach is that he has not taken into consideration the economic impact of removing or closing down university colleges or, in fact, that the economic link and synergy between all the higher education establishments and their host communities is very important?

Mr Buchanan: Yes, of course the colleges are extremely important, but I think that they have a bit of work to do themselves to look for employer engagement. The more employer engagement that they can get, the stronger they will be in the future. There are funding difficulties, and there will be funding difficulties. It is not going to be plain sailing. I believe that the colleges, as well as government, have a responsibility to look at how they can get more employer engagement for their future sustainability and the future benefit of our students, to get them out into the workplace to re-establish and build the economy.

My colleague Mr David Hilditch talked about how the work of colleges and universities can only benefit the work of the Executive in meeting their Programme for Government priorities, not only to develop our economy but also to help and support those in the most deprived areas. Indeed, Mr Hilditch very helpfully drew the attention of the debate to the good work that colleges and universities do in local communities. He noted the difficulties faced by the Minister in working with a reduced budget. That is something that we all have to bear in mind: the Minister is working with a reduced budget, and difficulties are going to have to be faced and overcome.

Ms McCorley made the point that colleges improve the life chances of young people across Northern Ireland and that the removal of any campuses due to cuts would be detrimental to the local community.

My colleague Mr Sydney Anderson, in endorsing the motion, emphasised that our universities and colleges are needed to rebalance Northern Ireland, both to make up for the underinvestment during the Troubles and to help move Northern Ireland away from a public-sector-dominated economy to one that is led and grown by a vibrant private sector. Key to all this is greater private-sector involvement; getting away from dependence on the public sector towards a more private-sector-driven economy. Again, the rebalancing of the economy is in the Programme for Government, and we should strive towards that end. Mr Anderson talked about the extra money that was found by the Finance Minister for the FE and HE sectors and urged the Employment and Learning Minister to use that money wisely. I have no doubt that the Minister got that message today from around the House: any extra money he gets must be used wisely by his Department.

Mr Nesbitt refocused the debate on helping Northern Ireland to grow the economy. He reminded the House of the high youth unemployment rates, which can be tackled only with an adequate FE and HE budget. Again, we are back to focusing on the budget.

Mr Allister showed support for the motion and spoke of the excellent input that the further and higher education colleges have to our economy. As I said during my winding-up speech, in order to drive the economy forward and sustain the future of our colleges and universities, there must be greater employer engagement. I want to put that on record and hammer out that message from the House today. Not only do the Government need to be involved, not only do OFMDFM, the Executive and other Departments need to be involved, but we also need the colleges and universities themselves to make a greater effort to engage with employers to ensure that the right courses and training are being delivered to students, so that, when the training is done and they come out with a degree, there is employment for them to go to. That is what will motivate our young people to go into study. They will be motivated if they know that, at the end of it, they have a place of employment to go to.

I am sure everyone here will agree that it has been a useful and very positive debate on this important issue.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Mr Buchanan: I want to thank all the Members and the Minister for their contributions. I support the motion.

4.30 pm

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

4.45 pm

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly acknowledges the key role our further education and higher education institutions play in growing the local economy and delivering on the Programme for Government's cross-cutting priorities; and calls on the Executive to affirm their commitment to support and invest in the local higher education and further education sectors; and further calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to reinstate the premia payments to St Mary’s University College and Stranmillis University College.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next two items on the Order Paper are prayer of annulment motions regarding statutory rules. The Business Committee has agreed to group these two motions into one debate. Following the debate, I will put the question on each of the motions.

That the Taxi Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2014 (S.R. 2014/302) be annulled.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the Taxi Operators Licensing (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2014 (S.R. 2014/303) be annulled. — [Mrs Cameron (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment).]

The policy content of the rules is closely linked. The Committee commenced its scrutiny of the policy underlying both of these statutory rules at its meeting on 20 June 2013, when the Department of the Environment provided a synopsis of the responses that it had received to the public consultation on its proposals. Members were content that the Department had responded appropriately to the views expressed by submissions and agreed that it should proceed to draft the legislation.

Some concerns were raised, however, in respect of the proposed timing of the introduction of the legislation. The Committee believed that these provisions should not come into operation until September 2014, rather than September 2013 as suggested by the Department. This delay would enable the Committee to carry out a more thorough scrutiny of the numerous statutory rules required to implement the provisions of the Taxis Act 2008. It would also ensure that the suite of changes came together as a cohesive and coordinated package. The Committee was also concerned that the Department should use this period to engage with all sectors of the taxi industry to resolve any outstanding issues and to raise awareness of the impact of the changes delivered by the new legislation.

The Department brought the SL1 proposal for both of these rules to the Committee on 27 June 2013. Members welcomed the Department’s willingness to listen to the views of the taxi industry on this issue and its commitment to determine a more detailed timetable outlining the key steps and milestones, including consultation time frames and SL1 target dates for the whole package of legislation. On this basis, the Committee agreed that the Department should make the statutory rules.

When the Minister met the Committee on 24 October 2013, the Committee raised concerns that, while members still supported the reshaping of the taxi industry to provide a higher level of service to all its customers, there were still issues relating to the costs of the new requirements. Members believed that some sectors of the industry would be disadvantaged and thus less able to cope with the increased financial commitments. Those related specifically to the costs of new roof signage, taximeters and printers, and the training for the new driver tests. All of those additional costs, together with a much higher level of competition, have the potential to result in the loss of jobs or livelihoods in the Belfast public hire sector. The Committee urged the Minister to look carefully at the proposed legislation to see how that sector could be facilitated.

The Committee agreed to explore that issue further during a meeting with departmental officials in December 2013. Members suggested that a possible way forward might be to introduce an exemption in the single-tier licensing proposal in order to maintain the existing two-tier system within a certain radius of Belfast city centre, possibly during certain periods of the week. That exemption should be accompanied by a much higher level of enforcement within that radius. While officials agreed to take those proposals back to the Minister, he has consistently reiterated that he does not believe that there would be any merit in accepting them. The Department has proceeded to lay the rules, based on an unaltered policy position, and they have been referred to the Committee for agreement.

The Committee does not believe that the two statutory rules represent the best way forward in this situation and, accordingly, agreed to table these motions to ask the Assembly that they be annulled.

Mr Eastwood: Thank you, Mr Speaker. You caught me by surprise there. I will speak against the motion and in support of the Minister. This has been an ongoing saga. We have been through it quite a bit. It has been over and back, and people have been lobbied by different organisations on all sides of the debate. I think it fair to say that there are strongly held views on all sides.

A number of years ago, the Department did some consultation work and research, and talked to the public about their view on the issue. It turned out that 84% of those surveyed supported the Department's proposals. The Consumer Council, Disability Action, Women's Aid, Victim Support, Belfast Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, Pubs of Ulster and Visit Belfast supported them.

For members of the Committee who live outside Belfast, it is important that we remind people that there is life outside Belfast. There are operations and systems outside Belfast that work perfectly well. Looking in on it, some of us view the system in Belfast as kind of strange, to say the least. I have been contacted, as I am sure other Members have, by the North West Taxi Proprietors, an organisation well known to some Members. They have clearly stated their support for a single tier. They said that they have invested heavily because they believed that the issue had been resolved. They also clearly support metering and a fairer and more uniform system of charging across the system — I understand that, because the public in the place that I know best, Derry, definitely support that. I can only imagine that that is the same in Belfast.

The regulations simplify a very complex system that most who have to use do not really understand. I know from experience of trying to get a taxi in Belfast that it is quite difficult, especially if you are leaving a pub or nightclub. It seems almost impossible at times to get to where you are going because you have to phone a taxi and wait for it to come, whereas, in any other place in the world, you can just flag a taxi down.

You can also just flag down a taxi in any other place in Northern Ireland. The Minister is attempting to bring Belfast and the North into line with the rest of the world, where visitors from different countries can easily get around the city. Tourism is a major part of the growth potential for this city and the whole of the North. If tourists do not know how to get around the city, the system is not the best. That is highlighted most starkly when you get off a plane at Belfast City Airport. It is strange that you cannot walk outside and get a taxi. The new system means that you have to ring somebody, which, I think, tourists do not understand. I think that what the Minister proposes is a fairly simplified —

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate his point, and I will come to it in more detail. He mentioned the airport, but this does not change that situation. Those are the regulations for the airport rather than the lack of a single tier or otherwise.

Mr Eastwood: The airport recently changed its system and has moved to one that allows for more private hire than public hire. The Member is right on that point. However, my point stands: if it is private hire, members of the public should still be able to flag down a taxi as they walk out of the airport, as you would in any airport in any other place in Ireland, Britain or the world. We have to understand that it is a strange system, and the Minister is trying to simplify it.

There has also been strong support for the proposals from Disability Action and other disability groups, because they recognise that the regulations on wheelchair access are 30 years out of date. They need to be updated very quickly.

Some of us can probably predict what will happen with the vote. That is unfortunate. The weight of public opinion and of all those who are interested in the issue is with the Minister. Public hire taxi firms have the right to be angry and annoyed, and they have lobbied very strongly, but public opinion is with the Minister on the issue. It is a shame that, if people in the House get their way, we will not move towards a single-tier system, a system that makes sense for all the reasons that I have outlined. After today, we need to consider seriously how people can move around this city easily, a city that tells everybody that tourism is a major growth sector for it. It is bizarre that we now tell people that it is very difficult to get around the city, and that is what we are advertising today.

I am against the motion, and I support the Minister. I hope that, after today, we can begin a sensible conversation about how we move forward.

Mrs Overend: It has been a rather long and ill-fated journey for the Assembly and the Department to this stage and the annulment of the regulations. I have been on the Committee for a little over six months, and the issue of taxi legislation and regulations has been brought up a number of times. I am sure that that would have been considered unlikely seven years ago, when the Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 was passed by the Assembly.

We need to remember how we reached this situation. As was said, much of our taxi legislation was and still is outdated. Naturally, modern society has requirements that are very different to those of the early 1950s. In my opinion, it was only logical that steps should be taken to modernise it. That was the background to the Taxis Act 2008, which, it is important to point out, received the unanimous support of the parties in the Assembly at that time. The difficulty was, however, that it was primarily enabling legislation, so, whilst the framework may have been voted on and agreed, as the Department has learned to its detriment, the real detail and changes were not. The only part of the Act that has commenced so far is the introduction of taxi operator licensing. The Department even delayed much of the reform programme to give taxi firms extra time to prepare for the reforms, just to get to this stage, where the changes are only a matter of minutes away from being thrown out.

5.00 pm

There is a range of concerns with what the Department has proposed, especially from public hire taxi operators in Belfast. Whilst I have sympathy for their concerns, I believe that what they have argued most against would have given the consumer a better deal. That belief has been supported by countless consumer and trade representative bodies. For instance, under what the Department had proposed, the consumer would have had greater choice, and, essentially, the hiring of a taxi in the middle of Belfast would have been much less restrictive and confusing than it currently is.

One of the regulations — probably the most contentious change of them all — is the introduction of a single-tier taxi licensing regime. It would have seen the removal of the restriction on private hire taxis plying for hire in Belfast, a privilege that all taxis outside Belfast enjoy. To the vast majority of taxi users, that would have been most welcome. The Department, too, had sound reasoning for seeking to make many of the changes it had proposed. No doubt, it saw the challenges of effectively having a hierarchy of taxis in Belfast, and the Minister will probably raise the problems of the demand and the confusion for people looking for taxis in the city centre on nights out. Importantly, the current enforcement policies are not properly targeted on addressing the more important issue of illegal and dangerous taxis, so I am sure that the Minister will make reference to that as well.

Whilst what has been proposed may have sounded logical, somehow Sinn Féin and the DUP have changed their positions quite significantly from what was agreed in 2008. The then Minister, Arlene Foster, was the main advocate of what the DUP is now so vociferous in opposing. You only need to look at Hansard, especially around mid-2007, to see that. Indeed, as I have said, the regulations have been bandied about for around seven years. The deliberations on the regulations have been a mess and, ultimately, have resulted in the debate today. What I know is that the ongoing uncertainty is damaging the taxi industry and creating confusion. Correspondence that I received over the weekend iterated the view that some taxi operators thought that legislation was already agreed. Many taxi operators have already invested in taxi systems and taximeters on the basis that legislation is going forward. So, while some operators are working to new regulations that are not yet legislated for, others are lobbying for change. It seems that a bit of a mess has developed over the years.

I detect a sign of resignation from the Minister and his Department that the current proposals will not win through and they need to go back to the drawing board. Maybe that drawing board is a welcome place to be. Will the Minister outline where he will take it from here? The Minister cannot afford to leave it like this.

The Ulster Unionist Party will also support today's prayer of annulment. We do so not because of any major disagreement with the proposals — on the whole, we agree with the broad policy intent, and our position has remained fairly consistent — but because, as the Minister will no doubt be well aware, the regulations as currently drafted will have had a disguised yet hugely significant unintended consequence. I am, of course, talking about the impact that it will have had on the bus lanes in Belfast. If we were to move to a single-tier regime immediately, the number of vehicles allowed to use the bus lanes would swell as private hire taxis would suddenly took advantage of the opportunity open to them. That would not benefit public transport, as buses would find themselves caught in more traffic, nor would it benefit cyclists, whom we, collectively, have been successful at drawing into the city in increasing numbers.

Whilst, at this stage, this is a redline issue for my party for why we cannot support a single-tier regime, it is something that, I trust, Minister Durkan will contribute to rectifying. I know that it is something that the Minister for Regional Development would be keen to find a long-term remedy to. Unfortunately, until a compromise —

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Overend: Sorry, I am just finishing. Unfortunately, until a compromise is found and despite the other benefits being proposed, my party will not be able to formally support any such statutory rule.

Ms Lo: As legislators, we must be objective when making judgements, always bearing in mind what is best for the largest number of people in Northern Ireland.

We must also listen to public opinion. The motions for annulment are calling on the Assembly to make a U-turn and throw out previously agreed legislation that was supported by the public to regulate and improve taxi services and to give customers more choice. During Committee discussions, I did not hear any compelling arguments to object to the statutory rules for a single-tier system. I therefore oppose both motions on behalf of the Alliance Party.

The Taxis Act was passed by all parties in April 2008 as enabling legislation to bring our outdated laws into the 21st century and was welcomed by the public and businesses. It is right and proper that the Act allows the taxi industry a period of time to prepare for the proposed changes, but common sense would say that seven years must be long enough.

In June 2013, the Committee first considered the synopsis of the public consultation responses, which were vastly supportive of the proposal for the single-tier system. Naturally, we all agreed that the Department should proceed with drafting the legislation with the caveat of a delay of a further year to give the industry more time to meet new requirements. The Department agreed and duly brought the SL1s, which the Committee then agreed. The sense in the Committee at the time was that the public really wanted the changes and that the long gap between the 2008 Act and implementation of the new single tier and the whole raft of regulations was becoming unacceptable.

Somehow, from late October 2013, DUP and Sinn Féin members, following lobbying from Belfast public hire, began expressing concerns about the costs of equipment and the notion that competition may drive the Belfast public hire out of business. They proposed an exclusion zone in Belfast for black taxis, which the Minister refused. I agree with him. It will cause more confusion for customers if they can wave down a taxi only in certain areas in Belfast. Belfast public hire represents around 5% of taxis in Northern Ireland and around 10% of taxis in Belfast. There is no rationale for the Assembly to ignore overwhelming public support for a single-tier system in favour of keeping the monopoly for Belfast public hire.

In proposing the motion to annul the regulations, DUP and Sinn Féin will allow one small sector in the taxi industry to prevent progress for the whole of Northern Ireland. Competition is always good for customers, as it drives up quality and maintains price competitiveness, and any sector in the industry that provides high-quality services should not be fearful of levelling the playing field for fairer competition. An email from North West Taxi Proprietors called on all MLAs to act in the best interests of the taxi industry as a whole, indicating that the Consumer Council, Imtac and others have agreed with the majority of the taxi industry that single tier is the best way forward for customers.

In any big city, such as London, New York, Hong Kong or Tokyo, where taxis are an essential means of transport for the public to move around the city, people take it for granted that they can hail a taxi anywhere, at any time and without having to book in advance or walk to a taxi rank. Tourists coming to Northern Ireland cannot understand why empty taxis will not stop for them. If we want to promote tourism, we need a taxi service fit for purpose.

I understand what Mrs Overend said about bus lanes, and I know that, during Committee Stage, she objected to the prayer of annulment. I call on the UUP to think carefully. The decision on whether to allow taxis to go on bus lanes is based purely on the judgement of the Minister for Regional Development. In many cities where there are bus lanes taxis can use them only to drop off and pick up passengers; otherwise, they are not allowed to use bus lanes. That is one way that we should be implementing it. There is no need to say, "Right, we want to reject single tier as a whole." I urge UUP Members to think carefully and not to throw all this out but to support our party and the SDLP in rejecting the motion.

Mr Weir: I rise with a heavy heart in certain regards. For many of us who have been involved in the Committee, and some of us have served our time since 2007, it is a pity that we have come to this position, because, as the Deputy Chair highlighted, this issue has been ongoing for quite some time.

While there are differences of opinion and of emphasis in the Committee, all of us had hoped to see a resolution. Certainly, a range of concerns about Belfast has been directly raised in the Committee for a year and a half at least. Indeed, mention has been made of the legislation, and as somebody who went through every painful session on the legislation a number of years ago — I think that Mr Boylan was in the same position — I can confirm that it was acknowledged even at that stage. While the general principle of the single tier was something that in broad terms people could buy into, DOE officials indicated in their evidence in 2007 that it would not necessarily be a one-size-fits-all approach. Indeed, we had quotations from Hansard in the Committee indicating that this is something that may or may not necessarily apply to Belfast, but, indeed, we were looking at the wider sphere of Northern Ireland. The peculiar problems in Belfast have been acknowledged and accepted for a long time.

I would like to respond to an issue raised by the last Member to speak. There is a range of issues, and I think what we need to do to move forward on the taxi issue — I agree with Mr Eastwood on at least one point — is to have a sensible consideration and, indeed, a sensible compromise. I am not going to put words into Mr Eastwood's mouth, but I agree with him on that, and I think that there is the basis for a sensible solution, but it has to be holistic.

There are issues to do with Belfast, with single tier, with enforcement and with metering itself, which is still a source of concern. People in the industry have concerns that the metering side of things should be got right; it is due in by September of this year. There are also concerns over, from a Belfast point of view, the bus lane side of it, not least the impact that it would have on the growing cycling population. I agree, for instance, with remarks made by Northern Ireland Greenways, who have concerns about that.

What we need for a solution is an overall package. There is no point trying to extricate particular elements of this, implement them and leave other elements outstanding. I agree, for instance, with Mrs Overend, who, while she welcomed generally a lot of the stuff on it, highlighted a very important issue as regards the bus lanes side.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Ms Lo: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I will give way to Mr Maginness, who asked first. Then I will give way to Ms Lo.

Mr A Maginness: I have listened with great interest to the Member, and I understand where he is coming from, although I am not sure where he is going. [Laughter.] [Interruption.]

Mr A Maginness: I am sorry, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, but I did not quite hear that.

At the end of the day, the single-tier system will have to come in. When does the Member suggest that that should happen, because that is the view of the House as expressed in the 2008 Act?

5.15 pm

Mr Weir: Before I answer that, it may be helpful to give way to Ms Lo, and then I will answer both points.

Ms Lo: I do understand that there was a lot of discussion in Committee. Reference was made to the raft of issues, such as metering and receipt printers. To be fair to the Department, it has brought forward a range of arrangements, time after time, following delay after delay, for the industry to adapt to. This was all meant to be happening in 2013, but, in 2015, we are still no further forward.

Mr Weir: Rather than dwell on the amount of time that it has taken, we need to try to get this right and get an overall solution that deals with a range of the issues, such as metering, bus lanes and the single-tier system.

There is a lot in the regulations that I do not have any problem with. Therefore, I think that they can be the basis of a sensible way forward. Similarly, mention was made of the North West Taxi Proprietors. Although I bow to the superior knowledge of Mr Eastwood, who has lifelong experience in that regard, it is clear that we are essentially dealing with a Belfast problem. There are differences in Belfast that do not exist in the rest of the country. From that point of view, if a statutory rule simply dealing with outside of Belfast had been brought in, I would not have had any problem supporting it. However, the peculiar situation of Belfast is that you have the range of taxi drivers.

This is sometimes misconstrued as being about public hire on one side and all of private hire on the other side. I have met probably all the interested parties. A couple of the major firms are very much in favour of single-tier system, as, indeed, are some solo operators. If you talk to the Belfast Private Hire Proprietors' Association, for instance, which deals with a wide range of taxi firms that would probably be described as the smaller firms in Belfast — not the big two — you will hear that it does not believe the single-tier system to be fit for purpose. It is a much more diverse situation than people will sometimes present.

If we were starting from a completely blank page, and there were no taxi industry in Belfast, we might come to different solutions, but we also have to deal with what is there at present. The widespread concern that there has been, from public hire and a lot of private hire, is that, rather than the utopian idea of this, simply in the centre of Belfast, leading to increased competition, it will essentially become a duopoly via the back door. You will have a market that is overwhelmingly dominated by two major companies.

There is no doubt that, if I were in the shoes of those major companies, I would be arguing very much for a single-tier system on that basis. However, if you have a situation that instead of increasing competition restricts it, that is not in the consumer interest. I have met the Consumer Council and some of the disability groups. They have taken at face value and accepted the idea that merely removing certain regulations, or putting in new regulations, will simply lead to increased competition. They will freely admit that, if they get further evidence on that, this is not a hard and fast position for them.

All public hire taxis are disability-friendly; they are constructed on that basis. However, it is much more of a mixed bag on the private hire side. If it means that large numbers of public hire are effectively put out of business, and the quantum of taxis that are disability-accessible is reduced for the city centre, it will not increase competition or increase the opportunities for those who are disabled. That is why this is not straightforward.

Ms Lo: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I will give way, briefly, yes.

Ms Lo: Mr Weir, I really cannot understand why you have been arguing that the situation will be less competitive or that there will be more competition for the public hire companies and that they are not viable. At the moment, they do not travel around; they stop at taxi ranks and they pick up passengers. They can continue to do that. People can still go to taxi ranks to get black taxis.

Mr Weir: With respect, there is a potential danger that a market gets flooded by a couple of major companies. That is a major concern, but I do not know whether that will happen. The reality is that if you damage one aspect of the market and remove a certain level of competition — that is the practical reality — you reduce consumer choice and you move closer to a duopoly situation. That is a very real concern.

There is no doubt, with respect to the various sectors involved in this, that there are very strongly held views. If we are all being honest, we would recognise that all those at various levels in the taxi industry will argue for their own point of view and, to some extent, will argue in their own self-interest. That is human nature. In terms of these statutory rules, we have something that is not entirely fit for purpose. We are, perhaps, in an unfortunate situation because of the nature of statutory rules: had this been something that was amendable, amendments could have dealt with it. When we are left with a statutory rule, we either have to accept it in its entirety or, alternatively, not move forward. That is something that the Minister would admit; it is in the nature of the system.

Sad to say, despite the effort and goodwill that has been put in, we have not reached a solution as yet. We are relatively close to that situation because there are ways in which we can find a compromise that is not in the interest of any particular sector and, to be perfectly honest, would not be the blueprint that the public hire companies or the private hire companies — the major companies — would put forward. There are sensible solutions that can be produced. If the statutory rule was passed today, for example, it would take effect in June. Time should not be the major problem because, if there is goodwill on all sides and a sensible approach, we can reach a solution relatively quickly. That would allow a timetable that is very close to what is there at present.

From that point of view, these statutory rules, unamended and unchanged, are not for the overall benefit of the taxi industry and neither, in the long run, are they in the interests of the consumer, at least as regards Belfast. As an Assembly, we have no other option today but to say no to these rules. There will be a commitment from all of us, however, on all sides, to work together to find a "sensible solution", to quote Mr Eastwood accurately. There is something out there that can be grasped. There have been discussions already over the last year and a half which point in the rough direction of that solution.

From that point of view, I urge the House to allow a sensible solution to be produced which can deal not simply with the issue of the single tier, but with the issues of the bus lanes and metering to try to make sure that all that is put together as a proper package that we can all agree on and unite around and which everybody in the industry can at least live with.

Mr A Maginness: Thank you very much, Principal Deputy Speaker. I will take this opportunity to congratulate you on your election. Just because I did not vote for you does not mean that I do not wish you well.

It is unfortunate that we have reached this stage and that there is this prayer of annulment. We all look forward to a sensible solution to this particular issue. In all walks of life, whether it is business, the professions, politics, the Church or whatever, people find change difficult. I can understand in particular the decision of the public hire practitioners. They remind me of my old profession as a barrister because they are single practitioners who are subject to the market. In fact, when we were at the Bar, we were told that we were like taxi men, because we just picked up the next fare or the next case. [Interruption.]

I hear a voice behind me saying that we were not metered. [Laughter.]

Some people think that we were over-metered.

I do have sympathy, because change has come to the legal profession, and it is coming to those engaged in the taxi business and so forth. The public hire people have given great service to Belfast. I have used them frequently, and it is a quality service. They will be able to compete in the future whenever the single tier comes in. It is inevitable; the question is over how it will come in, how quickly it will come in, what shape and form it takes and what stages there will be etc. However, as Ms Lo said in her address to the Assembly, we have been dealing with this for the past seven years. That is a long period of time to allow any transition. People involved in this business have to realise that, to fulfil the wishes of the Assembly in the 2008 Act, it is necessary for us to reach an end point.

There are other issues involved, one of which is wheelchair accessible taxis. Public hire taxis are in a pole position to — I use this term properly — exploit the market, bring the capacity they have to that market and assist people who are disabled. That is why Disability Action is supportive of these changes. I also understand very clearly why the tourist industry is very supportive of these changes. In any other city in the world, you just stick your hand out and you get a taxi. In Belfast, alas, for whatever historic reasons, you cannot do that with all taxis; you can only do it with public hire ones.

We have to look very carefully. Inevitably, this prayer of annulment will be passed. That is unfortunate, but we have to look to the future and see how we bring this about. I am not convinced that the exclusion zone system which is being put forward would work. If we are going to approach it, we have to think very carefully about the practicalities. I am not sure that it would be particularly enforceable, but we have to get our heads around this and find, in the words of Mr Eastwood, a "sensible" solution.

The Minister has acted quite properly. He has brought this to the Committee and, as a consequence, to the House, and he has confronted all of us in this Chamber to say, "If we are going to fulfil the will of this Assembly in terms of the 2008 Act, then we have to act, and act reasonably quickly." He was right, therefore, to bring forward his regulations. It was right and proper for him to do that. Ministers are constantly criticised in this House for not making decisions. This Minister has made decisions. The decision that he has made is being thwarted by parties in this House. That is unfortunate, but there should be a short period of reflection after the inevitable happens here. I am supporting the Minister on this today.

Mr Lyttle: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue. I am not a Member of the Assembly's Environment Committee, but I have been approached by a number of organisations who are frustrated at the length of time it has taken to deal with this issue. That delay has cost them jobs as a result of the work that they have done to prepare for changes that are scheduled to come into play.

I had hoped to get a bit of a clearer understanding today as to why the DUP and Sinn Féin feel there is a need for further delay on this issue.

I must admit that I am not much clearer than I was when the day started. I have heard talk of anti-competition and some reference to self-interest. However, my understanding of the proposals is that they are really to create a level playing field and robust regulation and licensing for the taxi industry in Northern Ireland, which my colleague, the Chair of the Environment Committee, Anna Lo, supported today.

5.30 pm

I have heard a number of organisations make the case for why robust taxi regulation and licensing is urgently needed. I have heard of a number of problems that the lack of regulation and licensing is causing. In particular, I have had first-hand evidence of taxi equipment installed to dangerously poor standards that has led to a number of cases of electrical fire caused by faulty wiring. That is putting drivers, drivers' families, customers and the general public in Northern Ireland at a serious health risk. We have heard of man-in-a-van, backstreet installation putting the public at risk and putting reputable companies, which the vast majority of those in our taxi industry are, at a disadvantage because of their efforts to comply with the proposed regulations. That is why there is an urgent need for progress on this issue. We need to address what appears to be a genuine public health risk.

We want a fair, easy to understand, consistent system of taxi licensing with fixed taxi rates. We also see this as an opportunity to improve the current situation that we are met with at large-scale events and in our city centre. Certain taxis can be hailed, but others have to be booked in advance. The feedback that I am receiving is that a single system, in which all taxis can be hailed, would make for much better coming and going at large-scale events —

Mrs Cochrane: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: Yes, I will give way.

Mrs Cochrane: Does the Member agree that, at these large-scale events, we have a consistent problem with the number of people who park near the venue? I am thinking particularly of Ulster Rugby. People tell me that they end up driving over because it is so difficult to get a taxi when they come out. Surely, if we had single-tier licensing, that would enable us to get large crowds away from events quickly afterwards. That would be a very progressive and welcome move, especially for residents of, in this example, the Cregagh estate.

Mr Lyttle: Absolutely, and I thank the Member for her intervention. We have a number of instances, not least the example given, in which this more organised system would improve —

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: Yes, certainly.

Mr Weir: I appreciate that. Looking at the big-scale events has to be in the mix of any solution. As regards Ravenhill specifically — I am sure that the Minister will be smiling at this point because my colleague Lord Morrow has put in question after question on Ravenhill — one of the issues is the contractual situation between Ulster Rugby or Ravenhill and a particular firm or firms. There is full involvement of private hire in that situation. I suspect from what Mrs Cochrane said that it is not one that is working out particularly well, but the single-tier system would not resolve the particular issue at Ravenhill, which is a separate one. However, I agree with the general point that, if we are looking at an overall solution, factoring in the issue with some of the larger events has to be part of the overall mix.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for his intervention.

Mrs Cochrane: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: I will certainly give way. [Laughter.]

Mrs Cochrane: Mr Weir said that there is a contractual issue with private hire, but that had to be put in place because you cannot hail taxis on the road. When coming out of the ground, there are not a lot of taxis coming along that are able to pick you up. You have to phone and book them to an address. So, Ulster Rugby books taxis to the ground in order for them to be able to pick people up. It definitely would be a solution because it would not have to be just one company.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way — sorry, I thank the Member for her intervention. I was glad to act as chair for that mini-debate. [Laughter.]

We have covered an important issue. The important point is indeed that that simplified system would help large-scale event organisers, residents and taxi companies themselves to better understand and better operate in that context.

Another issue that has been raised and that is close to my own interests is the impact that the new licensing and regulations would have on the use of bus lanes by cyclists. I am chair of the all-party group on cycling. I welcomed Mrs Overend's contribution up to a point. I thought that it was balanced on the issue, but the comments about an immediate concern for cycling were somewhat irresponsible, given that the Ulster Unionist Party Minister for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy, is responsible for the regulation and enforcement of bus lane use. Indeed, he has available every power, if and when these regulations and licensing are enacted, to respond to that issue absolutely to ensure good control and enforcement of bus lanes, which would lead to priority being granted to cyclists, given the widespread support in the Assembly for the cycling revolution, which Danny Kennedy rightly wants to lead. We can respond in ways that safeguard the progress being made for cycling in bus lanes. For the Alliance Party, single-tier licensing and regulation is ultimately about bringing Northern Ireland into line with modern standards and practices.

In closing, I again ask the DUP and Sinn Féin to set out more clearly why they are blocking and delaying this legislation, when many organisations are clearly calling for its urgent delivery. Indeed, I ask them to set out what exactly their plan B is to address the urgent need for reform to and assistance for our taxi industry.

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I echo the congratulations from my colleague Mr Maginness to you on your election.

I welcome the opportunity to reply to this prayer of annulment to the Taxi Licensing Regulations and Taxi Operators Licensing (Amendment) Regulations, and to put forward the strong case for modernising the taxi industry with the introduction of improvements to the taxi licensing regime across the North, thereby implementing further elements of the Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008. Those Members who voted in the Environment Committee against the two sets of regulations have consistently stated that they have no significant issues with the majority of the regulations. The issue that causes them concern is that of introducing a single-tier licensing regime in Belfast, a change that would permit all taxis, not just Belfast public hire taxis, to pick up passengers on the streets of Belfast.

All Members will agree that taxis are a vital part of our economy. Every year, they greet many of the million-plus visitors who come here. They make tens of thousands of trips to bring people to and from work or safely home after a night out. They also help some of our most vulnerable people, young and old, to travel in the way that most of us take for granted. The majority of our taxi legislation, however, dates back to the early 1980s. In fact, in Belfast, it goes back even further to by-laws introduced in the early 1950s. The problem is, quite simply, that the legislation is not up to the task of effectively regulating taxis in the 21st century.

The Taxis Bill was therefore introduced by a previous Environment Minister, Arlene Foster, who, in doing so, quite rightly stated that single-tier licensing was a "fundamental tenet" of the Act. The merits of the Act were debated and approved by the House, without division, and Royal Assent was granted in April 2008. The aims of the Taxis Act are to raise the standard of taxi services, reduce illegal taxiing and improve compliance. Its broader objectives are to promote road safety, improve accessibility for older people and people with disabilities, and facilitate fairer competition for taxi services.

In short, it is about creating a safe, fair and fit-for-purpose industry that allows those involved in it to make a living from it.

To date, two significant parts of the Act have commenced: taxi operator licensing, which came into force in 2012 for the first time, makes operators accountable for the operation of their business and the actions of their drivers; and the taxi-driving test and periodic training, which came into force last October, aligns the taxi industry with other professional driving industries and will help to raise standards and improve road safety.

Aside from the regulations that we are debating today, the remaining elements of the Taxis Act include the implementation of taxi meters to enhance customer protection and the introduction of a new specification for wheelchair-accessible taxis that will update the current 20-year-old specification. That will improve the safety and comfort of the taxi journey for people with disabilities, while ensuring, through the introduction of a maximum fare, that they, and indeed all customers, are not overcharged.

At present, we have essentially two regimes: one dual-tier system in Belfast, where private hire taxis must be pre-booked, thereby restricting customer choice; and a single-tier regime everywhere else, where consumers can choose either to hail on the street or pre-book. The current dual system in place in Belfast is broken. It cannot adequately address a number of problems that the Act was designed and introduced to tackle.

First, the general public, residents and visitors alike are confused as to what taxis they can use in different circumstances. In many instances, they do not care, so long as the taxi is licensed and will take them home. A single tier will remove that confusion.

Secondly, there are insufficient numbers of taxis that can pick up on the street in Belfast — a particular problem at peak periods — to meet demand and ensure public safety and order. A single tier will address this deficiency in the current market by significantly increasing the number of taxis that can be hailed.

Thirdly, a great deal of DVA enforcement activity currently addresses licensing offences that exist only because of the operation of a two-tier licensing system in Belfast. That is time-consuming for DVA and serves only to reduce the resources available to address the illegal and dangerous taxis that are unfortunately out there. That type of enforcement activity plays into the hands of illegal taxis and those operators and drivers who are licensed but choose to break the law. This cannot continue. A single tier will remove illegal PU-ing by licensed taxi operators and drivers and free up valuable resources so that more serious offences can be tackled more often in a targeted and robust manner. A single-tier licensing system will increase choice for consumers, increase competition and increase standards across the board.

Support for a single tier comes from a wide variety of organisations. In addition to three consultations indicating a preference for a single tier, 913 letters from Belfast private hire drivers and 4,200 postcards received from private hire taxi passengers and submitted to the Environment Committee all called for the implementation of single-tier licensing. Furthermore, as Mr Eastwood told us, the Consumer Council wants it; disability groups, including Disability Action, want it; Women's Aid and Victim Support want it; the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, Pubs of Ulster and Visit Belfast all want it. Why? Because they see the clear benefit to consumers, to the increasing number of tourists coming to Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland, and of course to the industry itself. Indeed, only a year and a half ago, even the proposers of the motion wanted it. The Environment Committee unanimously indicated its support for a single tier. It was frustrated at the delays in introducing it. Mr Boylan’s view was that the continued delays in introducing a single-tier system were "ridiculous". His view then was:

"it was about the customer and the consumer",

and he quite rightly made the point that it is not the Belfast Taxis Act but the Taxis Act. However, his direction of travel has seemingly changed. All that I can say is that I am glad that I am not in Mr Boylan’s taxi, because, with all those roundabouts and U-turns, it would cost me a fortune.

5.45 pm

The concern of those who oppose the single tier is seemingly the possible impact on jobs within Belfast public hire. On that matter, I agree with Arlene Foster, the originator of the Bill, who, as Minister, argued that the legislation does not put jobs at risk. In fact, it will increase the demand for legal taxis, because the industry as a whole will be improved, will be more attractive and will be better regulated. More effective action will also be able to be taken against illegal taxis, using the new powers —

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for giving way. Nobody has made a case for the legislation not applying throughout the bulk of Northern Ireland. I think that there are advantages to that.

The Minister is very good with quotations, but, during the passing of the Taxis Bill, it was brought before the Committee and acknowledged by departmental officials that it may not be something that would necessarily have to apply to all of Northern Ireland and that Belfast would have to be looked at. That is a matter of public record and formed part of the evidence that was given to the Committee at the time. I presume that the Minister will be happy to acknowledge that as well. The Act has not been universally accepted as applying throughout Northern Ireland or automatically.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the intervention.

More effective action would be able to be taken against illegal taxis by using the new powers, which the regulations will enable, to seize illegal taxis. Without the regulations, those powers will continue to lie redundant and unused.

I have listened to all views. Since taking office, I have met many representatives across the sector and have considered many points that have been made in favour of and against implementing the remaining provisions of the Taxis Act. Specifically, I have met representatives of Belfast public hire taxis and have listened to and considered their very genuine concerns. However, I have not been persuaded by the arguments that have been put forward, and, in any case, I must balance those with the reasonable demands that have been sought by consumer and disability groups to improve regulation for a safe, fair and fit-for-purpose taxi industry, which, I reiterate, was the major driver for the introduction of the Taxis Act that was supported without division by the House.

Members will also wish to note that the regulations continue the provision and protection for Belfast public hire taxis that only wheelchair-accessible taxis can work from ranks within Belfast. That means that all Belfast public hire taxis will continue to be able to work from ranks and the current saloon-style private hire taxis will not.

My Department has also indicated that the current Belfast public hire fleet will have grandfather rights for five years on the new wheelchair accessible specification. That means that they will not have to comply until 2020, unlike new entrants to the market who will have to comply this year, on the basis that the regulations remain in place.

So, to say that the impact on Belfast public hire has not been considered or will be fatal is simply not the case. I am convinced that any sector of the industry that provides a good and price-competitive service will be able to thrive in the improved regulatory regime that the Taxis Act provides for. Why would it not?

The demand for the services of all taxi services, including Belfast public hire taxis, should be determined by the service that they provide and the price at which it is provided. I cannot justify a licensing regime that serves to protect a particular part of the industry to the clear detriment of consumers.

Consider the scene: a taxi driver with a taxi driver’s licence in a taxi with a taxi vehicle licence, who is legally working for an operator with an operator’s licence, is driving along one of Belfast’s busy streets at closing time on a Saturday night.

The driver sees a young man or woman or a couple who want a taxi home after being out for a few drinks. They want to use the empty taxi that they can see in front of them, and the fully licensed and compliant taxi driver wants the fare. What possible role has the Department of the Environment in denying such a commercial transaction and denying the consumer their choice? The presence of the archaic by-laws, written long before modern dispatch systems were conceived, is not a good enough excuse, nor is the fear of change. There is, in fact, no reason at all.

Seemingly, the Members opposing single-tier do not want to extend to people in Belfast the flexibility on offer to people in Bangor, Armagh, Dungannon, Derry and elsewhere. Those Members want to ensure that where there is the greatest demand for taxis anywhere in the North — Belfast — such a choice is not permitted. Maybe it is no coincidence that not one of the Members who spoke in favour of the motion was elected by the people of Belfast. I know that they are not representing their best interests today.

I listened carefully to all the Members who spoke during the debate, and I thank everyone for their contribution. I will make a few comments on some of the points raised.

Mrs Cameron moved the motion and outlined the Committee's consideration of and deliberations over the regulations. She suggested that we look at a compromise deal, whereby single-tier or dual-tier could work at certain times. That, in my opinion, would compound the confusion that we are trying to clear up.

Mr Eastwood opposed the motion and highlighted the fact that, in the main, taxi operators and drivers wanted to see the legislation and the regulations finally coming in. The aim is to simplify the current system, and that would be beneficial to tourists and locals alike. He referred to the ridiculous situation at George Best airport, where many people's first experience of Belfast is a confusing one.

Mrs Overend referred to the delay that had been granted to give taxi operators time to prepare for the change. To their credit, Belfast public hire have used that time to lobby, and they have lobbied very effectively, causing the DUP and Sinn Féin and now also the UUP to change their position. She referred to the need for certainty in the industry, and that is something that all those involved in taxiing and the wider public need. Having spent five minutes rubbishing the motion and ridiculing those who proposed it, Mrs Overend veered unexpectedly into bus lanes. DRD has primary responsibility for bus lanes, and I understand that it was waiting to see what the new licensing regime would look like before taking a final view on which taxis, if any, are allowed to travel in bus lanes. From a DOE perspective and an SDLP perspective, I hope that it retains the current position of permitting only wheelchair-accessible taxis in bus lanes.

Anna Lo said that, in her time chairing the Environment Committee, she had not heard any compelling argument against the introduction of single-tier. She spoke of competition being good for consumers and felt that those supporting today's motion are preserving the monopoly of Belfast's public hire taxis to ply for trade in the city centre.

Peter Weir spoke of finding a solution. I am certainly keen to do that and will work with everyone to do so. However, I am genuinely not sure what compromise might be acceptable to the drivers who have persuaded his change of heart on the issue. He rightly identified this as a Belfast problem. He spoke of the fear of creating a duopoly, and the evidence certainly exists to show that two big organisations becoming overdominant is bad news for everyone — except for those two parties.

Mr Maginness —

Mr McElduff: Will the Minister give way?

Mr McElduff: I believe that there is a taxi for Durkan to take him out of the Building. [Laughter.]

Mr Durkan: Thanks for that, Barry.

Mr Maginness likened public hire to his past career as a barrister. I know that they charge extra for taking cases. Mr Lyttle spoke of the very real commercial concerns that have been caused by the delay. He talked about the difficulty that exists, particularly around large events, and helpfully cleared up the concerns of cycling groups and cyclists, although I know that a few of them would happily have the buses removed from the bus lanes as well.

I will summarise my position. The case has been made by all sides for almost 10 years. It should be for consumers to decide which services they want to use, taking account of quality and price. There is no reason at all why Belfast public hire should not flourish in such an environment. The motion jeopardises a fundamental tenet of the Taxis Act, reduces choice for consumers in Belfast and puts at risk the aims and objectives of the Act. I sincerely hope that Members will choose to support the case for modernisation and vote against the motion. It is high time that we moved to implement the remaining elements of the Taxis Act as the House intended in 2008. The public in the North need the change, as does the taxi industry.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I start by congratulating you on your new role. I wish you well in it. With your indulgence, I will speak first on behalf of the Committee and will then make a few remarks as an MLA.

I reiterate why the Committee agreed to table the motions on statutory rules 2014/302 and 2014/303: Members do not want to see the public hire sector disadvantaged by the high level of increased competition in lucrative city centre locations that will result from the introduction of single-tier taxi licensing. It will mean that that sector of the industry will become less able to cope with the additional financial commitments for new roof signage, taximeters and printers and training for the new driver tests that are included in the statutory rules. All of that could result in the loss of jobs or livelihoods in the Belfast public hire sector, which provides a 24-hour service, seven days a week, not just on busy late nights at weekends. The Committee urged the Minister to look carefully at the proposed legislation to see how the sector could be facilitated. However, since he chose not to help Belfast public hire, we, unfortunately, have had to oppose the rules.

I thank all the Members for their contributions and will comment on some of the things that were said. It was interesting to listen to Mr Eastwood. On the one hand, he said that we were introducing a single-tier system that would facilitate more taxis in Belfast, but, on the other hand, he said that people could not get taxis.

Mr Eastwood: Will the Member give way?

Mr Boylan: I will in a minute.

I brought up that point because single-tier is in effect happening in Belfast at the minute. Why is it happening? It has been happening for a number of years because of the lack of enforcement — simple as. I will get round to the Minister's comments in a minute, and I will let in Mr Eastwood in a minute, but I repeat that people have to realise that single-tier has been operating in Belfast because of the lack of enforcement over the past number of years.

So, we cannot say that we introduce the single-tier system, and more taxis will come in, when we already know what is happening in Belfast. I will let Mr Eastwood in.

6.00 pm

Mr Eastwood: Thanks. The Member points out that single tier might lead to more taxis. I do not know whether that is true, but the point that I made about you not being able to get a taxi is not based on there not being enough taxis. It is because not enough of them can stop and pick people up. The problem is empty taxis driving past people, not that there are not enough taxis.

Mr Boylan: I will clarify my point. You are correct, but what I am saying is that, in Belfast, there are enough taxis, and that is the way that they are operating at the minute. That is why I said that a single-tier system is operating — it is because of the lack of enforcement. That is the point that I am trying to make. The issue of enforcement has been going on for a period of time, and the Minister is well aware of that, because a series of questions have been put to him about actions that have been going on. So, in essence, that is what has been happening in Belfast. I just wanted to pick up on that point by Mr Eastwood.

I did not know what way Mrs Overend was going at the start of her contribution. She picked on everybody about what they had said in the past. A number of years ago, we as a Committee agreed to a single-tier system. There is no doubt about that. We thought that we had done a good piece of work, and we listened to a lot of presentations and everything else on it. As part of that legislation, we built in a two-year review to see exactly how the legislation would operate on the ground. Because it has taken nearly seven years to introduce the first piece of legislation — I am not picking on anybody in that respect — we have seen exactly how it is operating. People have to understand that.

Anna Lo talked about competition. If we allow this to go ahead and, by not praying, do not force this motion through, what will happen if we allow a system where a number of cars go into the city? I will explain how I think that we can get around this in Belfast. If a number of companies are allowed to buy into the system and to start operating in the city centre, what will that create? For some people, it may create more choice, but you cannot allow numbers and numbers of taxis, which would happen under single tier. In the two the licence systems, A and B, where the taxi ranks are protected, how many cars can operate at ranks, in reality? So, let us be realistic. The Minister said that nobody has come up with a real effort for a solution that would try to deal with this. We have had some suggestions of how it might happen.

I want to pick up on some other points made by Members before I go on to some other points. Peter Weir is right, to be fair, to say that we started to talk over this process, I think, 18 months ago. Some Members said that we agreed to single tier in 2013 and not to introduce until 2014. If I remember correctly, we agreed to single tier on the basis that we would try to find a solution for Belfast. I could be wrong; Mr Weir was part of the Committee as well. I am nearly sure that we agreed the single tier on that principle. Whilst he supports the motion, he is saying that the rules are not currently fit for purpose. I do actually think that there is a lot of good stuff. I do agree with him; there is some good stuff within the rules that we could work on.

I appreciate and support Alban Maginness saying that the public hire taxis have given a good service down through the years, but I would be minded — and I am sure he would be too — to support the public hire taxis to get their act together as part of the new regime if we brought forward some suggestions on how to deal with it. I think he would support that. They have, and sometimes we forget that and sometimes we do not want to recognise the contribution that public hire has made.

Mr Lyttle was asking what we have brought forward. All I can say is where we see it going wrong. Mr Weir has already talked about a duopoly. How would there be work for everybody in the city if you decided to leave it open? Different people have talked about tourists and not being able to hail and this, that and the other. Other than the groups mentioned by the Minister and by Colum Eastwood, I do not know where we have done that public trawl to see exactly what the people have to say — a proper exercise. I know that different taxi firms have carried out lobbying on their own, but I do not know whether the Department has done that exercise or not. It is something that I would like to hear or see coming forward to see what people have said on that.

I just want to pick up on a few points as an MLA and member of the Committee. Eighteen months ago we asked for the Minister to go away with some suggestions to see if we could address the issue and maybe bring forward a two-tier system in Belfast, because, clearly, with between 500 and 700 black taxis, it needs to be looked at and there needs to be a solution for it. Most of the people here support a single-tier system allowing a monopoly of one group to come in and adhere to one set of rules against another group of people. Anna Lo touched on it. Why should we let that monopoly do something for this monopoly? So we are going to create another monopoly to take over: is that the case? That is what could happen if people were lifting all over the city.

I want to suggest to the Minister some things that we could look at. We talk about an operator licence. If we are serious about looking at operator licensing, we could bring forward a licence system that would differentiate between what the public hire and private hire could do. The facility is there in the Bill, to my knowledge. I think there is a facility for a two-tier system and a facility to look at the operator licence. We mentioned exclusion zones. I think Alban Maginness thought that they could not work, but, to my knowledge, the whole issue is over a five-mile radius in Belfast. We suggested that we could look at the radius and see who would operate within that radius. I think that is something that we could still look at if the Minister is minded to do so.

I am nearly sure that there was a facility in the Bill, or that we looked at taxi marshals to move people on or operate around ranks where you felt that you had to move traffic or footfall at any point in time. People mentioned additional taxi ranks. I think the Minister is right on that. The Minister has no responsibility for that. That is the responsibility of DRD, so, unless he works with another Department to provide additional taxi ranks for Belfast public hire, I do not think it is within his remit.

The other thing that most people talked about — I am getting back to the issue that Colum Eastwood talked about — was taxis not being available. Nobody said that we would not look at the idea of allocating an additional number of public taxis. If people are saying to us that Belfast public hire cannot service the footfall that is there at the minute, in particular at the weekends, why can you not look at an additional number of taxis?

So, there are some suggestions that the Minister could maybe look at.

I have to say this about Belfast public hire: we need to look at a dress code and some of the other issues that came to Committee, such as the standard of vehicle. We would be minded to do that as part of this whole shake-up

In closing, and thank you for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Committee does not believe that these two statutory rules represent the best way forward. Accordingly, it asks the Assembly to agree that they be annulled. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that I will put the Question separately on each of the motions listed on the Order Paper.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.


That the Taxi Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2014 (S.R. 2014/302) be annulled.


That the Taxi Operators Licensing (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2014 (S.R. 2014/303) be annulled. — [Mrs Cameron (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment).]

Adjourned at 6.24 pm.

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