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Official Report: Monday 13 April 2015


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

Assembly Business

Resignation: Mr Devenney

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to today's business, I advise the House that Mr Maurice Devenney resigned as a Member of the Assembly on 25 March 2015. I have notified the Chief Electoral Officer, in accordance with section 35 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Mr Speaker: I advise the House that I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Gary Middleton has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the Foyle constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from Mr Devenney's resignation. Mr Middleton signed the Roll of Membership this morning in my presence and that of the Clerk to the Assembly and entered his designation. Mr Middleton has now taken his seat, and I welcome him to the Assembly and wish him every success in the future.

On behalf of the Assembly, I thank Mr Devenney and his family and wish them well for the future.

Mrs Cochrane: I beg to move

That, as set out in section 2(4) of the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000, this Assembly approves the revised scheme NIA 241/11-16 laid before the Assembly on 20 March 2015 for payments to political parties for the purpose of assisting Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who are connected with such parties to perform their Assembly duties.

I moved the motion on behalf of the Assembly Commission. Members will be aware that the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000 provides for payments to political parties for the purpose of assisting Members to perform their duties. It does not provide payments to individual Members.

It is proposed that the revised financial assistance to political parties scheme — known as the FAPP scheme — will reduce payments to the parties by 3%, as part of a package of measures to meet the overall reduction in the Assembly Commission's budget for 2015-16. The Assembly Commission undertook a full review of the FAPP scheme in 2012, following recommendations highlighted by our internal audit service and raised by the Northern Ireland Audit Office. A revised scheme that provided for a range of enhanced governance and administrative controls was agreed by the Assembly in March 2013. No substantive change to the amounts payable under the scheme was made at that time and indeed the last uprating of amounts payable was in 2008.

Changes agreed during that process included that parties that employed and funded staff from the assistance provided through the FAPP scheme must use the Assembly's payroll processes in the administration of those payments. It is also now a condition that all payments will be made only on receipt of supporting documentation in the same way as office cost expenditure payments are made, and that all claims are published in line with publication of Members' expenditure. Furthermore, an independent audit of FAPP expenditure and claims is undertaken at the end of each financial year.

The Assembly Commission's budget for 2015-16 has been reduced by 5%, which amounts to 8% of the costs directly controllable by the Commission. To deal with that budget and anticipated cuts, the Commission initiated a strategic and financial planning programme known as SP15+ — strategic planning 2015 and beyond — to prioritise the allocation of resources and to identify any budget reductions. At its meeting on 18 March 2015, the Assembly Commission agreed measures to achieve a balanced budget for 2015-16, including reducing FAPP by 3%.

There were different views amongst Commission members as to what reduction should be proposed. A range of issues was raised, including that a cut in FAPP would most probably lead to redundancies amongst support staff, who are already lower paid and have less favourable terms of employment than staff employed directly by the Assembly Commission. Those staff would also be unable to avail themselves of the generous voluntary exit scheme in place for other public-sector employees.

The majority agreement of the Commission, therefore, was to propose a 3% cut. However, to work towards balancing the Commission's budget, I did propose, and other members agreed, a separate reduction in the childcare scheme, which would have placed the burden of cuts directly on Members themselves. In its wisdom, the independent financial review panel vetoed that option, and did so with no consultation whatsoever with the Members who would be affected by the proposal. Instead, it proposed an equivalent cut, which will directly impact on constituency services rather than on Members.

The revised amounts payable under the FAPP scheme as proposed today will assist in meeting the budget reductions required by the Assembly Commission and ensure that the impact of the wider public-sector expenditure climate is seen to be shared by all parts of the public sector.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Speaker. We are debating the proposals to cut assistance to FAPP. I am a member of the Assembly Commission, but I am speaking as a party member because I had difficulties with the proposal.

It did not go far enough, given the challenges that we face. My proposal was that all parties should take a 10% reduction to the financial assistance that they receive rather than a mere 3%. That would have meant less of a reduction in other services and, with a range of other measures, would have helped to protect jobs in the Assembly.

I found it disappointing and shortsighted that, when faced with a difficult decision, all other parties voted to protect funding to themselves, some with a 3% reduction and others with a 0% reduction. It is up to those parties to explain to people losing their jobs in the Assembly why they made the choice that they did.

Sinn Féin will support the motion to reduce funding to political parties, but we do not believe that it goes far enough. Our proposal would have been for a 10% cut.

Mr Ramsey: I support the mover of the motion, Judith Cochrane, as a member of the Assembly Commission.

Financial assistance for political parties must be regulated, transparent and open to scrutiny, and this Assembly should facilitate that, offering an accurate picture of party activities. Strict conditions for the provision of public funding to parties must be in place. The sources and spending of political parties' funds should be clear and accessible to the media and the general public.

It is important to say that the Assembly Commission had a strategy day. We spent almost half a day looking at very emotive, very sensitive and very delicate issues. Ms Caitríona Ruane did not attend that, and she may have had good reasons for not doing so. Because of the extensive discussion we had, there was, as Judith Cochrane said, a balanced budget brought forward. It is unfortunate that the independent panel did not accept guidance, through a letter from the Speaker, on the proposal we brought forward for the reduction in the childcare allowance to Assembly staff, and, simultaneously, we wanted to reduce the childcare allowance to Assembly Members. Sadly, that was resisted, and the panel did not think it was relevant to do that, although that was clearly what we wanted. It is unfair now: there is no equality in this House as a result of a decision — an exceptional determination — by the independent panel, which refused the guidance from the Assembly Commission but yet and all brought forward another determination about the consumables, which, as the mover of the motion, Judith Cochrane, rightly said, will have a detrimental effect on the constituency services to all MLAs.

It is not a huge amount of money. It was initially £1,000. The Assembly Commission, in trying to get a proper balance, decided and agreed on a 25% reduction, only to find that the panel had decided to remove it entirely. That was wrong. There is no accountability. While the creation of the panel brings independence, there is no accountability with it. It increased the level of salaries to MLAs and simultaneously reduced the office allowance costs by the same amount over three years. It was never part of the panel's mandate to make cuts or savings, and it is wrong on this occasion. The SDLP will be seeking an urgent meeting with the panel to discuss that.

At the second meeting, when we were discussing the budget that had been agreed consensually at the first meeting, Caitríona Ruane did raise the issue of a 10% cut. A 10% cut in financial assistance, including to the Whips' allowance, which helps to service and manage the party teams, would have forced parties to make cutbacks in human resources. There would be no other way to do it. We looked at all the areas of funding that the Assembly Commission has, and the main one is human resources. We looked at catering, cleaning and security. We have seen a significant reduction in the amount of money that we are paying to the Northern Ireland policing service for the security that is necessary to protect Members and people who are using the Building.

The Assembly Commission, on behalf of the parties that sit on it, has taken the right decision to have direct impact on Members through the childcare allowance — a proposal that has been blatantly ignored by the independent panel — and a 3% cut to the financial assistance to parties and the Whips' allowance, which is fair and reasonable. Those were tough decisions and the meeting of the full Assembly Commission — apart from Caitríona, who could not make it — was tough. We spent upwards of four hours going through the elements of the budget to make sure that we got the round and balanced outcome we have. I support the motion.

Mr Gardiner: Like two of my colleagues who have already spoken, I am fully in support of this. It has been gone through in detail. It is just a pity that the Member who is opposing the motion before us was not in attendance that day. I fully support the motion before the House and support my two colleagues who have already spoken in favour of it.


12.15 pm

Mr Allister: I do not quibble at all about the fact that there is to be a reduction of 3%. I do, however, quibble over whether there has been sufficient focus in some elements of the package to adequately reduce the largesse that is bestowed upon parties in this House.

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

I refer in particular to the Whips' allowance, which enriches parties very significantly with public funds. As one understands it, a party with more than 20 Members starts off with £32,000, and then, for every MLA who is not a Minister, it gets a further £530. That means that, into the Whip's office of the largest party, the DUP, something of the order of £48,960 per year is poured, and into Sinn Féin's Whip's office, something of the order of £44,720 is poured. I assume that that money does not go to the Whips but to staff. The Whips normally have the advantage of holding some other paid sinecure in the House, such as being a member of the Assembly Commission, which has always struck me as not perhaps the most overworked of bodies, but handsomely paid nonetheless. It is noticeable that Whips tend to populate the Assembly Commission —

Mrs Cochrane: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: Apart, perhaps, from the Member who is about to intervene.

Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Member for giving way. He might want to note that my party's Whip does not hold our place on the Assembly Commission. He might also want to note that members of the Assembly Commission are the only Members whose salary has not increased since 2011. All other Members' salaries have increased. The take-home pay of those who sit on the Assembly Commission has not increased by a single penny since 2011.

Mr Allister: Maybe that is a reflection of the fact that there was a recognition that the £10,000 or £12,000 — I cannot remember which it is — was perhaps rather generous to begin with.

I was making the point that £49,000 and £44,000 goes to the DUP and Sinn Féin to run Whips' offices. Where does it go? We hear that there is transparency and that it is published. I find no publication of it, unless I am missing it, on the Assembly website. Where is the £49,000 that is paid to run the Whip's office of the DUP or the £44,000 or £45,000 that is paid to run the Whip's office of Sinn Féin? Where does that money go? Does it really go into the coffers of the parties? That is one's suspicion but I am more than willing to take an intervention and be told exactly how that money is spent. I do not see anyone rising to indicate that.

Mr Ramsey: I thank the Member for allowing me the intervention. The Whips' allowance that is given to the SDLP is used for the purposes of managing the team that we have in Stormont. That is what the Whips' allowance is for. In any House in these islands, it is a necessary level of money when you have teams of upwards of 30 or 20, or, in our case, 14, Members. You need specific staff delegated specifically to help the Whips to manage business in the House.

Ms Ruane: Will the Member take an intervention?

Mr Allister: Let me deal with that point. I do not know how hard the 14 SDLP Members are to manage —

Mr Ramsey: Very hard. [Laughter.]

Mr Allister: The SDLP, for that burden, gets £31,420 into its Whip's office. Is that spent on salaries in the Whip's office or is there a surplus of money in that party and others that finds its way into party coffers? That is the question about this public money.

Of course, that comes on top of the quite generous allocations to parties under the rest of the scheme. The DUP, for example, gets £153,500 in party money.

Sinn Féin gets £127,900 party money. In the case of the DUP, there is an income, under the scheme, of £202,000-plus. In the case of Sinn Féin, there is an income to the party, under the scheme, of £172,000. That is the Whips' money and the party money. I think that the public are entitled to know how, where and why that money is spent, or is this just a mechanism to enrich the political parties, particularly through the Whips' office allowances, which seem to be rather generous, not least when you remember that, under the ordinary party funding, for every MLA who is not a Minister, the party gets £3,200? For every MLA who is not a Minister, a Whip's office gets another £530 —

Ms Ruane: Will the Member take an intervention?

Mr Allister: — so why is there this duplication —

Ms Ruane: Will the Member take an intervention?

Mr Allister: — of top-up for additional MLAs? If you get it on the party funding of £3,200, why do you need an extra £530 on the Whips' allowance as well?

Ms Ruane: I thank the Member for allowing me this intervention, and I hope that he will join me in supporting a 10% cut, which Sinn Féin proposed, rather than 3%. Will he make history today and join with Sinn Féin in supporting something? I also put on the record that Sinn Féin Members take an average industrial wage, and we do not get any of the top-ups. That goes in to —

Mr Campbell: Your pension.

Ms Ruane: No, it certainly does not.

Mr Campbell: At the full rate.

Ms Ruane: It certainly does not.

Mr Campbell: At the full rate.

Ms Ruane: The Member opposite who is intervening takes his full wage.

Mr Campbell: At the full rate.

Ms Ruane: Will the Member —

Mr Campbell: I do not take any wage.

Ms Ruane: Will the Member —

Ms Ruane: Will the Member take an average industrial wage?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. The Member will resume her seat. I am sorry but I have to appeal to the Member opposite not to be engaging in the debate from a sedentary position. Continue.

Mr Campbell: I do not take any wage.

Ms Ruane: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Sorry. Mr Campbell, can you repeat what you have just said?

Mr Campbell: Mr Deputy Speaker, I was indicating that I do not take any wage. That is an accurate account rather than the inaccurate account made by Caitríona Ruane.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): You are challenging the Chair.

Mr Campbell: No, I am not indeed. I am not.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I have asked you not to make comments from a sedentary position.

Ms Ruane: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will repeat the question. Is the Member willing to take an average industrial wage rather than the full wage that he currently takes?

Mr Allister: Of course, the Member rather foolishly highlights a point that makes the case that, in fact, if that is the practice of Sinn Féin, the surplus above the average industrial wage, which this is funding, must inevitably and directly be going to enrich Sinn Féin as a party. That is not the purpose of public funding of political parties. It is not so that the money can be siphoned off into the coffers of that particular political party. If Sinn Féin Members genuinely take an industrial wage — who knows? — it begs the question: where is the surplus money going?

Mr Campbell: Pension.

Mr Allister: Patently, it is going to enrich Sinn Féin as a party. As for the Member's bogus point about being exercised that the cut is not enough, I think that the very fact that she did not turn up, apparently, at the relevant meeting even to make that case is sufficiently suggestive of just how bogus a stance Sinn Féin takes on this matter.

I do say to the House that all of this — every last penny — is public money. Therefore, there should and must be transparency on where it is spent. I ask the question again: where does Sinn Féin spend its £44,000 or £45,000 Whip's office money? Where does the DUP spend its £49,000 Whip's office money? Are those parties paying a member of staff that much? I very much doubt it. So where does that surplus money go?

Ms Ruane: Would the Member take an intervention and I will answer his question?

Mr Campbell: It is not for mint imperials.

Ms Ruane: Sinn Féin takes an average —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Sorry, I have to ask the Member to be seated again. Mr Campbell, you have been warned. I hope that it will not be necessary to take further action for your behaviour in making remarks from a sedentary position.

Mr Campbell: I am sitting down.

Ms Ruane: I thank the Member for permitting me to make an intervention. First, it is incorrect to say that I was not at the meeting where the decision was taken: I was. I made the proposal that there would be a 10% cut, so there is nothing bogus about it. The previous meeting was a seminar where decisions were not taken. In relation to your point about where the money goes, all Sinn Féin MLAs take an industrial wage, including all our Ministers, because we believe that public money should be used well. You asked where the remainder of the money is used. It is used to provide services to our constituents.

Mr Allister: The purpose of this money, according to the scheme, as annunciated by Ms Cochrane, is not to enrich political parties in the manner and means by which Sinn Féin admits that it does it. It is abusing the system if it takes this surplus money to enrich its party. Yes, it says that it is to service its constituents. However, this money goes directly into the coffers of Sinn Féin to be used, no doubt, to fight elections and to do all sorts of things quite foreign to the purpose and intent of the scheme.

Sinn Féin stands condemned out of its own mouth as to its abuse and misuse of this money, if in fact it is doing as it says and channelling it into party funds. I do not believe that that is what the public would want to sanction for public money. If there is a case for supporting political parties in their functions in the House, and a purpose in supporting them, to a degree, as Whips in the House, that is one thing. To use and abuse that money for other purposes is quite something else. However, that is not at all surprising, given the lack of moral standing of that political party.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Mr Peter Weir to conclude and wind on the debate.

Mr Weir: I thank Members for their contributions in what has been, perhaps, a livelier debate than some of us may have anticipated. I am grateful that, whatever the divergence between Members, there at least seems to be a level of consensus that it is a necessary part of the overall package.

As Members indicated, there was a range of views within this, and there were those who would advocate no change and those who would advocate a 10% change. What we are left with, as part of an overall package for the Assembly, is a 3% cut.

It should be remembered that the FAPP scheme has effectively had amounts frozen since 2010, which means, from a practical point of view, that the money largely goes to pay for salaries. Unlike others where there may be, for the public service, some level of increment each year, it will mean that members of staff are left more or less on the same wage for a number of years. That is the implication from an adverse-impact point of view.

We have a situation where some of the staff who are paid under the FAPP scheme do not have the same rights and entitlements as some other staff in the Assembly or, indeed, as MLAs. What we have here is a contribution to the overall financial situation. It was one, as was indicated, that seemed to have been well discussed and well thought through and, indeed, was evidence-based. I would highlight that concerns have been raised, by the proposer and by Mr Ramsey, in relation to determination and non-determination of the independent panel where, on the one hand — apparently without a great deal of research — it rejected a potential saving, and on other occasions seems, somewhat perversely, to have put in place something that will penalise those who do the most in relation to correspondence and that sort of thing. This is, at least, sensibly based.


12.30 pm

I turn to a couple of the issues. A case was made for a 10% cut. Obviously, the burden of any difference will have to be borne largely by parties. It is, I think, fair to say that, for some parties, a 3% cut may be reasonably challenging. Others could very easily afford a 10% cut, but then we are not all in the position in this Chamber of being one of the richest parties in western Europe. Indeed, a few additional plates in New York may be enough to pay for a 10% cut. That option is not necessarily available for all of us.

Mention has been made of the FAPP scheme by the Member for North Antrim Mr Allister. Any money claimed under the FAPP scheme has to be used for party purposes in relation to the Assembly. Everything is receipted and directly accounted for. Indeed, there is an independent audit, which I understand is taking place at the moment. So, this is not a question of people being able to siphon off money for any political party.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I will give way briefly.

Mr Allister: He says that it is audited and has to be handled in that way. Is how the money is actually spent published anywhere, above and beyond how much each party gets?

Mr Weir: As I said, it is receipted and audited. I am not aware of the detail of the breakdown, because some of that may come under individual salaries. What is clear is the amount each party receives. He indicated that, for instance, my party receives about £200,000 via the two different elements. That will be reduced as a result of this today by 3%, a loss of about £6,000. We have, from the Whip's point of view, 38 Members to manage. The Whip's office for the TUV manages one Member, who, I appreciate, may at times be a little unmanageable, but does not require a member of staff to do that. Speaking with a DUP hat on, the financing of political parties equates to about £5,000 per Member. I note, for example, that the TUV will receive £25,600 per Member. "Physician, heal thyself", before challenging or criticising someone else from the high moral ground.

What we have, Mr Deputy Speaker, is a reasonable approach in the circumstances. We are living under a straitened financial burden, which means the Assembly has had to cut £2 million. We were able to, at least by way of majority position and, I think, on all issues eventually, reach a situation that enables us to live within budget, despite the challenges. We should remember that, if there are any redundancies arising out of the FAPP scheme, there is not the opportunity for voluntary exit, or, indeed, any form of package for anyone. That needs to be borne in mind. But it is right that the political parties also bear a share of that overall burden. Consequently, I believe that the 3% cut was seen as a reasonable approach by the majority of Commission members.

In conclusion, Mr Deputy Speaker, I commend the motion to the Assembly as an important element in assisting the Commission to live within its reduced budget.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That, as set out in section 2(4) of the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000, this Assembly approves the revised scheme NIA 241/11-16 laid before the Assembly on 20 March 2015 for payments to political parties for the purpose of assisting Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who are connected with such parties to perform their Assembly duties.

Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

That this Assembly notes the report of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on Assembly Committees' Priorities for European Scrutiny in 2015 [NIA 225/11-16].

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is nice to see Europe packing them in the Chamber again for what is our annual opportunity to debate the European priorities that have been selected by Assembly Statutory Committees for the year ahead and also to reflect on the work done on their respective priorities during 2014.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister leads on European affairs, but those affairs impact on all Departments, so Statutory Committees have responsibility for scrutinising matters that fall within their own remit. My Committee's report gives an indication of the breadth and depth of work being undertaken by our Committees on European affairs that affect people in Northern Ireland.

Members will be aware that last year witnessed changes to the landscape of the European Union, with elections to the European Parliament in May 2014 and the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as the twelfth European Commission president. The Commission's work programme is normally updated every autumn, but the new Commission took office only on 1 November, and the work programme for 2015 was not adopted until mid-December 2014. It is significantly shorter than in previous years, containing only 23 legislative and non-legislative policy initiatives. It also includes 80 proposals for withdrawal or modification and 79 actions for review under the regulatory fitness and performance (REFIT) programme.

In setting their priorities, Committees consider issues of relevance to them in the Commission's work programme. That enables them to identify policy and legislation planned by the European institutions for the year ahead that will have particular relevance for people here. The work programme provides Committees with a look-ahead to see issues on which they can scrutinise and support their Department. I am sure that all Members will agree that it is vital that our Ministers and Departments work hard to ensure that Northern Ireland's voice is heard loud and clear in any UK negotiations in Europe with other member states, especially as the UK Government are engaged in their review of competences to assess the total impact of the European Union on our citizens.

Before turning to the priorities identified by the OFMDFM Committee, I take the opportunity to thank the Assembly's Research and Information Service for the excellent work that it does in supporting Committees in selecting the key priorities from the Commission’s work programme.

The OFMDFM Committee has agreed four main priorities for European scrutiny in the coming year. The first two — the labour mobility package and the European agenda on migration — are closely linked. They aim to encourage and facilitate movement throughout the EU of EU citizens and those from other countries for the purposes of employment. Those initiatives, along with the EU policy of expansion, could result in greater inward migration to Northern Ireland. While immigration itself is not a devolved matter, the integration of migrant workers is a component of our social cohesion policy. The Committee will maintain a watching brief on developments regarding those initiatives at an EU level.

Closer to home, the Committee aims to complete its inquiry into Together: Building a United Community by the end of this session, the purpose of which is to help to inform the Executive's approach to tackling sectarianism, racism and other forms of intolerance. The Committee has also recently received briefings on the draft racial equality strategy from key stakeholders and relevant departmental officials, and we will continue to monitor developments in that area.

The third priority is legislation on the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). That is a continuation from the 2014 work programme, and it is a complex issue. Indeed, the Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that the draft accession agreement is incompatible with EU treaties. As the proposal develops, the Committee will seek a view from OFMDFM on what the EU accession to the ECHR will mean for Northern Ireland, including any potential requirement for further legislation in Northern Ireland to ensure compliance.

The fourth Committee priority is to continue scrutinising European legislative proposals to assess compliance with the principle of subsidiarity, which is the principle that the EU shall not take action unless it is more effective than action that could be taken at a national, regional or local level.

During 2015, the Committee will also undertake other work with a European focus. We will monitor progress to ensure full implementation of the 11 recommendations contained in our report on the inquiry into the Barroso task force. We will also continue to press for the Executive's European priorities for 2015-16, which had initially been promised by the end of February. Later in the year, we will review performance against the 2014-15 priorities.

I will continue to represent the Assembly on the EC/UK forum of chairpersons of the UK and devolved regional parliamentary Committees with responsibility for European affairs, and I look forward to inviting my parliamentary colleagues to the Northern Ireland Assembly later this year. In addition, the Committee will follow with interest the work of the European division of OFMDFM, including the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels.

I will now make some very brief comments on the work on EU matters that the Committee undertook during 2014. In the context of ongoing scrutiny of performance against the Programme for Government (PFG) commitments, the Committee monitored commitment 26, which is to increase uptake of competitive European funding by 20% through to 2015. That target was exceeded early in the Programme for Government period, and while that is a positive outcome, of course, it is disappointing that there has been no recalibration to reflect that success. As each Department has a responsibility for that PFG target, I encourage all Committees to closely monitor their respective Department's performance on the matter. Simply put, it appears that 20% was not an ambitious figure.

The Committee completed its short inquiry into the Barroso task force and made 11 recommendations, which were all accepted by OFMDFM. As I said, we will continue to monitor to ensure full implementation of those recommendations.

With regard to tackling the gender pay gap, the Committee received a briefing from departmental officials on the review of the gender equality strategy in February 2014 after approval for the development of a new strategy was received from Ministers. However, a consultation on a revised gender equality strategy, which was due towards the end of last year, has not yet materialised.

The Committee has maintained close engagement with the European Committees in the House of Commons and the House of Lords and with the devolved legislatures on subsidiarity concerns on specific packages. We engaged with the European Union Committee at the House of Lords on a proposal for a regulation on promoting the free movement of citizens and businesses by simplifying the acceptance of certain public documents. We conveyed specific concerns for Northern Ireland regarding the potential regulatory burden, and the House of Lords communicated those issues in its liaison with UK Government Ministers prior to EU-level negotiations. Those communications continue as that proposal develops.

Throughout the year, the Committee was pleased to host a number of visits, including from the enlarged presidency of the European Economic and Social Committee, the Italian ambassador to the UK as part of a programme of events to mark Italy’s presidency of the Council of the EU, and the Latvian ambassador to the Court of St James to discuss plans for Latvia’s presidency of the Council of the European Union. I also opened an NI Assembly Business Trust event on what Europe means for your business, which drew a large audience of MLAs and business people to discuss EU business.

I hope that I have given the House a flavour, albeit in brief, of the range of work that my Committee has undertaken on European matters in 2014 and the continued focus on issues within our remit for 2015.

As I said, Assembly Committees have an important scrutiny role, and I now look forward to the contributions of Members on the work of other Committees on European affairs. I will take this opportunity to thank all Statutory Committees once again for their input into the report, and finish by commending the motion and the report to the House.

Mrs Hale: I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the priorities for European scrutiny. President Juncker’s agenda in promoting jobs, growth and investment is to be welcomed, particularly given the emphasis that the Executive have placed on those areas in our Programme for Government. It is clear that, in scrutinising European priorities across Departments, we must examine how we are working to bring greater investment to Northern Ireland from Europe.

For too long, Departments have been working in a silo mentality. The consequence has been that some Departments have worked well and diligently, using Europe and the potential of competitive funding for the benefit of our economy, while others have had a very hands-off approach. That is why the report and the ongoing work of all the Committees in scrutinising European priorities are important.

We need to identify areas where our policy and the policy of the Commission intersect and build upon those synergies. For instance, our Delivering Social Change (DSC) agenda has a clear linkage to the social investment package. The Commission’s social investment package recommends that investment be made in children and young people and in eliminating poverty, but DSC has worked across Departments and they have worked together. If we are to make inroads to develop our European priorities, we must do the same.

A vast knowledge bank exists in Europe. We need to ensure that we are drawing down from that knowledge bank and also feeding into Europe our experiences here in Northern Ireland. That should be the priority for all our Departments.


12.45 pm

While we need to identify areas of cooperation between our Departments and the Commission, it should be noted that areas of divergence in approach also exist. The drive for greater monetary and economic union is not in our interests. In the agricultural and fisheries industries, we need to ensure that our farmers and fishermen respectively get the best deal. It is important that we hold DARD to account and ensure that it works with other Departments to safeguard these important industries.

Finally, we broadly welcome the report and hope that greater collaboration on European issues across the Executive will be established. I hope that we will see a positive engagement in Europe leading to a greater drawdown of funding beyond the inroads that we have already made.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I support the motion. As part of today's debate regarding the report of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the Assembly Committee's priorities for European scrutiny, it is important that we put a strong focus on the need to initiate a debate on the importance of continued European Union membership for the North of Ireland and the consequences for us should an incoming British Government lose a referendum on such membership. Let me clear from the outset that, while I believe that it is important for us to increase our level of engagement with the institutions of the European Union, such an engagement must be not only constructive but critical. There are a lot of policy and legislative issues that are relevant to here and have an impact.

As we are well aware, in many instances, British interests in relation to European Union membership are not those of the North of Ireland. While we need to ensure that the North's voice is heard, which we do through the Statutory Committees, it is most important that we engage in debate with all sectors of society across Ireland. Given the adverse effect that such an exit from the European Union would have on our developing an all-Ireland economy, such a debate must include all voices North and South, as social development North and South would be negatively impacted.

We are only too well aware that European funding, such as CAP for farmers, ESF, Peace and INTERREG, is vital in the context of jobs, growth and investment. Our priority, given the dire economic situation facing us all from the austerity agenda of the various conservative European Governments and, in turn, finding ourselves having to deal with year-on-year cuts to our block grant by David Cameron's cabinet of Tory millionaires, is to ensure that European Union funding is made as accessible and effective as possible. European funding must be directed to where it is most needed.

The European Commission's work programme for 2015 has given priority to a forward-looking climate change policy. We who are tasked with sustainable development here in the North also need to be forward-looking in this regard. Sustainable green energy must be pursued with vigour, and any attempts to introduce environmentally disastrous plans promoting fracking need to be resisted. Fracking's negative consequences for public health are certainly concentrating the minds of my constituents in Fermanagh at this time. I take this opportunity to thank my party colleague Martina Anderson for hosting a very important European conference debate on the issue at the Lough Erne Resort recently.

The issue of fundamental rights needs to be given greater priority given its relevance to our society as one that is emerging from conflict. While we need to be supportive of all efforts by the European Union to support human rights, we need to deliver a bill of rights for the North of Ireland, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, in the hope of ensuring adequate protections for everyone.

I wish to conclude by emphasising that the North of Ireland has benefited hugely from membership of the European Union over many years. We see those benefits daily both in the North and on a North/South basis right across the island. For us in the North of Ireland, in particular those who live and work in border counties North and South, any change in our membership of the EU would have drastic consequences. Such changes have the potential to stifle the progress and development of this region. Sinn Féin representatives on the OFMDFM Committee will be tightly scrutinising our Executive's efforts to maximise the benefits of European Union membership for all the people of the North.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis labhairt sa díospóireacht seo. I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate.

I will be speaking primarily on the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee's European priorities for 2015, but, initially, as a Member, I want to take a moment to look at what we in the North get from our membership of the European Union. Those who are sceptical about our membership of the European Union need look no further than the amount of funding that the North has got from it.

For those of us who are pro-Europe, the true European concepts of embracing diversity, respecting difference throughout the European Union and bringing people of different backgrounds together are the important and overriding principles. However, the net benefit to the North for the period 2007-2013 was in excess of £2·4 billion. Of that, we received almost £1·3 billion in single farm payments; £330 million through the Northern Ireland rural development fund; £18 million through the European fisheries fund; £180 million through Peace III; over £300 million through the European regional development fund element of the regional competitive and employment objective; £165 million through the European social fund element; and £77 million through INTERREG IV. That is the amount of investment that others have made in us.

I hear the Euroscepticism coming from England and the message that we should pull out of Europe and no longer embrace that concept of respect for difference that has kept Europe peaceful and has avoided the potential of two awful world wars happening on a third occasion. I thank God that people had the foresight to come together and work collaboratively for that aim. At present, there is a Eurosceptic wing in England that is intent on pulling us away from that concept. There are others who talk the talk but who are not prepared to walk the walk and vote against austerity and measures that will be of serious detriment to our community and our business sector. Borders would re-emerge and, indeed, there would be a border within our country, where some 60% of SMEs from the North do business with the rest of the island. That is what we face: Euroscepticism at its worst. The important thing is to be there to vote against that and to do what we can to represent our communities.

I will move on to the priorities of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. In February, the Committee agreed its 2015 European priorities, including the concept of setting up a European fund for strategic investments through the promotion of cooperation with national promotional banks and improving access to funding for SMEs. The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment plans to scrutinise and investigate how SMEs from Northern Ireland can avail themselves of a range of measures to improve access to finance.

The Committee has also decided on a strategic framework for the energy union and will focus on investigating energy supply security, which is a very important issue for our businesses; the integration of national energy markets; a reduction in European energy demand; the decarbonisation of the energy mix; and promoting research and innovation in the energy field. The Committee will continue to scrutinise the introduction of the integrated single energy market and the Department's renewable energy targets.

Another Committee priority for 2015 is the internal market strategy for goods and services. We want a renewed and integrated approach for the single market to deliver further integration and improve mutual recognition and standardisation in key industrial and services sectors where the economic potential is greatest. In doing that, the Committee will, again, keep a particular focus on SMEs.

The Committee will also conduct a comprehensive review of the EU's trade policy strategy and, in particular, its contribution to jobs, growth and investment. It will also review the outcome of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and how those will impact on the economic strategy of Northern Ireland businesses and inward investment.

The Committee will spend a lot of time on European priorities during the upcoming year. In that regard, we rely very heavily on the flow of specialist information from Europe, which could always be improved. Europe is a vast, wide policy area that has many implications for the North, but, in turn, Northern Ireland gets so much out of membership of the EU. The Northern Ireland economy has been underpinned by funding support from the EU.

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

Mr McGlone: That funding support accounts for 8·4% of our annual GDP. If we were to leave the EU, there would be severe social and economic implications.

Ms Lo: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate as Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment.

On 12 February, the Committee agreed its priorities from the European Commission work programme for 2015 following a briefing from the Assembly Research and Information Service. The Committee further refined its key priorities on 12 March.

The first priority that the Committee identified is the strategic framework for the energy union, which was also mentioned by Mr McGlone. Much of the focus of the framework falls under the remit of DETI, including energy supply security and integration of national energy markets. However, the framework also includes the revision of the EU emissions trading system as part of the legislative framework post 2020.

The Committee has a particular interest in the greenhouse gas emissions reductions target that is set out in the framework and the plan to introduce a new emission reduction target of at least 40% in 2030 compared with 1990. That will build on the 2011 greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan to achieve the 35% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2025. The Committee will continue to monitor progress closely in delivering those targets. The revision of the directive will also require the Department to update associated guidance documents. The Committee will keep a watching brief on the issue throughout 2015.

The Committee's second priority relates to the communication on the road to Paris regarding the multilateral response to climate change. A new international climate change agreement between UN countries is to be developed and adopted at the Paris climate conference at the end of 2015 and implemented from 2020.

The Committee will monitor the way in which the Department proposes to prepare for the implementation of an agreement that sets targets beyond the timescales of current Northern Ireland action plans and programmes. Those include a greenhouse gas emissions action plan up to 2025, which was produced by the Department in 2011. In 2014, an adaptation programme was also introduced for 2015-19, setting out actions that are needed to respond to the impacts of climate change.

The Committee's third priority relates to evaluations that were carried out under the REFIT programme. REFIT will carry out an evaluation of existing legislation, covering a number of areas, which include a reduction of CO2 emissions from light duty vehicles; fuel quality; drinking water; environmental noise; and the birds and habitats directives. The Committee will monitor the Department's input to those evaluations, particularly in relation to the current evaluation of the birds and habitats directives, and any possible legislative changes resulting from the programme.

In conclusion, as part of the Committee's scrutiny and consideration of these issues, it has already sought information from the Department on its key priorities.

It will maintain its watchful brief on these and other relevant EU activities throughout 2015 by seeking regular updates from the Minister and his officials. I support the motion.


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Mr D McIlveen: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. Admittedly, I came to the Committee a little bit later, before the report had already been started, so I came into it when it was already well under way. I welcome its publication and many of its findings. I do so as an open-minded Eurosceptic; I have no difficulty in being described in that way because I am entirely open-minded. I accept the entire premise as to why the European Union was set up in the first place: to ensure that Europe would never again find itself at war and, furthermore, encourage greater cooperation between all the states of Europe. I am entirely in favour of that principle and concept. However, this is my difficulty: in my view, the European Union was never set up to meddle with the justice system of an independent jurisdiction, its environmental policy, or how much fishing could be done in the waters around it. Until those issues are properly dealt with, broad acceptance of the utopia to which Mr McGlone refers is perhaps some way off. I hope that, in the coming days, there will be a renegotiation of how the powers of Europe impact on us in this part of the United Kingdom.

To touch on what Mr McGlone says, my interest is particularly around business, how it can do better from engaging with the European Union, and how it can get involved in some of the schemes that are going around at the minute. There is tremendous potential for businesses in Northern Ireland to benefit incredibly from such collaboration. We think of schemes such as Horizon 2020, for example, which brings together businesses from all parts of Europe. To go back to what I said in my opening remarks, such cooperation is what the European Union was founded for, and certainly we would like to see more of it.

One thing that came out of the sessions that we had, particularly with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, is that its representatives probably failed to convince some of us that everything that could be done is being done to help businesses in Northern Ireland. Many of our small and medium-sized enterprises just do not have the numbers, on their own, to pursue a lot of these high-yielding, high-profit schemes. Therefore, they rely entirely on introductions to other companies, perhaps in other parts of Europe, so that they can collaborate. The staff of our European office in particular are the ones with the contacts and expertise in this matter. Unless they help to bring companies together and help our home businesses to deal with the bureaucracy and red tape involved in getting access to funds, we will, unfortunately, always lag behind other parts of the United Kingdom.

Look at what the Executive office of Scotland is doing: it is exceptionally good at almost spoon-feeding businesses the information that they need. Let us face it: most directors of local companies are getting on with running their businesses; they do not have time to fill in forms and trawl through the endless tenders coming through the European system. So, I think that the Executive office needs to look at how it can be a little more innovative in dealing with local businesses and helping them to tap into this money.

Generally speaking, the drawdown of funds is something that Northern Ireland needs to do better, particularly in the coming days. Negotiations are going on at Executive level on how to deal with welfare reform. However, if we find ourselves in a position where more Sinn Féin cuts are put upon the Assembly as a result of failure to implement welfare reform, our reliance on Europe will be even greater, particularly for arts and cultural organisations, which will be hit tremendously hard by the budget cuts that will come as a result. Therefore, stronger, greater engagement with the European Union at that level will be even more important.

I hope that, in the coming days, as a result of this report, each Department within the Executive here in Northern Ireland will ensure that there are better and closer working relationships with the European Union and that every cent and euro that comes into Northern Ireland is used to benefit the people we represent.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I apologise to the Chairperson of the Committee for not being able to be in the Chamber when he made his opening remarks on the report. I thank him for having the report tabled this morning. I speak as a member of the Committee and as Chairperson of the Social Development Committee.

I welcome the work that the Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr Nesbitt, has undertaken with regard to the scrutiny of the European Union policies, priorities and so on. As I said, I thank the Chairperson for his management of the process.

Obviously, a lot of people, regardless of their views on Europe, fully understand that we are very much linked, not least economically, but in political ways. The Member who has just spoken indicated his views, but no matter what our views are, we understand that we have very, very clear and important links.

It is fair to say, on behalf of the Social Development Committee, that we have not focused entirely on the European issues that relate to our remit. That is primarily because our priorities have been lying elsewhere in recent times. However, the Committee is very aware that we have important work to do in terms of the broader community and voluntary sector, which the Committee has a very important relationship with and on which these European matters very much impinge, particularly where you have a reduction in the budget. So, the Committee has already agreed to take a briefing from the Department for Social Development before the summer recess so that we can recalibrate our priority programme for work in the time ahead.

Many people tend to think merely of how much money we can draw down from Europe for particular projects. That is very important in its own right, but I think more of us have to think more strategically. I will give a couple of examples. We have often talked about social housing, for example, as a current priority for all of us. The provision of social housing is a major issue for us all, and demand continues to considerably outstrip supply. Meeting that demand requires major investment. As a matter of fact, the Committee notes that the European Investment Bank (EIB) aims to invest £1 billion to tackle the lack of affordable housing in the UK. Indeed, in February, the EIB gave, I think, £350 million — essentially a 30-year loan — to one of Britain's biggest social housing landlords, the Sanctuary Group. Interestingly, in terms of scale, that group has around 96,000 properties. It will use the money and the 30-year loan to build new homes, refurbish existing homes and regenerate run-down areas — something that we are all very keen to see happening here in respect of the future for social housing provision in the North. The Committee will investigate with the Department and other stakeholders whether the EIB can play a role in assisting with our investment need to address social housing demands.

Similarly, the Committee is interested in exploring the opportunities provided by the European social fund (ESF) that will enable social enterprises, and the third sector in particular, to develop new services and markets for communities. In doing so, in terms of policy, we will look at the best practices at home and abroad to underpin the development of that sector which is very, very important for all of us, given the links that it has with the grass roots of hard-pressed communities in particular. So, clearly, the ESF has an important role.

We note, and place on record our disappointment at, the number of organisations that have lost very important amounts of money very recently. In some cases, those losses have led to the closure of key projects. Clearly, the Social Development Committee has indicated its intention to play a much more focused role in scrutinising European priorities and policies and to look at what we can do to work with the Department and those in the community and voluntary sector in particular to see if we can maximise the drawdown on a strategic basis to, first, underpin the community and voluntary sector, which is a very important element of our civic society's structures, and, secondly, and I suppose more importantly, to make sure that we are able to draw down those resources to tackle poverty by including social inclusion at the heart of all the work that we are involved in.

Again, I thank the Chairperson for tabling the report this morning. Hopefully, it will provide a lot of food for thought for all of us. I reiterate that the Social Development Committee has already agreed with the Department to have another look at the European priorities.

Mr Irwin: As Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak in today's debate. As a Committee, we undertake a considerable volume of scrutiny work on EU issues. Many of the agenda items that we consider at weekly Committee meetings, such as statutory rules, originated in the European Commission. Therefore, today's debate is of particular importance and interest to the Committee.

Aside from that, we are fully focused on a number of key areas; namely, the implementation of CAP pillar 1, including the single farm payment and the rural development programme (RDP) 2014-2020. Any policy reform has the potential to cause concern, and, as a result, the Committee undertook in-depth scrutiny of how CAP reform in pillars 1 and 2 will be revised and implemented. We also paid attention to the common fisheries policy (CFP).

CAP is a key EU policy area and accounts for a large proportion of the EU budget. It has gone through a major reform, and how the EU funding is allocated is of great concern to not just the Committee but our farming industry. CAP pillar 1 is worth approximately £270 million to £280 million a year. That is a significant sum of money, and we intend to oversee how it is distributed. That funding makes a huge difference to the farmer and the rural community. It helps build and sustain the industry, and the Committee does not want to see a detrimental impact on our agrifood industry as a result of a change in policy.

The Committee recently met the EU commissioner Mr Hogan, and we took the opportunity to discuss some of the issues of concern with CAP pillar 1; namely, the definition of "young farmer" and of "active farmer", direct payments and the mid-term review of CAP. We also raised the need to simplify the rules and regulations around CAP. We will be following closely the forthcoming approval of the Northern Ireland rural development programme 2014-2020. The programme is vital for improving competitiveness in the industry as well as for safeguarding and enhancing the rural environment. We want to see the EU Commission approval as soon as possible. At the meeting, Commissioner Hogan gave some indication that legal approval will be given in June or July 2015. He also said that the recent announcement on loans to farmers would mean the need to write a new programme into the RDP. We look forward to hearing from DARD on the potential of that and on the opportunities that will arise from the new financial instrument.

Volatility in the dairy, beef and pork industry is a recurring issue for the Committee at the moment. We received several briefings from the industry and heard about the current difficulties in that area owing to global market conditions. We have written to our MEPs, the European Commission, local banks and our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. That worrying issue was discussed with the EU commissioner, and he indicated that some measures will be put in place to ease the situation. The Committee wants to see proposals for a fairer and more sustainable market for our farming industry as a whole.

This year, the Committee will remain focused on CAP, CFP and the Northern Ireland RDP, as well as on issues identified in the European Commission work programme, such as beef-labelling rules and fishing authorisation regulation. We will continue to scrutinise all proposals from the Department and the EU, including the issue of red tape, to ensure that a positive outcome is reached for farmers, the agrifood industry and, indeed, the rural community.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Committee for bringing forward an important report at an important time, and I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate.

I find it a bit strange that, throughout the 188 pages of the Committee's report, there is very little, if any, focus on the potential withdrawal of this place from the European Union, because that should be our number one priority when it comes to how we engage with Europe going forward.

We have a situation in which the lead party in the British Government has committed to holding a referendum on the issue. It proposes a referendum on EU membership without any consideration of the potential impacts on this part of Ireland. In my view — it is one that is widely held across society here — exiting the European Union would have a considerably negative impact on our society and particularly on our economy.


1.15 pm

We have a different relationship with Europe from that of people in parts of England, but, unfortunately, their agenda is driving the discussion. We share an economy with the rest of Ireland, and this island has done very well through membership of the European Union. In the event of a referendum on EU membership, we want to see a provision included that, if the people in this part of Ireland vote against leaving Europe, that mandate should be respected and the people here should not be dragged out of Europe against our wishes. I know from being out and about meeting people from all backgrounds, business owners and employees that people do not want to see this place taken out of Europe. Most people see the positive impact that being part of the European Union has had on our economy, and they want to see that sustained in the future. Europe has a positive impact on our local economy in many ways. Both jobs Ministers on the island promote it as a gateway to Europe, particularly for American investors and those looking to come into Europe for the first time. Are we to believe that even the threat of a referendum on exiting Europe would not have a chilling effect on those potential investors?

The agriculture sector is heavily reliant on EU funding to help it exist, and groups involved in building peace across the North and along the border are heavily reliant on EU Peace funding. I certainly do not believe that any future British Government would simply replace those funds with money from the British Treasury in the event of a withdrawal from Europe. It is important that we quantify the extent of those funds. Between 2007 and 2013 the North drew down £2·4 billion in EU funding. That funding stream would be put at risk if we were to be pulled out of Europe.

Our economic output could be reduced by 3% or £1 billion a year, if we were to be taken out of Europe. Work carried out for the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment by Dr Leslie Budd put that figure on it. He went further and said that cross-border transaction costs could "rise significantly" and that those would "act as a disincentive" to economic cooperation on the island of Ireland. What we need to see on this island is closer economic cooperation, not the introduction of formalised border crossings and the erection of more barriers to trade.

The views of right-wing, xenophobic political parties in England should not be allowed to drive the agenda in the Westminster election, particularly on our future place in Europe. The voices of people here need to be heard. For me, there is a very clear choice for voters between the politicians who want to remain in Europe and those who are hitching their wagon to parties that want to drag us out of it. That is the choice that people have to make.

I find it completely unacceptable that the British Prime Minister and the leaders of both main unionist parties advocate a referendum on future EU membership but actively oppose a referendum on whether Ireland should be united. For me, that is a much more pressing referendum and one that needs to happen more urgently.

Mr Nesbitt: I appreciate the Member giving way. I am sorry to interrupt his party political broadcast and bring him back to the motion. You began by criticising the report for not emphasising the importance of membership of the European Union. Would the Member accept that the report is based on the Committee's priorities, which are drawn from the European work programme? The EU work programme does not have a commitment to forcing the UK out of the Union and therefore that is not relevant to this debate.

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

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Member for the extra time, but it was not somebody in Europe who wrote the report: it was 11 members of a Committee here. The most pressing priority in our future engagement with Europe is whether we are actually in it or not.

There are other issues that I want to focus on that are not included in the report at any great length because of the fluidity of things. The most annoying one for me is that we thought we had a commitment that roaming charges would be abolished. The Council of Europe has backed down.

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

Mr Flanagan: The lobby from the large multinational corporations that run mobile phone companies has been successful and has delayed the abolition of roaming charges, which is completely unacceptable.

Mr Swann: I am pleased to speak on the motion today on behalf of the Committee for Employment and Learning. As Chairperson of the Committee, I wish to comment on the Committee’s role in scrutinising the activities of the Department for Employment and Learning regarding European issues. The Committee is mindful of the important role that Europe has to play, especially in the sphere of employment and learning. The Committee has been very active in assessing the legislative impact of Europe, as well as the important funding and employment opportunities it offers.

At its meeting on 18 February, the Committee agreed its European priorities for 2015. The Committee continues to monitor the labour mobility package, which aims to support labour mobility and tackle issues by means of the better coordination of social security systems, the targeted review of the posting of workers directive and an enhanced EURES. This issue has been a Committee priority since 2014. We wrote to the Department requesting further information, and we received a briefing on 8 October 2014.

The Committee has requested to be kept up to date on the mid-term review of the 2020 strategy, the trade and investment strategy for jobs and growth and the recasting and merger of the three directives in the area of information and the consultation of workers. In 2014, the Committee showed a keen interest in job creation in the green economy and the possible job opportunities for Northern Ireland if the Department could ensure that the right skills were available in the local labour market. The Committee has requested that it be updated on all these issues.

As the Department has responsibility for the management of the European social fund (ESF) in Northern Ireland, the Committee has continued its scrutiny of the matter and has been briefed on numerous occasions by the Minister and departmental officials on issues arising from the ESF funding application process, which was brought to the Committee’s attention by the community and voluntary sector. The Committee has been made aware of a complaint lodged by the Commission regarding the Department's handling of the application process, and we will receive a further update on 15 March, when all the appeals processes in the ESF application funding process have been completed.

The Committee will consider any European Union memorandums identified by Assembly's Research and Information Service as relevant to the Committee and will consult the Department on what action it will take in relation to these. The Committee will continue with its European Commission scrutiny in 2015, which will include biannual briefings from the Department and the Assembly's Research and Information Service on EU issues. The Committee will also receive regular briefings on the European social fund 2014-2020 and Horizon 2020.

I support the motion on behalf of the Committee for Employment and Learning.

Mr Allister: This is a very un-EU report, because it dares to say in four pages what could be said in 400. It really does not shadow at all the European way of being as protracted in saying very little as you can be. It is a report, though, that, as has been suggested by another from a totally different perspective, avoids the elephant in the room. Particularly at this time of general election, the elephant in the room is whether or not the United Kingdom will come to the point of being able to liberate itself from the EU and whether all this moribund regulation and diktat from Brussels will ever be lifted from us.

Reading down this report, I see the 10 priorities of the Commission. You could have read those 10 priorities 15 years ago in the Lisbon agenda. That was what they were going to do then, and they are still doing it or promising to do it — and failing to do it. Of course, in the interim, we have had the catastrophic collapse of the euro and much of the European economy.

The unvarnished truth is that the EU as an institution is being passed by. It is now a declining economic power in the world situation, and it now has an ever-reducing percentage of the world's GDP. For us in the United Kingdom, it is therefore no surprise that, as a trading nation, our exports to the EU have been falling year-on-year as we build our exports to where the growth is, which is outside the EU to other parts of the world. We have now arrived at the situation where our trade deficit with the rest of the EU is £30 billion a day. Yet there are those who, indeed, used to eschew the very idea of the EU but who today are its cheerleaders. I refer to Sinn Féin. In the first European election that I fought, Bairbre de Brún was campaigning to take us back to having the punt reintroduced. Now people in that party are Euro-fanatics who are campaigning on even denying the right of the people of the United Kingdom to dare to have their democratic say on whether we should be within the EU.

Mr Maskey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Maskey: I thank the Member for taking us back somewhat to political policies. However, does he not agree that that is a wee bit rich, given that he was a representative for the DUP, interestingly enough, as a European member, but that he no longer represents that party? People can change their political viewpoint.

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

Mr Allister: Thank you.

When I represented the DUP in the European Parliament, it was unmistakably and unequivocally an anti-EU, Eurosceptic party. I do not think that one could say the same today. It is now more in the reformist mould of the Conservative Party in its attitude to the EU. It is equivocal on all those things, having gone somewhat native.

If we are an area and a nation that is dependent on trade for our economic success and growth, why would we want to be part of an institution that, as a term of membership, denies any individual member state the right to even make a trade agreement of its own with anyone? Under the EU, trade agreements can be made only by Brussels. So here we are, the United Kingdom, which is a prime trading nation across the world, and we have to go cap in hand to Brussels to see whether, in the legions of time that it takes it, it would ever consider a trade agreement with, say, the United States of America. How many decades have we been waiting for that? A trading nation needs to be liberated from the constraints of the EU and to be able to stand on its own feet, make its own decisions and spend its own money. There is all this talk about the largesse of Brussels, but never let it be forgotten that the money that we get back is some of our own. It is only some, because we are net contributors to the tune of £26 million a day. Over £1 million an hour is the financial cost of belonging to the EU —

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

Mr Allister: — never mind the cost of being hamstrung as a trading nation in the trading world.

Mr Lyttle: I welcome the debate on Assembly Committees' European priorities. I am pleased to be able to make a winding-up speech on behalf of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It is clear from Members' contributions that there are a wide range of European issues for our Committees to scrutinise in the year ahead. I thank the Chair of the OFMDFM Committee, Mike Nesbitt, for setting out our Committee priorities for scrutinising policy on labour mobility, migration, the European Convention on Human Rights and subsidiarity, and for highlighting the fact that our Committee will continue to scrutinise the drawdown of EU funding by the Executive and its delivery of our Barroso task force inquiry recommendations.


1.30 pm

I thank Brenda Hale for her comments and her advocacy that we need greater Northern Ireland Executive cooperation if we are to benefit fully from European Union funding and policy in some of the key areas that we have set as Programme for Government targets, in particular Delivering Social Change in our community, assisting our children and young people, tackling poverty and ensuring that our fishermen and farmers get the best deal possible.

I also thank Bronwyn McGahan, who stressed the importance of EU membership to Northern Ireland and encouraged the Executive to increase our engagement in EU matters to ensure that a Northern Irish voice is heard clearly in Europe. She also mentioned the need for EU funding to be accessed and how vital it is for jobs and growth, in particular for CAP, the European social fund, peace-building investment in Northern Ireland and INTERREG for our businesses. She also mentioned the European Commission emphasis on delivering sustainable development and tackling climate change and how important it is for our Executive to contribute to those goals.

Patsy McGlone MLA spoke in a private capacity and as Chair of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, challenging Eurosceptics to remember the importance that the European Union plays in promoting and celebrating diversity among and across our countries and stressing the significant net benefit of European membership to Northern Ireland, which was £2·4 billion between 2007 and 2013. He also stressed the priorities of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee for the year ahead to look at the European Investment Fund, banks, SMEs and energy supply security and, indeed, emphasised the work to be done on the integration of a single energy market, carbon reduction and the importance of research and development to improving our energy supply in Northern Ireland.

Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way, and I am also grateful that he mentioned Mr McGlone. Will the Member pass some comment on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that Mr McGlone mentioned? Is there a real concern in your Committee that the net result of that will have advantages rather than disadvantages for Northern Ireland? I am thinking about health provision and so on.

Mr Lyttle: The Chair of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment emphasised that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership treaty will be scrutinised by the Committee, and I am sure that it will concentrate on trade, but the concerns of many Members about the treaty's implications for our health provision may also be considered by that Committee.

I also heard from Anna Lo MLA, in her capacity as Chair of the Environment Committee, who set out its priorities for 2015. She touched not only on a number of issues that the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee will look at but on greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and the way in which the Northern Ireland Executive will ensure that they contribute to what is likely to be a target of 40% reduction by 2030 and how her Committee will closely monitor that issue as well as climate change. It will monitor the targets set by the Paris climate conference in 2015 and what the Department of the Environment, in particular, will be doing to prepare for targets set by that conference and the ongoing contributions it will make to ensure that Northern Ireland delivers on climate change. Ms Lo also mentioned the need for work on the reduction of CO2 emissions, improved water quality and the birds and habitats directives.

David McIlveen set out an initial sceptical view on Europe but also emphasised the work that can be done to ensure that our local SMEs are well connected to the potential benefits of Europe, in particular through Horizon 2020 and a number of schemes and projects.

Alex Maskey, Chair of the Social Development Committee, reminded us of the important role that Europe and, in particular, the European Investment Bank, could have to play in tackling our lack of social housing and the significant social housing waiting list that we have here in Northern Ireland, and also reminded us that our Executive should, indeed, be working hard to access funding from that bank to make progress on that vital issue.

William Irwin, Chair of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, emphasised the importance of scrutiny around CAP, the single farm payment and the rural development programme towards growing our agrifood industry even further here in Northern Ireland.

Phil Flanagan spoke about the lack of consideration that had been given to the potential impact that exiting the EU would have on businesses, workers and people in Northern Ireland who do not want to leave the European Union and how frequently Northern Ireland is promoted as a gateway to Europe. He also mentioned the importance of the EU to peace building here in Northern Ireland and his concerns that the British Government may not match the scale of funding contributed by the European Union. In response to that, I would probably say to Mr Flanagan that I would be just as concerned that the DUP and Sinn Féin Executive here in Northern Ireland have not done much to match that level of funding either, so I think that all of us need to keep a watching brief on funding towards peace building here in Northern Ireland.

Robin Swann, Chair of the Employment and Learning Committee, mentioned the focus that his Committee will have on the green economy and job creation through that and, indeed, the important issue of the European Social Fund. I am encouraged to hear that he has been briefed by the Minister on that issue on numerous occasions. Perhaps he could give the OFMDFM Committee a few pointers on that, and we could get the First Minister and deputy First Minister in front of our Committee as well.

Jim Allister took some time to set out his intense scepticism towards Europe. It was strange to hear him speak of liberation of any kind, but, in relation to the European Union, he has a clear stance on that particular issue.

In conclusion, it is clear that the Assembly Committees must work to hold their respective Departments and Ministers to account in scrutinising what action they are taking to influence European policy and legislation in a positive way for the people of Northern Ireland. We have access to those institutions: we have the representation of our MEPs, the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee, and there are numerous other ways for Northern Ireland to engage with European issues.

I thank all Members who participated in the debate, and I encourage all our Assembly Committees in the ongoing work that they will do to ensure that European affairs are given good consideration at the Assembly and at Executive level.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the report of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on Assembly Committees' Priorities for European Scrutiny in 2015 [NIA 225/11-16].

Private Members' Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Kinahan: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the failure of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to repeal the exemption in fair employment law allowing discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in teacher appointments, as mandated by the motion Teachers: Employment Law, which was approved by the Assembly on 22 April 2013; recognises that the teacher exemption, as well as the continuing requirement for a certificate in religious education at nursery and primary level in the Catholic maintained sector, are unnecessary barriers to truly shared education; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take action to remove these overt examples of inequality and discrimination.

I welcome the opportunity to bring this issue to the Assembly again. The purpose of this motion, which I propose on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, is to set the scene for finally ending discrimination in the field of employment in schools and to lay some foundations for shared education and a genuinely shared future. It is sad that we have no Ministers responding today, given that there are four in OFMDFM and one in the Department of Education. It is extremely poor that there is no one here today to respond.

During Question Time in this House on 9 February, the Minister of Education answered a question about the requirement for prospective teachers to have a special certificate in religious education to work in the Catholic maintained sector at primary and nursery level. He said:

"That is a matter for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to take on board. I have written to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on several occasions, and I am awaiting a response. Personally, I believe that it should be removed. However, it is up to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to carry that matter forward." — [Official Report, Vol 101, No 7, p25, col 1].

Mr Sheehan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not totally sure on this point, but I think that on that particular day the Minister made a mistake and rectified it by writing to all MLAs the next day to say that he confused the issue of the exemption from fair employment law and the religious certificate.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): We will regard that as a point of clarification. Continue.

Mr Kinahan: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I take that on board. I do not remember seeing a letter from him clarifying that, so we will wait and look at it later. I do not think it changes what we are saying today.

I hope at the very least that, at the end of this debate, we will have an answer from the First Minister or the deputy First Minister to the Education Minister's alleged written requests, and that they will take action to remove the religious education certificate requirement in some educational employment practices on equality grounds.

This exchange reminds me of the debate I led in the House nearly two years ago on the related issue of repealing the exemption for teaching appointments in the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (FETO). The Ulster Unionist Party believes it is not only time to revisit the teacher exemption issue in teaching employment practices but time to take action and to seriously examine the whole issue of the certificate in religious education requirement for teaching in primary and nursery schools in nearly half the schools in Northern Ireland.

Regarding the FETO exemption, rather than rehashing the fair employment in teaching debate, which no doubt all Members wishing to contribute today will have revisited, I will in a moment summarise the backstory.

First, I want to make it absolutely clear that the purpose of my motion is not to have a go at Catholic or any faith-based system of education. I know how sensitive people can be about these things, and I want again to put on record my appreciation of and, indeed, admiration for, the very many excellent schools within the Catholic maintained sector. Exam results suggest that they are doing a great deal right, but, in the area of teacher employment, they are getting something wrong.

We as an Assembly, and OFMDFM as the Department with responsibility for equality, also have a duty to do something about it and to do it now. In 1976, Parliament exempted employment as a teacher in school from anti-discriminatory legislation. That is the so-called teachers' exemption. In 2000, when the European Union provided for general anti-discriminatory law, supposedly to improve labour flexibility in the single market, the UK secured a continuing Northern Ireland opt out in the directive, permitting religious discrimination in teacher appointments.

The fact that teachers in Northern Ireland are the only occupational group in 27 member states to be legally unprotected should bring a huge degree of shame to our equality laws and should be an absolute priority for the Equality Commission. It was good to see in an email today a recommendation from the Equality Commission that we should be removing the exception in secondary schools and considering removing it in primary schools.

The teacher exception, which is now nearly 40 years old, was to be abolished a decade ago, in all secondary schools at least, in the long-forgotten single equality Bill.


1.45 pm

Article 51 of the Council directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000, establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, said that the teachers' exemption should remain. Two Equality Commission reports of 2000 and 2004 said that the reform was needed. Reform is long overdue: the teacher exception should go, and it should go now.

Interestingly, not long after our previous motion was passed, senior officials from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) appeared at the Education Committee. On 29 May 2013, Jim Clarke, its chief executive, plainly said that CCMS did not rely on, and did not want to see, the continuation of the teacher exemption from fair employment and equality regulations, stating that CCMS:

"would not obstruct or seek to obstruct any removal of that exemption."

He also said that CCMS was:

"quite happy for that exemption to be removed".

Therefore, why at Stormont has there been a game of pass the parcel when it comes to doing something legislatively about this blatant discrimination? Two long years have passed, in which I have tabled Assembly questions, as have others. For example, in March last year, the Minister of Education replied to my question for written answer with the comment:

"Article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (NI) 1998. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has responsibility for this legislation."

In the same month, I asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister whether they planned to review the Fair Employment and Treatment Order and bring forward legislation to remove the teacher exception under article 71. The response was:

"This is a policy issue under discussion between OFMDFM and the Department of Education. OFMDFM has legislative responsibility for this area however responsibility for developing any policy proposals rests with the Department of Education."

There are other similar examples, but, in summary, there has been buck-passing between OFMDFM and the Department of Education for two years. Whatever the protestations of the Minister of Education, I get the distinct feeling that someone, somewhere in the heart of government is blocking change.

To be crystal clear, parents in Northern Ireland have an absolute right, enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, to bring up their children in the religion or belief of their choice, without interference from the state. However, apart from a handful of independent Christian schools, all schools in Northern Ireland are fully state-funded. That should, and must, have consequences for autonomy in employment practices.

This simple question needs to be answered: should schools be free to select teachers according to their religion? They cannot in the state-controlled sector, they normally do not in the integrated sector, but they can and do in the Catholic maintained sector, which is fully funded by the state; that is, by taxpayers of all religions and none.

Regarding the related issue of the certificate in religious education, I know that those involved in the Catholic maintained sector attach great importance to it. However, there is no obvious reason that all teachers in Catholic maintained primary schools need to have a religious education certificate. One is not required in Scotland, where there is a similarly strong tradition of Catholic schools. Many have said that there is not a particularly Catholic or Protestant way in which to teach geography or maths. I would even add that religious education is a subject for which a common syllabus was agreed between the four main denominations about 20 years ago. Therefore, in theory at least, even a religious education teacher does not need to be the same religion as the majority of the pupils whom he teaches. I am not a theologian, but when I hear people talk about and describe a distinct ethos in the Catholic sector, it does not seem to be radically different from a broadly Christian world view, ethical framework, mission statement and outlook —

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

Mr Kinahan: — which most potential teachers could respect and commit to. I hope that everyone will support our motion today. When it comes to the amendment, we are intrigued to see how long "interim" is meant to be before we decide on whether to support it. Anything that leads to getting rid of the certificate suits our motion.

Mr Lunn: I beg to move the following amendment:

Insert at end:

"; and further calls, as an interim measure until this action is implemented, on St Mary’s University College to provide access to the teaching of the certificate in religious education to students from other teacher training institutions, including Stranmillis University College.".

For Mr Kinahan's benefit, "interim" means until the necessary action is implemented. That is what the motion says. It is not up to us to set a time limit; it is up to OFMDFM.

We welcome the debate. It is not only unionists who have long had a problem with this issue. In practice, the 1976 exemption enables Catholic schools to employ Catholics if they so choose. It is reaffirmed in article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. The Alliance Party has long supported the removal of the exemption. It has been broadly agreed that the exemption could be lifted, with the requirement instead being the possession of a certificate in religious education. Theoretically, that is available to anyone. Even that is difficult, however, given the segregated nature of teacher training, with only St Mary's in practice offering the certificate automatically.

We will support the motion, and we certainly advocate our amendment. The difficulty with the motion is not its content, with which we agree fully, but the time that it would take. It would involve changing law, not just policy. That is why we have left it intact but added a rider that would provide a quicker route to addressing the issue partially and would not involve legislation. The amendment would put in place an interim solution that addresses the problems pending the passage of legislation, so they are complementary.

Even a legislative ban through the amendment of equality legislation may not be completely watertight. A school could still attempt to cite a genuine occupational requirement as justification for discrimination, which may or may not be accepted by the courts if it were challenged. That is why the amendment is necessary to achieve the desired objective, not just as a means of speeding things up.

There are a range of issues and problems relating to the teacher-training system in Northern Ireland, which have been discussed in detail over the last few months. There is little point in returning to them, other than to note that all four other Executive parties ganged up to stop the obviously necessary reforms from taking place. This debate is specifically about equality issues. It is for OFMDFM to initiate legislative change. It will be interesting to see whether the two First Ministers can agree on this issue and take necessary action. I do not know whether one of them was supposed to be here to reply to the debate, but nobody is here at the moment.

Under the cover provided by the exemption to Northern Irish equality law, there is the ongoing requirement for a teacher to possess a certificate in religious education to work in nursery and primary schools in the Catholic-maintained sector. That is a requirement in place via CCMS, which has the power to modify or remove that restriction. That has been discussed with it on many occasions. We continue to welcome the step of giving a three-year window to teachers who have been made redundant and who wish to teach in the Catholic sector to acquire the certificate. The issue is about how easy that is to achieve and whether it should be relevant at all.

Changing demographics and enrolments in the school system mean that almost 40% of job opportunities require the possession of the certificate. That seriously curtails opportunities for graduating teachers without the certificate, who actually constitute a majority. That would never be ideal, but we really need to hear from every party in the Assembly that it now agrees that that is intolerable in a competitive job market with fewer and fewer opportunities and openings. The principle is that any professional teacher, regardless of background, should be treated as equally capable of teaching in any type of school, including Catholic-maintained schools. That is an absolute requirement. Any party taking itself seriously as a party of equality would and should recognise it. Teaching opportunities are becoming ever more restricted.

Mr Sheehan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Sheehan: Does the Member accept that no person of any religion or none is barred from teaching in a Catholic school? They simply need to have the certificate in religious education as a qualification to prove that they can teach the curriculum as laid out in that school.

Mr Lunn: I do not disagree with that. I thank the Member for his intervention.

As I said, teaching opportunities are becoming ever more restricted as schools close and pension arrangements encourage teachers to stay on as opposed to encouraging early retirement, as they once did. Restricted opportunities make equality of opportunity even more important and mean that there is an urgent need for intervention and change in policy and the law. If we are to maintain the certificate, there must, as a bare minimum, be absolute equality of access to it.

In general, the issue predominantly affects Stranmillis. It does not apply to Queen's, and training for the certificate is delivered in conjunction with the Church at the University of Ulster. The only option at Stranmillis is distance learning through the University of Glasgow, and many students leave Stranmillis with absolutely no knowledge of the certificate at all, even including the extra time and resources required for it. Some may argue that Stranmillis graduates have no interest in the certificate, but the principle is absolute, and it should be agreed by all parties. Every graduating teacher should have access to the full range of opportunities for which they are qualified.

Stranmillis has recognised the problem and is seeking an immediate practical solution that meets the requirements of that principle. MLAs from various parties have also recognised the problem and the potential solution of the use of St Mary's to teach the certificate as a distinct module that is open also to Stranmillis students. The lack of availability at Stranmillis affects everyone who trains there, regardless of background. There are Catholic students at Stranmillis, and they can leave without the certificate just as anybody else does.

Our amendment does not take away from the motion but complements it. Implementation of the amendment, which calls for collaboration in the teacher-training system, would be a powerful statement but would not and should not preclude moving on to the necessary legislative change to deliver on the original motion. This step would also amount to a powerful example of collaboration in the Northern Ireland teacher-training system.

In closing, I want to make it clear that the existence of a requirement for a teacher to possess a certificate in religious education to work in the maintained sector at primary level is a tradition that has served the sector very well for many years. Catholic education has a long and proud record of success in Northern Ireland. It has a religious basis grounded in the Catholic faith, and it is absolutely valid that teachers should be equipped to contribute to that ethos at the early years and primary level. The Alliance Party's preference is for a much broader based solution than a Catholic-based religious certificate. Our objective is for a single certificate, recognising diversity and pluralism, and it should be shared by any party advocating equality. This is not about refusing to accommodate a different ethos. On the contrary, it is about accommodating it fairly and equally. It is important that teachers are trained for working in a range of different settings. This means fair access to preparation for the Catholic maintained sector, but, in an increasingly diverse society, it particularly means catering for that growing diversity, including those of non-Christian faiths or no religious background in our school system.

We have a long way to go. The amendment puts us on the right road. The motion makes sure that we are heading in the right direction, but no one with a true interest in equality has anything to fear from that destination. We will support the motion and the amendment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Miss Michelle McIlveen.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

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

Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 1 and 3 together.

The written statement made by the First Minister and deputy First Minister on 19 February gave a commitment to extend legislation to give legal protection from unfair age discrimination by those providing goods, facilities and services to those aged 16 and over. It also announced the intention to bring forward a consultation document, setting out proposals for legislation. Our proposed consultation is the first step towards ensuring that anti-discrimination legislation is brought forward as soon as possible to protect people over the age of 16 from harmful and unjustifiable age discrimination.

It is important to say that there are a lot of very challenging issues for people from the ages of 16 to 18, and we recognise this as a step forward. We also recognise that the decision on the scope of the proposed legislation has come as a great disappointment to some, and we will continue to work with a wide range of people in the children and young persons' sector to seek to redress issues affecting children under the age of 16.

In answer to the question on the budget, the cost of developing this legislation will be met using in-house resources.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Member for her answer and ask her to give an estimated timeline for the roll-out of this legislation.

Ms J McCann: Obviously, the consultation will have to be agreed at the Executive first, and a consultation paper will be put out. Until we see the results of the consultation, and the people's views, we will not know what we have to do next. We are hopeful that it will be within the current mandate, but will not know until the consultation is out. We are very clear that we want people to voice their views, and for their views to be listened to.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I ask the Minister whether this legislation has or will be subject to equality impact assessment.

Ms J McCann: The public consultation on the draft policy proposals for the proposed legislation will be conducted in compliance with the Department's statutory equality requirements. The equality impact assessment will be completed in line with section 75 and schedule 9 obligations, as well as Equality Commission guidelines. The assessment will consider the impacts on each of the nine groups in the various categories in section 75. On age, consideration will also be given to those who are going to be impacted and are not covered by the proposed legislation. Officials will be meeting key stakeholders over the next few weeks to discuss the development of the equality impact assessment.

Mr Lyttle: I ask the junior Minister whether delays in the delivery of age discrimination legislation, the racial equality strategy, the gender equality strategy and the sexual orientation strategy bring into question OFMDFM's commitment to the delivery of equality for everyone in our community.

Ms J McCann: There is certainly no question on the commitment of our party to delivering equality legislation. The Member was part of some of the meetings that we had, inside and outside the Committee, and he will be aware that there were difficulties in getting political consensus on this particular agreement and on the scope of the legislation. That is where the delay was in this instance.

Lord Morrow: I am sure that the Minister would agree that discrimination can raise its head in many forms. Does she agree with me that the recent attempt to deprive people of their right to vote in their own village, namely Moygashel, is also a matter of a fundamental right? Would she like to see that addressed, and does she agree that that right should be afforded to them?

Ms J McCann: People have a right to vote. You discriminate against people when you say that certain people cannot vote. I am very clear and we are very clear on this side of the Chamber that no one should be discriminated against, whether because of their sexuality, their age or for any other reason. No one should be afraid of legislation that brings equality for everyone.

Mrs Dobson: What message does the junior Minister think is sent to under-16s by their exclusion from the proposed goods, facilities and services legislation?

Ms J McCann: As I said before, when this was introduced to the Assembly, I would rather be here today saying that the legislation covers all ages. It is very clear that, when you do any sort of anti-discrimination legislation, discrimination against one section is wrong. However, all Members will be aware of the issue. This was the only way we could get political consensus to take it forward. At the minute, we do not have any age equality legislation on goods, facilities and services. This is a starting point, and I hope that we can continue to make improvements to include all ages.

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed, I inform Members that questions 4 and 10 have been withdrawn within the appropriate protocols.

Mr M McGuinness: There is no current agreement on the regeneration of the Maze/Long Kesh (M/LK) site. We continue to discuss a way forward.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for the update. Given that the peace-building centre at the Maze is, as I understand it, dead in the water, what is the attitude of the EU to locating a peace-building centre at a location other than the Maze, and will the deputy First Minister actively lobby to locate it elsewhere?

Mr M McGuinness: First, the Member needs to recognise that the development of the Maze/Long Kesh site was a Programme for Government commitment. The first stage of that process was the relocation of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society from the King's Hall, alongside the construction of the peace-building and conflict resolution centre, to which many millions had been allocated by the European Union. The Member's description of the project as dead in the water is not something that I recognise. I have a very clear view that, when we make commitments, we keep them. There is a very strong commitment in the development of the Maze/Long Kesh site for the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society for that to move in parallel with the construction of the peace-building and conflict resolution centre. That has not happened, but I have kept my word to the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, and, even in the last couple of weeks, I had no difficulty in giving clearance to its request to the First Minister and me for the relocation of a pavilion from the King's Hall to the site, greatly enhancing its sustainability on the site.

We have to continue our discussions to see whether we can find a way forward. I am determined to find a way forward, and I hope that those who opposed the project in the first instance, including the Member's party, recognise the opportunities that the construction of a peace-building and conflict resolution centre can provide for the purposes of reconciliation and peace-making among all of us.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that the M/LK site should be open for wider public use?

Mr M McGuinness: I believe that a great opportunity is being missed at the Maze/Long Kesh site and that we are all the poorer for that. You just have to look at the success of the relocation of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society from the King's Hall to the site. It demonstrated absolutely that people were literally voting with their feet for the development of the site. I am not going to repeat what I said earlier, but I made a commitment in the Assembly in September 2013 to the RUAS and I have abided by that commitment and wish them every success. The First Minister and I, alongside our Agriculture Minister, have been to the last two shows at the site, and we have spoken at the DARD breakfast. It is clear that the site has been a massive success with increased numbers of people each year from all over the island of Ireland turning out, which is heart-warming to see.

From our perspective, we need to recognise the importance of the prison buildings, the peace-building and conflict resolution centre, the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society and all the other very exciting developments that were mooted several years ago in relation to the overall development of the site. We will continue to work at it in the hope that, at some stage in the not-too-distant future, people will recognise that this is an enormously valuable site that can bring huge employment opportunities to people not just in the Lagan Valley constituency but from all over the North and the island of Ireland. Let us continue to work at it and let us hope that those who tried to argue that it would be a shrine to something other than reconciliation and peacemaking will see the error of their ways.

Mr Allister: Given the deputy First Minister's shameful and churlish blocking of further economic development at the Maze site, why are we continuing to pay the chairman of the Maze development corporation £30,000 a year plus expenses? Is that value for money?

Mr M McGuinness: This is a very important site. A board and a chair were appointed, and we did that in the belief that we could develop the site in the interests of all our people, particularly people from the local constituency and, indeed, wider afield. It is important that we keep a board in place and that we have a chair of that board who, I think, has done a good job in very difficult circumstances. I also believe that the work of the board can be beneficial in the context of ensuring the ongoing success, for example, of the relocation of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society alongside, hopefully, making an argument further afield to people who previously opposed the construction of the peace-building and conflict resolution centre to recognise that it should be constructed for the purposes of reconciliation and peacemaking between us.

Mr Speaker: Before I proceed, on behalf of the Assembly I welcome the Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament and his colleagues, who have just joined us in the Public Gallery.

Mr McCarthy: Will the deputy First Minister along with the First Minister, who is with us in the Chamber today, acknowledge the huge financial loss to Northern Ireland's economy as long as the Maze site is not developed?

Mr M McGuinness: I add my words of welcome to the Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives and his colleagues, particularly in the aftermath of their success in the Cricket World Cup. They are probably here to reconnoitre for the upcoming Rugby World Cup. We are delighted that they are here with us.

I absolutely accept the economic importance of the development of the Maze/Long Kesh site. I am a fervent supporter of the development of that site. The fact that I stuck to my word on the relocation of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society from the King's Hall to the site is very firm evidence of my commitment to the development of the site. We need to recognise that we have a difficulty and a problem.

I think I am a problem-solver; I am a solution-seeker. What we need to do is find a solution to the difficulties that we face at the moment that will see that site move forward, be developed and provide the unique economic and employment opportunities for all our people and, indeed, for our economy.


2.15 pm

Mr M McGuinness: As the competition to appoint a new Victims' Commissioner is still live, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time. However, we place great importance on ensuring that all victims and survivors have an appropriate representative voice through the commissioner, and we want to ensure that we have the right person for the job. The closing date for applications was Friday 3 April, and interviews for the post are scheduled for May.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. Thanks very much, Minister. If there was no deficiency in the recruitment process, if two applicants were deemed appointable under the appointments criteria, what objective reasons for no appointments can be given?

Mr M McGuinness: The process to appoint a new commissioner was taken forward by HR Connect, and advertisements were placed in local and national newspapers. The closing date for applications was 12 September 2014. Interviews took place in and around October 2014. The Victims and Survivors Forum was consulted on the skills and qualities needed for the role, and those were taken into consideration when finalising the necessary skill sets for the incoming commissioner.

The appointment process was regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and followed the code of practice for ministerial appointments. Considering the importance that we place on ensuring that all victims and survivors have an appropriate representative voice through the commissioner, we want to ensure that we have the right person for the job. Therefore, as the current process did not produce a sizeable pool of appointable candidates, we agreed that a further competition will be launched. As I said, the new competition launched on 9 March and the closing date for applications was 3 April. The commission continues to operate without a commissioner but remains fully committed and accessible to all victims and survivors and to organisations working with victims and survivors.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he give an assurance that all future services for victims and survivors of the conflict will be victim-centred?

Mr M McGuinness: It is crucial that any services put in place to help and support victims and survivors of the conflict have the needs of victims at their centre. In order to ensure that that happens, it is important that discussions with victims, families and other stakeholders take place on a regular basis. Following the review of the Victims and Survivors Service, a number of recommendations were put forward, and a report on the progress of the implementation of those recommendations has been positive, acknowledging improvement in many areas.

The remaining outstanding recommendations relating to the assessment process, monitoring and evaluation protocols for dealing with the psychologically injured and better management of communication with individual victims and survivors will be taken forward as part of a collaborative programme of work to examine the service delivery model that currently provides services to victims and survivors. Preliminary discussions have taken place with a number of key stakeholders to communicate the approach being taken and to seek early feedback on key issues. The collaborative design programme will continue throughout 2015-16 to progress the strands of work and seek input from the sector on the redesign of the service delivery model.

Mr Lyttle: When will OFMDFM publish the research conducted by the Victims' Commission with regards to the pension for the seriously injured?

Mr M McGuinness: That is part of an ongoing body of work, and we hope that it will be published as soon as possible.

Mr Speaker: Peter Weir is next, if he has recovered his breath.

Mr M McGuinness: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer the question.

Ms J McCann: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 6 and 8 together.

On 20 March 2014, the First Minister and deputy First Minister announced the first two urban village locations as Colin town centre and lower Newtownards Road. Work is progressing, and stakeholder engagement is ongoing regarding the development of both locations. Plans are progressing to develop a coherent town centre for the Colin area, with inputs from a range of Departments. Community engagement commenced on the lower Newtownards Road in October 2014. Options on developing concepts to deliver a sustainable urban village are being considered in conjunction with stakeholders. Junior Minister Bell and I announced three further urban village locations recently: the Markets, Donegall Pass and Sandy Row and the Bogside and the Fountain on 21 January; and Ardoyne and Ballysillan on 16 February. That brings the number of urban village projects to five, which is one more than was originally committed to in the strategy.

The next step is to establish a project team for each new urban village to engage and work with the community to determine the boundaries of the urban villages, assess what is needed and develop the priorities for each area. The Department for Social Development has convened a programme board to coordinate and oversee the planning, design and delivery of all aspects of the urban villages. Project boards will be set up for each of the urban villages. Those will be supported by the urban villages strategic board, which is chaired by junior Minister Bell and me.

Mr Weir: I thank the junior Minister for her response. Can she elaborate on the more recently announced project for the Markets, Donegall Pass and Sandy Row? What progress is being made there, and what is the timeline?

Ms J McCann: They are all at different levels. At the minute, people are consulting community stakeholders to see first what the boundaries in the urban villages are going to be and then what the priorities are. The difference between urban villages and other things that have happened is that urban villages are going to be community-led. There will be three different governance structures: one at the strategic level; another at a board level; and one with stakeholders from the community sector, who will be engaging. The project that the Member mentions is in the co-design process.

Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí go dtí seo.

The junior Minister went through a number of projects. Can she tell me, even by rule of thumb, when the physical work might start? I am interested to know that for any of the urban village projects, but particularly that in north Belfast.

Ms J McCann: As I said in my previous answer, each area is at a different level at the moment. The indicative costs for each urban village will be different, and, as we are in the co-design process — each of the urban villages will have its own unique design — it is impossible to give a sense of the cost. However, once we have a sense of what is needed, we will put a cost to it. It has been confirmed that £2·46 million will be taken out of the Together: Building a United Community overall budget to take forward the urban village programme. Once we see the co-design and work with people on the ground, first to design the boundaries and then to see what the people in each local community want — because this is about what the people in the local community want for their urban village — we can put a cost to it and hopefully see something happening. However, the process for both the resource and capital build is ongoing.

Mr Humphrey: What is the structure and process that will take forward the Ardoyne and Ballysillan urban village in my constituency, which I very much welcome?

Ms J McCann: As I said, there are three different levels of governance. There is the strategic board and then a board working under that, which is made up of the Departments. The reason for having the strategic board that junior Minister Bell and I chair is so that we can ensure that there is buy-in from all Departments and that they are working together on this. You then have the other level, where you have the person responsible — particularly in DSD, because it is the lead Department — taking the project forward and the community sector involved. There are three different governance levels, and they are all working together, particularly on the co-design.

As I said in my previous answers to the other Members, the co-design process will take place first. People will decide what they want from that, and we will then have to look at the resource implications of its delivery — that includes the Strategic Investment Board — and what capital build is required. As I said, each urban village will be unique in its own right, but the thread that will run through all of them is that they will come from the community and will be about its needs and getting to those needs.

Mr M McGuinness: Following a full public consultation, we received 97 written responses and 49 online survey responses in addition to input from a number of public consultation events with key stakeholders. The analysis of those responses is ongoing, and officials continue to liaise with the sector to ensure that the evolving strategy is relevant to the needs and aspirations of the minority ethnic community.

Whilst we are happy that the emerging consensus is in line with our vision for a revised strategy, there are challenges and requirements emerging that will require thought, planning and careful exploration. Officials are working through those issues and plan to engage further with representatives of the sector soon to tease out some of the content that has been included in responses to the consultation. It is important that we take the opportunity to do that. We must also take the time to identify how best to align the policy and implementation mechanisms of Together: Building a United Community and the final racial equality strategy, in line with the views expressed through the consultation.

In further refining the final shape of the new strategy, we can give an assurance that it will be relevant, realistic and robust enough to deliver for minority ethnic people and society in general. The significant contribution of our minority ethnic residents must continue to be acknowledged and supported during this critical time as we finalise the strategy.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the deputy First Minister for his reply. Given the overall fairly critical responses by consultees — I note the deputy First Minister's point about having a thoughtful look at it — is it not necessary to do more radical surgery to what has been outlined by your Department?

Mr M McGuinness: The Department recognises the importance of the issue and the importance at all times of continuing to review the effectiveness of the strategy and how we take it forward. Look, for example, at the weekend's events, particularly in north Belfast, where there have been attacks on people from ethnic communities that I unreservedly and totally deplore and condemn: we obviously have a tiny minority of our citizens who are racist and sectarian and are determined to make life very difficult for new people who arrive on our shores. That represents a real challenge to us with the racial equality strategy. It is important to get it right; it is also important to take on board the views expressed by the Member just now.

Given the situation that we are dealing with, it is important that we all work closely together. It is all very well putting a strategy together — I am very much in favour of doing so — but, in combating racism in our society, it is vital that the community comes together. More important than anything else, politicians from every political party need to be pugnacious in working with the local community to defeat the activities of those who bring shame on all of us. That represents a real challenge. In the past, there appeared to be reluctance to combat the issue in a way that it needed to be combated. The way to do it is through strong community action that involves the community and voluntary sector, the churches, local residents' groups, political parties and the Police Service, whose chief responsibility is to apprehend these criminals.

All of us need to be seen to be working together in a collaborative way to send a very clear message to the racists in our society that this is deplorable behaviour which should end immediately.


2.30 pm

Mr Speaker: I have not got time for another supplementary, which is why I allowed you to run over two minutes, Minister. I will remind you about it in any event. That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.

T1. Mr Cree asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given that they will be aware that there are several strategies within their Department, when those strategies were commenced and when they will be completed. (AQT 2321/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: Can the Member repeat his question? I did not pick up the first part of it.

Mr Cree: There have been several draft strategies in the Department for some time. Can the deputy First Minister advise the House as to when work on them first commenced and when they are likely to be completed?

Mr M McGuinness: There are many strategies in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, across a whole range of issues, to do with how we ensure delivery for everybody in society. I am not really sure what sort of answer the Member is looking for. I am willing to meet him. If he wishes to have a meeting, we will gladly do that. The Member has not indicated which aspects of the several strategies he would like an explanation for. I would like further information on those aspects specifically.

Mr Cree: I appreciate the deputy First Minister's comments. The point that I am really getting at is that so many of these strategies never seem to be completed. We really need to have some sort of system whereby we actually deliver on these things. For example, some have actually been out to consultation more than once. Perhaps I will take that option up with the deputy First Minister with a view to moving that forward.

Mr M McGuinness: It would have helped me greatly if the Member had given an example.

T2. Mr McGlone asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what financial commitment the Executive have made to the Desertcreat Community Safety College outside Cookstown. (AQT 2322/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: The Member will know that this is a project that is very close to my heart. The reality is that the project was also a Programme for Government commitment. The circumstances around its not coming to fruition have been very disappointing indeed for all of us in the Department and also in the Department of Justice.

I have to say — and it is not often that I get the opportunity to put something on the public record — that I have been aware from the very beginning of this project to locate the community safety college at Desertcreat that there was opposition within the Police Service, going back years, to it going to County Tyrone. I heard this years ago, and I have not changed my view. The people who have been to the forefront of opposing this project and encouraging others to oppose the project's being located in County Tyrone need to recognise that what they are actually doing is trying to undermine a Programme for Government commitment.

The Member will also be aware that, just recently, the First Minister and I met a very representative delegation from the local council and the business community. Both of us put on record our commitment to the project. I think that a Member, in another circumstance during earlier questions, used a phrase like, "dead in the water." I refuse to accept that the Desertcreat project is dead in the water. The First Minister and I are on record as saying publicly that we want this to succeed. There is work to be done. The Minister of Justice and his Department have to bring forward a paper to the Executive. It will be discussed there. My commitment to Desertcreat is absolute.

Mr McGlone: Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire chomh maith. I asked what the Executive's financial commitment was to the project. Perhaps the Minister does not have those details to hand.

Mr M McGuinness: The financial commitment would have to be in the context of the scale of the project to go forward. The Member, as much as I know, knows well that the essential services that were going to relocate to Desertcreat were arguing that, in the intervening period, their needs and requirements had changed. The argument was put forward that the scale of the project would not be as large as first envisaged, so I cannot give the Member a financial figure for the simple reason that what I want to see next is a paper coming forward to the Executive proposing the establishment of a community safety college. I will argue that it should be at Desertcreat. Whatever scale that will be on, the financial commitment from the Executive will be made to meet it. However, we will face a battle on this. There are powerful forces in the services, particularly within the police. In my opinion, they have, disgracefully, been opposed to this project of relocating from Belfast to County Tyrone. They have been at their work for the last number of years. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but I believe it to be a fact. So, let us deal with it on the basis that a paper will come forward and the fact that this is a Programme for Government commitment. It is one that I want to see brought to reality.

T3. Mr Brady asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given that it has now emerged that Francis McCabe Jnr, who was injured in a bomb attack in Crossmaglen in February while removing a poster, is set to lose his sight in one eye, to join him in condemning the activities of the criminal gangs that are attempting to intimidate and coerce those in south Armagh who are opposed to them. (AQT 2323/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: I have no hesitation whatsoever in unreservedly condemning the criminals who were involved in such a serious attack on Francis McCabe Jnr, and I am saddened to hear that his injuries are such that he is likely to lose the sight in one eye. Francis is a lorry driver by trade, and this will have a huge impact on his life and family, so I totally and utterly condemn those behind the attack. As I have said, they are criminals and they have absolutely nothing to offer the community in south Armagh and north Louth. It is very clear to all of us how the local community has responded to this cowardly attack by taking to the streets in huge numbers in support of the McCabe family. These gangs have no support in the local community and they must be stopped. One way of dealing with their activities is for people in the local community, whenever criminality raises its head, to work very closely with both the police services north and south of the border.

I extend my support and best wishes to Francis Jnr and the McCabe family and hope that he can recover from his very serious injuries.

Mr Brady: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he also join with me in calling on the PSNI and an Garda Síochána to step up their activities against these criminal gangs in order to bring them to justice and ensure that we do not see a repeat of the injuries received by Mr McCabe? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr M McGuinness: First of all, I want to pay tribute to both the Garda Síochána and the PSNI for the very effective way that they have worked together in the course of recent years in thwarting the activities of those who would attempt to use violence to undermine these institutions and destroy the peace process.

The PSNI and the Garda Síochána have a role and responsibility to deal with these criminal gangs. Both must demonstrate that they are supporting communities who oppose criminality. Actions and delivery from both police services are key, and I call for greater cooperation between the PSNI and an Garda Síochána to take these criminals, whether in south Armagh or north Louth, off the streets.

We all understand and know that we have a particular difficulty in this part of the North of Ireland and, indeed, on the border, in relation to a very small number of people who are part of armed groups, looking to benefit financially from their criminal activities. The local community in south Armagh has been at the forefront in supporting the peace process and the police services, North and South. In fact, the McCabe family were one of those families in the area that were very proactively involved in seeking support for the Police Service in the local community. Maybe that is one of the reasons why Francis Jnr was attacked.

The attack on Francis McCabe Jnr is, effectively, an attack on all of us who support these institutions and the change that has happened in policing here as a result of the various agreements that have been made down the years. I encourage everybody in society to work very closely with the police services, North and South. Do not be afraid to give information on the activities of those groups, which are acting against the interests of the local community.

Mr Speaker: Time is up.

Mr M McGuinness: They are basically criminal in everything that they do.

Mr Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn within the agreed procedures.

T5. Ms McGahan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how the cuts to the Executive’s block grant have impacted on Departments’ ability to continue to deliver services. (AQT 2325/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: I think that every Member knows that the British Government are effectively crucifying the Executive as a result of the swingeing cuts to our block grant. Over £1·5 billion has been stripped away by a Westminster Government led by the Tories, who have no mandate here whatsoever. Despite their decision to parachute candidates into a number of constituencies, with the exception, of course, of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and North Belfast, I am confident that they will have little or no mandate come 8 May. The cuts that they have imposed on the block grant have obviously had an impact on the ability of Departments to deliver public services to the highest possible standard. However, it is my view that many of our Ministers have performed heroically in the face of that onslaught by protecting front-line services and the most vulnerable members of society. We will continue to do that, but the new British Government need to end this ruinous austerity policy.

It has been quite interesting to listen to a number of interviews that David Cameron, Theresa May and George Osborne have been involved in over the last couple of weeks. When they are challenged about where the £30 billion of cuts will come from, including £12 billion of cuts that will affect some of the most disadvantaged, vulnerable, disabled and marginalised people in society, they refuse to give an answer. My attitude is this: if the Tories are re-elected, given the threats that they have made about the continuation of austerity, we should all be afraid; we should all be very afraid.

Mr McNarry: Take your seats at Westminster.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response. Will he comment on the potential impact of plans by the current Westminster Government to impose further cuts, if re-elected?

Mr M McGuinness: I am on the public record as saying that the £1·5 billion of cuts over the last number of years have been directly responsible for the huge difficulties that all our Ministers in the Executive have faced in recent times. It is sometimes very dismaying when it is reported in the media that the cuts are the responsibility of the Ministers in the Executive when, in fact, the cuts originate from London, directly from the austerity agenda that is being developed by this Tory-led Administration.

When we hear that further cuts are coming down the track within two years in the aftermath of the election, if the Tories are re-elected, it raises huge concerns for our Administration. In my opinion, the Tories do not get it. They do not get the fact that a society emerging from conflict, with all the problems that that entails, requires to be dealt with in a way that ensures that people who were subject to that conflict benefit from the fruits of peace. What we are seeing now, with the stripping away of funding from Departments, is a full-blooded onslaught by a Tory-led Administration on a people who deserve better.

These are difficult and very challenging times. The outcome of the British general election will be very important. Whoever emerges as leading the new Government will need to recognise the special circumstances that exist here and in no other place.

Mr Speaker: I call Ms Megan Fearon. I will not have time for a supplementary question, so, if you wish, you can choose to use it now.

T6. Ms Fearon asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the child rights indicator framework. (AQT 2326/11-15)


2.45 pm

Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, Mr Speaker, junior Minister McCann will answer this question.

Ms J McCann: The aim of the child rights indicator framework is to develop a set of indicators that can be used at a strategic level to measure and monitor the Executive's progress on effectiveness and achievement against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UNESCO report represents a major step forward, and we are reviewing the child rights indicators identified in its final report. As it stands, the report and the outcome indicators that it contains do not represent a full or comprehensive child rights indicator framework. However, we acknowledge that it is an important first step and advocates an approach to the development of the comprehensive framework.

Mr Speaker: That brings us to the end of the period for topical questions.

Employment and Learning

Mr Speaker: Before we begin, I inform Members that questions 1, 4 and 13 have been withdrawn within the agreed time frame and protocols.

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): Recent estimates by the Ulster University's economic policy centre show that a reduction to 12·5% from April 2017 could lead to an increase in employment of 38,000 jobs by 2033 compared with today. To prepare for such a lower corporation tax environment, I commissioned research that considered the impact that a lower rate would have on the demand for skills, labour and innovation capacity. That research set out the importance of developing our skills base and the employability of our people in a lower corporation tax environment and highlighted in particular the importance of strong skills in STEM, management and leadership, and literacy, numeracy and employability if we are to capture the full benefits of a lower rate.

The Department is already working to address those issues, and they are central themes in the overarching skills strategy. However, although the Department is already on the right path, the research shows that it will need to go further to address the quantum of skills required in that type of scenario. Therefore, my Department has developed a draft action plan to prepare the way and to put in place robust measures so that we can move swiftly in the event that a rate is determined.

Mr Givan: I thank the Minister for that response. He touched on the need to ensure that we have the appropriate skills to pick up the type of jobs that would be generated through a reduction in corporation tax. Has his Department given any consideration to what further jobs could be created if we had a corporation tax rate that offered more of an advantage over our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland?

Dr Farry: I do not think that the actions that we need to take will be that much different in the context of whether we are talking about a 12·5% rate or a lower rate. While it is not my individual responsibility as a Minister to set the rate, my view, as part of a collective Executive, is that it would be foolish for us to have a race to the bottom by trying to undercut the rate in the Republic of Ireland, because it would simply move to match us. There are advantages in having a common regime on the island so that we can both compete based upon our other strong attributes in our respective jurisdictions.

The Member stressed the importance of skills. We have to make further investments in skills, and it is important that the full House understands that, if we are to go down the route of a lower level of corporation tax, it cannot be successful in a vacuum and we have to invest in skills. A standstill in what we are doing is not good enough. At the moment, we are de-investing from a lot of our skills drivers, so we are taking the wrong action if we are supposed to be planning for something that should give the economy here a major boost.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the experience of geographic clustering in the Republic subsequent to the reduction in corporation tax, will the Minister work with businesses and, indeed, Executive colleagues to ensure that the business growth is not concentrated in the greater Belfast area to the exclusion of other areas outside Glengormley?

Dr Farry: First, I put on record my appreciation to the Member and his Committee for the work that they are doing through their inquiry into what is necessary in terms of the supporting drivers. I have no doubt that they will be looking to consider the distribution of job growth. It is important to stress that a lower rate will stand to benefit the economy of Northern Ireland as a whole, with the proviso that we invest further in the right supporting mechanisms. Although it is right that we look to the distribution of jobs, it is also important that we encourage labour mobility in what is still a reasonably small and compact region. We can encourage jobs to go to different parts of Northern Ireland, but, equally, we need to be realistic and understand that we cannot seek to over-micromanage decisions that companies are making. They will make their decisions based on other sound economic rationale.

Yes, we can do what we can to encourage that to happen, but it is important that Members are also realistic and understand that we are not here to direct where investment happens. Let us get it into Northern Ireland and make it work for the benefit of everyone.

Mr Kinahan: Northern Ireland is ranked just behind London for FDI, and that is really down to the calibre of our graduates. Does the Minister believe that there will be better support for graduates under a Department for the Economy rather than under a Department for Employment and Learning?

Dr Farry: I very much welcome the move to form a new Department for the Economy. That is not to diminish the work that has been done by my Department or, indeed, the work of my colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and that of Invest Northern Ireland, as separate entities. All have worked very closely together. Indeed, the leadership in all those organisations has worked very closely together as well. No doubt, there are some inefficiencies from having separate and distinct bodies. Bringing all the economic policy levers and delivery mechanisms under one roof is the logical thing to do, so I very much welcome the creation of a brand new Department that will be greater than the sum of its individual parts.

Mr Allister: Does the Minister agree that the only certainty attaching to the devolution of corporation tax is a huge year-on-year reduction, running into hundreds of millions of pounds, in the block grant? The Minister has some experience of the pressures that that brings. Does he draw any caution from the fact that, at the very time when it is promised that corporation tax will be devolved, one of the largest manufacturers in my constituency, JTI Gallaher, is choosing, in spite of that, to leave? Is not that a warning that corporation tax is far from the salvation for our economy?

Dr Farry: I will make a number of points. A lower level of corporation tax is going to be a major financial commitment for the Executive. I believe that it will be of benefit and can create jobs and more wealth, which will benefit our society as a whole. Of course, that is by no means certain, and that is why it is so important that we do not try to do this in a vacuum and that we continue to invest in other economic drivers. I say to the Member that, if we seek to fund a lower level of corporation tax by continuing along the current path of cuts to economic drivers, including our colleges and universities, the lower level of corporation tax will be counterproductive and not produce the results that we are expecting.

If we do it properly, it will be successful. For example, we are seeing the Republic of Ireland sticking by its lower level of corporation tax through some very deep and challenging financial and economic times over the past seven or eight years. We should take very strong lessons from that. We should also be very clear that all the business organisations in Northern Ireland are very clear in their support for that type of intervention, and we should listen very strongly to those voices.

The final thing that I will say is that it is important that we also recognise that a lower level of corporation tax will not work in an exactly uniform way across all types of business. For example, there are companies here at present that perhaps do not have major profit centres. As such, a lower level will not have huge relevance for them. Other companies may, for other reasons, wish to de-invest from Northern Ireland and locate elsewhere. At the same time, we will bring in more companies to Northern Ireland under the lower rate and see more of our existing companies grow than we will see companies — companies that the lower rate will not directly benefit or for whom there are other factors regarding the decisions that they make — leave.

Dr Farry: My Department recently invited applications for funding to the Northern Ireland European social fund programme 2014-2020. Members will be familiar with the background to the issues regarding the programme. Phase 1 of the assessment has been completed, and applicants have been notified of the outcome.

A total of 15 appeals from phase 1 have been heard by an appeals panel and the outcomes notified to applicants.

The panel upheld appeals for three applications, which have now been assessed by the assessment panel. All applications that progressed to phase 2 have now been assessed by assessment panels, and all applicants were notified of the panels’ decisions on 26 March. Those applicants who have been unsuccessful were afforded an opportunity to receive details on the outcome of their application. In addition, those applicants were afforded an opportunity for appeal. An initial date for appeals was amended to 10 April, due to a number of applicants seeking an extension and to the Easter holidays. Twenty-seven appeals were received by the closing date, and those will be reviewed by an appeals panel.

Successful applicants have been offered funding from 1 April 2015. As previously advised, the programme was heavily oversubscribed in terms of the number of applications received and the funding available: 134 applications were originally received, and the total value of those applications exceeded the budget available. Sixty-five projects, worth £102 million, were offered funding from the fund over the three-year period from 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2018. Over the initial three years of funding, the projects will assist over 42,000 individuals to fulfil their potential by providing them with better skills and better job prospects to take steps into employment. Additionally, the programme will provide assistance to over 2,300 families.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he confirm what support his Department intends to provide to the 220 people who will lose their jobs as a result of the debacle around applications to the European social fund?

Dr Farry: I am not quite sure in what context the Member is using the term "debacle". It would be useful, if Members are casually going to throw out such terms, to explain what they mean. However, let me be very clear: this is an open, competitive process for funding; no organisation was guaranteed funding as part of this process. Those organisations that had funding under the previous rounds were not guaranteed a continuation of funding; fresh applications were being made. Every organisation had its application assessed on its merits, and a rank order developed in that regard. As part of that process, some organisations will gain and some will lose. Sadly, there will be occasions where jobs are lost if organisations feel that that is the only path open to them.

By the same token, a greater number of jobs will be created in the overall package. It is worth reminding Members that the European social fund (ESF) package for Northern Ireland is significantly greater than in the previous round, between 2007 and 2013. We are able to do more overall in Northern Ireland, but the allocation of the funds will be different from the pattern under the previous round because we are considering a fresh round of applications.

Mr Swann: The Minister referred to the assessment panels a number of times. For the sake of clarity in the House, can the Minister say what training was given to the assessment panel members, and, indeed, whether all the panel members attended that training?

Dr Farry: Again we have this theme of seeking to undermine the qualifications of those conducting the assessments. These people are all experienced individuals in the public sector. There is a rigour to this process, and when the Member asks about training, there seems to be an insinuation that the people doing this are not fit for the job. Let me again stress to the House that this process has been handled by people who are qualified for the tasks asked of them and that they have conducted the tasks that they have been asked to do in a fair and impartial way.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, at the last Question Time you said that you had to intervene to put some integrity back into the process, so it has not been without blame, in a sense. Does the Minister acknowledge that the community and voluntary sector, in particular, has had a splendid role to play over the last number of years in providing training and employment opportunities, particularly for women, people with disabilities and older people? If some sectors have lost out in this round, will the Minister widen his net in any future call for funding to allow them to be better represented in any successful application of the criteria?


3.00 pm

Dr Farry: Again, I wish that the Member would clarify where she feels that sectors have lost out. Certainly, we can all think of organisations that may have lost out, but a number of projects across all the sectors that the Member referred to were awarded funding in the announcement that was made towards the end of March.

The community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland is going through a difficult time. Indeed, the Member's own Minister has scythed his way through the community and voluntary sector bodies that support the environment in Northern Ireland. I have taken the approach of seeking to work very closely with the community and voluntary sector. We have made it clear that we value its contribution. I stress again that we have a bigger pot of the European social fund available, and it has been distributed in a fair and impartial way. As part of that process, some organisations will be perceived as winning while others will be perceived as losing. That is part and parcel of an open and competitive process.

This is about ensuring that we are funding the best projects that are available to us and that meet the objectives that are set out in the operational programme. Indeed, the Executive as a whole agreed that. It is there to ensure that we are doing the best with the money that is available to us so that we can create the biggest impact for the people of Northern Ireland, especially the most disadvantaged.

Dr Farry: My Department recently completed a review of youth training in Northern Ireland for 16- to 24-year-olds. That comprehensive review included an in-depth examination of international best practice in youth training, including the provision of mentoring. The research indicated that one-to-one support for young people while they are in the workplace is vital, with dual mentoring in work and training identified as a key ingredient in successful vocational education and training schemes.

Based on the international best practice that was identified, the review of youth training consequently and duly proposed that the provision of a workplace mentor should be a key component of the proposed new youth training offer so that young people can be assisted to complete their training and to progress into higher-level options. It concluded that, as a minimum, all young people in training should have a named individual in the workplace who is responsible for their development.

The review consultation recently concluded, and the new strategy for youth training is expected to be finalised in the coming weeks. Following that, it is intended that elements of the proposals, including workplace mentoring, will be piloted.

Mr Ramsey: I welcome the Minister's response. For the record, I chair the all-party group on learning disability, and what triggered this question was that parents and groups representing that sector are deeply worried, because we know the facts, including that somebody with a learning disability is four times less likely to secure employment. Will the Minister give us an assurance that more skills and advisers will be available to ensure that the most vulnerable in our community will have access to those same mentoring facilities? I know that in my constituency, those in the Ardnashee special needs campus are working very thoroughly on this matter under the model of good practice.

Dr Farry: I am very happy to give the Member that reassurance. It is also important to read the new strategy on apprenticeships and the forthcoming strategy on youth training in conjunction with another piece of work that we are working on in the Department: the development of a disability, skills and employment strategy. We are seeking to make additional investments to mentoring to support people with a range of disabilities through a range of interventions for the training and employment environment. Indeed, the concept of workplace mentoring is relevant not just to those with an identified disability but to other young people as they work through the system. We have learned very keenly about this from international best practice, and it maybe stands in contrast with how developed the current system is, which Members will be more familiar with.

Dr Farry: A stable and globally competitive higher education sector in Northern Ireland is fundamental to future economic prosperity. To compete successfully on the global stage, teaching must be of the highest quality, the learning environment must be flexible and supportive, and the research base must be dynamic and impactful. To ensure that, the sector's financial sustainability is crucial. However, the financial position that our higher education sector now finds itself in is eroding due to the cuts to budgets that we have seen, not least in the most recent Budget that the Executive struck. There is already a funding gap between our higher education institutions and their counterparts elsewhere in the UK to the tune of £1,000 to £2,500 a student.

The annual deficit for university research funding now sits at around £9·2 million per annum. The deficit that already existed has only been compounded further by the Budget settlement, and the higher education sector is now facing a further reduction of £16·1 million in the forthcoming financial year.

Some 38% of our higher education sector's income comes from grants, mostly provided by my Department. We cannot continue to expect our higher education sector to meet local skills needs, generate wealth and job creation and compete on a global stage for staff and students while continuing to diminish our level of investment. It is my intention to have a wider discussion about the future funding of higher education locally. Therefore, I will be launching a wider debate as to how Northern Ireland can support a financially sustainable and internationally competitive higher education sector.

Mr Poots: Does the Minister recognise that the pincer movement on the universities of capped tuition fees and reduced funding from his Department as a result of the Budget completely undermines the great leadership that we have in our universities and their attempts to ensure the quality of education? Does he agree with me that the consequence of spending the money on welfare as opposed to things like higher education will ultimately lead to more people remaining in poverty and more students having to go to England and other places to receive the appropriate qualifications, and the competitiveness of our universities will decline as a result?

Dr Farry: In the main, I concur with the comments that the Member has made. Our universities are in a very perilous state at present. They have had their ability to generate income restricted by the decision of the Executive to freeze tuition fees. There is cross-party support for that, but we have not seen the same level of revenue investment to meet the shortfall and to match the level of investment happening elsewhere on these islands.
We also now have a situation where that structural problem is being compounded by further Budget cuts. While the situation that the Executive find themselves in with regard to the Budget is, in part, explained by the decisions or non-decisions around welfare, there are other factors regarding a number of decisions that the Executive have taken or not taken, including addressing division in our society, which are further compounding the situation. That will have major impacts on our ability to provide the skills needed by our economy, and I am deeply worried by the path that we are currently on. Indeed, if we have a lower level of corporation tax, those pressures will be even more acute.

The Member is also quite right to identify that this will impact on individuals. We will shortly see the universities, very regrettably, having no choice but to remove a number of places. That will force some of our young people to go to Great Britain to study, and not only will they have to face higher fees, but the likelihood is that they will not return to our Northern Ireland economy. Other young people may find themselves priced out entirely from higher education and will simply not take that opportunity. Those skills will be lost to our economy as well. Indeed, the life opportunities of those young people will be severely compromised.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Given the budget that the Minister is forced to work with, which will, bizarrely, result in us cutting student numbers when we are trying to grow an economy, what impact does the Minister think that will have on his widening participation strategy for higher education?

Dr Farry: As the Member will be aware, one of the steps that we have taken is to give the universities a little bit more flexibility in how they meet the targets that we have set for them for widening participation. So, they have been able to redirect some of their investments towards protecting front-line places. They have also given an assurance that they will not seek to diminish it, indeed, they will seek to improve upon the strong track record that we have. Ultimately, the biggest threat to widening participation will be the loss of places, so if we do not have the places for people to access, we will see problems with participation. That will disproportionately affect people from the more marginalised and vulnerable groups in our society. So, again, that reinforces the importance of a solid settlement for our higher education institutions and our wider skills environment in the Budget for the 2016-17 period and beyond.

Mr Beggs: Our people and their skills are our greatest asset when attracting new employers to Northern Ireland, and I am sure that the Minister would agree. Has he made any assessment as to how those cuts in university places are being received globally in terms of attracting new employment, new skills, new bases and new opportunities for our young people?

Dr Farry: We have to have a certain degree of care in how we say this and put it across, but, in very simple terms, yes, this is having an impact. It is one thing to say that all we need to do is rebalance the investment in higher education and focus more on STEM subjects, and that is an important thing to do in its own right. However, in a situation where we are actively disinvesting in higher education and removing places — every place is of relevance to the economy and the provision of higher-level skills and, consequently economic growth — that sends out a very worrying message to potential investors.

We will seek to attract investors by saying that we are on the brink of having a lower level of corporation tax. However, if they see question marks around our ability to invest in skills, they are going to ask even more searching questions and, potentially, look elsewhere when making investment decisions if they do not have the confidence and the certainty that we can produce for them. We have done extremely well over the past number of years, but that situation is not sustainable if we continue down the same road that we are on at present in cutting our skills budgets.

Dr Farry: As my Department does not hold this information, officials have received confirmation from each of the universities that they do not set a minimum target for course directors to include e-books as part of the core reading material for undergraduate degrees. Students are therefore free to choose their own preferred method of accessing reading material. Universities are responsible for their own policies and procedures, including course delivery. There is no requirement for them to set targets in relation to the medium of delivery.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that e-books are more cost-effective, will he consider setting a target to assist pupils with their studies?

Dr Farry: I am happy to encourage the universities to go down that route. They are clearly aware of the very tight financial situation that they find themselves in as a consequence of the current funding cuts that are being passed on, not least in terms of the attitude that his party is taking to welfare at present. It is, ultimately, for the universities to run their own provision. It is not the job of the Department to micromanage exactly how they go about that. I fear that setting a target would be a disproportionate way of interfering and that we would end up with the Department running the universities rather than letting the universities get on and do the job that we want them to do for the economy as a whole.

Mrs Dobson: What additional support has the Minister provided to the Open University since devolution?

Dr Farry: The Open University is very much part of the higher education family in Northern Ireland, and it now receives its funding directly from my Department. It is obviously under a degree of financial pressure as well. In some ways, it is perhaps slightly more adaptable in the sense that it has part-time provision. Because of the nature of some of the new opportunities that are emerging through, for example, our apprenticeships strategy, particularly higher-level apprenticeships, it can take up some of those opportunities. It also has a much stronger tradition of virtual learning than many of the more traditional universities in the approach that is taken to learning. It is well placed to take advantage of new developments in higher education, such as MOOCs.

Dr Farry: The higher education funding review commenced in September 2013. In December 2014, I decided that it would not be appropriate to undertake a consultation of the funding review amid the uncertainties about my Department's future budgets. The consultation was, therefore, put on hold until the budget settlement for 2015-16 became clearer.

The higher education sector is facing a one-year budget reduction of 8·4% for teaching and research grants. That equates to a reduction of £16·1 million.

This has led to serious questions over the future financial sustainability of higher education that I do not believe can be addressed through the limited scope of the higher education funding review. Although my Department will now be taking forward aspects of the review separately, I have identified the need for a wider discussion with all stakeholders about how Northern Ireland can support a financially sustainable and internationally competitive sector. The work undertaken in the higher education funding review will be crucial in informing and facilitating this wider discussion.


3.15 pm

With regard to student finance, I will shortly be launching a consultation on part-time and postgraduate taught student support. That will ensure that policies relating to a new student support package for part-time and postgrad learners will be in place for the academic year 2016-17. Student finance has long been a crucial enabler of higher education study, and I want to ensure accessibility into and through higher education for all types of learners. During my discussions with NUS-USI at its annual conference, representations were made on potential modifications to the frequency of student support payments. I am happy to explore that issue in more detail, and the first step in that process will be a public consultation exercise.

Mr Speaker: I am sorry, we are out of time and I am not able to take your supplementary. That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to topical questions.

T1. Mr McAleer asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of the success of the Assured Skills programme. (AQT 2331/11-15)

Dr Farry: Assured Skills has been an outstanding success and can be viewed as almost a unique contribution to the approach to inward investment relative to different approaches that are taken around the world. It is very much based on working with companies to address their skill requirements. We know that we can attract companies to Northern Ireland on the basis of the quality of our workforce and our people coming through colleges and universities in a general sense, but companies will often want the assurance that we can provide the particular skills that they require for their business to be a success. I am pleased to say that we have moved from Assured Skills being a pilot programme over the past number of years to it being mainstream provision. As we look ahead to lower corporation tax, the work that we do through Assured Skills will become even more important.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. From his engagement with business, industry and various companies, does the Minister believe that the Assured Skills programme is essential for attracting inward investment?

Dr Farry: Very much so. The Member will note from the large number of investments that we have seen over the past 12 months in particular how closely my Department has worked with Invest Northern Ireland to make those a reality. We offered Assured Skills programmes in a considerable number of those investments. The feedback from companies is that that type of intervention is critical in their decision-making. That is something we have to build on.

T2. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the implementation of the apprenticeships strategy and his work to ensure parity of esteem for vocational training in Northern Ireland. (AQT 2332/11-15)

Dr Farry: As the Member knows, our apprenticeship strategy was launched in the Assembly in June 2014. We are phasing in the introduction of the new strategy between then and September 2016. Work is well under way in developing pilots in higher-level apprenticeships. We also have in place an interim strategic advisory forum. I was pleased that Bryan Keating has assumed the chair of that at our meeting at the end of March. Over the next number of months, that group will work on various aspects — legislation, for example — and how we can better encourage the uptake of new opportunities among employers. We have a successful bid to the change fund for £7·5 million to support apprenticeships and youth training over the forthcoming 12 months. That is a valuable asset to develop what should be a critical investment in delivering for our young people and ensuring that companies get the direct skills that they require to be a success in Northern Ireland.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his update. I find the work being done on apprenticeships encouraging. What will the main opportunities and challenges be in the coming months, and has progress been made on companies working together to deliver apprenticeships in a joined-up fashion?

Dr Farry: I am certainly pleased that we are seeing sectoral partnerships emerging. We have sectoral partnerships in place for the IT, engineering and food and drink manufacturing sectors. We have also seen some very strong work happening on apprenticeships in life sciences, finance and accountancy. We hope shortly to see sectoral partnerships in those areas.

It is important that we encourage businesses to come forward and create opportunities for apprenticeships. It is important that businesses are in the driving seat in creating fresh opportunities. It is not about the state trying to second-guess where apprenticeships should be created but about companies identifying their future training requirements. The real challenge is to ensure that we can keep up with and meet the expectations of businesses and that we do more to encourage our young people to consider apprenticeships as a legitimate pathway that is on a par with some of the more traditional pathways, such as university. Both are good ways of achieving higher-level skills, and we need to ensure that we have a balanced approach in our economy.

Mr Speaker: Mr Chris Hazzard is not in his place. Mr Daithí McKay is not in his place. I call Ms Bronwyn McGahan.

T5. Ms McGahan asked the Minister for Employment and Learning whether his Department will consider holding a jobs fair in the Dungannon district, particularly in the Killeeshil community centre, which is in the heartland of a rural area that has experienced high levels of immigration. (AQT 2335/11-15)

Dr Farry: I am happy for my officials to engage with the Member and consider her proposal. We are committed to holding jobs fairs in different locations across Northern Ireland. We want to see a critical mass of employers who are willing to use that type of forum to engage with those who are unemployed or looking to change jobs so that we can make the event a success. We have run successful jobs fairs in different places over the past number of months, and the feedback on those has been very good, so we are more than happy to look into what the Member has proposed.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his very positive response. Given that economic inactivity is highest in rural areas, does he agree that holding such an event in the heartland of a rural area is an important step in tackling unemployment in rural areas?

Dr Farry: Absolutely. A few weeks ago, I visited a jobs fair in Claudy. We are focusing very much on engagement in rural areas. The approach that we take as a Department is not the one-size-fits-all approach of doing big events in Belfast or Derry and expecting people to go there. We will show a degree of flexibility in accommodating people in different settings, and that includes the urban/rural split.

T6. Ms Boyle asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the work to develop the North West Regional College in Strabane. (AQT 2336/11-15)

Dr Farry: At this stage, I must make it clear to Members that there are no immediate plans for capital investment in Strabane. We are committed to working with the North West Regional College to ensure that it delivers a balanced curriculum across its area. If there are particular questions or points that the Member wishes to raise about what should or should not be provided in Strabane, I am more than happy to take them on board.

Ms Boyle: I thank the Minister for his answer. Is there any intention in your Department to increase the number of places on offer in Strabane? Is that an area that you would be willing to look at? Go raibh maith agat.

Dr Farry: That, again, is very much something for the North West Regional College to consider. It is for it and the other five colleges to consider their curriculum offer and the distribution of that offer across the campuses. It is important that Members appreciate that the role of government is not to micromanage how we deliver further education, in the same way as we do not seek to micromanage the delivery of higher education. That is why we have colleges, and that is why they have their own board of governors and principals and staff who work to those boards. That is the essence of pluralism, but, if the Member has particular concerns about what is or is not being provided in Strabane, I am happy to take them on board and speak to the powers that be in the North West Regional College. Ultimately, those are decisions for the college to take, but we can seek to express views to it, and that is perfectly legitimate.

T7. Mr Swann asked the Minister for Employment and Learning how he thinks the £108,000 that he recently announced for the NEET strategy forum will be spent. (AQT 2337/11-15)

Dr Farry: It is important to recognise, first of all, that we are going through difficult times in our ability to deliver the Pathways to Success strategy, which is the Executive strategy for dealing with NEETs. The forum has been very successful in engaging different organisations from the community and voluntary sector in best practice and in sharing best practice. It has also created our ability to engage in a more structured manner with young people. The voices of young people were very clear about advocacy: we should seek to have a continuation of the NEETs forum. I expect that we will be able to continue that type of work, albeit in a slightly more constricted format, given the reduction of available resources. Nonetheless, in terms of our ability to find resources, I regard this as a priority for our continued ability to make some investments in working with those who are marginalised from the labour market, particularly young people.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his explanation. One of the recommendations from the previous forum was the continuation of the Pathways to Success education maintenance allowance. The Minister withdrew that within a couple of days of assigning the £108,000 to the NEET strategy forum. Will he tell me how those two balance up? If he has removed the education maintenance allowance from young people who are on the Pathways to Success programme, they are NEET and are more in need of that provision.

Dr Farry: The Member is aware that my Department had a significant budget allocated to it for investing in the Pathways to Success strategy. That money came to an end on 31 March 2015. Had we been in different financial circumstances, it would have been my hope and, indeed, expectation that a similar amount of money would have been found by the Executive to continue that work. All that money has now dried up. We have seen a migration of some of the organisations that worked under the collaboration and innovation fund towards seeking funding under the European social fund. Sadly, it is my view that, at present, we were not in a position to continue with the training allowance. That automatically came to an end with the end of the funding.

Given the limited resources available to us, it was my judgement that the continuation of the NEETs forum — the money involved to make it a success — was a more productive use of resource. That is not to take away from the importance of the training allowance. I have asked my officials to continue to look at existing, albeit diminished, budgets to see whether there is a means by which we can have the continuation of a training allowance for young people on some of the schemes. That work is under way. As the Member appreciates, budgets are now incredibly tight, and we have to make a lot of difficult decisions. We have to make sure that we use resources in the most efficient and effective way possible.

T8. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister for Employment and Learning which projects in the Newry and Armagh constituency have progressed to the next stage under the European social fund. (AQT 2338/11-15)

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá ceist agam ar an Aire faoi chiste sóisialta na hEorpa.

Dr Farry: There is a comprehensive list of the organisations that have been offered funding in the press release that we issued on 26 March, and I encourage the Member to peruse it. There will be some organisations that are particular to that subregional area in Northern Ireland; other schemes may have a wider application but will still impact on that part of the world. There are also appeals that are still in process, as I mentioned earlier. The situation may change if some of those appeals are successful in moving particular proposals in the framework within which we are making funding offers to organisations.

Mr D Bradley: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. How will the Minister ensure that an appropriate geographical spread of funding will be achieved?

Dr Farry: We have conducted some analysis of the current funding decisions that we have made, and I am satisfied that there is a fair distribution across the Assembly constituencies in Northern Ireland. It is not entirely uniform, and it cannot be, given the nature of the process under way. It also reflects a lot of work that was conducted by officials at the roadshows across Northern Ireland that took place last autumn, where we were raising awareness of the opportunities to bid. Again, that was all solid work to ensure that, as far as possible, we could ensure a fair regional balance with the funding offers that were being made.


3.30 pm

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly notes the failure of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to repeal the exemption in fair employment law allowing discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in teacher appointments, as mandated by the motion Teachers: Employment Law, which was approved by the Assembly on 22 April 2013; recognises that the teacher exemption, as well as the continuing requirement for a certificate in religious education at nursery and primary level in the Catholic maintained sector, are unnecessary barriers to truly shared education; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take action to remove these overt examples of inequality and discrimination. — [Mr Kinahan.]

Which amendment was:

Insert at end:

"; and further calls, as an interim measure until this action is implemented, on St Mary’s University College to provide access to the teaching of the certificate in religious education to students from other teacher training institutions, including Stranmillis University College.". — [Mr Lunn.]

Miss M McIlveen: I am speaking first as Chair of the Education Committee. Around two years ago, the Committee considered the Department of Education's report on the review of employment opportunities for teaching staff, including the assessment of the equality impact of the religious certificate requirement. Whether the House agrees or disagrees, as the report finds, some non-Catholics clearly view the requirement to possess the certificate of religious education as a bar to employment in the Catholic maintained primary school sector.

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

The report suggested that there was no statistical evidence of an adverse impact on employment opportunities for newly qualified non-Catholic teachers. Nonetheless, the Department suggested that the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) should consider limiting this requirement to designated posts only in the primary and nursery sector. Some Committee members do not view the certificate as necessarily discriminatory. They accepted the Department's findings that there is no evidence of material disadvantage for non-Catholic teachers.

The majority of Committee members highlighted considerable concerns about CCMS's continued insistence that teachers in Catholic maintained primary schools be required to obtain the certificate of religious education. The majority of members felt that the present arrangements are unfair and represent a significant inequality. These members felt that the approach of CCMS was particularly unhelpful given the need for flexibility on all sides in the face of primary school area planning. The majority of members believed that cross-sectoral amalgamations and enhanced sharing between schools can only be hampered by what some have described as this unfair employment practice.

The Committee heard quite recently from CCMS and the Commission for Catholic Education on shared education. We were advised that CCMS wishes to enhance access to the certificate. Other than that, I think that it is fair to say that nothing has changed in the intervening two years on the issue of the certificate.

Speaking as a Member, I want to widen the debate on this matter. I will, of course, be supporting the motion. My party has been calling for the removal of the teacher exemption for many years. The Minister of Education, of course, should have been included in this motion, and, while OFMDFM has a responsibility in relation to equality, it is the Education Minister who has the responsibility for teacher recruitment. However, the context of the debate has moved on considerably since this matter was last before the House. Previously, this was discussed when an earlier incarnation of the Education Bill was before us. It proposed to create a single employing authority. Now, we have a new Education Authority, which has an obligation in terms of shared education. There is the new Lisanelly site, advanced proposals for shared education at the Moy and forthcoming proposals for Brookeborough. Of course, there is also the Education Committee's inquiry into shared education.

There is always a danger that we use yesterday's language rather than tomorrow's vision. The exemption should be removed, but it is only part of the wider issue that needs to be addressed. Debating a motion on it is great for headlines but does little to solve those other issues. I am pleased that the Churches in Northern Ireland have been working closely with the Department on proposals that could push shared education forward quite dramatically. This was outlined to us as part of the shared education inquiry, and I believe that the publication of a circular on this issue is imminent. My party has been at the forefront of the debate on shared education and creating a more cohesive system. The proposals are ambitious and are not only an indication of a step forward in education in but a symbol of the progress that is being made in Northern Ireland. They represent a means by which the entrenched sectorism that has existed for far too long in our society can be diluted and a more coherent system of education developed.

Joint faith schools should assist in normalising the recruitment of teachers. The Catholic certificate has always been an irrelevancy when it comes to doing the job. The current legislative exemption permits its existence. There would be an understandable outrage if a Protestant certificate were proposed. As for Mr Lunn's aspiration for a single certificate, in my understanding that is a teacher's PGCE or bachelor of education —

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

Miss M McIlveen: — degree certificate. Nothing else is required. The exemption, along with the certificate, creates a problem where Protestant teachers are the ones who potentially suffer. When those who are not in possession of a certificate look for a job, the options are more limited —

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

Miss M McIlveen: — than those who are in possession of one. The answer is not to let anyone —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Pat Sheehan.

Mr Sheehan: There are two issues in this debate: the exemption from the fair employment legislation, and the use of the religious education certificate. Let me deal first with the issue of the exemption from fair employment. When Jim Clarke from CCMS spoke to the Education Committee on 29 May 2013, he stated clearly that CCMS had never used the exemption and had no intention of using it. He went even further when he said:

"We have no qualms whatsoever about that being taken away."

I would also be in favour of the exemption being removed, even though it appears it has never been used. How do we do that? We do it by bringing forward a single equality Bill that covers all the remaining outstanding equality issues. I look forward to the party that proposed this motion and those that support it also giving their support to a single equality Bill.

Let me move on to the issue of the certificate in religious education. The motion states that the requirement for the certificate in primary and nursery schools in the Catholic sector is a barrier to "truly shared education". I do not know whether "truly shared" is different from shared, but maybe somebody can explain that later.

The report from the ministerial advisory group, in March 2013, used a definition of shared education stating that it:

"Involves schools ... of differing ownership, sectoral identity and ethos, management type or governance arrangements".

From that definition, it follows that a shared approach accepts the diversity and distinctiveness of our school system and our society. It respects all types of schools, including controlled, Catholic, integrated and Irish-medium.

The certificate is a requirement in Catholic primary and nursery schools, aimed at protecting the Catholic ethos in those schools. No one would expect the integrated or Irish-medium sectors to abandon policies or practices aimed at protecting the ethos of those particular sectors, so why are the proposers of this motion and amendment seeking to undermine the integrity of one particular sector? On the face of it, this is a long way removed from the respectful spirit that we require for shared education.

Let me make the point that the certificate is a qualification just like any other, whether it be maths, English and so on. We all know that the teachers in primary schools teach the full curriculum, and they need to be versed in the religious education that they are teaching in the classroom. The Catholic sector wants to protect that ethos in their schools. What is the difficulty with that? What is the difficulty that the proposers of this motion and amendment have with diversity in the system? Are we going back to a situation similar to that which we recently had with the debacle over St Mary's, when the Minister for Employment and Learning — an Alliance Minister — was trying to force the integration of teacher training?

The respectful spirit required for shared education was absent from the Minister for Employment and Learning's recent attempts to undermine St Mary's University College by financial coercion. I know that St Mary's is committed to a shared future for teacher training based on respect for diversity and parity of esteem. In fact, on 17 September last year, the principal of St Mary's, Peter Finn, told the Committee for Employment and Learning that the issue of the religious education certificate could be resolved by collaboration. I am sure that, when there is evidence of a genuine desire for collaboration, St Mary's will not be found wanting.

Forced integration is not the answer, and the Alliance Party, by its recent actions and its amendment to the motion today, creates an atmosphere of distrust. All of us sitting over here believe that this is aimed solely at the Catholic sector. The potential for progress has been set back. We will oppose the motion and the amendment. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Rogers: I welcome the opportunity to speak against the motion.

First, I must address the wildly misleading and, frankly, wrong assertion in the motion that the certificate in religious education permits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. Those Members who are more inclined to exaggerate need to be reminded that a certificate is a qualification, not a conversion. Catholicism, let alone strict adherence to the Catholic faith, is not a prerequisite.

The SDLP is a strong advocate of parental choice, which is why we fought so hard to ensure that the Irish-medium, integrated and voluntary grammar schools were represented on the board of the new Education Authority. We have a unique education landscape in Northern Ireland, which must be managed respectfully and inclusively. Many parents want their children to be taught in a Catholic ethos, but by no stretch of the imagination does that mean that they want their children to be segregated.

As a former teacher and principal who has colleagues, and has taught many pupils, who were not from the Catholic tradition, I find the motion disappointing and, indeed, ignorant of what a Catholic education entails. Faith formation is an integral part of a Catholic education. It is like a three-legged stool: what happens in the school, the parish and the home. They are all complementary; if you take one away, the stool crashes. The religious education provided by our teachers is essential for the right foundation in life and the development of the Catholic ethos. Our primary-school teachers do not teach just religious education but the whole curriculum. The Catholic ethos permeates all aspects of the curriculum.

Reference was made to barriers. The certificate itself is not a barrier; it is additional training to enable nursery or primary-school teachers to conduct religious education classes confidently through a Christian ethos. That also involves sacramental preparation in primary 4 and primary 7, which constitutes an important milestone in the religious education curriculum. Rather, the barrier is for students who face practical difficulties in obtaining the certificate. Students at Stranmillis University College can obtain the certificate by distance learning. A lack of awareness coupled with little information about the course presents the first barrier for students. Subsequently, the need to pay upfront fees and the lack of support and available resources can prove off-putting.

The motion calls for the removal of an opportunity for our student teachers to achieve an additional qualification. We need to ensure that students from Stranmillis are fully informed and aware of this opportunity and given the full support necessary to work towards it. That may include looking again at the provision of fees. Students at Stranmillis should not be denied the opportunity to enhance their CVs in our increasingly competitive job market, one that will become all the more competitive with looming education cuts.

Mr Lunn: I thank Mr Rogers for giving way. Does he not agree that, if a student at Stranmillis would like to obtain the Catholic certificate — for want of a better term — the obvious way to do it would be by cooperation between St Mary's and Stranmillis?

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

Mr Rogers: I am quite happy to have greater cooperation between Stranmillis and St Mary's, but the key point is that the certificate has to be open to all students, not just those in St Mary's. I am quite happy with that.


3.45 pm

There are just one or two other points to make. Mr Kinahan talked about Scotland. I will quote directly from the Scottish Catholic Education Service's website:

"For those teaching posts which impact on the teaching of Religious Education, teachers will be expected to provide evidence of having obtained an appropriate teaching qualification in Catholic Religious Education."

The same is the case in England and Wales. It is very annoying when I hear it said that the Catholic certificate is an irrelevancy. I find it very hard to comprehend where that comes from, having spent so long in the classroom. The Catholic certificate in religious education is a requirement for any teacher who wants to teach in a Catholic school, whether it is in England, Scotland or Wales, and it should be the same in Northern Ireland. We need to make the certificate more available to all our trainee teachers.

Mr McCausland: I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue. As I will say later on, it is important that we have not only debate about the issue but informed debate. I come at it at a slight disadvantage as a member of the Education Committee in that these are issues that were discussed by the Committee at some length some time ago before I joined the Committee, so I am not privy to all the discussions that took place at that time. However, I want to pick up on the fact that in the motion there is a word that is important for education: the word "inequality".

One of the things that is very distinctive about our education provision in Northern Ireland is the range of sectors, the complex architecture that was developed over the years and some of its inbuilt inequalities. We have a substantial number of sectors and a system that was there for 40 years from the creation of the education and library boards. We are all very familiar with the difficulties that there were in reshaping and reconfiguring the architecture of education to create an Education Authority. Once the whole issue started to be unpacked, suddenly a whole range of other things started to open up. I am, however, keen to see that inequalities are addressed wherever they can be. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that we commit ourselves to that.

I was interested in Mr Sheehan's comment that the certificate is the same as every other qualification. I would suggest that it is not quite the same as every other qualification. The fact that such strong views have been expressed today in favour of retaining it suggests that I am right in that assumption and that, contrary to what was said by Mr Sheehan, there is something unique and different in that it is something that is particular to one sector and for one sector alone. That is why it is not the same as every other qualification. It is unique, peculiar and distinctive to one sector; in this case, the Roman Catholic sector. The comment was also made that some of the observations, critiques and comments were aimed solely at the Roman Catholic sector, but that is the very nature of the thing because it is a certificate for teaching religious education in a Roman Catholic ethos.

When I said earlier that it is not good enough just to have a debate and that it needs to be an informed debate, I would certainly want to be better informed as to why there has to be a certificate in religious education. What is there in it that is not in any other primary education training for teachers? Other teachers at primary level are taught and equipped to teach religious education with a syllabus which, apart from the sacramental element, is the same across all schools.

If that is the case, what is different, what is unique and why is there a need for that particular certificate? People who are listening to the debate and who have a general interest in education may well ask who validates the certificate, who is authorised to deliver it and who authorises them to deliver it. If somebody else were to create a certificate in religious education, who would decide whether that is acceptable or not? That is why I say that I think that we need to have a debate about it, but it needs to be an informed debate.

Seán Rogers got very close to the point when he referred to the issue of sacramental education, because the earlier part of his justification for a certificate did not really stand up strongly, in that, as I have said already —

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

Mr McCausland: Teachers elsewhere are learning those things for the primary teaching of RE. Therefore, in my view, there is a need for a more informed debate, and for answers to some of those questions so that we can have that informed debate.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: I speak as a member of the Education Committee in opposition to the motion and the amendment. I welcome the opportunity to have the debate in the House, albeit for the second occasion.

I agree with the Chair of the Education Committee that there are two distinct issues here and that it is appropriate and important that we do not cloud one with the other. One of the issues, as has rightly been pointed out, concerns the Fair Employment and Treatment Order and the exemption issue. The second is clearly about the use of the religious education certificate in the appointment of teachers to both primary and nursery schools. As the proposer of the motion indicated, the exemption from fair employment law has well outlived its sell-by date. I think that there is consensus in the Chamber around that. It is very clear that our society and our education system are growing in culture, tradition and diversity. Our education provides for children from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Therefore, the same opportunity must be given to those who want to teach in schools.

As a party, we have supported, and continue to support, the claim that the continuation of the exception is wrong and outdated, and we have called on OFMDFM to take forward proposals for the removal of the exemption in article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment Order following the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority. It is clearly now a matter for OFMDFM.

I agree with Mr McCausland when he talks about having a genuine debate and discussion. The place for that genuine debate is after the introduction of the single equality Bill to address all those outstanding equality issues. The Education and Skills Authority is now agreed. Such an approach would provide a basis for open dialogue with key interest groups and provide for ample debate in a neutral environment.

I — like many Members, I hope — welcome the removal of any barrier in front of aspiring teachers, but March 2013 provided the assessment of the impact of the religious certificate required to teach in Catholic maintained primary and nursery schools. As Pat Sheehan quite rightly pointed out, the certificate is a qualification. There is no statistical evidence to suggest that the certificate requirement has resulted in inequalities in employment. However, the review did identify barriers to accessing the certificate, which may lead to inequalities for those who wish to attain it. The review highlighted three main reasons for students not taking up the certificate: financial outlay; time commitment; and lack of support. That is where our attention should lie — on making the process accessible for all. I oppose the motion and the amendment.

Mr D McIlveen: I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this motion as a member of the OFMDFM Committee. It is abundantly clear that the Catholic certificate of education is providing fuel to a culture of discrimination in our education sector. The last Member who spoke tried to make the point that there is no statistical evidence. There is statistical evidence. The statistical evidence is the miniscule number of young Protestant teachers who teach in the Catholic education sector. That statistic is clear for everyone to see.

Mr Hazzard: Will the Member give way?

Mr D McIlveen: I will in just a moment.

The teaching of a Catholic ethos in schools was also raised, and I am certainly one who has some sympathy for that principle. I think that it was Mr Rogers who said that, if a parent is teaching their children a certain ethos in the home, which they are perfectly entitled to do, and there is a contrary ethos being taught to them in school, that could be very destabilising to the needs of the child. However, that is not what this motion is asking for; it is certainly not what we have been calling for.

What we have been asking for is that when it comes to religious studies, which is obviously a very specific issue where there may be varying views from sector to sector, parental choice should be taken into consideration. However, I will happily take an intervention from the other side of the House if somebody can tell me the difference between Catholic maths and Protestant maths, Catholic English and Protestant English, or Catholic science and Protestant science. Those subjects are universal and can be taught by people who are Protestant, Catholic or any other particular religion, as indeed is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is where we have to be very careful not to fall into a trap.

The precedent has already been set. In primary schools today, where a teacher does not have the ability to teach music to primary-school children, the class will move to where such a teacher is for a time, be it an afternoon or a couple of hours, to be taught music. There is no reason why such a system would not work in our primary-school sector, and it would completely remove this discrimination.

I will give way to Mr Sheehan.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for giving way. I thought that the Member had come in before me.

The Member said that there exists a "culture of discrimination" in education. Perhaps the Member would want to reconsider those words or outline examples of where this "culture of discrimination" exists. Go raibh maith agat.

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

Mr D McIlveen: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was formerly a member of the Employment and Learning Committee. The last time the head of St Mary's was before the Committee when I was a member of it, I asked this very question: how many Protestant students are there in St Mary's College? The answer was a small number. I cannot remember the exact figure off the top off my head. When I took it a little bit further and asked how many of those students were not in liberal arts but in the teacher-training side of the college, the answer was a very clear and resounding zero. There is no appetite.

It is so clear. I am sorry to the Member, but I represent a constituency where people are being very heavily affected by this. It is seldom that I go round the doors of my constituency and do not meet a parent whose son or daughter has been unable to find employment in the education sector; in the worst-case scenarios, they may have had to leave Northern Ireland completely. They have applied for jobs in the Catholic sector, and it is clear that they do not get them because they do not hold this certificate. It is perhaps the worst form of discrimination: silent discrimination. The statistics perhaps are not always there, but that does not mean that discrimination is not in place. We have to be very clear on that.

Mr Sheehan: Will the Member give way?

Mr D McIlveen: I am sorry, but I have a few other points that I want to get through.

There needs to be a consultation. If a decision is not taken voluntarily in the sector, we will have to look at equality legislation to see what can be done to deal with the issue. However, it would be much better if the sector stepped up to the mark and dealt with these issues itself. Furthermore, there is still an issue with the oversupply of teachers, which is inextricably linked to this issue.

There is a systemic problem as well. Think of the health service for example. The Department that pays for the training of new doctors is the same Department that pays for their employment. That is not the issue that we have in education. There is a laissez-faire attitude in the Department of Education. It is quite happy for DEL to continue to fund and churn out teachers, knowing full well that the jobs are simply not there for them. I believe that a penalty should be enforced on the Department of Education if it continues to allow an oversupply of teachers in the sector. I think that we have to —


4.00 pm

Mr Lunn: Will the Member give way?

Mr D McIlveen: I am sorry, I am coming very close to the end of my remarks, and I want to make one final remark about the single equality Bill. If we take a view that the single equality Bill will be the panacea that sorts everything out, we are living in cloud cuckoo land. To suggest that the needs of the education sector —

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

Mr D McIlveen: — are the same as the needs of every other sector across our community is a myth. It suggests a misunderstanding of the whole principle of equality by the Members on the opposite Benches.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As with my colleagues who have spoken previously, I oppose the motion and, indeed, the amendment. There has been some confusion with very many of the issues. I see three distinct issues. The amendment is disingenuous to the issue at hand. It is an overhang from a previous debate that was had in recent months and is not relevant to the motion in question. I also think that the motion is in two distinct parts, and that has been discussed.

On the last point that was touched on, of a culture of discrimination, Jim Clarke and the CCMS — this was perhaps referred to earlier — have agreed that, in principle, if a teacher takes a job, it could take up to three years to gain the certificate, but it is available online through a Glasgow university. I would understand if you could not access the certificate whatsoever if you were not a Catholic, but that is not the case. If there issues with accessibility, a cold house or whatever it might be then —

Mr Girvan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hazzard: Go ahead.

Mr Girvan: Is there a necessity for somebody who is a maths teacher to have the Catholic teaching certificate if they are teaching only maths?

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

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his intervention, but, again, there is some confusion from the Benches opposite. In one debate, there is a protection of ethos and ethos is very important, but, when it comes to this debate, ethos can go out the window if we discuss music or maths. That is not the case. We know that, very often, ethos is very important in those schools, and the DUP cherishes ethos at all times when we discuss other topics.

Going back to the point about accessibility, if that is an issue — there are certain valid points about that — it can be looked at. The process at looking at accessibility has begun.

Of course, the exemption goes back to the fair employment Orders, and there are points there. In 2009 the Equality Commission said that the exemption should be repealed, and that is an issue for OFMDFM. The point, which has been made time and again, is that a single equality Bill would deal with that. The last Member who spoke said that it is not the same type of equality as another type of equality, but equality is equality. If the motion is such a passionate plea for equality to dispel the notion of a culture of discrimination and everything else, they should support a single equality Bill that will deal with that.

I will not rehearse any of the other arguments that have been made. It is disappointing that the motion tries to catch all. In fact, the valid point that it maybe has in its first part was ruined by including far too many other things. I oppose the motion and the amendment.

Mr Ramsey: The SDLP will vote against both the motion and amendment. It is a motion that many parents and teachers across Northern Ireland will see as an attack on their choice to educate children in a Catholic ethos. Teachers in nursery and primary schools that maintain a Catholic ethos have a particular responsibility to prepare pupils and young people to undertake the sacraments.

Catholic schools represent 40% of the overall school estate in Northern Ireland and employ almost 6,000 members of staff — 5,900 staff. The certificate enables teachers to carry out the requirement to prepare children for the sacraments and to do so with confidence and training. Catholic schools have provided an excellent academic education that is enveloped in faith-filled pastoral care in our society, and the certificate plays a key role in achieving that.

The SDLP will defend parental choice, as it has done in previous debates. Parents know their children, their needs and how they want them to be educated. The certificate plays a key role in maintaining the Catholic ethos that so many parents across Northern Ireland want for their children.

To brand the certificate as an overall example of inequality and discrimination is a blatant and huge exaggeration, to say the least. This is not about an individual teacher's personal belief; it is about ensuring that an individual is fully qualified to teach in a Catholic school. The certificate in religious education is not a barrier but a leveller that qualifies teachers of all faiths or none to deliver the education that so many parents want. It is a not a test of personal faith; it is a certified qualification that means that anyone can be fully trained to handle the aspects of education that are unique to Catholic education.

This motion has come at a time — Pat Sheehan made this point — when previous attempts by the Minister for Employment and Learning to effectively try to close down St Mary's teacher training college remain fresh in our minds, particularly those of us who believe that it should be protected. It is disappointing that Members who stood here literally a few weeks ago with the SDLP defending the autonomy of this excellent institution seem now to be attacking the very ethos that it nourishes and promotes. Shared education is key to a shared future. A shared future is not about eradicating difference —

Mr Lunn: I thank the Member for giving way. He mentioned shared education. Would he not agree with me that shared teacher training is a way forward as well, and that St Mary's should be open to the suggestion to allow students from Stranmillis to apply for the certificate of education in cooperation with St Mary's instead of having to do it through a long-distance learning plan?

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

Mr Ramsey: I welcome the intervention. I will put the question back to him and other Members who have quoted concerns that have been raised by constituents: if those concerns are valid and live, how many times have you asked to meet the board of governors of St Mary's? How many times have you asked to meet CCMS to discuss these issues? If you are so sincere and genuine about them, you would take that to them and ask them. Pat Sheehan made the point that Peter Finn would be open to dialogue on providing the certificates that are in question here today. Shared education is key to a shared future.

Mr Lunn: Will the Member give way again?

Mr Ramsey: Yes, I will give way.

Mr Lunn: I just want to confirm that the Minister you talk about has had extensive discussions with CCMS about this and it is not against the principle that we are trying to put forward here.

Mr Ramsey: It is very clear that, over the past number of years, the Minister in question has been very determined and dogged in his approach to try to undermine and put the "for sale" sign up on St Mary's college in west Belfast. That is clear and obvious. My question to the Alliance Party is this: how many times, given its concerns around the certificate, has it asked to meet either the principal or the board of governors of St Mary's if these live concerns are there?

A shared future is not about eradicating difference; it is about celebrating diversity and accommodating beliefs and traditions that differ from our own. Inflaming difference with exaggeration and misrepresentation is a barrier to our shared future, not a qualification. That is clear and obvious. I am somewhat disappointed about some of the language that has been used, as Seán Rogers has explained.

We have a centre of excellence. This is really getting to the bottom of it about St Mary's college: it is a centre of excellence, not just for education but for culture and support in the heart of west Belfast. We have seen the student body up here — many hundreds, if not thousands, of them — celebrating those paths. I think that Members in this House should not ignore the valued work that St Mary's college does and the principle of and acceptance and respect for faith-based education, which is as important to me as my political beliefs. I believe in the protection of faith-based education, which means a lot to parents in Northern Ireland. When 40% of the schools estate in Northern Ireland is Catholic faith based, that is where the parents of these children want them to go.

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

Mr Ramsey: They see their children's futures in Catholic schools, whether they be primary or post-primary schools, or for their sons or daughters themselves to go into teacher training. Again, I make it clear that we oppose the motion and the amendment.

Mr Kinahan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. At the beginning of the debate, Mr Sheehan made a point of order that the Education Minister had written a letter to everyone. During the debate, we have been trying to find a copy of that letter. It does not seem to exist. My point is that the Minister said that he believed that the document should be removed. In a further one, he went on to say that it should be done away with.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I am not sure that that is a point of order, but the Member has raised it, and it is on the record in Hansard. I am sure that it can then be pursued.

Mr Sheehan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The previous Deputy Speaker said that my earlier point was a "point of clarification", so maybe this is something similar. I remember reading the letter that the Minister sent round in which he said that he had confused the issue of exemption from fair employment and that of the certificate in religious education, and he corrected the mistake that he made in the House. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has put his view on the record, and perhaps if letters can be exchanged, everyone will be happy.

Mr Craig: The only thing that I can confirm is that I have no recollection of any letters, of clarification or otherwise, from the Minister.

This afternoon, we need to look at the Catholic certificate, the religious education certificate that we are debating, and what it is. It is at the root of what is being discussed. Is it discrimination or not? To be honest with you, from my personal background, I have absolutely no idea what it is. I come from a deeply evangelical Protestant background, and I have no idea what it is all about. However, I listened to and questioned the CCMS representatives with deep interest when they came to the Committee. In some respects, Father Tim Bartlett let the cat out of the bag when he said that it is very much about not only teaching the sacraments of the Church but turning each maintained teacher into a religious education teacher.

If you go into a maintained school, not only are you a teacher of maths, English, physics or whatever but you are a religious instructor. The difference is that you are a religious instructor of one religious viewpoint. From an equality point of view, is that acceptable? Everyone in the House has to make up their own mind on that. My great difficulty is the fact that the state pays for this. I would have thought that that is the role of the Church.

I see a completely different set-up in the controlled sector. The Protestant Churches' viewpoint is not rammed down people's throats by every single teacher in that sector. Only those who wish to teach religion do so. Even when they teach religion, they follow the Northern Ireland curriculum, not the viewpoint of one single Church.

Does this discriminate against those who disagree with it or who disagree with the Roman Catholic faith? I can come to only one conclusion: in some respects, it does discriminate because, even if I can get a certificate that allows me to teach the Roman Catholic faith, I have no wish or desire to do so. Am I being discriminated against? I have come to my own conclusion, and the answer, in my mind, is yes.

Will this have a negative impact on our shared education future, to which everyone on the Committee, basically, agreed to? It could have a negative impact, but the presentation made by both Brookeborough primary schools is reassuring for everyone in the House because those schools are already working together on a shared future. I asked this question: "Are you having shared classes in those schools at present?" The answer was a very clear yes. So, I asked the obvious question when I said, "I take it those shared classes can only be taken by teachers who have the Catholic certificate". The blunt, fundamental answer from both principals was no. So, those two schools have, in their own way, come to a solution that allows those without the Catholic certificate to teach subjects to shared classes in that school environment. If that is the way forward for shared education, so be it. I for one will back that situation.


4.15 pm

When the transferors were in front of the Committee, I asked them the question about the Catholic certificate. They made it very, very clear that there were ongoing negotiations between the four main Churches around the issue so that a solution agreed by all the Churches could be found. In some respects, that is maybe the best way forward. However, as far as this goes here today, I have to support the motion, because no matter what I think, I see an element of discrimination in the Catholic certificate which I, as an evangelical Protestant, cannot support.

Mr McCallister: I welcome the debate and congratulate Mr Kinahan on tabling today's motion. One of the most important things to remember about this debate, and one of the reasons why I am disappointed that there is no ministerial response, is that, for me, it is about shared education. It is much wider than just the aspects of what Mr Kinahan has in his motion, and there ought to be a ministerial response from the Department on it. That is why I brought amendments forward to the Education Bill around a duty to promote shared education and why I have said repeatedly that it cannot simply be about bussing children between different schools. It must be about making sectors within our education system more open, more pluralist and more reflective of society.

Ensuring that more children from different backgrounds are able to learn together every day is vital for the future of our society and economy. I firmly believe that that can be done whilst maintaining those different sectors' rights to teach according to a certain ethos. That is why I have been so disappointed in the Minister's draft shared education Bill. In my view, it is almost taking minimalist to a new level in its lack of ambition.

I believe that the real debate about shared education must be on the issues such as those we are debating today, because I fully support the motion and, indeed, the amendment from the Alliance Party. Removing the exemption in fair employment law would, in my view, be a progressive move. There is a challenge to those who claim to want a shared future and genuine equality. They need to articulate in detail why they oppose such a change.

I will take several of the points, Mr Deputy Speaker. Sinn Féin claims to want an Ireland of equals; it claims to be the party of equality. Why then would it be opposed to changing this? I take Mr Ramsey's point on the value of faith/ethos education entirely. I get that, and I buy into it. I look at schools and results from other parts of the UK; I look at parts of England and Wales where they have shared schools and where they have faith/ethos schools that are outperforming other schools. That is something that we want, but that does not require an individual certificate. As Members opposite and, indeed, Mr Kinahan pointed out, a special certificate is not required if you are teaching science, maths or English. That is where the difference is.

Take, for example, Liverpool. There are shared schools there between the Church of England and Roman Catholic faiths. There are also Anglican schools, where the majority of pupils are actually from a Muslim background.

There are other Catholic schools in which a large percentage of the pupils are from a non-Catholic background, or, indeed, from no religious background. Parents are opting for those schools because their ethos is right. We should surely be able to get that right. We have an opportunity to amend the Minister's Bill and to make decisions. We need to go much further than the changes that the Minister has been suggesting.

What are some of the changes that I would like to see made? I would like an education system that incentivises ethos schools to look at other issues and to increase their intake of children from different backgrounds. I also want to change regulations for governing bodies so that schools and board of governors have a more diverse background. I want us to make it easier for schools to change ethos or sector if there is a genuine demand from local people. There is an opportunity in the forthcoming Bill to do that. It is a much better opportunity than trailing our feet and hoping that a single equality Bill will somehow deliver the answer. We can protect and defend a faith/ethos education and make it more diverse —

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

Mr McCallister: — and pluralist, but take the need for a certificate out of the equation altogether.

Ms Lo: I thank all the Members who referred to our amendment.

The Alliance Party recognises that the motion seeks to address equality of opportunity, and, although we support it, it is important to note that any change would have to be made by amending legislation, and that could take a few years. For that reason, we tabled our amendment as an interim solution. There are a number of issues relating to teacher training, but the debate primarily concerns the existence of the teacher exemption in equality legislation. That is based on article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, and it is OFMDFM's responsibility to initiate legislative change. A number of Members referred to that.

As Members outlined, there is an ongoing requirement for a teacher to possess the certificate in religious education in order to work in nursery and primary schools in the Catholic maintained sector. The crux of the matter is access to the CRE for students at Stranmillis University College and others who may also be affected. At present, Queen's focuses on PGCEs for secondary-level education, where this is less of an issue. Ulster University students study for the certificate as part of the training that is facilitated by the Catholic Church. At St Mary's, provision for the certificate is also part of the course. However, students of Stranmillis have no direct access to studying for the certificate. Their only option is to undertake distance learning through the University of Glasgow, which means additional time and resource costs. A number of Members referred to that.

The Alliance Party respects the fact that there is a range of sectors in the Northern Ireland education system. Across those sectors, different ethoses may need to be accommodated. However, our ideal would be to see a more pluralist certificate that ensures that teachers are trained to work in any context, particularly given the growing diversity in our society, so that those of non-Christian faiths or from no religious background are catered for in our schools system. However, for now, we seek to address the imbalance by calling on St Mary's, as an interim measure, to provide access to the teaching of the certificate in religious education to students from other teacher-training institutions, including Stranmillis University College.

I will now refer to Members' comments on our amendment. Sinn Féin and the SDLP stated that they will oppose the motion and the amendment, although I found that the Members who spoke were all really saying that they wanted to see more collaboration between St Mary's and Stranmillis in not having that barrier for our undergraduates when learning their teacher training.

Mr Sheehan said that the debate today creates an atmosphere of distrust, setting back the potential for collaboration. I hope that that is not the aim of the Alliance Party.

Mr Rogers said that the SDLP advocates parental choice, but he said that he would like to see Stranmillis giving more information and support to students in getting the certificate. That is our aim as well. He said that he wants to see access —

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

Ms Lo: — to a certificate being open to all students.

Ms McLaughlin said that access to a certificate is important —

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

Ms Lo: — and that the exemption has outlived its sell-by date.

Mrs Overend: I rise to wind on the motion, and I share the disappointment that there is no response from any Minister.

My colleague Danny Kinahan, who very rightly proposed the motion this afternoon, asked the following question: do we actually want a shared society and a shared future? That is something that everyone in the Assembly must ask themselves. If some want the perpetuation of inequality, segregation and a shared-out future, they should be honest and say so. Some recent debates in the House suggest that more than a few prefer the status quo; however, there can be no genuine shared education under the current circumstances. Without change, the shared education concept can never succeed. Unless schools have interchangeable staff, the whole project will not be balanced and, for practical reasons, will not work.

On 22 April 2013, the Assembly passed an Ulster Unionist Party motion calling for an end to an exception to fair employment law allowing discrimination on the grounds of religious belief when appointing teachers. It was passed on an oral vote. It is fair to say that nationalists were lukewarm, not to say suspicious; but, at least, Sinn Féin did not oppose the motion. In the subsequent two years, we have seen little or no progress at Executive level. That is why we are debating the motion, which has the added issue of the requirement for a certificate in religious education to the teacher exemption from fair employment regulations.

The Education Minister indicates that he thinks that the requirement for the Catholic certificate should be removed, and that he has written to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on several occasions. "I am awaiting a response", is what the Education Minister said. Has he had no response in nearly two years?

I want to add to the debate some remarks about the Catholic certificate requirement and its availability, or otherwise, to trainee teachers. As we know, to take up a teaching post in Catholic-maintained nursery and primary schools applicants must possess a recognised religious education certificate. The certificate is offered at St Mary's College; it is also an option for students on the postgraduate certificate in education courses at the Ulster University. It is worth noting that, in contrast to the other providers, St Mary's does not use the UCAS system for entrance to its undergraduate teaching course. So, not only do you have another chance to get into St Mary's if you do not get accepted elsewhere, if you graduate from St Mary's armed with a certificate in RE you can apply for a position in any school in Northern Ireland. That opportunity is denied to graduates of Stran.

Stranmillis College has always been, and is increasingly, a mixed teacher-training college, which provides teachers for all sectors in our education system. I was quite concerned recently to learn that attempts made over recent years to enable its students to access the RE certificate offered at St Mary's have been rebuffed. I understand that they are trying again. Surely this is the way forward, at least in the short term. It would be a positive step forward if student teachers could study for and obtain the certificate at Stranmillis, just as they can at Ulster University. I really cannot understand why this has been blocked by certain interests. It sounds like restrictive practices. Let us face it: it sounds like looking after your own.


4.30 pm

Increasingly, the make-up of the teachers in state controlled schools reflects the wider population, but Catholic schools are effectively kept for Catholic teachers. It is just wrong in this day and age of fair employment and equality legislation. On that score, it really is high time that the Equality Commission had a look at this again. I appreciate that religious instruction and the sacraments are important for many Catholic parents, but it can be done in the integrated sector. It can also be done elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In England and Wales, section 58 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 allows for what are known as reserved teachers in types of schools broadly described as faith schools. These schools are allowed to reserve up to a fifth of their teaching posts for teachers selected on the basis of their competence to give religious instruction according to the tenets of that particular faith.

In the short term, I see no reason whatsoever why Stranmillis students should not be given the opportunity to study for and gain their certificate at that institution. It is available for PGCE students at the Ulster University, after all. The more fundamental question is this: do we actually want a shared society and a shared future? Members of this Assembly talk a lot about equality and a shared future, but we all must recognise that dropping the RE certificate obligation is a necessary precursor to effective shared education.

I will refer now to some contributions from other Members. I appreciate the participation of so many people in the Chamber this afternoon.

Mr Lunn and Ms Lo from the Alliance Party, I appreciate your support for this afternoon's motion. You support the exemption's being lifted. You talked about the time taken to implement legislation, and therefore see your amendment as a non-legislative stepping stone towards our aim.

Michelle McIlveen from the DUP talked about using:

"yesterday's language rather than tomorrow's vision."

She complimented the Churches' work of pushing shared education forward. She also said that joint faith schools should do their part in moving this forward as well. Her colleagues Jonathan Craig and David McIlveen also spoke this afternoon. Jonathan referred to the negative impact on the shared education future, and David — sorry, Mr McIlveen — referred to the laissez-faire attitude towards this issue.

I refer now to Mr Sheehan from Sinn Féin.

Mrs Overend: That is fair enough. I will call him Mr Sheehan from Sinn Féin. He referred to the single equality Bill and Sinn Féin's proposal, but this particular issue that we are raising today is something that can be addressed in the short term. If Sinn Féin is genuinely in support, progress can be made in the short term. Mr Sheehan talked about neglecting their ethos in not having the certificate, yet we are not asking those in CCMS to neglect their religion but to ensure equality of opportunity for all teachers.

Mr Rogers from the SDLP spoke against the motion, strongly supporting the Catholic ethos, as did Mr Ramsey. I really feel that this motion is not targeted against the Catholic education system. I want to reassure them of that. Mr Rogers referred to the stool aspect — school, parish and home — of the Roman Catholic ethos in schools. I have to be honest: my children go to a school with a very similar ethos. We learn at school; we talk about what is going on in the area, in the world around us and at home. I find it difficult to understand how, if that is the Catholic ethos, so many schools that share it are not in the Catholic maintained sector.

As for the matter of the Catholic certificate in Scotland, it is not required. I understand that it does exist. We did not say that it did not exist, but it is not required in Scotland.

The Member was clearly very much against getting rid of the Catholic certificate, but we know that the post-primary schools have already dropped it. So, I think that we can progress that.

Mr Hazzard from Sinn Féin again raised the single equality Bill. That Member's party has been in OFMDFM since 2007, but we have yet to see that Bill come before the House. We have not seen it. We want action on the issue sooner rather than later.

To conclude, the exemption to fair employment in teaching through the RE certificate should go.

"My personal view is that it should be done away with. In the teaching of the sacraments, I believe that there are other ways of achieving that objective and goal for the Catholic sector rather than every teacher having a certificate." — [Official Report, Vol 101, No 7, p29, col 2].

Those are not my words; they are the words that the Minister of Education spoke in the House on Monday 9 February. On checking Hansard, I found that he said it twice. So, it is over to his colleagues the First Minister and deputy First Minister to act.

In my last half minute, I will emphasise that the Ulster Unionist Party will not wait any longer for progress on the issue. We will be seeking the first available opportunity to repeal the exemption in fair employment legislation for teachers and to legislate to end the requirement for primary-school teachers in the maintained sector to hold the Catholic certificate in religious education.

I commend the motion to the House, and I will accept the amendment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order, Members. I ask Members to resume their seats. Order, Members.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Main Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Main Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the failure of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to repeal the exemption in fair employment law allowing discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in teacher appointments, as mandated by the motion Teachers: Employment Law, which was approved by the Assembly on 22 April 2013; recognises that the teacher exemption, as well as the continuing requirement for a certificate in religious education at nursery and primary level in the Catholic maintained sector, are unnecessary barriers to truly shared education; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take action to remove these overt examples of inequality and discrimination.

Mr Hazzard: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the House for missing my topical question earlier. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I thank the Member for doing so. It will be on the record and will be passed, therefore, to the Speaker.

Mr McKay: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I echo the comments of my colleague: I also apologise for missing my topical question earlier. Thank you.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I thank the Member for putting that on the record.

Adjourned at 4.55 pm.

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