Official Report: Tuesday 03 March 2015

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

Ministerial Statements

Mr M McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): A Cheann Comhairle, Mr Speaker, in compliance with section 52C(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we wish to make the following statement on the tenth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in institutional format, which was held in Stormont Castle on Wednesday 25 February 2015. The Executive Ministers who attended the meeting have agreed that we can make this report on their behalf. The Executive were represented by the First Minister, Peter Robinson, and me. The Irish Government were represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan TD, and Minister of State for Development, Trade Promotion and North-South Co-operation, Seán Sherlock TD. The First Minister and I chaired the meeting.

The meeting began with a good discussion on a range of issues impacting on the economies in each jurisdiction. The importance of connectivity to encourage economic growth was also highlighted.

In line with the Stormont House Agreement of the 23 December 2014, the Council agreed to note a report presented on new sectoral priorities. Ministerial discussions have taken place at sectoral level focusing on areas of mutual benefit, including economic recovery, job creation and improving service delivery. Ministers will now be asked to formally review the work programmes in their various sectors, and an update paper on these discussions will be brought to the June 2015 plenary meeting. It was also agreed that a paper will be brought to a future institutional meeting on longer-term sectoral priorities and that new sectoral priorities will be an agenda item at future NSMC institutional meetings.

EU matters are discussed regularly at NSMC meetings, as this area presents good opportunities for us to cooperate for our mutual benefit. At the meeting, we received an update on the ongoing ministerial discussions examining the potential for collaboration to maximise drawdown of EU funds across all NSMC areas of cooperation. Ministers agreed that these discussions should continue and that a report should be brought to the next NSMC plenary meeting. Ministers also noted the joint target of €175 million that has been set for drawdown of funding under the Horizon 2020 programme. That will be a challenging target, but both jurisdictions are already working well together to achieve it.

The next item on the agenda focused on various issues relating to the North/South bodies. It was noted that all bodies had prepared business plans for 2015 that will deliver the agreed efficiency savings of 8% compared with the 2013 budget. That is very important given the economic challenges faced by both jurisdictions.

Other governance issues were also discussed. We noted that the boards of the bodies are fully operational, that there have been staffing changes at a senior level across a number of bodies and that the North/South pension scheme is in the process of being reformed. We also noted that the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are taking forward a review of the bodies' financial memoranda. The outcome of the review will be brought to a future NSMC meeting.

The Council then considered a paper on board appointments to North/South bodies. We noted that the terms of appointment for some board members of North/South bodies are due to expire later this year, and we considered a proposal on the terms of appointment for board members. That proposal will realign the terms of appointment for board members of implementation bodies and Tourism Ireland to the new Assembly and Dáil terms. It was agreed that the joint secretariat should investigate that proposal further and that a paper on board member appointments would be brought to the next NSMC plenary meeting.

Ministers then agreed to an amendment to the North/South pension scheme. The amendment will move the scheme to a career average scheme and will link the scheme pension age to the state pension age in each jurisdiction.

We then had a very interesting discussion on the north-west gateway initiative. Ministers noted that, following engagement with key stakeholders in the region on the future direction of the north-west gateway initiative, officials have now consulted with the relevant Departments. The Council also noted developments in relation to local government in the north-west and agreed that a meeting of relevant Ministers be held in the north-west in May 2015, in line with the Stormont House Agreement.

The Council noted the NSMC annual report for 2014, which will be published on the NSMC website before the end of March 2015. Finally, the Council agreed to meet again in institutional format in autumn 2015.

Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I note that it made several references to the Stormont House Agreement. The deputy First Minister is aware of the commitment to reduce the number of Executive Departments and the number of Members of this legislative Assembly. Why was there no discussion about reducing the number of North/South bodies proportionately, perhaps putting a focus on the economy, which is consistent with our Programme for Government?

Mr M McGuinness: As the Member said, there was no discussion about any reduction in the number of North/South bodies. The North/South bodies are already being impacted by the outcome of discussions between the relevant Finance Ministers, North and South, over the last short while. Given the reports that we have received about the effectiveness of the North/South bodies, it is very clear that they bring enormous benefits to North and South.

As I said, the fact that we have agreed to look at new sectoral priorities, which places a responsibility on Ministers, North and South, to look at how we can gain further advantage by working ever closer together, means that there is an argument going in the other direction: we can save money, pool resources and take initiatives, such as the initiative for the construction of the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin hospital. Look at the work that has been done through InterTradeIreland. There have been recent discussions between our Health Minister and the Health Minister in the South, Leo Varadkar, about children's cardiac services. I understand that our Health Minister will make a further statement on that to the Assembly today. All that argues for us to continue to build the levels and areas of cooperation that can bring enormous benefits, North and South.

Mr Spratt: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement to the House this morning. Will he give us more detail of the amendment to the North/South pension scheme? Does it mirror the changes made here recently to the pension schemes for public servants?

Mr M McGuinness: As I said earlier, we approved the amendment to the North/South pension scheme during the meeting. We believe that the reforms, which will take effect from 1 April, will help to ensure the sustainability of the North/South pension scheme. The key changes are the move to a career average rather than final salary; linking the scheme retirement age to state pension age; and increasing employee contributions to a common level for Northern and Southern members. The North/South pension scheme is modelled on the principal Civil Service pension scheme here in the North. The Finance Ministers in both jurisdictions have already agreed that it is appropriate to apply the changes to the scheme. The Member and other Members will know, because questions have been asked about this in the past, that this was a fraught issue that left a lot of unhappiness. The fact that it has now been resolved will be welcomed by everybody.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. What potential exists for a more collaborative approach across the island to maximising the drawdown of EU funding?

Mr M McGuinness: As I said, we had a very useful discussion on EU matters and, in particular, on maximising the drawdown of EU funds. Ministers are considering opportunities to maximise the drawdown of EU funds in the various sectors. As we all know, EU funding is very important in both jurisdictions. We think that it makes sense that we should work together ever more closely so that we can draw down as much funding as possible.

The discussions to date have been very positive, with several opportunities identified. We highlighted to the Irish Government the fact that there may be scope to cooperate to access funding under the Juncker initiative. We will receive a further update on EU funding opportunities at the next plenary, when all Ministers have had the opportunity to discuss this topic.

The First Minister and I have had a number of conversations with the Taoiseach about the Juncker fund. It is a huge fund, which is mostly focused on infrastructural projects. We and the Taoiseach are very keen to explore with the EU and President Juncker how we can benefit from that. Given the challenges that we face, particularly in the funding of various infrastructural projects, this is worthy of further exploration. The First Minister and I intend to visit Brussels in the coming period and, hopefully, have a meeting with President Juncker.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the deputy First Minister for his very detailed report. It seems to have been a very businesslike and comprehensive meeting. The deputy First Minister's statement mentions new sectoral priorities, which seem to have been an important item of business and will be an item for discussion at future meetings. Will he elaborate on what those new sectoral priorities will be? Is there any documentation that he can publish that might inform the House further?

Mr M McGuinness: As I said earlier, Ministers are looking at all areas of cooperation, and there have been good discussions between them about their priorities for the future. These discussions have been aimed mostly at securing economic recovery, job creation, the best use of public funds and the most effective delivery of services for their citizens. We have agreed that Ministers will now formally review their work programmes in each of the areas of cooperation.

We will consider the outcome of those reviews at a future plenary meeting and will keep the new sectoral priorities on the agenda of future institutional meetings.

10.45 am

I know that there is some interest, and I have heard overnight about the release of information in relation to sectoral priorities. The reality is that the report on the new sectoral priorities was part of an NSMC institutional paper tabled at last week's meeting. Papers for North/South Ministerial Council meetings are jointly agreed between the Irish Government and our Executive. We cannot make unilateral decisions to publish an NSMC paper, but, in all fairness, there is nothing secretive about any of it. The ultimate outcomes and conclusions of those discussions will form statements, in the aftermath of agreement at the North/South Ministerial Council, to the Assembly and the Dáil. There is nothing secretive about it. That information will be forthcoming, but there is a considerable body of work to be done. It will be widely welcomed that, at long last, we are seeing a new impetus and new energy being applied to how Ministers, North and South, can be involved in initiatives that bring huge benefits to people on this island.

Mr McCarthy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I refer the deputy First Minister to the part of the statement in which he talked about an 8% efficiency saving. Can he outline any detrimental effects or, indeed, cancelled projects, as a result of that 8% cut, which actually is a cut, in the budget?

Mr M McGuinness: It is important that each of the North/South bodies, like other public bodies, deliver their objectives and programmes efficiently, particularly in the current fiscal climate. In that context, and given the pressures on public finances in both jurisdictions, the two Finance Departments agreed a minimum cash-releasing efficiency savings programme of 4% in 2014, culminating in 12% over the period 2014-16. The business plans approved to date by the NSMC include the delivery of those efficiency targets.

I know — it also applies to the working of Departments in the North — that, given the impact of what has been a very cruel world recession and the fallout, for example, of the cut to our block grant by the Administration in London, it places a huge responsibility on Departments and the North/South bodies to continue to deliver their objectives with reduced resources. That certainly represents a real challenge, but I think that good work is being done. We obviously hope for a better economic climate in the time ahead. That might be challenging over the next couple of years, but, ultimately, it is quite clear that the work that has been undertaken by the bodies that have been established under the terms of the agreements are delivering real benefits for people North and South against the backdrop of huge fiscal challenges.

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. What level of expenditure delivery has InterTradeIreland demonstrated in its work to promote trade and business on an all-island basis?

Mr M McGuinness: As we all know, InterTradeIreland was set up to promote trade and business on an all-island and cross-border basis and for the enhancement of the global competitiveness of the all-island economy to the mutual benefit of both jurisdictions. It is delivering on the same, and the recent performance figures back that up, with delivery of a 10-to-one return on expenditure, assistance provided to 64 first-time innovators, assistance provided to 127 first-time exporters and delivery of a total business value of £67 million or €78 million. InterTradeIreland is also playing a key role in ensuring that we meet our targets for drawing down funding from the Horizon 2020 EU programme.

Mr Dallat: I also thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I refer him to paragraph 12, in which he points out the need to make some appointments in future. I ask the deputy First Minister whether those will be done in consultation with the Commissioner for Public Appointments and will reflect the 26 recommendations in the report of the commissioner, dated January 2014. If he has time, can he tell us when those recommendations will be formally accepted by this Assembly to address gender balance, disability and all the other issues of multiple appointments that were raised in that report?

Mr M McGuinness: For good governance reasons, it is important that the boards of bodies are operating effectively. With many board members' terms of appointment about to expire, it is important that we ensure that there is continuity when appointing new members. The joint secretaries have proposed a process that will ensure that there is retention of corporate knowledge on the boards and which will realign the board's terms of appointment to the Assembly in all terms. There is some work to be done on that, and we have asked the joint secretaries to liaise with the sponsor Departments and the bodies and to produce a paper for consideration at the NSMC plenary in June. On the point about how appointments are made, these bodies have been in existence, as the Member will know, for some considerable time, and the appointments will be made consistent with the previous arrangements, whilst absolutely taking into account the latter comments of the Member about opportunities for everybody in society to participate.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I note that paragraph 15 refers to the interesting discussion on the north-west gateway initiative. I very much welcome that those discussions are taking place and, indeed, the rejuvenation of the north-west through the task force. Can the Minister provide more detail on those discussions, how they are progressing and any further details?

Mr M McGuinness: As I said, we had a very good discussion on the north-west gateway imitative at the meeting, and our respective officials have consulted relevant Departments on the views expressed by stakeholders on the direction and priorities for the north-west. They have also met the chief executives of Donegal County Council and the shadow Derry City and Strabane District Council, which will come into being on 1 April. We understand that work is being progressed jointly by them to develop local and cross-border community and development plans. They will be important contributors to future development in the north-west and have offered to brief Ministers on their plans.

We have asked our officials to make the necessary arrangements for a ministerial meeting in the north-west, to be held in May. Once the details and the programme have been confirmed, we will write to relevant ministerial colleagues, inviting them to attend. A report on the outcome of that meeting can be brought to a future NSMC plenary or institutional meeting. We were also able to apprise both Ministers that we met on the recent initiative that the First Minister and I have been involved in to bring together a number of Ministers to look at opportunities in various areas of the North. However, there is a particular focus on the north-west in relation to, for example, the further expansion of the university campus at Magee, the whole issue of the A5 and the A6, and the development of very important military sites in the north-west. We spoke about the opportunities presented by what is, I think, an incredible opportunity at Ballykelly. Of course, we also discussed the decision to relocate the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to the west of the Bann. All of that clearly shows that all Ministers and our Executive are very clearly focused on recognising that, where there is a perception of regional disparity, we have to do something about it. I am very encouraged by the conversations that we have been involved in. Aspiration is one thing; delivery is another. However, I think that this is a group of people who are absolutely committed to delivery.

Mr Ramsey: Following on from my colleague from Foyle Maeve McLaughlin's question on re-energising the north-west gateway initiative, and the deputy First Minister's comments on Magee, there is an important opportunity, because there is, as the deputy First Minister will be aware, a level of apathy and low morale in the north-west. We must ensure access to higher education through the expansion of Magee. Regional imbalance and economic inactivity could be well addressed through the north-west gateway initiative because it will benefit the north-west border areas. Could he finalise that and prioritise it through the ministerial subgroup?

Mr M McGuinness: The Member is correct. What is important, as we go forward against the backdrop of what is a very encouraging initiative in which Ministers are participating whole-heartedly, is that, if we can unite everybody in the city behind what the priorities are and how we deliver them, good work will be done. What we do not need to see are divided opinions in the city about how we go forward, particularly on Magee. We need a single vision and a determination to deliver that vision to ensure that it benefits the regeneration of the city.

As we know, the city has come on tremendously in recent years in the way in which everybody in the community has come together, for example, for the City of Culture. The participation of the unionist, loyalist, nationalist and republican communities in those initiatives, and in continuing to build on them, is very important because peace is crucial. We know that, even in that city, there are still people hell-bent on dragging us back to the past. Our message to them is that they will not drag us back to the past; we are going to go forward. One way that we can continue to undermine the activities of those who wish to drag us back to the past is to continue to make politics work and to continue to deliver for everybody in the city, no matter what their religious of political allegiances may be.

Mr Allister: I note that only the First Minister and the deputy First Minister represented Northern Ireland at this institutional meeting. Is that a change in the modus operandi, as indeed is perhaps the absence of the First Minister this morning? In relation to the North/South creep in the new sectoral priorities, can the deputy First Minister be absolutely clear whether any new sectoral priorities will be managed and operated exclusively within the existing six institutional bodies and the existing six areas of cooperation or whether those will expand? Why does he have to keep the report that enunciates all this secret and hide behind reasons for keeping it secret?

Mr M McGuinness: I have already answered the latter question in a previous answer. It is a matter of getting agreement on North/South announcements, and that requires the agreement of the Irish Government and ourselves. As I have said, there is no secret whatsoever in any of this.

As for the Member's remark on the "creep" in the development of sectoral priorities, I do not think that anybody on the island of Ireland, with the possible exception of himself, is in any way interested in politicians or Ministers North and South not working together. People want to see us working together, and the fact that that can happen without injury to anybody's political allegiance is a good thing. I understand that the Member is totally opposed to North/South development and would like to see its destruction, even though it will benefit people who are suffering from cancer, children who are suffering from heart conditions and businesspeople who are trying to develop their businesses, North and South. This mentality of "Let us close off the North" is over. We have to work together, and we can do so without injury to anybody's political allegiance.

The last thing that I want to say is that the process of the North/South meetings held in institutional format has been continuing with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the junior Minister, the First Minister and me for quite some time. There is absolutely nothing unusual about it. No inference should be drawn from the absence of the First Minister today. I spoke to him yesterday and he has another engagement, which I understand. Absolutely no offence is taken.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I refer to the part of the statement that deals with sectoral priorities and new sectoral priorities. Can existing sectoral priorities be enhanced and further developed? Access to GP out-of-hours provision has been a pilot in Derry and Inishowen and in the Castleblayney, Keady and Crossmaglen area. Will the deputy First Minister take on board my suggestion that access to GP out-of-hours provision might be a suitable existing sectoral priority for enhancement and further development?

11.00 am

Mr M McGuinness: As I said, our Minister of Health will be making a statement later in the Assembly. In fact, he has just arrived. This is an opportunity to wish him and his family well as they battle illness. It is not easy to deal with a job against the backdrop of what the Minister is dealing with with his wife, and we all hope and pray for her speedy recovery.

However, I am sure that he is as focused on the issues that the Member has raised about how we can continue to work together in a positive way to deliver for citizens through the health service. I reiterate the point that all of that can be done without injury to anybody's political allegiance.

Mr B McCrea: I draw the deputy First Minister's attention to the part of the statement that deals with the Horizon 2020 programme. Some 70% of all funds that were drawn down in Northern Ireland under FP7, the predecessor to Horizon 2020, were drawn down by the two universities. Did science play any part in the discussions on the new sectoral opportunities?

We have had some discussions with the Royal Irish Academy, and it has invited scientists from the North to visit it in the South. Can he use his office or the North/South Ministerial Council to support such interaction, North and South?

Mr M McGuinness: I am always willing to support such interaction. I have been at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, and it is a fantastic organisation.

Science matters were not specifically discussed during the meeting. However, as many people know, Horizon 2020 is the European programme aimed at promoting research and innovation. That covers a very wide sphere. The total fund is worth something like £79 billion. As an Executive, we have set ourselves a target of drawing down some £145 million from the fund. In addition, we have agreed a joint target with the Irish Government of €175 million for projects that involve partners from both jurisdictions.

To ensure that we deliver on those targets, we have put in place a range of structures. One of the key structures is the all-island Horizon 2020 steering group, which is chaired by InterTradeIreland and includes representation from key agencies in each jurisdiction. The group has produced a strategic action plan to facilitate the delivery of the joint target and is overseeing work in both jurisdictions to promote collaborative projects.

I appreciate and accept the general sense of the Member's question. As we move ahead, the challenge for us all is to continue to explore how we can gain best advantage through working with the Irish Government on financial drawdown to benefit businesses and education institutions in the North.

Mr Wells (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a statement to the Assembly regarding my final decision on the recommendations of the international working group (IWG) on paediatric congenital cardiac services, which the Minister for Health in the Republic of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, and I published on 14 October 2014. In publishing the report, Minister Varadkar and I stated that we had both agreed to accept all the IWG's recommendations and were committed to their full implementation, subject to the outcome of any necessary consultation.

The public consultation in Northern Ireland closed on 23 January 2015. Following an evaluation of the responses received by my Department, I can now confirm that all of the IWG's recommendations will be implemented to create an all-island congenital heart disease network to meet the needs of the populations of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Minister Varadkar and I have issued a further joint statement today which provides details of the governance and operational arrangements for the network. I will say something further about those in a moment. Before I do so, I would like to thank all those who responded to, and took part in. the public consultation. This includes the patients, their families, the charities who represent them, clinicians, other stakeholders and indeed those Members of the Assembly who attended the public meetings.

I have now published a report containing a full analysis and key points from the consultation on the Department's website. In total, 156 written consultation responses have been received, including 20 from organisations and 136 from individuals. Combined with the feedback that was gathered through a series of public meetings which were held throughout Northern Ireland, the responses reflect a range of views that are broadly supportive of the positive change in the service, but tempered, and understandably so, by a degree of concern over how this will implemented and managed. Insights were given not only on the 14 recommendations specifically, but on wider related areas of concern which are felt by families affected by congenital heart disease.

The majority of the IWG's recommendations were overwhelmingly supported and seen as positive developments for congenital heart disease patients in Northern Ireland, provided they are delivered in full and that families have a say in how the future service is delivered. Although there was broad acceptance of the IWG's expert view, opinions were divided regarding the recommendation to cease paediatric congenital cardiac surgery and interventional cardiology in Belfast. However, I must emphasise that no alternative viable solution was proposed that would allow these procedures to continue to be delivered in Belfast within current international standards. The majority of respondents accepted that to provide these procedures in Dublin in the long term would be preferable to the other viable alternative, which is that the majority of surgery and interventional cardiology would be provided by heart centres in England for Northern Ireland patients.

The majority of respondents stated that their preference was to see the 14 recommendations implemented in full; a one all-island model that meets the needs of both jurisdictions, providing that Northern Ireland would be an equal partner in such a model. In this regard, respondents expressed their strong preference to see the retention and enhancement of specialist paediatric cardiology skills in Northern Ireland as this would ensure the continued local provision of life-saving skills, particularly in emergency cases. I will have more to say about this vital aspect in a moment.

It is clear from the public consultation that there is significant support in the community for the all-island model that is recommended by the IWG and acceptance of my decision to end paediatric congenital cardiac surgery at the Belfast Trust, which was effective from 31 December 2014. When I read the IWG's report last October, my instinct was that their proposed model was the right way forward for these vulnerable patients and their families. However, I felt that it was right to give them, the clinicians who provide this important service and the public the opportunity to have their say.

Whilst I fully understand the concerns expressed about the ending of surgery in Belfast, we really had to accept that given the overwhelming clinical evidence that we simply do not have sufficient patient numbers to meet the vigorous international standards required for the treatment of this condition. Indeed, this was the fourth report that I or my predecessor, Mr Poots, had received saying that this had to happen: we simply did not have enough children to retain the specialist paediatric cardiac surgery which was required. The model proposed by the IWG means that these children will have their surgery in Dublin, within a reasonable travelling distance from their homes, with their pre- and post-operative care being delivered in Belfast.

Therefore, having fully considered the outcome of the public consultation, I confirm my acceptance of all of the IWG's recommendations and reaffirm my commitment to work with Minister Varadkar on their full implementation. We have, therefore, published today a further joint statement that sets out the governance arrangements for the all-island clinical network, which will be established from 1 April 2015. That comprises a cross-jurisdictional oversight group and an all-island clinical network board. The cross-jurisdictional oversight group will comprise the Chief Medical Officers and senior administrative management of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland and the Department of Health in the Republic of Ireland. It will have overarching responsibility for oversight of the implementation of the recommendations of the IWG report to provide information and assurances to myself and Minister Varadkar.

The all-island congenital heart disease network board will comprise patient representatives, clinicians — doctors, nurses and other specialists — key service providers and commissioners to implement the IWG’s recommendations. Its work will reflect the phased approach to the implementation of an all-island model, concentrating initially on services for paediatric and young adult patients and progressing to adults with congenital heart disease. The board will be responsible for the day-to-day operational and clinical management and delivery of the service. It will have several subgroups to provide advice on specific issues of the service, including a family liaison group. The network board will be chaired by Dr Len O’Hagan. I am delighted that Dr O’Hagan has agreed to undertake that role, and I believe that his track record in chairing complex organisations will provide the foundation that the network needs in melding together the clinical and managerial elements of an effective operation.

Minister Varadkar and I have approved the framework document for the governance of the network to be implemented by the network board, and it has been published on the Departments' websites today. The network board will take forward a phased implementation of the all-island network over the next 15 to 18 months. The phasing reflects the need to build up capacity and staffing at Our Lady's Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, which is in Dublin, to accommodate Northern Ireland's patient demand for those services. That will commence on 1 April 2015, with paediatric interventional cardiology being provided to Northern Ireland patients in the Crumlin hospital by Belfast Trust cardiologists. I hope that the dates that I am setting out indicate the speed and urgency with which we are moving on this, which we regard as necessary for this very important issue. That is a very welcome start to the new network, and I commend all the clinicians, nurses and managers who have worked together to deliver it. We have had excellent cooperation from the authorities in the Irish Republic on the issue. It has gone extremely smoothly, and there is definitely a buy-in from both jurisdictions to the issue.

I referred to the phased nature of the implementation of the all-island network. In addition to building up the capacity in Crumlin, we need to maintain the existing contingency arrangements with specialist heart centres in England and to take forward the work on developing a specialist cardiology centre in Belfast, combined with a strengthening of the Northern Ireland cardiology network.

During the interim period, we need to continue to ensure that a suitable and safe contingency arrangement is in place to provide surgery for Northern Ireland patients. All elective surgery will, therefore, be carried out in centres in England — in Birmingham and London — whilst provision also exists for patients requiring emergency treatment to be sent to London or to specialist centres in England. Again, I express my thanks to the clinical teams in Birmingham and Evelina children's heart hospitals for the service that they provide to Northern Ireland children and their families.

With regard to the children requiring emergency surgery, I know that Members have expressed concern about the future arrangements for diagnosis of children in the north and north-west of Northern Ireland, for whom transfer time to Dublin could take longer. Ultimately, it will be for the clinicians to decide during the interim period whether a child should be transferred directly to Our Lady's Children’s Hospital in Crumlin or whether that child should transfer directly from the Belfast Trust to England.

A key aspect of the single-service model is that, when it is fully implemented, it will have the capacity to deal with all emergency cases. However, it will take some 12 to 15 months before the model is fully in place and operating to capacity. Therefore, in the short to medium term, the Health and Social Care Board and the Belfast Trust will continue to manage the current service level agreements between service providers in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and England, where appropriate. It is most important that the existing SLAs continue to operate, are augmented as necessary to enhance the current arrangements and are quickly replaced by the single service model that the international working group proposed.

To assist with the increased workload arising from the transfer of more Northern Ireland patients to England and Dublin, my Department has approved an additional specialist family liaison nurse post at the Belfast Trust, with effect from 1 April 2015, to ensure that the children and their families receive the maximum assistance needed to help them at what is often an extremely worrying time for them.

11.15 am

In my statement on 14 October 2014, I advised the Assembly that I had asked the Health and Social Care Board to bring forward detailed investment proposals to further develop a cardiology centre of excellence at the Belfast Trust and to strengthen the Northern Ireland network as vital elements of the all-island network. That investment will be essential to maintain the specialist skills of the cardiology team in Belfast and to strengthen the service available to hospitals outside of Belfast. Since my statement, my Department has worked closely with the board, the Public Health Agency and the Belfast Trust's management and cardiologists to develop the investment proposals. Two papers have been submitted to me by the cardiologists; one covering adult services and the other children's services. I intend to move forward with those proposals together with the views of the board and the PHA by establishing an implementation group to complete that work by April 2016. I have today published the terms of reference for the group on my Department's website. My Department's deputy chief medical officer will be the interim chair, and the membership will be comprised of representatives from the Health and Social Care Board, the PHA, the Belfast Trust, a clinician from outside Belfast to ensure that we cover all of Northern Ireland and patient representatives from the Children's Heartbeat Trust and Heartbeat-NI.

In order to facilitate the development of an all-island network, including the Belfast cardiology hub, it was very welcome news that my Executive colleague, the Finance Minister, announced in his recent Budget statement a commitment of £1 million from the DFP change fund to invest in the network. I am also pleased to announce today that my Department has committed a further £200,000 for 2015-16 to invest in the network.

Once again, I express my gratitude to the international working group, which was instrumental in facilitating the development of the all-island network. The group was chaired by Dr John Mayer, professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and senior associate in cardiac surgery at Boston Children's Hospital, and its members included Dr Adrian Moran, associate clinical professor at Tufts medical school and chief of paediatric cardiology at Maine Medical Center in the USA, and Dr John Sinclair, consultant paediatric cardiac anaesthetist at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow. Nursing expertise and advice was provided to the international group by Dr Patricia Hickey, vice president of cardiovascular and critical care services and associate chief nursing officer at Boston Children's Hospital.

In closing, I reiterate that I am delighted to confirm my support and approval for the all-island congenital heart disease network to be established. This represents a tremendous opportunity to build on the respective strengths of the children's heart centres in Belfast and Dublin through the creation of an all-island service that, I believe, has the potential to provide world-class facilities, services and outcomes for those vulnerable children and their families from across the island of Ireland. This is a prize to be strived for, and I send my best wishes to the clinicians, managers and family representatives who will work together to deliver the new service.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement on this hugely important topic. I welcome the commitment to implement all of the 14 recommendations and to develop the all-island clinical network. I think that it is a good example of real, genuine cooperation across the island, and I acknowledge the Minister's role in that in the interests of children and families.

The Minister talked about the two proposals; one covering adult services and the other children's services. Will he outline whether we are now talking about a children and adult service? In the investment that is required for the cardiology hub, he referred to £1 million in the change fund and an additional £200,000. Has that been costed; is there a gap in what is required; and where will the gap funds be found?

Mr Wells: I thank the Member for her support and her questions, which are quite helpful. Within a week of my appointment, I had to make a statement, and I also went to the Royal one very dark winter's night to meet members of the cardiology team. They were extremely helpful in their input and what they felt was required to further cardiology services in Belfast. After looking at their proposals and discussing them with the Chief Medical Officer and others in the Department, we came to the figure of £1 million. We put that in as a bid to the Department of Finance, and it granted it, quite rightly in my opinion. We reckon that it will require about another £200,000 to provide all that is required. There is total commitment from me and the Department to ensure that this is a success, because we are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in our society: young children with profound cardiac difficulties. I know, therefore, that people like Mr Swann and others will be watching me very carefully to make absolutely certain that we deliver on all this. We know the consequences of getting it wrong.

I turn to the Member's question about adult and children's services. We are moving to a point at which all critical and acute children's services will be delivered on the all-island model. As far as adults are concerned, we want to retain the best quality of cardiology in the Royal for those individuals, so it is a very difficult balancing exercise. Let me say that we have already stopped acute cardiology operations for children in Belfast, and the new arrangements seem to have worked very well so far. I cannot speak highly enough of the cooperation that I have received from my colleagues in the Republic, and there has certainly been no evidence of vested interests or a silo mentality. It has gone well, and my job is to ensure that that continues.

Ms P Bradley: I also thank the Minister and welcome his statement. Following on from the Chair's comments, what are his plans to strengthen local cardiology skills?

Mr Wells: I perhaps need to emphasise one thing to the Chair: this change does not mean the end of paediatric cardiology services in the Belfast Trust. The IWG recommends that the single all-island model will provide for a fully integrated team from Belfast and Dublin. Belfast will continue to provide surgery for young adults and the adult population. I want to go further by strengthening Belfast as a centre of excellence for cardiology. The Belfast Trust cardiologists have submitted proposals to secure that and strengthen the regional cardiac network at the same time. That will secure the specialist skills available in Belfast in the single-service model. I have, therefore, published the terms of reference for the implementation group, which, as I said, is chaired by the deputy chief medical officer. I am very interested in people's opinions on that. My guidance comes from the people at the coalface. They are the experts, and they tell me what they need and the resources required for implementation. Therefore, far be it from me or anyone else to dictate what is required; it is their views that count.

Hopefully, we can get the best of both worlds. We can get an excellent service for our young people and babies in Crumlin and also have a greatly enhanced and strengthened cardiology service for young adults in Northern Ireland. The balancing act is getting that right in tandem, and, of course, need continues throughout all this. We are still sending quite a few patients to Birmingham and Evelina, so we are watching this very carefully. What I can say, however, is: "So far so good; it has gone well".

Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister. The SDLP is on record as welcoming the original announcement in October. We welcome this announcement and, in particular, the swift response to the consultation. It is all welcome news. We have some concerns, particularly with timing. Will the Minister confirm that the clock has now started on the 15 to 18 months? What are the implications for phased implementation in that 15 to 18 months? Will some of the phased implementation mean that it will extend beyond the timetable that the Minister has outlined?

Mr Wells: The clock has indeed started, and the 15 to 18 months is a very challenging timescale. I intend to visit Our Lady's in Crumlin to make absolutely certain that I am content with the speed of progress. None of this can happen until Crumlin has built up the capacity required to look after the increased numbers that will come to it. There will be the existing patients in the Irish Republic as well as new patients arriving from Northern Ireland, so all this has been a quite challenging timescale. Remember, my predecessor's first statement on this was on 23 September, and, only six months later, we are moving forward very quickly. While all of this is going on, we still have capacity at Birmingham and Evelina to make certain that children and young babies who require surgery can be flown by charter plane to London or Birmingham for treatment. Later, I might have the chance to reveal the figures, but quite a few children have already gone, and, so far, that has worked out very well.

I give an absolute assurance that whoever is Health Minister when the new facility opens in Crumlin, there will be no permanent transfer until we are absolutely satisfied that Crumlin will provide the best possible service for our children and young people with cardiac problems — otherwise, that could be the worst of all worlds. I also reassure him on a point that will, no doubt, be raised by others, so I will head it off at the pass. Children from Northern Ireland who go down to Crumlin will be treated entirely on the basis of clinical need. There will be no question of a child from Kerry, Galway or wherever being given precedence over a child from Belfast or Londonderry simply because they are from the Irish Republic. The children will be assessed entirely on need, and, if a child from Northern Ireland requires treatment ahead of a child from Longford or Wexford, that will happen. That is part of the arrangement that we have made with the authorities in the Republic, and I am reassured by that. I know that there will be situations in which children will be rushed down the motorway at great speed as a matter of urgency, and those children will be given priority no matter where they are from.

Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for his statement. Prior to this consultation, Minister, many parents said that it would be little more than a box-ticking exercise, and they have been proven correct. I pay tribute to those mummies and daddies who lobbied so hard and to Sarah Quinlan from the Children's Heartbeat Trust, who I see is in the Gallery today.

Minister, you referred to children's heart centres in Belfast and Dublin, describing them as providing:

"world-class facilities, services and outcomes for these vulnerable children and their families from across the island of Ireland."

As the Minister with responsibility for these vulnerable children here in Northern Ireland, can you outline precisely how your decision to remove a service from Belfast provides, again quoting your words, "a tremendous opportunity"? Why could it not be a more shared-out service?

Mr Wells: The honourable Member for Upper Bann has raised the most fundamental question, and that is the matter of dealing with recommendation 7. During the various consultation meetings around the Province, this issue came up constantly. Separately, four eminent experts each produced a different report, all telling me that Northern Ireland simply does not have enough children with a congenital heart condition to sustain a world-leading facility. We need at least 400 children a year to sustain that on an all-island basis. Even with the addition of the children from Northern Ireland, we have just enough numbers for an all-island model. This is no different from many, many issues: for instance, muscular dystrophy patients are sent to Newcastle upon Tyne because we do not have enough patients, particularly those with Duchenne, to provide a first-rate service in Northern Ireland.

I accept that this is painful. I would love to have been in the position to retain the facility in Northern Ireland, but the lack of patients would mean, first, that we could not have a sustainable service because there would not be enough patients to keep it going. Secondly, and more importantly, we would not have been able to attract and retain the first-class surgeons that we need in this field to provide the best possible care for our children. You have to balance the need for convenience against the need for a first-rate service, and the only model that anyone can provide me with that achieves that is an all-island one.

I must pay tribute to the two charities, which were very responsible and very helpful throughout this process, as were the parents. In all of the consultation meetings, everyone expressed a concern about recommendation 7, but not one individual was able to offer an alternative that enabled us to give first-rate treatment to the children whilst retaining the Belfast service. That is the dilemma that I am in, and that is why I have to go down this route.

It is not one-way traffic. Many patients with cancer will come to the new Altnagelvin facility in Londonderry once the new radiotherapy centre has opened there.

Already, almost one third of the patients in the renal facility in Daisy Hill come from Louth and north Monaghan, and I hope that we will be able to extend the use of the cath labs in some of our hospitals to patients from the Irish Republic. It is not all one-way traffic; it is cooperation between two Governments.

11.30 am

Mr McCarthy: Like other Members, I welcome this morning's statement. It has come after a very long rally by the parents of the youngsters who have been affected. The Minister tells us that there will be a specialist family liaison nurse post in the Belfast Trust from 1 April. That is a very welcome idea in helping children and their families. The two Ministers have accepted the view of the majority of respondents, which is to have one all-island model and a preference for the retention and enhancement of paediatric cardiology skills at the Royal in Belfast, which are excellent and must be kept. Can the Minister assure the Assembly — I think that he half-answered the Chair and the deputy Chair along these lines — that sufficient funding and investment will be forthcoming to ensure that we maintain the specialist skills of the cardiology team in Belfast and strengthen the service available in hospitals outside Belfast city?

Mr Wells: First, I should make it clear that we are investing £85,000 in that specialist nurse support. That is an indication of just how committed we are. It was extremely difficult to find the money in 2015-16 for the service. If you saw some of the documents that are on my table at the moment about the efficiency savings that I am required to make, you would realise how difficult our finances are in the health service, but, because we knew that this was so important and we knew of the vulnerability of the children involved in cardiac surgery, we successfully put our case to DFP for the extra money, and we have been able to find a 20% addition to that in our own budget. That is committed, and that will be spent on that service. That is the assessment that we need at the moment.

I will constantly look at this. We do not envisage a huge degree of revenue change; most of this is capital. It is quite expensive to fly children by special chartered plane to Birmingham and London and to take their parents over, put them up and give them all the support that they require. It is technically much easier, particularly for parents who live in the southern part of Northern Ireland, to travel down the motorway to Crumlin. The good news is that Crumlin is in the northern part of Dublin, which makes it more accessible to parents. Therefore, in a way, we are saving money on that aspect but spending more on our commitment to cardiology services in Belfast. I would like to feel that, at the end of the process, we will have got the best of both worlds. I also realise that at least a dozen MLAs will be watching this very carefully. Therefore, that is an incentive to make certain that we get it absolutely right.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for what is yet another important statement in regard to the care of children with complex medical conditions. Will the Minister tell us a bit more about what experience Dr O'Hagan has that makes him suitable for the role of chairing the congenital heart disease network board?

Mr Wells: First, one of the very good recommendations was that we create a CHD network board. That will include family representatives from Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland. It will be underpinned by the family advisory group. Hopefully, it will empower families in shaping future services in a way that we have never had before. I must say that we have benefited enormously from the input to this debate from the two charities, which have been extremely forthright and articulate in their arguments, and the numerous meetings that I have had with family members, as well as the various events and the extremely constructive consultation meetings that we have had throughout the Province, where the parents engaged. It was not an argument or a battle; the parents engaged and talked through the recommendations in a very responsible way. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that spokespeople for those parents are represented on the CHD group.

Many in the Assembly will know Mr Len O'Hagan. He was chairman of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners from 2006 until recently. He has board positions on a number of international public companies such as Jefferson Smurfit and Safeway Ireland, of which he is the chairman. He was previously chairman of the Belfast Metropolitan Arts Centre. He is vice-chairman of the Ireland-US Council and a non-executive director of Independent News and Media plc. He was recently appointed chair of the board of Northern Ireland Water and will take up that appointment on 1 April. In 2013, he was appointed chief executive of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland for a two-year period. Given that mix of management and health-related experience, we are dealing with someone who has expertise in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and could command the confidence of the public. I am delighted that someone of his calibre has agreed to take on this important position.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire. I welcome the Minister's statement. I agree with other Members that this is a hugely important statement. It lays out the plans for the delivery of models of excellence in cardiac treatment for all the people of Ireland, and that is to be welcomed by everyone.

We acknowledge and accept that there will be an interim period before the services are fully operational and that, during that period, families will still be required to travel to England for their treatment. Would the Minister agree that such circumstances are traumatic and an added burden on families and, although necessary, travel should be kept to a minimum and only if absolutely required?

Mr Wells: I accept that it is traumatic for families to travel to Dublin for this surgery. Remember, however, that parents from Waterford, Sligo, Kerry and Wexford already travel much greater distances. There is only one facility in the Irish Republic, and vulnerable children already have to be brought a considerable distance. For many people in the southern part of Northern Ireland the distance will be less than for parents coming from those areas.

As far as using Evelina and Birmingham is concerned, the difficulty at the moment is that those are the two centres of excellence that have the capacity in the United Kingdom to deal with children in this position. We do not have much choice because we have negotiated capacity with both. We have children who are very vulnerable — some of them in a critical condition — and have to balance the trauma of families being flown to England for that treatment with the fact that there is not the capacity and experience in Northern Ireland to carry out the surgical procedures. Even when we had full-blown capacity in Belfast, we still flew many children to England for surgery, and that was also happening in the Irish Republic.

We hope that we can be ahead of target. I understand that progress in Crumlin is going well. That is remarkable given the difficult economic situation that the Irish Republic finds itself in. We have had no problems with the HSE in the Republic securing the funding for this. Many of us will be down there before we cut the ribbon, as it were. If there is any doubt whatsoever, we will not proceed until we are content with the level of service. Minister Varadkar and I have discussed this: he is committed to getting this right, and so am I. Therefore, I am confident and hopeful. The fact that we have already met many of the targets in the statement issued in September indicates to me that this has a fair wind and is going in the right direction.

I can also reassure Members that the staff in Crumlin have exactly the same high standards as those trained in the United Kingdom. They have exactly the same qualifications and letters after their names. These highly qualified consultants and surgeons trained together and know each other extremely well, so there will be no reason why the standard of care should not be at a very high level in Crumlin.

Mr G Robinson: I thank the Minister for his statement. I am glad to see that his wife is making good progress.

Who will have the final say where children with congenital heart disease in the north-west of the Province will be treated?

Mr Wells: I am not surprised that a representative for East Londonderry has raised the issue. That is one of the most difficult matters that we have to deal with. Remember that, at the moment, a child from Letterkenny or Lifford or — I cannot think of another town — Donegal town has to pass through East Londonderry maybe on his or her way down to Dublin for the same treatment. One of the reasons why we set up the CHD patients and family group is so that we can have frank discussions on this issue. A child in Limavady, for instance, would almost certainly be taken to the Royal for stabilisation and then transferred to Dublin for whatever surgery is required. The practical difficulties are the reason we have asked for the parents to be directly involved in the two charities. If I lived in Limavady, Ballycastle or Coleraine, I would be concerned; I think that is reasonable, but I hope that, once the service is up and running, people will realise that the outcome for their child will be best when they are taken to the centre of excellence.

I thank everyone who has been so friendly and helpful to me in my personal difficulties, but, having seen the standard of service that my wife has got in acute stroke, I would take my wife to Strabane for that service quite happily — to Strabane, Enniskillen, Belleek or wherever — because I would rather she be treated in a centre of excellence than in a local hospital that does not have that excellence. Similarly, parents will, I think, understand that their child has a much better outcome if they are taken to where all the best clinicians, equipment and facilities are available, even though it is inconvenient. They will do that because their child has the best chance of survival and a good outcome. We have done the same for cancer and are doing the same for stroke services and trauma. Unfortunately on this occasion we do not have the population to have that centre of excellence in Northern Ireland, but I still think that in five or 10 years people will look back and say the stats show very clearly that children are surviving, moving on with their life and doing well as a result of this excellent service.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the statement and the commitment to the development of a cardiology centre of excellence. Local hospitals will complement the work of that centre. How do you intend to strengthen the cardiology services, particularly in Daisy Hill and Downe? To clarify a point you made earlier about the clock not yet ticking on this development, could you provide a little more clarification of the timeline for the development of this centre of excellence for cardiology in Belfast?

Mr Wells: The Member may have picked me up wrongly: the clock has well and truly started ticking. Staff have been down to Crumlin and seen the work that is already ongoing there. I would be genuinely worried making this announcement if everything had fossilised in Crumlin; that has not been the case. At every meeting I have with the Minister for Health in the Irish Republic, this is second or third, if not first, on the agenda: "Give us an update on what is happening".

I was absolutely certain the Member would weave Daisy Hill and Downe hospitals into his question, as he always does. The reality is that paediatric congenital heart surgery has always been concentrated in the Royal, long before this decision was made. Any child who has this complication would always be taken to the Royal because that is where the expertise has been to date. From now on it is probably more likely that someone will be taken there for stabilisation, although in his case in South Down it is more likely that they will be taken directly to Crumlin, because once you are in Newry you can get down to Crumlin very quickly. There is no real role to expand paediatric congenital heart surgery in any local hospital or any of the acute hospitals outside the Royal in Northern Ireland. It is a very specialist area with a relatively small number of children. The scale that one needs for this is 400. Northern Ireland will be producing less than a third of that, and that is why we are going down that model.

The irony was that the most difficult question I had when I first announced this was from Mr Gerry Kelly from North Belfast. We had the rather surreal situation of me trying to argue to him why it was important to have an all-island solution. I am glad to say that he was won over in the end and supported it; he was maybe being a wee bit humorous. Certainly I am pleased that so many parties in the Assembly have bought into this. I have no political baggage here; I will do what is best for the children of Northern Ireland no matter where I have to send them. We owe that to the children. It does not matter whether it is in England, Dublin or Belfast; we will do our best for those people.

There will of course be help for outpatients in cardiology in other parts of Northern Ireland. Dr Damien Armstrong, from the South West Acute, has been asked to serve on the implementation group.

People who report initially with difficulties will be dealt with in a local hospital, but the complex paediatrics will be done in Our Lady's.

11.45 am

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his statement. I declare an interest as the father of a child with a congenital heart condition. Minister, I take exception to the part of your statement that says that the public consultation showed an acceptance of your decision to end paediatric congenital cardiac surgery in Belfast. As I am sure you will know, by the time the public consultation went out, that surgery had already ceased. That is why there was an acceptance: there was no other option.

You said in your statement that, from 1 April, paediatric interventional cardiology will be provided to Northern Ireland patients in Crumlin hospital by Belfast Trust cardiologists. What about the other professions and skills such as the anaesthetists, the paediatric intensive care unit nurses and all the other skills that we need to retain in Belfast during that time? We are already sending our patients, and now we are sending our cardiologists down to provide surgery in Crumlin. What are we doing for the other skills?

You talked about finance being put in place for the specialist hub and referred to the £1 million from the DFP change fund supplemented by an extra £200,000 from your Department. Is the £1 million promised by John Compton in 2014 for paediatric cardiology still there? By my calculations, that would make it £2·2 million that you, your Department and DFP have committed to the fund.

Mr Wells: It is important to say that the honourable Member for North Antrim has made an invaluable contribution to this debate, and we wish his son Evan all the best as he continues to progress.

I will outline what has been going on. In 2011-12, 97 paediatric surgeries were carried out in Northern Ireland; there were 13 in the Republic of Ireland and 40 in England. That is a total of 150. In 2014-15, to date, there have been only 12 in Northern Ireland, four in the Irish Republic and 58 in England. Therefore, the numbers being undertaken in Ireland north and south have rapidly declined, and that will be the case until the new service is up and running.

A fully integrated team from Belfast will go to Dublin from 1 April to maintain skills; we are not losing those skills. Those individuals are specialists and know one another integrally; they work together all the time in teams and consult regularly. There is no wall around Northern Ireland as far as paediatric congenital surgery is concerned. Therefore, those skills will be retained, and you will have people with a Northern Ireland accent carrying out surgery in Crumlin. Those people may know the patients and their families extremely well. I am confident that those skills will not be lost, particularly given that we are making a £1·2 million investment in new facilities at the Royal. Without those, we would have lost that team. That is absolutely certain. There is also the investment of £85,000 in nurses.

The £1 million will be spent on the infrastructure and staffing required to invest in the network in Belfast. There is only £1 million. I wish that it was £2 million, but my understanding is that it is £1·2 million plus the £85,000. I will double-check because I know that the Member raised that before. I certainly have not seen where the other £1 million is, and there are very few pots of £1 million sitting around the Department unspent, I can assure you. I will check that for him.

Mr Dallat: The Minister struggled a little bit earlier to name towns in Donegal, which tells me that he was not a student at the Irish college in Ranafast. He certainly has not struggled this morning to sell this project to the Assembly. I know that he has competing priorities, and I think that we all greatly admire him for coming to the House to do it. As Minister of Health, he will be aware that there are always knockers and people in the corner who will want to bash. Is he satisfied that, in terms of public scrutiny, the accountability aspect of this will be open and transparent to ensure that the excellent work that will be done will not be overshadowed by those who will want to pick holes in it?

Mr Wells: Yes. This has been a difficult decision; it has been one of the most studied, consulted upon and discussed decisions made by the Assembly in many years. I wish that I was not in this position, but, when I read the documentation that came to the office, I found the evidence so overwhelming that I would have been negligent had I decided that, for some party-political reason, I wanted to retain the service in Belfast even though we are selling our services to the Irish Republic in many other fields.

I am therefore content that we have made the right decision. I also know that the level of public interest in the decision is such that we are being watched by every possible group. If there is one slip, it will immediately be exposed on a certain radio programme that will remain nameless but is on at 9 o'clock of a Monday morning. [Interruption.]

It could be Frank Mitchell. What I am saying is this: we know the level of scrutiny.

As far as my visits to Donegal are concerned, I remember that, on my first visit there, it took four guards armed with sub-machine guns to get me in and five to get me out. I am glad to say, however, that times have changed and that I do not have any fears about going up there now. Yes, I am not exactly a world authority on the geography of Donegal, but I was making a very serious point.

I believe that Fanad Head is in Donegal, as is Malin Head. A child in Malin Head who has a cardiac arrest and needs surgery has to travel a much longer distance than anybody in Northern Ireland, and that is something that has to be recognised. The model has worked well for the Republic, even though the distances are large: children go to a centre of excellence, of which we are now going to avail ourselves. I am therefore reassured that there is a fair wind behind the process, but I can assure the Member that it will continue to be investigated and scrutinised.

My final point concerns the £1 million investment identified by Mr John Compton. It remains on the table to be used in the context of the £5 million recurrent expenditure on the new service. It is still there potentially, but, as the Member knows, not a penny in the Department of Health ever sits unused. We could still have that additional investment, but I can say that we have already committed ourselves to the £1·2 million, and that is an indication, in terribly difficult times, of just how committed we are. I know how painful this is for him as a parent and for the many folk who have spoken to him, but I hope that he will respect my motivation, which is to do what is best for some of the most vulnerable children in our community. This has to be the right way forward, or else, by continuing to operate a service that is not up to the standard of the one available in Crumlin, we run the risk of children either not surviving or having very poor outcomes.

Mr Allister: I very much regret that the Minister has sold out on retaining any surgical services in Northern Ireland, particularly for emergency situations, and I wonder how long it will be before a child needing emergency surgery will pay with his or her life. I press the Minister on his all-Ireland vision as it touches on adult provision. In the statement, he talks about progressing the model to provide for adults with congenital heart disease. Is it his vision that acute provision for adults will also be outside this jurisdiction? Is that his vision? Is that what the paragraph in the statement means, or does it mean something else?

Mr Wells: I know where the Member is coming from, and I suppose that, if I had been sitting in his seat six months ago, I would probably have thought the same. However, when I am faced with absolutely overwhelming evidence that a child's life is best protected by adopting this model, I have to set aside any political difficulties that I may have and do what is best. It is difficult, I have to say that.

The Member raises a legitimate concern about adult cardiology. The fact that we have invested £1·2 million and will continue to have cardiology services delivered by experts in Belfast indicates that there is absolutely no need to transfer services other than paediatric services to Dublin. The numbers are sufficient in Northern Ireland to justify a top-class service, so the issue does not arise. We have many people in Northern Ireland with heart disease, and they will continue to require treatment in Northern Ireland. The issue is specific to one specialist service that has to be delivered to numbers of at least 400, numbers that we simply do not have. I could stand here on my political soapbox and say that, because I am a unionist, I will not move children to the Republic. I could do that, but when the first child were to pass on or develop a very serious condition because of my intransigence, I would have to answer to the media and to the parents. I have dealt with some very passionate, upset parents who are desperate for the best care for their children. What am I going to do? I do what the experts tell me, and they tell me that this is the right model.

Mr B McCrea: We have talked for almost an hour, and only just now did we get to the nub of the issue. I congratulate the Minister on putting forward a formidable defence of his decision, but only towards the end are we getting to why he feels that that is necessary. I may have misunderstood the issue, but I would like to take this opportunity to understand. There is capacity in the existing arrangements in Great Britain, but there is no capacity as yet in Dublin. For what reason are we deciding to move from existing capacity to Dublin? I accept the medical evidence about Northern Ireland, or Belfast, being too small, but I am not sure why we need to make the change. Perhaps he will explain that to me.

He paid tribute to the parents and charities involved. Are they satisfied, having had the consultation, with the decision he has made?

Mr Wells: Yes, we could have opted for a model where we fly all our children to Birmingham or Evelina in London, but he has to understand the huge upheaval it is to the family, and the inherent dangers there are, in flying in an air ambulance or chartered flight to London. The fact is that the parents have to stay for maybe days, weeks or even months with their child in Birmingham or London. That is extremely expensive for them and extremely difficult for their children back home.

Parents said throughout all this that they were not particularly happy with having to go down this route but that, if it were a choice between driving down the motorway to Our Lady's in Crumlin with their loved one or having to fly to the mainland of the United Kingdom, then the former was definitely the lesser of two evils. For parents in my constituency of South Down, or in Newry, Armagh or Craigavon, it is a much more convenient place for the care of their child.

I accept Mr Robinson's comments about children from the north of the Province. There was no great enthusiasm; the parents would have loved to have gone down Mr Allister's route of having a full-blown modern paediatric congenital heart disease surgical team in Belfast, but the problem is that the team would have been working at only one third capacity. For many of the days, there would not be the children to look after at the level we need. Eventually, the surgeons would start to lose the skills they require because they would not be practising on a wide range of patients, and they would drift away. These surgeons are like gold dust; they are very hard to attract and extremely hard to retain. They would start to drift away to the larger centres. Therefore, the facility would close, and the Royal College would tell us, "You simply can't sustain it."

This is not unusual; it happens elsewhere. We moved all the serious cancer surgery and treatment to the Belfast City Hospital. This means that people from Strabane, Enniskillen, Kilkeel etc are travelling big distances but are doing so in the knowledge that they are far more likely to survive because of the concentration of skills in that unit. Equally, people will be travelling the long distance to Dublin confident that the best possible service on the island of Ireland is there.

The service in Birmingham and Evelina is very good, but parents have told us that it represents far too much of an upheaval for them and the close family network required to support those children. I used to say that there are various shades of grey in this argument, but I have stopped using that phrase for very obvious reasons. It is a choice of the lesser of two evils, to some extent. The option of having full-blown care in Belfast was simply not on the table, and there is no way I can avoid that.

Mr McCallister: As a parent, I would be inclined to want to go to wherever the best care is on offer. The Minister may confirm that children with certain conditions will still have to go to Birmingham or London because the surgery is so complex.

A theme throughout the statement and questions has been that one of the reasons that Dublin has become a viable option is because of the improved infrastructure leading from places like south Down and linking to the main Belfast-Dublin corridor, and the improvements to the road. What contact has the Minister had, and what work has he and his Department done, with the Department for Regional Development to link other centres and improve our road network to make sure that our hospital network is much more open and accessible to a broader range of people? It is vitally important that that takes place.

12.00 noon

Mr Wells: The crucial issue here is the network from Belfast to Dublin, because many of these children will be brought to Belfast initially and then taken on to Dublin for surgery or acute treatment. Most of us accept that transport links between Belfast and Dublin have improved dramatically, and it is possible, for instance, for an ambulance to get from somewhere like Banbridge to Dublin within the hour. Sometimes escorts will be required and radio contact will have to be made to make certain that, for instance, the toll bridge is open down near Drogheda.

This is an absolutely crucial issue and why we want the parents on board. We want to look constantly at transport arrangements to see whether these children are getting safely and quickly to the new facility. Had it been in Dundrum or Dún Laoghaire — at least I know something about the geography of Dublin, if not Donegal — it would be more difficult, because the child would have to be brought through Dublin city centre or around the ring road. At least we have a facility in Dublin that is to the north of the city, which makes it much more convenient for parents from Northern Ireland.

I guarantee that that will be prominent in the oversight of this entire decision. We want to make certain that the Ambulance Service is up to scratch to get our children there, that we have the correct vehicles and that we can get there as fast as possible. I keep coming back to the point that, if you are from Tralee, you have a much longer journey than you would have from Banbridge or Rathfriland. The outcomes indicate that, even though there is extra distance, the child has a much better outcome by doing that. Some of the roads in the west of Ireland are certainly less superior to our own, yet the children are still getting there as quickly as possible.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome it. It is good to hear Mr Allister in his usual positive frame of mind and, indeed, to hear the Minister talk about the North of Ireland in reference to Malin Head.

I will move to my question. Your statement says that:

"The model proposed by the IWG means that these children will have their surgery in Dublin within a reasonable travelling distance from their homes with their pre and post operative care being delivered in Belfast."

I assume that there will be a monitoring process to ensure that the efficacy of this situation will prevail and that it will be monitored on a regular basis.

Mr Wells: Five hundred pounds will go to the Member's favourite charity if the phrase "the North of Ireland" ever crosses my lips from this point on or previously. It is a phrase I do not recognise, because the north of Ireland includes Donegal. I refer to that part of Her Majesty's realm known as Northern Ireland in all my speeches.

Being serious about it, monitoring and keeping an eye on the progress of this entire proposal is absolutely crucial. We are dealing with something that forms a very small part of the health service budget in Northern Ireland but that is highly emotional and emotive and is so important to communities that tend to have a great deal of empathy for parents in this situation. I have heard some heartbreaking stories about what parents have faced. One of the first events that I attended was a fundraising event in Banbridge for children in this position, and some of the stories that I heard there made for pretty difficult listening.

I know that there is a huge public interest in this issue and a huge interest in it in the House. It is interesting that a health statement would normally attract about six MLAs, mostly from the Health Committee. It is very unusual to have a turnout as huge as we have here today and to have so many questions. I know that I am being watched on this, that I have to deliver and that the Member and the Health Committee are watching me, as they should. Therefore, we are going to have to make certain that every i is dotted and every t is crossed.

However, I can say that, since 23 September, things have moved in the right direction and have moved quickly and effectively. We can do no more than that. My officials tell me that they have had full cooperation from their counterparts in the Irish Republic and have done everything possible to move this project forward. It is to the benefit of children not only from Northern Ireland but the Irish Republic. The extra children from Northern Ireland will give Our Lady's the numbers that it needs to maintain a first-rate service for its children from every corner of the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, it is a win-win situation, as it will be when patients from the Irish Republic come up to Northern Ireland for vital treatment in our hospitals. It will definitely be a two-way process.

Mr Speaker: Thank you, Minister. I believe that the Member's favourite charity is presently checking Hansard.

That concludes questions on the statement.

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for the Environment [NIA 226/11-16] on its Inquiry into Wind Energy in Northern Ireland; and calls on the Minister of the Environment to implement the recommendations contained in the report.

I would like to take the opportunity to express my appreciation to all those who have contributed to the inquiry and to thank the Committee staff, particularly the Clerk, Sheila Mawhinney, who has worked extremely hard to enable the Committee to gather evidence and produce the final report.

I now wish to outline the circumstances that led to the Committee undertaking its inquiry. In June 2013, at an external meeting in Omagh, the Committee for the Environment had briefings from a group that opposes the siting of wind turbines in populated rural areas, and also from the Strabane/Omagh councils working group on wind energy. The Committee subsequently invited representatives from the Northern Ireland Renewables Industry Group to respond to the issues that had been raised. The evidence presented at those two meetings led the Committee to agree to carry out a short review in October and November 2013.

It quickly became clear that issues that were emerging were largely cross-cutting and impacted on the remit of other Departments and the relevant Statutory Committees within the Assembly. Those included economic issues, such as subsidy by consumers of electricity and the impact on tourism of wind developments in areas of great scenic beauty, as well as possible health impacts arising from the proximity of wind turbines to homes. The Environment Committee agreed that economic and health issues may be more properly referred to other Statutory Committees, and that it should focus primarily on concerns raised in relation to environmental and planning matters that are more directly relevant to its remit. That was reflected in the terms of reference that were established for both the review and the inquiry.

The Committee received 98 submissions in response to its call for evidence, and it agreed that the evidence that had been presented during the review should also be considered. The Committee had oral evidence sessions with a range of stakeholders and commissioned the services of a specialist acoustician to assist it with the technical aspects of the inquiry. In addition, the Committee carried out a fact-finding visit to west Tyrone to see a wind farm development at first hand, and it heard from residents who lived close by.

After due consideration of the evidence before it, the Committee agreed on a number of recommendations. The Committee agreed that there was a need for a strategic approach in the siting of wind energy developments. The current policy is set out in planning policy statement (PPS) 18, with a slightly different approach proposed in the draft strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) that would remove the significant weighting of wider environmental, economic and social benefits considerations and urge a cautious approach to the siting of turbines in areas of outstanding natural beauty or other designated landscapes.

The Committee considered whether a strategic approach that advocated zoning or the identification of the most appropriate locations for wind turbines would be effective. It was agreed, however, that it was too late to introduce zoning in Northern Ireland because some areas, notably west Tyrone, have already reached saturation point in the number of wind developments, either operational or planned, for the region. However, the Committee identified a clear need for closer liaison between the strategic planning division and councils to ensure a joined-up approach and more cohesive planning for wind farms and individual turbines. That should be a natural outcome from the development over the next two years of local development plans for each council area. That liaison should also involve all relevant central government Departments and should reflect the aims of the regional development strategy and the strategic energy framework.

The Committee expressed some concern that the term "economic considerations", which is used in PPS 18 and has been retained in the draft SPPS, has not been clearly defined, and it urges the Department to do so. The Committee acknowledges that some economic impacts may be intangible but believes that planning applications submitted by developers need to be very specific about the measurable economic outcomes of the project so that it is clear whether or not they have been delivered.

The Committee agreed that the Department should carry out an audit of the effectiveness of PPS 18 in determining both the environmental and economic outputs of wind energy. The Committee believes that that exercise would be useful not only in establishing the effectiveness of PPS 18 but in determining future policy and practice.

The Committee found that many submissions to the inquiry focused on the perceived inadequacies of current planning procedures and the cumulative impact of turbines. Members recognised that balancing individual applications against cumulative effect is a wider issue across planning, but the Committee has recommended that procedures be put in place so that a saturation point is clearly defined rather than it being the judgement call of individual planning officials.

The Committee recommends that planning applications for connection to the grid be assessed at the same time as the turbine application and welcomes the Department's inclusion of that provision in its latest draft of the SPPS.

The Committee believes that the requirement to notify neighbours who occupy buildings on land within 80 metres of the boundary of the application site is inadequate for the latest wind turbines, which may exceed 110 metres in height and have a much greater impact in open countryside than in an urban environment. The Committee recommends that the Department review that distance with a view to extending it beyond the current radius.

The second term of reference of the inquiry focuses on wind turbine noise and separation distances from dwellings. This has been the most emotive aspect of the inquiry. Many submissions detail the adverse impact that perceived noise from wind turbines is having on respondents' daily lives. From the evidence put before the Committee, it seems apparent that current guidelines for permissible levels of noise are no longer adequate. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the Department urgently review the use of the ETSU-R-97 guidelines with a view to adopting more modern and robust guidance for the measurement of wind turbine noise.

12.15 pm

The Committee was concerned that there did not appear to be continuous, long-term monitoring of noise from wind farms, either by developers or by the relevant public sector organisations. Such information would provide developers and planners with factual evidence and a useful assessment measure for future applications. The Committee has recommended that the Department commission independent research to measure the impact of low-frequency noise on residents living in proximity to individual turbines and wind farms in Northern Ireland.

The Committee has also recommended that the Department specify a minimum separation distance between wind turbines and dwellings. During the inquiry, the Committee received assurances from developers and the Department that wind turbines are generally a safe form of technology. However, the recent collapse of a turbine in Tyrone led to a recommendation that any lessons learned from the investigation, which is ongoing, be implemented as soon as possible.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Ms Lo: Yes, sure.

Mr Allister: Does the Member agree that, if the turbine collapse that occurred in County Tyrone had occurred at one of the large quasi-urban sites, the consequential loss of life could have been catastrophic? I am thinking of turbines like those located in my constituency near the village of Broughshane, which are surrounded by houses. Is there not a need for a very emphatic distance requirement, given that what happened in Tyrone could, we are told, happen again?

Ms Lo: Yes, I agree with the Member. We will keep a very close eye on the result of the investigation into that turbine collapse. The Committee report recommends a review of the separation distance and that that distance should be longer and wider than what the Department uses as guidance at the moment, particularly given that some turbines are taller now. We look forward to the response of the Department and the Minister to our recommendation on the separation distance.

The final term of reference for the inquiry related to the extent of engagement by wind energy providers with communities and the promotion of such engagement. The Committee found that, although the wind industry is aware that engagement is vital and is moving towards a more robust standardised approach, many residents still feel marginalised in the whole process of siting wind developments near their homes. Often, community concerns about visual amenity, noise and health are not given due regard. The views of residents need to be listened to and considered, and changes need to be made, if possible, to take account of their views. It is not just about preparing reports; there is a need to act on their findings.

The Committee has made a number of recommendations to promote timely and early engagement with communities. These include the mandatory use of a community engagement toolkit, the preparation of pre-application independent community engagement reports, and information events that are properly organised discussion sessions with opportunities for residents to have their questions answered. The Committee recommends that the level of community benefits payable be set at government level and that these should be made a condition of planning permission. A community benefits register, similar to the one in Scotland, should be set up as a public record of all types of benefit arising from wind developments.

The Committee believes that that would enhance transparency and accountability as well as providing a means of assessing the effectiveness of the schemes.

In conclusion, the Committee has made recommendations that it hopes will promote a more inclusive approach and thereby result in a more meaningful and real form of engagement to address the concerns of the communities whose approach to the Committee gave rise to the inquiry.

Lord Morrow: The Committee's findings could probably be summed up under four headings. Those are concerns about safety, about noise, about property values and about the impact on the landscape. Those were certainly the four messages that I got quite clearly from the evidence that we took from those who came to speak to the Committee, or, in some cases, who the Committee had gone to, particularly in west Tyrone.

I also think that is reasonable to say that there are varying degrees of enthusiasm for the concept of wind energy, and I would be surprised if that does not manifest itself in the debate and the discussion that we will have. Without naming any names, I am aware of at least one Member who may not be the most enthusiastic supporter of wind energy. To some degree, I am a bit between the two. I still have to be convinced of the merits of wind energy, but I am not on the extreme side of the issue.

Mr McNarry: Could you repeat that? [Laughter.]

Lord Morrow: I might repeat it at some other stage, but not just now.

The wind energy providers are certainly very positive. For the life of me, I cannot think why they would be, but anyway. They outlined in some detail the merits of wind energy. Those who are still to be convinced are, to say the least, a bit sceptical. The Chair has probably already alluded to the fact that there were some 98 or 100 submissions to the inquiry, and I was pleasantly surprised at that in a positive way.

As a result of the Committee's inquiry into wind energy, a number of recommendations were made to the Department of the Environment, including the need for a more strategic approach by the Department when considering planning applications for wind development. The Committee wants to see a closer liaison between planners at council and strategic division levels.

I outlined that I thought that the four headings lay in safety, noise, property values and the impact on the landscape, and I want to say something about those. There are those who tell us that the whole thing is quite safe, but a large section of the community is still to be convinced of that. In an intervention, Mr Allister alluded to the incident outside Fivemiletown, where one of those monstrosities collapsed. That caused considerable concern among the general public because it could have been in a different setting. It was discovered that parts of that apparatus had left the site and gone some distance. Some photographs were produced, and I showed one of the photographs to a colleague and asked what it reminded him of. He said, "A plane crash". That is exactly what it looked like. Thankfully, it was not as dreadful as that.

The noise impact will have to be taken seriously. There are varying arguments about whether there is a noise element or whether it is people's imagination. I do not believe that it is people's imagination. There are those who live in close proximity to the apparatus who have real and genuine concerns about the noise impact.

I also have real concerns about the negative impact on property prices. Those who are pushing wind energy play that down, and that does a disservice to those with real concerns. I know for sure that, if I had a property in close proximity to a wind farm or one of these apparatus, I would have real concern about the value of my property.

Mr Speaker, I see that you are giving me the nod to get on quickly. Let no one in this House or outside it say that it has no impact on the landscape: it has a detrimental impact on the landscape. I would like to see those particular issues given even more consideration.

The Committee carried out a fairly exhaustive inquiry, but I believe that there is much more work to be done in some detail. I think that this is one issue that will come back to the Floor of this Assembly in the not-too-distant future.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an turascála seo. I welcome the opportunity to speak in favour of the report. First, before I go into detail on the report, I would like to acknowledge the point that Mr Allister raised about the wind turbine that came down in Tyrone. If it had come down in an urban setting, as he indicated, there would have been serious consequences. It raised the issue in Committee about the use of reconditioned wind turbines. Now, I do not know whether that was the case in that instance, nor do I know where we are with the investigation, but it is certainly something that we need to take a look at and follow up on in Committee.

I want to put on record my thanks to all those who contributed in any way to the composition of this report. I want to put on record my thanks to our specialist adviser on acoustics, Ursula Walsh. I want to outline a couple of issues. I want to thank my Tyrone and West Tyrone colleagues, because that is where the whole idea of an inquiry and report came from initially. I want to put that on the record for those people because saturation was the issue that led to the inquiry in the first place.

We must bear in mind that, in 2011, we signed up in the Programme for Government to reach a renewable target by a certain year. That is grand; we have signed up to that, but whether you are for or against wind turbines, we need to seriously look at some of the issues that raise their head in the report. The first that I want to talk about is what is known as the ETSU-R-97. Basically, it is the assessment and rating of wind turbine noise.

Mr Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he accept that, if we are to meet the target that has been set for 2020, we are probably looking at setting up around another 1,500 of these turbines across Northern Ireland, so the cumulative impact that he has talked about is very important?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Boylan: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I take that point on board. That very fact came up in part of the debate on the report. We are looking at that target, which may or may not be achievable, and the damage that it may actually cause on the far side of it, but —

Ms Lo: Will the Member give way?

Mr Boylan: Certainly.

Ms Lo: In answer to that; it does not necessarily mean that renewable energy has to come from wind turbines. We are urging for a mix of different types of renewable energy.

Mr Boylan: Sorry: I was interrupted during the intervention. I apologise to the Member. I will come back to you again. I will try to figure out what was said. With regard to what the previous Member said about the renewables target, we are discussing only wind energy here. There is a load of other renewable energy out there that we could test to meet the target. I want to add that point as well. I am sorry that I was interrupted during the Member's intervention.

I just want to make a couple of points quickly. Certainly, noise was an issue for the Committee. There are question marks over the ETSU-R-97, which was brought out and, I think, followed by a review and guidance in May 2013. The question that needs to be asked is whether that document and those regulations are now fit for purpose. Maybe the Minister will respond to that. How does the Minister propose to deal with that under the new SPPS, or is it part of his thinking?

12.30 pm

Mr Frew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Boylan: Yes, go on ahead.

Mr Frew: I will be brief. He mentions the ETSU-R-97, which was published in 1996; it was to be reviewed two years after its publication. At present, it is handcuffing our environmental health officers to a document that is, basically, ignorant and idiotic.

Mr Boylan: I agree. It was clearly shown as part of the review and the report. I would like the Minister to respond specifically to that point.

I am running out of time, because I have taken so many interventions. The other major point that I want to talk about is community engagement. Throughout, we have heard how the community was engaged in the process. As part of one of the recommendations, they wanted to introduce a community toolkit. I want to read some of it quickly for the record. It provides guidance on the issues needed to consider when planning and designing your community engagement process; it focuses on quality and effective participation in community engagement processes; tools to help to plan and implement community engagement processes; and methods and techniques appropriate to your community engagement process.

If we are to go forward, we need to engage with the community. I know that the process of better and up-front community engagement is part of the new planning regulations. Minister, that is something that I would like to see you take forward in your strategic planning policy statement. Unfortunately, I have run out of time.

Mr Speaker: Thank you very much. The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension today. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2·00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.32 pm.

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

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Employment and Learning

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I have to tell Members that questions 5 and 10 have been withdrawn. We will start with listed questions.

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): Steps 2 Success is my Department’s main programme for assisting unemployed and economically inactive people to find and sustain employment. Contracts were awarded on 8 July 2014, and the programme became operational on 20 October. The three organisations awarded the contracts were as follows: Ingeus in the greater Belfast and surrounding area; Reed in Partnership in the south and south-west; and EOS NI in the north and north-west.

Each organisation has local supply chain partners to provide full geographical coverage and specialist support for all participants. The delivery organisations work with each participant to identify their individual barriers to finding work, and they agree a progression to employment plan. That plan will outline the actions to be taken by the participant and the contractor. They can include job search activity, vocational training, confidence building, preparation of CVs, assistance with health-related issues and short work placements. The progression to employment plan will be updated on a regular basis to take account of improvements in the participant's employability and actions for the future. Contractors also work with local small, medium and large employers to identify job vacancies for job-ready participants. The level of service delivered to each participant is underwritten by a service guarantee that defines the minimum level of service they receive.

My Department has contract management and quality improvement teams that are already monitoring to ensure that a high quality service is delivered to all. Each contractor has into work targets and sustained work targets that are higher than the outcomes attained in Steps to Work. By 20 February, over 13,500 people had started on the programme. Independently verified information on programme performance will be available from the autumn of 2016 onwards once participants have completed the programme and job sustainment can be measured.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his response. Is he aware of the percentage of people who do not complete the programme for whatever reason, and is there a penalty for failure to complete the programme?

Dr Farry: At this stage, it is too early to have an indication of those who may not complete the programme. Of course, there can be benign reasons for not completing the programme, in that someone is moving into work. On the other hand, there may be those who go through the programme without progressing into work. The programme is moving more towards incentives; it is not as heavily focused on formal job outward placements compared with the comparative programme in Great Britain but is a combination of job attachment and sustained employment outcomes that will measure success. I think that that is the best way of going. That reflects local design of the programme to reflect the circumstances in Northern Ireland.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There were concerns about the previous scheme and this scheme in how it will work and the jobs it will provide. Can the Minister give us an assurance that it will be heavily monitored and that, if there are problems, the Department will move right away to ensure that things are fixed?

Dr Farry: Very much so. One of the key aspects of the new programme is a service guarantee. It is worth referring to the work programme in Great Britain where they have what is termed a "black box" — once someone moves into the work programme, they are effectively out of sight and out of mind in terms of the interaction with the state. That is not the case in Northern Ireland. Again, because of our local circumstances and because of the opportunities of devolution, we did things differently. The service guarantee is there to ensure that there are minimum standards and that there is no temptation for contractors to work with those clients that they perceive could be more readily moved into work. Every person coming forward will have an individually tailored package that addresses their needs.

Of course, the Member rightly identified the fact that we need to invest more in job creation. That is at the heart of everything that the Executive are trying to do. We need to ensure that we have a steady stream of people coming through a whole range of different skill levels into our labour market to take advantage of jobs that are being created. There are inefficiencies within our labour market, and those are long term and structural. Programmes such as this are vital to try to address the vicious circle that we experienced in the past.

Mr Ramsey: Separate from the Steps 2 Success training schemes, the most worrying aspect of this is that the month of February sees the end of any young person joining youth employment schemes. Will the Minister outline what will replace those schemes to ensure that young people in particular have an opportunity for training?

Dr Farry: The Member is quite right to continue to focus on youth unemployment. While our youth unemployment figures in Northern Ireland are improving — we have seen a fairly significant move on that in recent months — they are still a significant challenge, although, of course, not on the same scale as we are experiencing in other parts of Europe. The youth employment scheme has been successful. However, it was funded through a dedicated funding stream that the Executive authorised in spring 2012 and that comes to its natural end in March 2015. Other things being equal in terms of the availability of resources, we would have liked to bid for that scheme to continue, but, sadly, that has not been the case.

We are looking to see what elements of the youth employment scheme can be mainstreamed through our front-line employment service offer. We are looking to see how far, within existing resources, we can go to continue with aspects of the youth employment scheme. I am happy to keep the Member informed of any further developments on that over the coming weeks.

Mr Kinahan: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Is he aware of any concerns raised by course participants, who are reporting concern at the amount of expenses paid out?

Dr Farry: Like Steps to Work and, indeed, any other scheme, we receive correspondence from participants who raise issues about the delivery of schemes. That is why we place a strong focus on continued monitoring. We do not simply hand out contracts to organisations and then say, "Off you go and address that." The state has a fundamental interest in ensuring that those schemes are delivered correctly and in line with our overarching policy objectives. Where we believe there are situations where rules have been interpreted incorrectly or we see unjust outcomes or situations emerging, we will make representations. I do not want to comment on the particular case that the Member raised, but if he wants to get in touch with me directly, I will be happy to investigate it, rather than to comment on something on the Floor without knowing the full background to the case.

Dr Farry: My officials work closely with employers and actively pursue opportunities to facilitate job fairs and employer breakfast events to promote the services of my Department, as well as recruitment events for individual employers across Northern Ireland. Bringing job fairs into local communities has proven to be a very successful means of assisting people back into work. When planning to host a job fair, my Department carefully considers the number of job opportunities that employers have made available in any particular location, and it establishes whether there is sufficient interest and demand from local companies to participate.

My officials are extremely proactive in the Omagh area, and I am aware that they are working with Primark to host a customised recruitment event during April this year for a new store that is due to open in the town centre in September. That is good news for jobseekers in that area. Should the opportunity arise this year, based upon sufficient demand from employers to participate in a job fair in the Omagh area, my officials are available to organise and facilitate any such event.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome the commitment that his people based in Omagh are working with Primark on the matter that he described. Let me say to the Minister that there was recently a detailed list of locations where the Department held job fairs in 2014, and no locations in either Tyrone or Fermanagh were mentioned. I ask the Minister whether he can work with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to create opportunities for highly qualified and skilled graduates in west Tyrone who are unable to secure employment locally at this time.

Dr Farry: I am very mindful of regional opportunities, and the Member will be aware that the Executive have set up a subcommittee to look at them. That was sparked primarily by issues in the north-west, though I know that, depending on how you define "the north-west", you can potentially include Omagh. That working group is not exclusively focused on the north-west; it looks at other aspects of balance across Northern Ireland.

Of course, we are very keen to work as an Executive as a whole — particularly me working with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment — to ensure that we are creating job opportunities anywhere that we can. My officials stand ready to work with companies to address their skill needs. The Member will also be aware that, with South West College, there is a huge resource in the local community that is there to interact directly with businesses and to ensure that we are bringing forward young people, and indeed people of other ages, with the skills that are relevant to employers in the community.

Mr Campbell: The Minister will be aware that there was a jobs fair in Limavady hosted by the North West Regional College, which I alluded to at the last Question Time. It looked to me, as a person who was asked to go along and help to launch it as the MP for the area, as if it was outstandingly successful, given the numbers that were there. Can the Minister indicate what analysis is done after the event to ensure that future events are equally successful and can be built on in the future?

Dr Farry: I am almost tempted to say that the event was so successful because they knew that the Member was due to attend in his capacity as MP. I am sure that a few others came along for reasons apart from that.

We do seek feedback from these events, both from participants and from the employers, because we have to have a process of continual learning. The feedback that we have received to date about these events from both sides has been very positive. Whether we are talking about Tyrone and Fermanagh or about County Londonderry, we are more than happy to consider further such events based upon a critical mass of demand emerging from employers. Our staff will be very proactive in engaging with employers to try to create those opportunities. We are not sitting here in a passive way waiting for people to come knocking on our door. We will be out working with employers to see whether the opportunities arise. There is a very strong focus upon lessons learned.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire chomh maith. I thank the Minister for his answers. Given the number of job fairs that are planned, can the Minister give us an indication of, first, the quantity and, secondly, picking up on Mr McElduff's point, the location of those for 2015?

Dr Farry: At this stage, we do not have a definitive list of numbers or, indeed, locations for job fairs, but I say to the Member, and indeed others, that this is not something that we are seeking to ration. This is something that is a good thing to do because what we are here to do is to shift people into employment to meet the needs of people who are unemployed and also to address the requirements of employers to fill vacancies or to create jobs where maybe an employer has not yet even identified a vacancy but may be encouraged to take someone on to increase their productivity.

As and when we see the opportunity arising in different parts of Northern Ireland, we will take up those opportunities. It is almost certain that we will have major events in Belfast and Derry once again, given that we have had very successful events in the past 12 months in both of those locations. We are open to working in any part of Northern Ireland where the demand and critical mass is identified to make such an event sustainable.

Dr Farry: The consultation identified a number of critical issues; in particular, a general acceptance that exclusivity clauses are not appropriate in the majority of employment contracts. There is also a need for a clear, unambiguous legal definition of zero-hours and other non-guaranteed-hours contracts. Although the appropriate use of these contracts can contribute to labour market flexibility, it is clear that they can have an adverse impact on vulnerable workers, particularly in accessing benefits and credit.

The increasing casualisation of the labour market requires a proportionate response to protect the rights of workers. The consultation feedback indicated difficulties experienced by workers in accessing benefits and a desire by many for a move to fixed contracts. In response, I intend using my Department’s forthcoming employment Bill, which is being drafted, to establish a clear, unambiguous definition of zero-hours and non-guaranteed-hours contracts and to prohibit the use of exclusivity clauses.

A total ban could be readily circumvented, so I intend to include enabling provisions to allow for the introduction of anti-avoidance and enforcement measures. Enabling powers will also establish a right for workers to request a fixed-hours contract after a specified period, which an employer will only be able to refuse on objective business grounds.

I am conscious that many vulnerable workers may not feel comfortable in exercising that right, so I propose to include additional provisions that will require an employer to review and justify the continuance of a zero-hours contract after a specified period. I also propose to establish a statutory code of practice that will bring much-needed clarity to employers’ obligations and workers’ rights.

Finally, I have written to the Minister for Social Development to secure his support for a joint departmental project to develop more responsive processes that will assist vulnerable workers in accessing their benefit entitlements.

2.15 pm

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister. If I understand correctly, he is ruling out an outright ban on the use of zero-hours contracts. How does he square that with the Executive's desire to build a high-tech, high-wage economy in which employees have their rights protected?

Dr Farry: Let me be very clear: I am not here to justify zero-hours contracts. I want an economy that is built on high-level skills and is based on people having security and sustainability in their work. We have to recognise, however, that we are seeing a casualisation of the labour market, and there may be circumstances in which businesses wish to make a case for the continued use of zero-hours contracts. While I am very alert to the demands from a lot of stakeholders and Members for an outright ban on zero-hours contracts, we need to be careful that we do not go for a disproportionate response to what is nonetheless a clear and difficult problem and that we do not end up inadvertently putting people out of work. We could see a situation in which unscrupulous employers, if they are forced to move people from zero-hours contracts after a specific time into a permanent contract, will simply dismiss those workers, not least because they are outside the qualifying period for unfair dismissal, and seek to hire other people or to rehire people on a different contract. We need to be careful because an outright ban might not be effective. We are proposing a proportionate response, which I believe goes a long way to addressing the needs of vulnerable workers and goes further than what is being legislated for in the UK Parliament for Great Britain.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. The Minister has accepted that zero-hours contracts have a negative impact on workers, but his proposals fall far short of what is required to protect and promote workers' rights. He says that a total ban could be easily circumvented. I do not agree with using the fact that employers would find some way of continuing to exploit workers as a justification for not banning these things. Will the Minister provide some evidence to justify his claim in a briefing document that a ban on zero-hours contracts would have a disproportionate impact on flexibility in the economy and potentially remove some employment opportunities? I certainly do not agree with that statement.

Dr Farry: The Member is entitled to his view and his analysis. Indeed, in the event that the Executive clear proposals to allow clauses in zero-hours contracts to be a part of a forthcoming employment Bill, the Committee will have the opportunity to scrutinise and to propose amendments, as will other Members, on the Floor of the Assembly. The House will find the natural level of what it believes is appropriate for Northern Ireland. However, we need to be conscious of the fact that a number of businesses in Northern Ireland are using the contracts at present. Am I seeking to justify that? No, I am not. I need to be mindful, however, of the fact that, if the House goes for a disproportionate response to the problem, there is a risk that we will inadvertently force people out of job opportunities.

There may be situations in which employers can provide an objective justification for zero-hours contracts. That is why we have created that potential duty on employers to make the case that that is why it has to be the case, rather than simply casually going for that option. This type of employment contract is not unique to Northern Ireland; it is used increasingly in Great Britain, probably at a higher level and in greater numbers on a per capita basis. It is also used in other jurisdictions. It is important that we move with the times with regulation.

I am fully aware of all the difficulties that zero-hours contracts can pose to many people. In some cases, semi-retired people or students will choose them, but, in the vast bulk of cases, they are the only employment option that is open to people, and there is a danger of exploitation. We need to be careful, however, that, in seeking to address that in a proportionate way, we do not inadvertently create a situation in which we cut off employment opportunities in our economy because employers are prepared only to contemplate creating opportunities in the context of having some flexibility over —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Minister's two minutes are up.

Dr Farry: — how often people work during the working week.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Perhaps it is appropriate to suggest that I am not particularly interested in hearing people's views during Question Time, only their questions.

Ms Lo: The Minister said that he will not ban zero-hours contracts but will ban exclusivity clauses. How will he implement and enforce that?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for her question. I assume, Mr Deputy Speaker, that that diktat does not apply to me giving my opinion in my answers.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I was going to suggest that the answers could be brief.

Dr Farry: OK, I will be as comprehensive as I can in as short a time as I can.

Enforcement lies in the tried and tested mechanism of tribunals. However, first recourse should always be to the Labour Relations Agency, which has a suite of available dispute resolution techniques.

Let me be clear that I am seeking to facilitate legislation coming to the House. The decision on whether there is to be a ban will be for Members to take collectively on the basis of that legislation and whether any amendments along those lines can carry majority support. Exclusivity, whereby people are tied to one contract or denied opportunities to find work elsewhere, is a problem. It is seen as particularly unjust and a clear-cut example of where we should take action.

Mr McCallister: I welcome the Minister's response so far. Does he have accurate information on the number of zero-hours contracts through choice or necessity? Does he agree that the best way to eliminate zero-hours contracts would be to build a well-educated workforce and extend opportunities in a knowledge-based economy?

Dr Farry: I will start with the Member's last point. In general, yes; the more we invest in higher-level skills, the more the nature of our employment will change. However, we need to be very careful of generalisations. While the bulk of zero-hours contracts may well be for lower-paid positions, which is where there are particular dangers for vulnerable workers, it is important to bear it in mind that they are used in a range of scenarios, including professional and highly skilled areas. Zero-hours contracts may well make sense for those professions or professionals, which is another reason why we need to be a little careful about going for a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach in trying to address the issue.

On extrapolation from the estimates across the UK, we would have an upper limit of about 28,000 people on zero-hours contracts in Northern Ireland. I imagine that, in practice, the figure is lower. We are having a little difficulty in getting precise figures, not least because there is no agreed understanding of what a zero-hours contract is. That is one of the processes that we want to bottom out in any formal legislative process. We are working with organisations including the Office for National Statistics and InterTradeIreland to get a more accurate picture of the numbers in Northern Ireland in advance of that.

Dr Farry: Funding is provided to community and voluntary sector groups to deliver the community family support programme, the collaboration and innovation fund and the local employment intermediary service throughout Northern Ireland. These programmes were designed to implement the Executive's Pathway to Success strategy to support young people not in employment, education or training. Under the current round, funding is also provided from the European social fund (ESF) to 95 voluntary and community sector organisations.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for his answer. What effect have the learning gaps in the community groups' accounts, which were caused, say, by late payments from his Department, had on the European social fund application process?

Dr Farry: Payment issues in the current process should not have had an impact on the current application process. We have addressed at length the concerns expressed by Members in relation to the current application process and taken action based on the representations that we have received, but it is important to bear it in mind that the Department seeks to make payments promptly. We tend to work towards the standard 10-day turnaround period for payments advocated by Account NI.

It is important to bear in mind the context in which we have to be rigorous in ensuring that we have proper paper trails justifying payments made to organisations, particularly with European money. If we fail to operate within the rules and regulations coming down from the European Commission, we will have interruptions in the delivery of the programmes. An interruption does not just affect the organisation that may have contributed to the situation but can penalise everyone who benefits from the European social fund, so it is important that we go through the rigour of the process. I appreciate that it is hugely frustrating to organisations, and it is no doubt frustrating to my officials, who, maybe despite people's perceptions to the contrary, do not like having to be bureaucrats around these issues. But, if we do not, the damage that will be done to groups accessing much-needed resources will be much greater than the difficulty of processing payments.

Mr Swann: Minister, a number of voluntary and community organisations had their ESF applications rejected due to financial capability, when they were in fact waiting for payments from the Department from the previous ESF round. Will the Minister comment on that? Could he also comment on the complaint that has been made to the European Commission about maladministration of the European social fund by the Department for Employment and Learning?

Dr Farry: First of all, a number of groups were rejected in relation to financial capability assessments. However, some of those groups, due to the fresh opportunity to resubmit management accounts, will go through a second financial capability assessment. That process is ongoing and will hopefully be concluded shortly.

Obviously groups are entitled to make complaints, whether it is directly to the managing authority in DEL or to the Commission. I am satisfied that what we have been doing as a Department has been consistent with the requirements of the European Commission. It is important that Members are aware that, in terms of the rules about access to money, the nature of the forthcoming round of the European social fund is different from the outgoing social fund. It is important for rigour that we have that different approach. I understand that groups may feel aggrieved at a sense of the goalposts being moved, but it is the European Union's money, and it is entitled to set the rules. I welcome the fact that we have access to draw that money down, but in doing so we have to fulfil the requirements of the fund.

Mr Allister: Would the Minister care to comment on the suspicion expressed by some of the groups who have drawn social fund money for many years and now suddenly are disappointed in their application that what really is going on is a budgetary pressure in the Department whereby European social money, in increasing terms, is siphoned off into education colleges and matters of that nature, starving the community and voluntary groups of the funds that hitherto they enjoyed?

Dr Farry: The Member is very good at peddling suspicions and innuendo but not very good at checking the facts before making such comments directly. Let me be very clear: everything the Member said is utterly incorrect.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I am afraid time is up. You have just been beaten to it. We move to topical questions.

T1. Mr Hilditch asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of the Northern Ireland Science Festival, particularly the STEM masterclass initiative that he launched. (AQT 2201/11-15)

Dr Farry: The Science Festival has been an outstanding success. This is the first time we have had a science festival in Northern Ireland, and the number of people attending the events over the 10-day period has far exceeded the targets that were set.

That is a real indication of the level of organisation and commitment of the organisers. I give particular credit to Chris McCreery, the director of the festival.

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It is fundamentally about engaging with the people of Northern Ireland, including young people, on the importance of science to our everyday lives and encouraging people to pursue careers in STEM. The two masterclasses that the Member refers to were about crystallising the best practice in that regard, and we were very pleased that we had visitors from the United States: Dr Yvonne Spicer from the Boston Museum of Science and Dr Sue Sontgerath from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. That aspect was facilitated by the US State Department, which was also very keen to see how we are getting on with the science festival.

As Members will know, the Department was a major funder of the science festival, and, after we do an evaluation of the event — I said to the Member how pleased we were with the number of participants — we will look forward again to potentially funding a second science festival in 2016 and see it become an established part of the calendar of events in Northern Ireland.

Mr Hilditch: I welcome the Minister's answer. STEM is a major theme in the science festival. I understand that there seems to be under-representation of females. How can encouragement be given to females to participate and increase representation?

Dr Farry: The Member is quite right to identify that as a particular challenge that faces not just Northern Ireland society but those of many other advanced economies. We see a situation where girls and women are progressing better in education generally than boys and men. For example, we have a higher participation rate in higher education among women than men. However, we are seeing a segmentation in the type of subjects that people are choosing. As we look to the future and see, for example, IT, advanced manufacturing and engineering and food science being some of the high-growth sectors in Northern Ireland, it is important that we draw as fully as possible from the talent base that we have. Unless we draw fully from that across both genders, we will not maximise our potential.

How do we address that problem? We need to break down the stereotypes around a lot of the STEM subjects. That is probably the critical issue. We can also work with employers, and I am pleased to see that NACCO signed up last Friday to the STEM charter. A lot of businesses are seeking very overtly to address gender issues in their employment, particularly around STEM. They are looking at how they can do better in attracting more female staff and are working through retention and progression in the workplace.

T2. Mr Clarke asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the status of Antrim Technical College, following its abandonment a couple of years ago. (AQT 2202/11-15)

Dr Farry: At this stage, my understanding is that the land is still in the ownership of the Northern Regional College and is available for potential purchase. Apart from that, I am not sure whether I can say much more to the Member, though I am aware that there are some issues around the potential use of the site and some different interpretations of what should happen among the local community in Antrim.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Minister for that answer. Given the untimely pull out from Antrim a couple of years ago that left an excellent site vacant, does the Minister believe that his Department is doing enough to fill the void that has been left in post-16 education in Antrim?

Dr Farry: We are very keen to ensure that we have proper coverage across Northern Ireland in access to vocational training and further education. That does not mean that we will have a college in every town, and, sadly, Antrim is one of the towns where there is no college currently. That is replicated elsewhere in Northern Ireland. However, there is provision elsewhere, particularly in Ballymena, and, as part of the emerging business case for the Northern Regional College, that will be a priority area for investment. We also have a good college in Newtownabbey. We will look to see how we can continue to invest in community-based facilities in Antrim, and if the Member has any concerns in that regard, please drop me a line and we will look at the issue in more detail.

T3. Mr Spratt asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to explain the future financial viability of Stranmillis University College, now that the Executive have reinstated its premia payment, and taking into account the 2013 Grant Thornton report. (AQT 2203/11-15)

Dr Farry: The Executive have, regrettably, overturned my proposed decision on the premia. The teacher training system in Northern Ireland, however, remains financially unsustainable. There is a pressing need for reform, but reform does not need to be based just on finances. We have to look at how we can ensure that we deliver to world-class standards, address equality issues and teach our students in a shared learning environment. The current system is not delivering on all those points as it should.

The two teacher training colleges are heavily subsidised in three ways. First, they are the only teacher training colleges in the UK to receive premia payments. Secondly, they provide non-initial teacher education subjects as part of a conscious decision to give them other business to maintain their viability. Thirdly, the Department of Education essentially increases the teacher demand model to an artificially high level by giving the colleges more business than the local market can sustain. Even with those subsidies, the colleges' financial sustainability will gradually erode over time. The restoration of the premia will lengthen their future prospects, but we cannot escape the issues and the need for reform.

Mr Spratt: I thank the Minister for his answer. Have there been any discussions between the board of governors of Stranmillis University College and his officials, and, indeed, is there still a suggestion of a merger with Queen's University?

Dr Farry: I have not had a direct meeting with Stranmillis in the couple of weeks since the Executive took their decision. We are, however, continuing to engage with other stakeholders about the future system because the process of reform, and seeking consensus on reform, has to continue. I have received correspondence from Stranmillis about its emerging thinking on the way forward, and my officials continue to work with it. The possible merger of Queen's and Stranmillis, which the Member seems to advocate be reconsidered, was on the agenda in 2011. However, at that stage, his party was very clear that it was not prepared to contemplate such a merger outside wider reform of the teacher training system. In that context, if I had moved the legislation to facilitate the review, it would have tabled a petition of concern to block it. If the Member and his party are reconsidering their position, I would be very pleased to meet them to discuss their change of heart.

T4. Mr McKay asked the Minister for Employment and Learning why the European social fund (ESF), for those who are delivering on the ground, is not a priority for him, especially in light of an awards ceremony this evening in Portglenone at which a number of people will receive awards through a return to employment programme funded by ESF, albeit that it looks quite likely that the group that runs that programme will cease to exist if the ESF funding is discontinued. (AQT 2204/11-15)

Dr Farry: The Member is wrong to assume that it is not a priority for me. Indeed, we have probably spent more time on this issue over the past number of weeks than on anything else. To be very clear, one round of funding is coming to its natural end, and the duration of the funding was made very clear to every group bidding in the outgoing round. I am not aware of the precise context of any fresh bid by the organisation that the Member referred to, but no funding decisions have been made; nor will they be until we have the full picture, having scrutinised all the applications. We are oversubscribed by 1.8 times the amount available, so some organisations will be unsuccessful and, no doubt, very disappointed. Others, however, will continue to receive funding for their projects. We are, at this stage, trying to pull out all the stops to ensure that we make decisions on funding before the end of April so that the work of many organisations can continue.

To put it in context — lest people accuse us of running very close to the deadline — we put a lot of focus on getting our European social fund operational programme cleared by the European Commission. We achieved that back in 2014. Our counterparts in England have yet to have their operational programme cleared by the European Commission. We are now in the context where we have the option of ensuring continuity between programmes. In England, that will not be the case; there will be a break for many organisations, which will have a devastating impact on staff and the participants with whom organisations engage.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am not here to talk about people in England or to discuss what Europe is or is not doing. You can blame Europe all you want, but the message that we are receiving from the community and voluntary sector is that the Department is putting blockages in the way of the groups and putting down criteria that are resulting in the situation where those groups are being put on the line. Does the Minister recognise that fact? What is he going to do to ensure that those groups do not go to the wall? Does he also recognise that the women's sector, in particular, is going to be decimated by his Department's actions?

Dr Farry: There were probably four or five questions in there. I will do my best to pick them up. The Member said that this has nothing to do with England or Europe. It is very much everything to do with Europe given that it is European money that is coming down. We have to abide by the rules coming from the European Union. If the Member wants to do a UDI on this, that is fine; we would have to find the resources locally. We simply do not have those, so let us be sensible about this and use the opportunity that comes from our membership of the European Union to invest and extend what we would otherwise not be able to do with our available resources here in Northern Ireland.

No particular guarantees can be made to any organisations. Our officials are working tirelessly to ensure that we can have decisions made by the end of March. I made the point about England to make the point that we are being far more proactive than others in ensuring that that is the case. Issues of coverage regarding the women's sector may not necessarily be the outworking of the final decisions, but, if that were to be the case, there may well be different ways in which we can reassess the distribution of funds to ensure that we invest in the policy objectives of the Department and that we have proper coverage not just geographically but across the different aspects of engaging with those who are most marginalised from the labour market.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Mr Pat Ramsey. Mr Ramsey, you will not have time for a supplementary.

T5. Mr Ramsey asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline the key objectives of the ministerial subgroup and how it will achieve regional balance and a reduction in economic inactivity and joblessness in the north-west. (AQT 2205/11-15)

Dr Farry: Very briefly, I cannot answer on behalf of the Executive; it is more for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to set out the broad remit and rationale for that. Suffice it to say that I am happy to play my role. Obviously, the issue around investment in university facilities in Derry is a key aspect of that, but economic inactivity is also critical.

We have been joined by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. The Member will be pleased to know that we have now formally submitted the final strategy to the Executive for approval. I am sure that he will encourage his Minister to give that strategy its full endorsement when it comes up for discussion at the Executive. Hopefully, that will be this week, but, if not, it will be within the rest of this month.

Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Question 4 has been withdrawn. We will start with listed questions.

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): The aim of Tourism Ireland's sponsorship is to leverage the popularity of the Ireland cricket team, whose profile has grown in world cricket in recent years, and to support tourism growth from Australia and New Zealand, as well as other key cricket-loving countries, including England, India and South Africa.

Sport-related tourism has emerged as a very significant element in world tourism in recent years. High-profile sporting events such as the ICC Cricket World Cup provide Tourism Ireland with a unique opportunity to highlight the island of Ireland as a holiday destination as well as a top location for sporting events.

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The ICC Cricket World Cup, which is taking place in Australia and New Zealand, is one of the world's biggest sporting events in 2015. It has a global viewing audience and is being televised in 220 countries to a potential 2·5 billion viewers. May I say that they are being treated to some thrilling exploits by the Ireland team, which, after winning its opening two games, including a victory over the West Indies, came up short in its match against South Africa earlier today?

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answer. I know that the cricket team is not doing so well today against South Africa.

The Minister will be aware that half the world turns green at this time of year for St Patrick's Day, including some landmark buildings around the world, like the leaning tower of Pisa and the Pyramids in Egypt. In response to some of my colleagues at last week's Enterprise Committee meeting —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. Where is this question going?

Mr Lynch: The CEO of Tourism Ireland, who is responsible for the initiative, said that turning this Building green for the occasion would help the global greening initiative. Will the Minister agree to support that initiative?

Mrs Foster: It is a good jump from Ireland's cricket World Cup chances to the —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Minister, I was waiting on the result.

Mrs Foster: Indeed, and we are still hopeful that we can get to the quarter-finals. We are very much behind the team, particularly those members who are from Northern Ireland, including the captain. We send them all our best wishes.

In respect of the greening of this Building, Tourism Ireland is, of course, concerned with promoting Northern Ireland and the rest of the island outside of the island of Ireland. It has approached many iconic buildings across the world. They light them up green, and it has become an attraction for St Patrick's Day. As regards this Building, which is in Northern Ireland, it is entirely a matter for the Assembly Commission whether it decides to go down this route. I know that it has had discussions about it. I know that there was some commentary last week about the fact that, if you light it up green on St Patrick's Day, other days would also need to be marked.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for her answers today. I think that we all recognise the enormous role that sport plays in promoting a positive image of Northern Ireland, whether it is through our cricket players, our leading golfers like Holywood's Rory McIlroy or, indeed, our latest boxing star, Carl Frampton. What is Tourism Ireland doing to market one of our other sporting gems, our world famous Circuit of Ireland rally, which is now part of the European rally championship?

A Member: Cricket.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question, which is sport related — to answer the Member who is sedentary across the way and who I can hear mention that. [Interruption.]

The European rally championship —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I know that a little bit of banter is to be encouraged at times, but it really can go to excess.

Mrs Foster: I had the great pleasure of being with some colleagues at the Circuit of Ireland rally launch, which Lisburn City Council hosted just last week. Again, we are hoping for a very good Circuit of Ireland, particularly because it is part of the European rally championship, which allows us to publish in media outside Northern Ireland and show off our beautiful scenery across the world. We know that there are many enthusiasts for rallying, not least the Member who asked the question.

Tourism Ireland is promoting this year's event through its commercial relationship with Eurosport. In recent years, it has secured an invitation for the Circuit of Ireland rally to stage and provide footage of the UK and Ireland leg of the European rally championship. As I said, that will allow us to get that global television exposure. I think that that is very important.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Mr Alban Maginness who, no doubt, will choose his sport.

Mr A Maginness: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for her encouraging remarks about the Irish cricket team. Given that remarkable success and the obvious focus that there is on the island of Ireland, what plans has she to encourage Tourism Ireland to exploit that market opportunity in the near future?

Mrs Foster: In relation to sport, I think we are already exploiting it, but there is always more that we can do, particularly around golf and the fact that we have the Irish Open coming to Northern Ireland — to Royal County Down — in May this year. I know that Tourism Ireland, along with Tourism NI, is working very hard on how they can promote Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to that fabulous event.

The Member will know, of course, that we are working on a joint bid for the Rugby World Cup. Again, we are pushing ahead with that. We are garnering support for that bid. We believe that to bring the Rugby World Cup to the island and to have events up here in Northern Ireland would be a marvellous thing to achieve. I send my congratulations — I am sure that I speak for the whole House — to the Ireland rugby team. At the weekend, we had a marvellous victory over England, and we look forward to the grand slam.

Mrs Foster: Northern Ireland Electricity has no plans to change its dedicated customer helpline number. The rest of the UK is made up of multiple network operators, whereas, in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Electricity is the sole network owner through which all power cuts are reported. Northern Ireland Electricity continues to promote its contact number through a range of channels.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that update. Does she agree that, given the equal citizenship of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, it should be included in that single, simple number throughout the UK right from the start and the inception of the project, as opposed to what it said in the consultation document — that it may join subsequently?

Mrs Foster: I understand, absolutely, where the Member is coming from in respect of that question, but I say to him that, if you go into a national number like that, you go into a call centre, and there is always the risk that people do not know where you are talking about when you ring up and say, "I have a power cut in Derryloman". Are they going to say, "Where is that?" It causes all sorts of difficulties in that regard.

NIE, given that it is the sole operator of the grid and the network in Northern Ireland, believes that its customer helpline is the one that should be familiar to people. Certainly, if the Member is asking if we can make it more amenable so that everybody knows exactly what number to call, yes, I think that there is always more that could be done in respect of that, but apparently they have provided me with some satisfaction ratings. They say that there is 99% satisfaction with how quickly the calls are answered, 97% satisfaction with the accuracy of information provided and a 99% competency of call handler. I worry that, if we are going into a central call system within the whole of the UK, we might lose a little bit of that.

Mrs Hale: Minister, you will be aware that I have been working with Plastec and its managing director, Thomas Hawthorne, and Avodah Renewable Energies and its owner, Alistair Dickson, who are investing significantly within Lagan Valley. However, they are being obstructed by NIE through a failure to deliver grid connection, which they already paid tens of thousands of pounds for over 18 months ago, and a regulator who appears to be powerless to intervene, and, indeed, said only last week that they could do nothing about it.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Could we have a question, please?

Mrs Hale: Minister, what are you going to do about it?

Mrs Foster: That is an issue that is becoming more and more of an issue. At a constituency level, I have had delegations in of farmers from Fermanagh and west Tyrone who cannot get onto the grid. The Member who asked the question has written to me on numerous occasions in relation to businesses in her constituency. To be quite blunt, I am fed up with the merry-go-round that is going on in relation to grid connection. We have NIE saying that it is not their issue but a System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) issue. SONI will say that it is a regulator issue. The regulator will try to pass it to somebody else. Frankly, it cannot go on, so I have called a meeting of all of the parties involved to discuss those issues and to try to get to the bottom of the grid connection issues. If we cannot deal with the matters around the table in a voluntary way, I will have to look at other measures to deal with the issue.

Mr Rogers: Thanks, Minister, for your answers thus far. What recent discussions have you had within your Department to improve the security of electricity supply on the island?

Mrs Foster: I will be concerned, of course, just with security of supply in my own jurisdiction. As the Member will know, in consultation with the system operator and the regulator, we recently put out a contract for more generation because we felt that, in future, there may be a gap. Some have criticised us for that, but I certainly felt that there was a need to make sure that we have security of supply. That is hugely important for the population of Northern Ireland, which is why we took that decision.

Mrs Foster: My Department has just awarded a contract to BT for a new project under the UK superfast roll-out programme, which will further extend access to superfast broadband across Northern Ireland by 2017. The majority of enterprise and business parks in Northern Ireland of which my Department is aware already have access to superfast broadband services, but there remains some in areas that do not. I have indicated my desire that business parks be prioritised under this new service.

Under the SuperConnected Cities programme, which is being led by the UK Government, business premises, including those in business parks in Belfast and Londonderry, are eligible to apply for vouchers with a value of up to £3,000 to cover the cost of high-speed broadband installation. That programme is now being extended to include other areas. That presents an opportunity for our new super-councils to apply for a voucher scheme similar to those that exist in the Belfast and Londonderry council areas.

Mr Beggs: I am aware that, in other parts of the UK where there has been under-provision of superfast broadband, Openreach has facilitated local communities where it has not introduced that service, because of, it says, economic reasons. Has the Minister been in discussion with BT Openreach so that that type of flexible facility will be available to local communities and businesses, which may not be included in the scheme that she mentioned?

Mrs Foster: I just mentioned two schemes. The first is the UK superfast roll-out programme, and the second is the SuperConnected Cities programme. I think that the super-councils should look at the second programme in particular. It was initially rolled out in Belfast, then it was extended to our second city, and now it is going to be available across Northern Ireland. Given that the super-councils will have new powers in April, they should look very closely at doing something together on those voucher schemes. It is a great opportunity to try to infill what has not been filled to date.

Mr Givan: Will the Minister provide more details about the £17 million investment that her Department announced last week?

Mrs Foster: That relates to the first of the schemes, the UK superfast roll-out programme, which is a UK scheme, so it is funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, us and, indeed, BT. It is envisaged that the project will begin with the survey and design process, which will take place over a number of months. BT will then begin to re-engineer the infrastructure into a fibre-rich open-access network, enabling more people to enjoy superfast broadband. At the same time, there is also the work of the Northern Ireland broadband improvement fund. I know that Members may say, "Never mind superfast, what about a good broadband service?". The other broadband intervention is still ongoing and does not finish until near the end of this year.

Mr McGlone: The Minister almost stole my thunder when she said, "Whatever about superfast, what about the rest?". There are places where the capacity for towns to grow is being inhibited by the under-improvement of broadband. I am wondering whether the Minister or her Department has carried out any audit of those towns to see whether they are being inhibited. I have one example in mind, in Maghera, where a software development and computer company cannot expand because of the lack of broadband capacity. Has any audit been carried out to see where there are broadband hot spots, "not spots" or diminished spots where interventions could be required to facilitate economic development?

3.00 pm

Mrs Foster: There are a couple of things there. First, I do not know whether the Member has furnished me with the postcode to see whether the company will be covered under the Northern Ireland broadband improvement programme that is still ongoing. Secondly, the new super-councils will be able to apply for SuperConnected Cities money, and I hope that that will make a difference locally as well.

I asked Invest NI to audit not towns but business parks to try to establish their connectivity. Of the 80 business parks supported by Invest Northern Ireland or Enterprise Northern Ireland, 66 can get superfast speeds. Of the 14 that cannot, 10 are in the intervention area for the superfast roll-out programme; two are in the Belfast City Council area and so can apply to the SuperConnected Cities fund; and two get between 15 MB and 23 MB. There are a number of funds out there at the moment, which, if I am honest, I find a wee bit confusing. I may put in place an A4 sheet that details all the different interventions that are ongoing, and, hopefully, that will be of assistance to MLAs.

Mrs Foster: I have received representations from and discussed a range of energy issues, including pricing, with a number of local businesses and their representative bodies. I continue to support businesses through the promotion of competition, innovation and investment.

The recently announced reductions in electricity tariffs is good news for our small business consumers and means that, from April, prices will be lower than the EU 15 median, approximately 5% lower than the Great Britain average and around 19% lower than those in the Republic of Ireland. Large energy users negotiate requirements directly with suppliers. I understand that some of our larger users may already be benefiting from falling electricity bills. Of course, motorists and those using oil for home heating will also have benefited from falling prices. I hope to attend an information event tomorrow on Gas to the West, which will provide up to 40,000 energy consumers, including businesses, with a more efficient, lower-carbon and potentially cheaper choice of fuel.

Mr Wilson: Whilst we must all welcome the impact of the downward turn in energy prices internationally, does the Minister recognise that many firms in Northern Ireland, especially large consumers of energy, admit that one of the problems when it comes to expansion and investment is the cost of energy? Since our grid is increasingly overloaded with expensive electricity from renewable sources, what requests has she made to the Government at Westminster, who seem now to be receptive to this, to reduce the percentage of electricity that has to be produced through expensive renewable sources?

Mrs Foster: I have ongoing discussions with my Westminster counterpart, Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary. Indeed, I had a meeting with him very recently on electricity market reform, which is ongoing, and some very difficult decisions will have to be taken on that.

I have also spoken to the regulator on a number of occasions, most recently just today, about the pricing for large energy users. I hope that there will be some developments from the regulator on that before the end of the month.

Mr McKinney: The Minister referred to actions or measures to improve connectivity. Will she expand on that? What further measures or actions will the Minister put in place to lessen the impact on businesses?

Mrs Foster: I can talk to the regulator and try to point her in the right direction, but, at the end of the day, pricing is a matter for the regulator. As I say, we are having a round-table meeting on grid connection, and I have no doubt that the interconnectivity that we need with the rest of the island and with Great Britain will come up. Unfortunately, neither operates to full capacity at the moment. The Member knows that we need a second interconnector, the North/South interconnector. We also need to ensure that the Moyle interconnector is up to full capacity again, and we hope that that will be the case by next year.

Mr Kinahan: Does the Minister not find that the repeated complaints that renewable energy, in particular wind energy, are driving up prices a little rich and somewhat hypocritical, given that the person who asked the question changed the planning policy and liberalised it so that we could expand and bring in wind farm schemes?

Mrs Foster: I am waiting on an intervention. If there is a spat going on between the Member and the Member for East Antrim, I will allow that to take place elsewhere.

We are looking at a cost-benefit analysis of the strategic energy framework. We are doing that in the context of electricity market reform that is coming at us very quickly and that will cause a huge change in the way electricity comes to us over the next period. The House should be very much aware that electricity market reform will provide a huge challenge for us in Northern Ireland, not least because we are in a single electricity market on this island and will have to bid in for contracts for difference, and renewable obligation certificates will be no more. A lot of change is coming, and the House will need to be very much part of that.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answers.

The Minister might accept that the high price of energy and electricity for large energy users and manufacturing companies is a barrier to attracting and retaining jobs in the manufacturing sector. What action has she taken to support large energy users that face uncompetitively high energy costs compared with their counterparts around Europe?

Mrs Foster: As he knows, we have consulted the Utility Regulator on that very important issue. Of course, 60% of the cost of energy for large energy users is the wholesale price. As I said, that is moving in a downward direction at the moment, and I hope that that will come through to those large energy users as their contracts start to change in the future. It is important as well that we deal with constraints on the single electricity market, and that includes the North/South interconnector. It is important that we have that in place, because, at the moment, that is costing consumers on the island of Ireland around €20 million. I am sure that he would agree that it is unacceptable for us to proceed in that manner.

Mrs Foster: Unlike Northern Ireland, the Welsh have not had the same long public debate around the merits of devolving corporation tax, nor have they developed a plan to use such powers for a very clear economic development purpose. It is therefore unsurprising that the Silk commission concluded that income tax was more appropriate to devolve to the Welsh Government than other major UK taxes, including corporation tax.

The case for reducing corporation tax in Northern Ireland is very different from that in Wales. The Silk commission acknowledged that in its report and described corporation tax as a useful policy tool for us because of the fiscal competition that we face from sharing a land border with the Republic of Ireland. The latest research that was commissioned by my Department, which takes into account the costs and benefits of reduced corporation tax, continues to demonstrate a strong economic case for Northern Ireland.

Mr Allister: Is it not quite striking though that another region of the United Kingdom, which is also block-grant dependent, most thoroughly investigated the issue of corporation tax through a proper commission and reached that conclusion, whereas we seem to have rushed to the endgame without any comparable consideration?

On the issue of just how attractive it would be to reduce corporation tax and all the hype about that in the context of the manufacturing industry, is the Minister not struck by the fact that, at the very time when it seems that corporation tax will be reduced, one of our largest manufacturers, alas, JTI, will depart our shores undeterred by the lure —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Mr Allister, I think that we have a question at this stage.

Mr Allister: — that is supposed to exist in reduced corporation tax?

Mrs Foster: On the latter part of the question, we discussed the lowering of corporation tax with JTI Gallaher — he would expect me to do that — but, because of the tax system in Japan, it would not have benefited from the lower rate in Northern Ireland. We did of course look at that in great detail.

As regards rushing into our support for the lowering of corporation tax, my goodness, this has been around since devolution came back in 2007. I do not call that rushing into a decision. The entire business community, from the Federation of Small Businesses right up to the CBI, is in support of this policy development. I say to the Member that he may not wish to move forward and have ambition for Northern Ireland moving into the future, but I do. I want Northern Ireland to become a powerhouse; I want it to become what I know it can become and has great potential to become. I am sure that other Members have ambition for Northern Ireland as well. That is where I sit.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire. Diolch yn fawr, as the Welsh would say. As we are talking about our Welsh cousins, and in the context of Mr Cameron's announcing on Friday the next step to devolving income tax power, does the Minister think that income tax is the next tax-raising power that we will seek and that it would also bring benefits to our economy?

Mrs Foster: I think that we need to deal with the power that, hopefully, we will have by the end of this parliamentary term. We know that the Bill is going through its stages in the House of Commons and House of Lords and, as I understand it, should be finished its legislative journey towards the middle of March. Then, we will be able to move forward and make the most of that power when we agree a rate and a date for implementation and we can take forward all the evidence. One of the points that Mr Allister raised was the fact that we had not looked at comparable areas on corporation tax. We have, of course, had that work completed for us. I am sure that if he looks at the work carried out by the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy — now the Ulster Business School — he will see that work there.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The time for listed questions is up. We now move to topical questions.

T1. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for an update on the rural broadband improvement programme. (AQT 2211/11-15)

Mrs Foster: I know that the Member has a particular interest in this programme; he has always been very faithful in asking me about it. Indeed, it is going very well. Those areas that have already had the intervention report very good successes. If the Member has a particular area that he wants me to look at, I will certainly feed those postcodes in to see whether, first of all, they are on the programme and then what the timescale is for implementation.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her response. It is a welcome programme. The original target was, I think, 48,000 homes. Can the Minister indicate where she is with regard to a percentage of those homes? Does she feel that we will reach the target? Could she intimate how Newry and Armagh is faring on that programme?

Mrs Foster: Unfortunately, I do not have that detail in front of me. We hope to intervene for 45,000 homes. From memory, I think that we are in and around the 30,000 mark for interventions. I am certainly happy to follow it up with the Member in writing if he wishes me to do so.

T2. Ms McGahan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment whether she is aware of the huge tourism potential of the Hill of the O’Neill and Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre in Dungannon and, if so, will she work closely with the new Mid Ulster Council and the Dungannon Regeneration Partnership to take forward a strategy to exploit that potential. (AQT 2212/11-15)

Mrs Foster: The short answer is that I am, absolutely, given that we share a constituency, aware of the tourism potential of the Hill of the O'Neill and the Ranfurly centre. I have visited on a number of occasions. I am always impressed by the facility and the way in which it has been integrated into the town of Dungannon in a very nice way, I have to say, that can also draw people into the town centre. We know that, often, when large-scale installations are put in, they draw people out of town centres, but this is right in Dungannon town centre. Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council is to be commended for its work. I look forward to working with the Mid Ulster Council in the future.

3.15 pm

Ms McGahan: Go raibh agat. I thank the Minister for her response. Does the Minister agree that the growth of the tourism sector in south Tyrone offers the potential for jobs and benefits to the local economy, shops and services?

Mrs Foster: Absolutely, and especially when the facility is in the town centre. Of course, it will bring people into the town centre for the retail experience in Dungannon, as well as to visit coffee shops and what have you. Tourism jobs go right across Northern Ireland, and I think that that is something that we should always be aware of. The sector provides jobs right across Northern Ireland, and, of course, I hope that that will be the case in Dungannon.

T3. Mr Cree asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment whether she has had any discussions about the €315 billion investment fund that the EU is talking about. (AQT 2213/11-15)

Mrs Foster: I think that that is the Juncker fund. Am I right about that? As I understand it, my departmental officials are watching very closely what is going on with that. They have not had total clarity on how that is going to be rolled out, but a number of Departments in Northern Ireland will be interested, not least his party's Minister and the Department for Regional Development.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for her response. Minister, have you any detail on likely time frames, applications and even areas to be covered?

Mrs Foster: We have talked a lot about the grid today. Certainly, from my perspective, we will be looking at it to see if there is anything in energy infrastructure that we can augment or if there is anything more we can do in relation to the likes of energy storage or the energy grid. I am sure that colleagues will have other priorities.

T4. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment how central she believes the Northern Ireland air show at Portrush, which has developed in recent years, to be, not just to the economy of the north coast but of Northern Ireland, as it seeks to develop in the forthcoming years. (AQT 2214/11-15)

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. That is a very good example of how a locally organised event has continued to grow, year on year, and brought in international attention and acts to the north coast. I know for sure that it will continue to be an event that we will want to support in a tangible way through funding, but in other ways as well.

Mr Campbell: The Minister will be aware that, last year, the air show moved from one side of Portrush to the other in an attempt to develop and expand, and it did so successfully. How confident is she that it will receive the necessary support to continue to develop this year and in the forthcoming years?

Mrs Foster: I am confident that it will, because it works very closely with Tourism Northern Ireland and, indeed, with Tourism Ireland in marketing outside of the island of Ireland. If the Member has any specific issues that he wants to raise with me, I am very happy to meet him to talk to him about them. However, I know that the air show — I cannot remember its name; is it Air Waves?

Mr Campbell: Air Waves.

Mrs Foster: I know that it will go from strength to strength. It is very much in a lot of people's diaries from year to year.

T5. Mr Newton asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to comment on the significance of the very successful CSeries aircraft project to the future prosperity of Bombardier, given its recent job reduction announcement. (AQT 2215/11-15)

Mrs Foster: Of course, we were disappointed to hear about further job losses among, what are called, temporary workers at Bombardier. I am looking forward to a meeting with senior management here in east Belfast. The Member had asked me previously if that was going to happen. I can confirm that that meeting is going to take place now. We will have discussions about the future of Bombardier. I do not want to prejudge the meeting, but the future — looking at the flight of the CSeries jet — looks very good. We are delighted to see another major milestone in Bombardier's CSeries aircraft programme because it is critical to the east Belfast plant, particularly in relation to the wings, which are constructed there. We look forward to continuing to work with Bombardier in the future.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for that answer. Can the Minister confirm that everything that can be done is being done on a week-to-week, month-to-month basis to support Bombardier as it develops the project?

Mrs Foster: Absolutely. I can confirm that that is the case. Invest Northern Ireland works very closely with Bombardier's senior executives so that, if any issue arises, we are aware of it very quickly and can try to help in any way we can. We believe that Bombardier is a significant and structurally important part not just of east Belfast but of the Northern Ireland economy. We will continue, therefore, to give it the attention that it deserves.

T6. Mr McElduff asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, given that, some months ago, Invest NI placed a public advertisement seeking expressions of interest from landowners in the Omagh area about the availability of land suitable for industrial development, whether she can give an update on uptake or expressions of interest. (AQT 2216/11-15)

Mrs Foster: Absolutely. In mid-September, Invest NI placed an advertisement seeking expressions of interest from landowners. A total of 13 areas of land were offered. Following engagement with the DOE Planning Service, nine of those areas were ruled out due to the distance outside the Omagh settlement limit, a further two have been discounted as they were not received until after the deadline for submissions, and Invest NI is conducting a desktop exercise on the remaining two sites to determine their potential suitability for industrial development.

Mr McElduff: I thank the Minister for the specific answer and the detail contained therein. I hope that the Minister sees a connection with my supplementary question, because I do, although my mind might work in funny ways. Enterprise zone status might appear like a long shot. Coleraine has enterprise zone status. Might there be a case for enterprise zone status for Omagh, the county town of Tyrone, if you have ever heard tell of it?

Mrs Foster: I did hear tell of it. In fact, I was in the county town of Tyrone last night at a celebration with SMEs and the local council for their local economic development programmes, where 300 businesses had taken up council initiatives. I was really very pleased to see some of the work that was going on there, so I am very aware of the county town of Tyrone.

I very much want to have a conversation with MLAs about enterprise zones, because I think that there has been a bit of a misunderstanding. There is a very specific zone in Coleraine. It is a pilot scheme and it has been put in place by Her Majesty's Treasury. It is not in my gift, and we still have to see it brought into full action.

T7. Mr McAleer asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline her proposals to address the simultaneous decline in output, new orders and employment in the private sector as reported recently in the purchasing managers’ index (PMI). (AQT 2217/11-15)

Mrs Foster: The PMI is a snapshot at a particular time. I think that it was Richard Ramsey, the author of the PMI, who said that it was a "blip" at the time because, before that, the trend was upwards. I am very happy to take Richard Ramsey's advice on that matter.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat. The survey also highlighted the negative implications of the exchange rate for local businesses. If that is taken into account, will the Minister commit to addressing the challenges faced by businesses, particularly those in border areas?

Mrs Foster: It is one of the reasons why we have been encouraging companies to look outside the eurozone for their export markets. We accept that they will still very much want to do business with their closest neighbour, but it is important that they look to new markets, because we realise that there are difficulties with the exchange rate at present.

T8. Lord Morrow asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline her Department’s plans for the development of broadband, particularly in rural areas, not least Fermanagh and South Tyrone, given that she will agree that broadband is vital to the development of businesses in rural areas. (AQT 2218/11-15)

Mrs Foster: I am very happy to answer that in relation to Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The Northern Ireland broadband improvement project is being rolled out, we have the superfast roll-out programme, and we also have the SuperConnected Cities programme in conjunction with DCMS. There are three current intervention programmes. I think that we will put more details on an A4 sheet and share that with colleagues so that they are clear about what is going on.

Lord Morrow: I thank the Minister for her answer. I am delighted to hear that there are immediate plans to develop this. What about a 10- to 15-year strategy for the further development of broadband in those rural communities?

Mrs Foster: I am very hopeful that, in 10 to 15 years, the broadband infrastructure will be very mature. I have often said in the House that we should be looking not only at fixed-line broadband but at mobile applications, because the mobile infrastructure needs to be in place. More and more people are using handheld devices as opposed to the traditional fixed-line connection. I note that Vodafone very recently set up three rural connectivity pilots in Donemana, Killeter and Pomeroy. I will meet Vodafone in the very near future and look forward to hearing how broadband is being developed in those three areas.

T9. Mr Ramsey asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for an update on the progress of the economic inactivity plans for areas of great need. (AQT 2219/11-15)

Mrs Foster: The Minister for Employment and Learning and I have signed off on the plans, which will go to the Executive, I hope, this week. If not this week, they will be discussed at the next Executive meeting.

Mr Ramsey: In light of our previous discussion, Minister, are you of a mind to ensure that these are programme-led rather than application-driven plans?

Mrs Foster: I certainly do not want the economic inactivity strategy to be characterised by process. I want it characterised by action, because there is no point in having an inactivity strategy if it is to be characterised by inactivity. So, let us get the actions happening on the ground and try to make a difference to those people.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Time for questions is up. We now return to the debate on —

Mr G Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Do you realise that Enterprise, Trade and Investment Question Time was reduced by three minutes?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I am told that we started a couple of minutes early and that the Member listed to ask the final question is not in her place, so no one has been cheated. Now —

Mrs Cameron: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I apologise for not being in my place for a topical question to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure last week. I was in a meeting with the Health Minister.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Your apology will be noted. Now, for the third time, we will move on to the debate on the report of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment inquiry into wind energy.

Committee Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for the Environment [NIA 226/11-16] on its Inquiry into Wind Energy in Northern Ireland; and calls on the Minister of the Environment to implement the recommendations contained in the report. — [Ms Lo (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment).]

Mr A Maginness: I will speak as a member of the Environment Committee on the report produced on wind energy.

I am a little bit disturbed and concerned about the way in which the debate is drifting. This is not about wind energy per se; it is about particular aspects of planning, separation distances, community engagement and so forth. So it is a given that we accept that a common good is derived from wind energy. It is important to remember that all parties in the House, without exception, support renewable energy and, indeed, wind energy in particular.

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

We, in this part of Europe, are blessed in having access to a considerable amount of wind, which is free and a source of renewable energy. It is important that we celebrate that —

Mr Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maginness: — and I see the Member for East Antrim anxiously waving across the Benches, so I will give way to him.

Mr Wilson: Will the Member accept that, whilst wind is free, the means of turning wind into energy is the most expensive means of generating electricity, and, as a result of our dependence on it, we have added to fuel poverty and made industry less competitive?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has an extra minute.

3.30 pm

Mr A Maginness: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Member for his intervention. I think that it is fallacious to say that wind energy is expensive. The fact is that, at this point in the development of wind energy as an alternative source of energy, it has to be subsidised because of the capital costs involved. This is an initial period, and it will, over time, decrease in its cost to the consumer and to society at large. I do accept the point that the Member made about the cost to industry, and, of course, the House is aware of that. The regulator is also aware of that, and, indeed, industry has taken significant steps to address that by also, curiously enough, using alternative renewable sources of energy to create its own in-house source of energy to provide for whatever it is producing. Those are my initial points.

Throughout the inquiry, I think that the Committee worked to try to gauge the views of people who were concerned about different aspects of planning and so forth, and the report self-evidently addresses those issues. I hope that the Minister in due course will look at the report, be cognisant of the concerns that have been expressed by members of the public and take some action to ameliorate those concerns.

One thing that impressed me was the attempts by those who are building wind farms or turbines to try to engage with the community. I think that that is very important. I think that, sometimes, their efforts are misunderstood and that it is thought that they are bribing a section of the community. I think that that is very unfair. An alternative to that, of course, is to engage the community in proactively developing alternative sources of energy. Indeed, this afternoon, I had the honour of attending the all-party group on co-operatives and mutuals, and the major theme there was using cooperatives or social enterprises of different sorts to involve the local community in the development of renewable energy, be it wind, solar energy or whatever. There is a very good example in Slaughtneil in County Derry, where the local community has come together in a social enterprise and has created wind energy by investing in a turbine. That is a benefit to the community for the next 20 years. The local school will benefit, the local sporting club will benefit and the community at large will benefit from that. That is very important, and I think that we should learn from that — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Can I ask the Member to resume his seat? We are waiting for advice.

Mr Wilson: It is all hot air.

Mr A Maginness: It was your interventions. [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I have been advised that we stay. I ask the Member to continue until we get further advice.

Mr A Maginness: Mr Deputy Speaker, I am nearly at an end. I just want to say to the House that it is very important to have community engagement in all of this. I think that it will solve a lot of problems because the whole community is benefiting, not just some individuals in the community. I believe that that is a way forward in rural areas, and I hope that the good example shown in Slaughtneil can, in fact, be followed —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Mr A Maginness: — by people in other areas.

Mrs Overend: I am not sure how safe it is to start, but start I will. I too welcome the report and thank the Committee Clerk and the staff for compiling it. It was a massive job. The inquiry started long before I was a member of the Environment Committee. In fact, I think that it started almost a year before I joined it. It is an issue that every MLA can relate to. There is no doubt that every elected represented has been lobbied in support of or against a wind turbine in their constituency or maybe on both sides of the argument, if you are lucky. Unfortunately, in many cases, it has pitted neighbour against neighbour. I therefore welcome the publication of the inquiry's report, as it seeks to bring some clarity to an issue that is becoming increasingly divisive in communities across Northern Ireland.

Turbines are a relatively recent phenomenon. Until relatively recent times, consent for electricity generation was not a particular problem. The Executive set the targets to achieve 40% of electricity from renewable sources. Interestingly, the Member to my left, the Member for East Antrim, claimed that that target was unachievable, even though I understand that, for a year, he was the Minister of the Environment, which was the Department that championed it.

With the development of technology and the increased drive for renewables, it was inevitable that planning consents would become an issue. Instead of Northern Ireland being overloaded with wind turbines, there needs to be an overarching strategic view on the siting of turbines, and planning consent is key to that.

Many people, not least applicants, have criticised the system for taking too long, but it is essential that all factors be taken into consideration before decisions are made. Anything else would expose the Department to undue risk. We trust that the new councils will show the same caution when they take on many of the decisions after 1 April but not necessarily the extended delays that can come with it.

There were problems with planning policy statement (PPS) 18, so the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) at least presents a useful opportunity to put some of those to bed. That includes more obligations on developers to abide by noise limits and to ensure that all the relevant information is produced in the application process. The noise factor raised an interesting discussion in Committee, with research and evidence, and I am sure that the Minister will seek to take those on board.

Along with noise pollution, one of the regular bones of contention with wind turbines is their proximity to residential properties. The Committee report makes a sensible suggestion, and we should look to extend the distance from the current 90 metres status. The recent fall of a wind turbine in County Tyrone highlighted that need.

As the Committee learned during its evidence sessions, it is not just the noise that you hear standing nearby; often, it is more inconspicuous than that. So, whilst the fleeting observer may hear little, residents, backed up by evidence, talk of invasive noise. That leads to an array of problems, including sleep disturbance and deprivation. It is because of that disturbance that the Committee believes that the Department needs to improve the procedures for measuring that and, eventually, come to its own conclusion as to what an acceptable level of noise pollution is.

I welcome the new cautious approach recommended in the SPPS to the siting of turbines in areas of outstanding natural beauty. In fact, at this stage, I thank the Minister and the Department for working with the Committee on the issue, particularly on the drafting of the SPPS.

An important issue in the report is the call for economic considerations for assessing applications to be better defined, as it is very important not to be ambiguous in this matter. Perhaps that could counteract the presumption of favour in PPS 18.

To conclude, wind turbines draw contention in every art and part of Northern Ireland. Their positioning is key to their success, yet that same point can strike fear and cause annoyance and even have implications for health. The Committee inquiry drew many positive conclusions and recommendations, and I commend them to the Minister.

Mr Wilson: First of all, this is a very important issue because there is increasing alarm in Northern Ireland at the march of the 300-feet-plus steel triffids across the countryside destroying the natural beauty of Northern Ireland but also having an impact on people's lives and health. When I started reading the report, I was a bit alarmed because, at the very start, the Committee talked about being mindful of the need to have renewable energy. I thought, "Right, what we're going to get here is a report that justifies the way in which the policy is being applied", but I must say I am pleased about a number of the recommendations.

Prompted by yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker, earlier, the Member for South Antrim seemed to think that I was responsible for this liberal policy. The policy was drawn up at the time because there was no policy about wind turbines. Secondly, I was criticised for it being too draconian. I remember many questions in this House as to why the policy was stopping wind turbines being built.

I say that partly in self defence but also because it is a warning that regardless of what changes may be required in planning policy, it will always have a degree of subjectivity. Therefore, it is often the guidance, instructions or will that come from the Minister's office that direct how the policy is interpreted.

While I was environment Minister, it was probably interpreted in the way in which I hoped it would be, ie, that, as it states in PPS 18, where there was an unacceptable impact on human health, public safety, residential amenity, visual amenity, landscape character etc, these things should not be allowed. As I speak to planning officers in my area, I increasingly find that the answer is, "The Minister is keen on these happening", therefore the policy is interpreted in a way that I believe is much more liberal.

I welcome some of the changes that have been asked for by the Committee. Always bear in mind, however, that if there is an overall drive and policy of pushing a particular aspect, then the policy itself may be interpreted in a way that even its drafters did not intend.

The first aspect of the report that I welcome is the requirement that those who put up or wish to put up wind turbines have to show that they meet the noise standards rather than an environmental health officer having to do that work for them. The noise standards are out of date, and the World Health Organization has highlighted deficiencies in the current standards. We must look to having more up-to-date standards of measuring noise and its impact.

The distance issue is also important. While there is no agreement across jurisdictions, some will have turbines as far as 3,000 metres from residential properties. That is important from not just the point of view of noise and the health impacts but the visual impact of wind turbines.

It was always intended to be the case that the cumulative impact of wind turbines in an area ought to be considered. That means that where the local planning office may decide about an individual turbine, and strategically wind farms might be considered centrally, those two things should not be divorced.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wilson: Yes, I will.

Mr A Maginness: The Member talks about the over-concentration and saturation point. In accordance with standard planning decision-making, planners look at individual applications. With restaurants or fast-food bars, for example, they do not say there are 20 fast-food bars on the Antrim Road, therefore we will not entertain any further ones. It is the individual applications that the planners look at.

3.45 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Wilson: That may well be the case, but, when you look at the impact of huge 320-feet turbines on a landscape environment, you have to look at the cumulative impact. The proposition always was that there should be a requirement to look at the cumulative impact. If you see the forest of these things in some areas, it makes sense —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Mr Wilson: — not to look at them individually.

I welcome the report and the thoroughness with which it has been done, though I utter caution that, despite what changes might be made, if the direction comes from the top to —

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

Mr Wilson: — interpret it liberally, any policy —

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

Mr Wilson: — will always be defective.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. At the outset, I, too, want to thank the Clerk and staff of the Committee, as well as our Chairperson, Anna Lo, and Deputy Chairperson, Pamela Cameron, for their leadership throughout the inquiry. I endorse the Chair's statement ahead of today's debate, which essentially calls for a more strategic approach in the siting of wind infrastructure and an urgent review of current noise guidelines.

I suppose that the recommendations contained in the report constitute advice to government, principally to the Minister of the Environment and the Department generally. Yesterday, a Sinn Féin delegation met the Minister and senior planning officials from his Department, and they have undertaken to give full and thorough consideration to the report. They would have liked the timing to be different, as, with the development of the single planning policy statement and the report being almost coincidental, they are unable at this point to take full account of the recommendations in our report.

I refer to paragraph 3 of the report. My party is supportive of Programme for Government targets, but my colleague Cathal Boylan made the point earlier that we cannot ignore the concerns of local residents who have questioned the way in which that target is being achieved through an over-reliance on wind energy and an underemphasis on and underutilisation of other renewable energy sources.

What about the key conclusions and recommendations? In paragraph 18, there is specific mention of my constituency of West Tyrone and the issue of saturation point. In paragraph 22, there is reference to a cumulative impact and saturation point in the number of wind developments that are either operational in or planned for an area. Paragraph 18 highlights the fact that, hitherto, there has been a lack of a strategic approach to zoning or identifying the most appropriate locations for wind turbines.

I am aware of a number of large-scale applications in the pipeline. One of those is described as Doraville, and it has wide implications for communities in the Glenelly valley in south Derry and the part of the Sperrins in Broughderg. Indeed, I helped to facilitate a pre-application hearing for residents in respect of that application, and the scale of it is most worrying. I want to commend the local group of residents from the Lisnaharney area, which is in close proximity to Gortin, who have a very positive and proactive community development agenda for that beautiful part of the Sperrins near Gortin. Their plan for the future to create jobs and build tourism is based largely on exploiting the outdoor recreation potential of that area, and, in their submission, they point to the detrimental impact on visual amenity of a large-scale wind farm application and possible displacement of jobs in the tourism sector.

On the one hand, the industry will emphasise jobs created by wind farms and, on the other hand, groups like Lisnaharney Area Residents Group will emphasise displacement of jobs through lost tourism potential.

Reference is made in paragraphs 10 and 11 to wind turbine regulations — ETSU-97 or ETSU-R-97 — and there is general agreement that these need to be reviewed, that local government authorities and environmental health departments are far too stretched by regularly adjudicating on such matters and that perhaps there should be more of an onus on developers to prove that the noise regulations are being adhered to.

There are many questions for the Minister. For example —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Mr McElduff: — why are so many non-determination appeals taking place? Why are people not even waiting for a refusal and going straight to appeal? Does the Minister have anything to say about the Screggagh incident?

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

Mr Agnew: I welcome the debate and the Committee's focus on wind energy. As a supporter of wind energy, I want community buy-in for good wind projects based on good consultation. I also want the implementation of many of the measures that are called for in the report to promote community benefit, engagement and, when possible, ownership.

Like Alban Maginness, I was at the launch today of a solar energy cooperative, which will be run very much for community benefit. I welcome the work of the Ulster Community Investment Trust (UCIT) and the Northern Ireland Community Energy (NICE) board on that project. I also declare an interest as a shareholder in Northern Ireland's first wind energy cooperative, Drumlin Wind Energy. Indeed, it was the first example in Northern Ireland of community ownership of energy, and I want people to avail themselves increasingly of such a model.

Despite claims from the Member opposite and from such sources as the 'Daily Mail' and the 'The Daily Telegraph', wind energy is the cheapest form not only of renewable energy but of all forms of energy production. That was borne out by the EU Commission study, which, having looked at all the costs, including subsidies and external costs such as to health and the environment, found that, to generate 1 MW of energy by onshore wind cost roughly €105, compared with €164 for gas and €233 for coal. It is easy to state that wind energy is expensive — it does have upfront costs — but the unit cost is zero, and the life cycle of wind energy generation is cheaper than for other forms of energy. Indeed, the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee has heard, on numerous occasions, that, when demand for electricity can be met by renewable energy generation alone, the marginal cost is significantly lower than when gas comes onto the system. The reality is that the price of wind is coming down, and, whilst gas prices have dipped, the overall trend is upward. When we consider the costs of 500 deaths a year related to air pollution and the impacts of climate change, it is clear that the cost of other sources of energy such as gas and coal is significantly greater.

Turning to the report, I think that I am right in saying that the Committee Chair expressed the support of the Committee for the proposal that wider economic, social and environmental impacts should not be taken into account when planning decisions are made on wind farms. I believe that this contradicts the Committee recommendation to take a strategic approach. Inevitably, these projects are regionally significant, and their wider impact must be taken into consideration, as for any major energy project. I do not believe that we would have Kilroot, Ballylumford or, going forward, the North/South interconnector if we looked solely at the local impact of an energy development. They are regionally significant, so we have to look more widely than the local impact.

I certainly welcome further research into and monitoring of the noise impacts, but we need to take an evidence-based approach. The World Health Organization has said about imperceptible noise that there is no reliable evidence that sounds below the hearing threshold produce physiological or psychological effects. We should continue to monitor it, but we have to make decisions based on the evidence available.

I find some of the opposition to wind projects hard —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Mr Agnew: — to understand. Those providing the objections support unregulated quarrying and gold-mining, but, when it comes to wind turbines, they seem to have an objection to the local impacts.

Mr McNarry: Critics of wind power, like me, believe that granting planning permission for wind turbines has become little more than a rubber-stamping exercise. In some areas, approvals have hit 100%. In County Fermanagh, the county where fracking was outlawed by anoraks in green hats, 106 of 108 applications were given the green light. In the Omagh council area, 88 of 92 were approved. Through my recent research, I found that not one local council had a policy on wind farms — that augurs well for the new powers given to the super-councils, does it not? Yet we see these ghastly monsters mushrooming and destroying the lives of people who live near them.

In the last three years, some £140 million has been paid out in subsidies to the renewables sector in Northern Ireland through the renewables obligation. These subsidies are profoundly regressive: they take money from poor consumers, including pensioners, to give to cash-rich cooperations. We are being asked to adopt a report that has strayed from legal disputes and potential judicial decisions, favouring the placement of turbines where they simply are not wanted. Owen McMullan, the spokesman of the Tyrone-based Windwatch group, puts it rather neatly:

"We were led to believe this would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but nobody in Northern Ireland is getting cheaper electricity."

That is true in all communities, just as it is in County Tyrone. Wind power has already exacted a heavy cost: it has caused divisions in rural communities and done nothing to decrease fuel bills. However, it has given rise to serious health concerns that require a moratorium until the true impacts on people's health are known.

This turbine lobby is yet another example of the arrogance and shortsightedness of those intolerant, self-important people who have few or no ideas except massive cost initiatives that are not about green jobs but green unemployment. UKIP has consistently exposed the failures and the money wasted by plying it into wind energy. Rather than adopting this report to satisfy the tree-huggers, we should get the super-councils to ratify an across-the-country policy of stopping wind power development. In doing so, perhaps the Assembly should urgently address the potential of an energy supply crisis when it next talks so boldly of rebalancing our economy.

The 'Sunday Telegraph', no later than February, dubbed the matter "The Great Wind Farm Farce". It said:

"In a free market, no business would want to invest in a wind farm because no customer would want to buy its unreliable produce."

Today, in our own local farce, we have a Committee recommending the sustainability of wind farms and, regrettably, offering little to give any real assurance to the people and communities directly affected by these monstrosities. The report recommends the sustainability of wind turbines, and, if it does not, the Committee should make it clear that that is its position.

If not, the recommendations are inadequate guidance for planning implications.

4.00 pm

I challenge anyone to deny that the recommendations are in favour of the sustainability of wind farms, and there ends the story. They are not recognising the rights of people, and they will, I believe, be subject to legal challenge. What of the 849 applications still out there awaiting decision? The recommendations do nothing to make a case to refuse them planning permission. Somehow, Members, I feel that the answer is still blowing in the wind. The Assembly should not be tilting at windmills.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Paul Frew. The Member will have three minutes.

Mr Frew: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue, which may even be more important than the debate around corporation tax and the tax-varying powers to decrease or increase the corporation tax rate. It is more important because electricity is the blood that runs through the veins of our industries. We cannot take this lightly, so I welcome the report but, alas, much like the three reports produced by the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, it picks only one part of a massive subject, which is the cost of electricity.

It is true that it is expensive to have wind power, but it is also true that we should have wind power. There is a place for wind power but not every place. I would like people to tell me what a saturation point looks like in a local area or a regional area, because I cannot see it and I do not know anyone who can tell me what it is. We need to get there because it is clear that wind power and wind generation will not solve all our ills. Rather than help, it will, in fact, hinder industry in this country.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

I will tell you why it will hinder industry in this country. Because of the system marginal price, we have to pay wind generators the same price as we pay for gas generators. That is the system marginal price. The more wind generators that go onto that system, the more we will have to pay. Not only that; we have to pay wind generators capacity payments for being there even though they are not always there and even though, sometimes, they cannot run. Sometimes, then, because of the state of our grid and because it cannot take their energy, we have to pay them constraint charges. That is the reason why we have to get this mix right. It is the reason why, at this moment, we are not getting it right, and that is why it is burdening industry and large employers.

If we do not get this right, we could lose thousands of jobs. That is why this debate is far more important than any debate on corporation tax. The House needs to take the issue of energy costs seriously, or it will be to the detriment of our people, our employees and their children. That is how important the issue is to our people.

Let us look at some of the issues that are at hand. I repeat: what is saturation point? When do we have enough? When do we have enough wind turbines, and when do we produce enough energy through wind? It is not about security of supply, because, if we had the North/South interconnector, we would have enough generation on the island of Ireland to cover security of supply. It is not about creating energy, so what is it about?

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to bring his remarks to an end.

Mr Frew: Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of the Environment, Mr Mark Durkan.

Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Speaker, under Standing Order 17(4). Will you inform the House what consultation you had with the Business Committee in order to establish the total time to be allocated to the debate? Having written to you and having much to contribute to the debate, I am extremely disappointed that I am the only Member not to be allowed to speak.

Mr Speaker: I can understand the Member's frustration, but the Business Committee agreed the timings, as it does for all the business that comes to plenary session. They have the authority to do that, and their decision is reflected in the scope for Speakers to accommodate all those who wish to contribute. I have made a particular virtue of attempting to bring in members of the smaller parties and the independents as much as is possible and practical. However, in setting the time limits for a debate, there is a very clear calculation, by which by 4.02 pm we should have already called the Minister to make his contribution. I can only say that I share and understand the Member's disappointment, but the Business Committee's decision is the guidance that we all apply in the circumstances. I now return to the Minister.

Mr B McCrea: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Under Standing Order 17(5), if I may —

Mr Speaker: I think that I have given you a fairly comprehensive explanation. What I suggest, so that we do not end up in a challenge, is that I have to conduct the business of the meeting as determined by the Business Committee. Everyone should have a clear understanding that that in fact is how the Assembly has decided to go about its business. I will reflect on the point that you made and will come back to you if you wish to have a formal response. I have given you my understanding of it, and I will come back to you. I owe you that much. I am sorry that you did not get called to speak, but I think that you would also be the first to acknowledge that we try to involve smaller parties, independents and individuals as well as the bigger parties as much as is practical. Can I now proceed with the debate? I will come back to you. Mark Durkan.

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have been allocated 15 minutes; I would happily give Basil five or 15.

I begin by thanking Anna Lo, Chairperson of the Environment Committee, for proposing the motion. I also acknowledge the work of the Committee, its research team and all those who provided evidence during the wind energy inquiry. This very useful report is evidently the product of an extensive and thorough inquiry process that is to be commended. I am also grateful to Members for their contributions today.

I welcome the Committee’s report and, although I have only recently seen it, I am content to consider further and address the Committee’s recommendations that fall within my Department’s remit, subject to normal due processes. I will return to those recommendations later, but I first wish to say a little about renewable energy development in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has significant renewable energy resources and a vibrant renewable energy industry that makes an important contribution to achieving sustainable development and is a valuable provider of jobs and investment across the region. Making appropriate use of renewable energy sources is supported by wider government policy, including the regional development strategy 2035.

I turn to an issue raised earlier by Mr Wilson. DETI’s strategic energy framework for Northern Ireland sets a target of 40% energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020, which is equivalent to 1,600 megawatts of energy. To date, DOE has consented in excess of 1,100 megawatts from wind farms alone. With five years to go and if all consented proposals are developed, that represents a significant contribution to the 40% target, which would be further supplemented by other forms of renewable energy development.

Northern Ireland produces in the region of 19·6% of energy requirements from renewable sources, the majority from wind energy. Existing planning policy for that form of development is set out in Planning Policy Statement 18 on renewable energy — PPS 18 — which is supported by its supplementary best practice guidance. Following the publication of PPS 18 in August 2009, my Department experienced a significant increase in planning applications for wind energy. For the period 2002-03 until the end of 2014, 89% of planning applications for wind energy development were approved.

I am aware of the strong and contrasting views — we heard some of them today — on renewable energy development. Indeed, they have been reflected here today and through the responses received following the public consultation on the draft SPPS. I recognise, going forward, that it is important that the right balance is struck between facilitating development in appropriate locations to meet renewable energy targets and protecting the exceptional quality of our natural environment. These are matters and issues that I am addressing in finalising the SPPS.

As Members will be aware, the SPPS is a radical new approach to preparing regional planning policy. It will result in a shorter, simpler and more strategic policy framework for all users of the planning system. I will shortly bring the final SPPS before the Executive in time for the transfer of planning powers to councils next month.

Returning to the wind energy report, I would like to address some of its recommendations and some of the comments made today. The recommendations set out in the report are wide-ranging and complex, and several will require further examination. However, where appropriate, I have been able to address some of the recommendations in the final SPPS. For example, the Chair of the Committee, Ms Lo, referred to the importance of properly defining how economic considerations are dealt with in determining planning applications. I deal with that in the final SPPS by setting out further detail on how economic considerations can and should be taken into account.

Ms Lo and Mr Boylan also raised the importance of effective community engagement, which also features in the report. I agree wholeheartedly, and it is an essential part of the new reformed planning system. The final SPPS will also advise on those issues, including pre-application community consultation and the minimum requirements to be placed on a prospective applicant in relation to consultation with the community for major and regionally significant applications.

Another issue that was raised is the importance of safeguarding our sensitive landscapes. I will ensure that the final SPPS brings forward a cautious approach to renewable energy developments in designated landscapes.

Other report recommendations can be taken forward through forthcoming renewable energy guidance that I intend to have in place in time for the transfer of planning powers to councils. For example, the guidance will help to address recommendations on community engagement, the liaison between my Department and councils on wind energy development, information to be submitted with renewable energy applications, assessing cumulative impact and the use of appropriate conditions when considering such developments.

As I recognised earlier, there is more work to be done. Further recommendations are likely to require additional research, policy development and public consultation. For example, several Members emphasised the need to review separation distances between wind farms or turbines and occupied properties, both from an amenity and a safety perspective. I agree that that needs further urgent consideration. I, too, was shocked and concerned about the recent collapse of the wind turbine in County Tyrone. I will ensure that any implications for my Department's renewable energy policy are fully addressed.

The Chair of the Committee, along with Lord Morrow and others, raised concerns that are also addressed in the Committee's report about the use of the ETSU-R-97 guidance. While I recognise that ETSU is currently the established UK-wide standard, having read the report and listened to the views expressed today, I am minded to investigate further the use of ETSU in Northern Ireland. I do not think I would go so far as to describe it as idiotic, as Mr Frew did, but it certainly warrants further investigation.

There are, however, recommendations that fall outside the responsibility of my Department and may require consideration by other Departments and bodies. For example, there are recommendations in relation to community benefits, which is an important issue that was highlighted by Lord Morrow. Lord Morrow also raised the issue of the potential for property values to drop as a result of nearby wind energy development. The Committee report recommends that the developer gives consideration to providing compensation where there is clear and compelling evidence of that. While this is outwith the remit of my Department, I support that recommendation.

4.15 pm

There were some other interesting points raised by Members throughout the debate. Ms Lo referred to the transfer to councils of planning and responsibility for the vast majority of wind energy applications. We will all be interested to see how councils deal with the metamorphosis that they are undergoing from poacher to gamekeeper and how that might influence some of the very vociferously expressed views that they have had on wind energy to date.

There is more to be done on the economic considerations. I have touched on that and vowed to bring forward more detail on it. A point was also raised about the inadequacies of the current planning policy. Like beauty, inadequacy is in the eye of the beholder. If policy and systems do not give you the outcome that you want, they will be viewed as inadequate.

Mr Wilson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Durkan: Yes, I will give way.

Mr Wilson: When the Minister is bringing forward recommendations on the economic implications, will he include in those the negative economic impact that wind turbines can have on not only individual households and property values but the cost of electricity in Northern Ireland and the fact that the more of these that go up, the greater the costs to consumers because of the subsidies that have to be paid for them?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his intervention. Anything that I bring forward will be balanced. However, I am not sure that it will reflect the concerns that the Member has expressed there. It will consider them, but it will be balanced, and I am not sure what side it will come down on.

I have acknowledged and do acknowledge that improvements can and should be made to PPS 18. While we have placed a lot of stock in the SPPS, it is more of a vehicle to consolidate existing policy. I have used the opportunity to improve policy in some regards. However, I can give a commitment to the House