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Official Report: Tuesday 28 April 2015


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

Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mrs Michelle O'Neill, to move the Consideration Stage of the Reservoirs Bill.

Moved. — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Mr Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are five groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn.

The first debate will be on group 1, which contains 120 amendments and deals with risk designation. The second debate will be on group 2, which contains 54 amendments and deals with duties on Departments and appeal arrangements. The third debate will be on group 3, which contains six amendments and deals with frequency of visits. The fourth debate will be on group 4, which contains six amendments and deals with phased commencement. The final debate will be on group 5, which contains 28 amendments and deals with sensitive information and technical amendments.

I remind Members intending to speak that, during the debates on the five groups of amendments, they should address all the amendments in each group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on each group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If all of that is clear, we shall proceed.

Clause 1 (Controlled reservoirs)

Mr Speaker: We now come to the first group of amendments for debate, which contains 120 amendments. The amendments deal with risk designation. I will call Mr Trevor Clarke to move amendment No 1 and address the other amendments in the group. Amendment Nos 2, 100, 101 and 102 are consequential to amendment No 1. Amendment No 45 is consequential to amendment No 44.

Mr Clarke: I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 1, line 6, leave out "10,000" and insert "25,000".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 2, page 2, line 2, leave out "10,000" and insert "25,000". — [Mr Clarke.]

No 3: In clause 3, page 2, line 35, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 4: In clause 3, page 2, line 36, leave out "matters" and insert "issues". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 5: In clause 3, page 2, line 37, leave out "(ii)". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 6: In clause 3, page 2, line 37, after "the" insert "potential adverse consequences or". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 7: In clause 3, page 2, line 39, leave out "matters" and insert "issues". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 8: In clause 3, page 2, line 39, after "22(3)" insert
"and in regulations under section 22A". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 9: In clause 3, page 2, line 39, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 10: In clause 3, page 2, line 40, leave out from ", or" to "section," on line 41 and insert "of section 22(3)". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 11: In clause 8, page 5, line 31, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 12: In clause 16, page 8, line 24, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 13: In clause 17, page 8, line 41, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 14: In clause 17, page 9, line 1, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 15: In clause 17, page 9, line 3, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 16: In clause 17, page 9, line 4, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 17: In clause 17, page 9, line 5, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 18: In clause 17, page 9, line 6, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 19: In clause 17, page 9, line 9, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 20: In clause 17, page 9, line 11, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 21: In clause 17, page 9, line 17, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 22: In clause 18, page 9, line 20, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 23: In clause 18, page 9, line 22, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 24: In clause 18, page 9, line 26, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 25: In clause 18, page 9, line 29, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 26: In clause 18, page 10, line 12, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 27: In clause 19, page 10, line 16, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 28: In clause 19, page 10, line 23, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 29: In clause 19, page 10, line 27, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 30: In clause 20, page 10, line 39, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 31: In clause 20, page 11, line 9, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 33: In clause 21, page 11, line 41, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 34: In clause 21, page 12, line 7, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 35: In clause 21, page 12, line 16, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 37: In clause 22, page 12, line 35, leave out
"For the purposes of subsection (1)(a),"
and insert "The". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 38: In clause 22, page 12, line 35, after "consequences" insert

"of an uncontrolled release of water from a controlled reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 39: In clause 22, page 13, line 2, leave out "The matters which" and insert "Issues that". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 40: In clause 22, page 13, line 3, leave out "(b)". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 41: In clause 22, page 13, line 3, after "the" insert "potential adverse consequences or". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 42: In clause 22, page 13, line 9, leave out "matters" and insert "issues". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 43: In clause 22, page 13, line 9, leave out "may by regulations specify" and insert "considers relevant". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 44: In clause 22, page 13, line 10, leave out subsection (4). — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 45: After clause 22 insert

"Matters to be taken into account under sections 17(3), 18(2), 20(3)(b)(ii) and 21(5)(a): further provision
 
22A.—(1) The Department may by regulations make further provision about the matters that are to be taken into account under sections 17(3), 18(2), 20(3)(b)(ii) and 21(5)(a).
 
(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), the regulations may—
 
(a) make further provision in relation to the matters in section 22(1),
 
(b) in particular, when the Department is satisfied that an appropriate methodology exists for assessing the probability of an uncontrolled release of water from a controlled reservoir, include provision as regards the methodology that is to be taken into account in assessing such probability,
 
(c) amend references in this Act to 'reservoir designation', 'high-consequence reservoir', 'medium-consequence reservoir' and 'low-consequence reservoir' in pursuance of the regulations,
 
(d) include adaptations for the purposes of section 3(3).
 
(3) Before making regulations under subsection (1), the Department must consult the Institution of Civil Engineers and such other organisations or persons as it considers appropriate.". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 46: In clause 23, page 13, line 16, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 47: In clause 23, page 13, line 16, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 48: In clause 23, page 13, line 17, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 49: In clause 24, page 13, line 23, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 50: In clause 24, page 13, line 23, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 51: In clause 24, page 13, line 25, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 52: In clause 24, page 13, line 25, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 57: In clause 28, page 17, line 4, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 58: In clause 28, page 17, line 4, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 59: In clause 28, page 17, line 9, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 60: In clause 28, page 17, line 10, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 61: In clause 28, page 17, line 11, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 62: In clause 28, page 17, line 11, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 63: In clause 28, page 17, line 17, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 64: In clause 28, page 17, line 21, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 65: In clause 28, page 17, line 21, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 67: In clause 29, page 17, line 27, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 68: In clause 29, page 17, line 27, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 71: In clause 29, page 17, line 40, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 72: In clause 29, page 17, line 40, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 74: In clause 29, page 18, line 12, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 75: In clause 29, page 18, line 13, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 76: In clause 30, page 18, line 16, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 77: In clause 30, page 18, line 17, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 78: In clause 30, page 18, line 21, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 79: In clause 30, page 18, line 21, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 80: In clause 31, page 18, line 34, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 81: In clause 31, page 18, line 34, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 81: In clause 31, page 18, line 34, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 82: In clause 31, page 19, line 14, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 83: In clause 31, page 19, line 14, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 84: In clause 32, page 19, line 28, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 85: In clause 32, page 19, line 28, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 86: In clause 32, page 20, line 7, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 87: In clause 32, page 20, line 7, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 89: In clause 35, page 23, line 7, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 90: In clause 35, page 23, line 7, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 91: In clause 36, page 23, line 37, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 92: In clause 36, page 23, line 37, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 94: In clause 36, page 24, line 18, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 95: In clause 36, page 24, line 18, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 96: In clause 36, page 24, line 36, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 97: In clause 36, page 24, line 39, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 100: In clause 38, page 25, line 23, leave out "10,000" and insert "25,000". — [Mr Clarke.]

No 101: In clause 38, page 25, line 35, leave out "10,000" and insert "25,000". — [Mr Clarke.]

No 102: In clause 42, page 28, line 7, leave out "10,000" and insert "25,000". — [Mr Clarke.]

No 103: In clause 46, page 29, line 40, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 104: In clause 46, page 29, line 40, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 105: In clause 46, page 30, line 1, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 106: In clause 46, page 30, line 1, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 109: In clause 49, page 31, line 35, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 112: In clause 52, page 33, line 28, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 121: In clause 53, page 35, line 20, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 130: In clause 54, page 36, line 6, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 131: In clause 54, page 36, line 6, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 132: In clause 54, page 36, line 7, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 133: In clause 55, page 36, line 35, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 134: In clause 55, page 36, line 35, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 141: In clause 56, page 37, line 18, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 160: In clause 77, page 49, line 37, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 175: In clause 88, page 58, line 5, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 176: In clause 88, page 58, line 6, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 177: In clause 91, page 60, line 2, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 180: In clause 93, page 61, line 17, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 181: In clause 93, page 61, line 17, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 182: In clause 95, page 62, line 19, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 192: In clause 107, page 66, line 27, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 193: In clause 117, page 70, line 12, at end insert
 
"(iia) section 22A(1) (further provision about matters that are to be taken into account under sections 17(3), 18(2), 20(3)(b)(ii) and 21(5)(a)),". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 202: In schedule 1, page 72, line 5, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 203: In schedule 1, page 72, line 5, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 204: In schedule 1, page 72, line 27, leave out first "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 205: In schedule 1, page 72, line 27, leave out second "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 206: In schedule 2, page 73, line 24, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 207: In schedule 2, page 73, line 31, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 208: In schedule 2, page 73, line 32, leave out "risk" and insert "consequence". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 209: In schedule 2, page 73, line 37, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 210: In schedule 2, page 73, line 47, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

No 213: In schedule 3, page 74, line 23, leave out "risk" and insert "reservoir". — [Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development).]

Mr Clarke: I have thought long and hard about this debate. I was on the Agriculture Committee when the Bill was first mooted. I had reservations then and I have reservations now, in relation to the real impetus as to why it has been brought forward. Given the scope that I had, the least I could do is increase the limits.

As you have said in your opening remarks, this is the risk associated with this particular part of the Bill. Departmental officials are present, including one of those who first came to the Committee. One of the things that confuses me is that England has much larger reservoirs, but no one has sought to bring in such regulations there. Look at the topography of England: there are mountain sets and higher landscapes, if we want to talk about risk. I think it is important that we consider the risk to properties and people in vulnerable areas. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that there are such individuals. However, look at that on a greater scale. Those residing across the water are in much greater risk than we have in Northern Ireland.

Another thing that I consider, in moving this amendment, is that I have spoken to some of my colleagues and others, who have suggested to me that there was a case where a reservoir in Northern Ireland nearly breached. We have to take that into consideration. It is interesting to note that that particular one was in public ownership. That says more about the public authority and how it looked after that reservoir in Camlough and left people in Bessbrook and Newry at risk.

This is what worries me about this particular Bill, and hence I have proposed the amendment to move from 10,000 to 25,000 cubic metres. Let me take two examples in my constituency. The first, off the Artlone Road, is a fairly small reservoir which comes within the scope of what is proposed today. Within the last 10 years, the person who owned that reservoir inherited it from his father. It is something that has been handed down, so the owner has now been handed down a liability because of how the Department is treating the Reservoirs Bill.

However, the thing that intrigues me most about this example is that, a number of years ago, a planning application was made to the DOE for land just downstream from this reservoir. One of the consultees on that application was, of course, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, through the Rivers Agency. Not one application, not two but possibly three in that one location were approved. What Rivers Agency said at that particular time was that there was no risk from that reservoir, so that those people could go ahead. What that has actually done, by letting those people go ahead and build downstream, is now, as a consequence of this Bill, leaving that landowner suggesting that his reservoir is a risk to their properties. However, those properties were built many years after the reservoir.

Another one in my constituency is the well-known Craigmore Fishery. It is also a large reservoir which will be within the scope of this Bill. Many people go there at this time of the year for long evenings to fish. It is a man-made reservoir, which I clearly remember visiting a number of years ago — probably in excess of 25 years ago — when I worked in a garage locally in Randalstown. When it was being excavated, there was not one house near the reservoir; now, there is not one house but eight, all of which had to go through the statutory process of being considered for planning permission. All of them will have gone to Rivers Agency for consultation, and, in every case, the Rivers Agency deemed that the reservoir was of no risk, significance or threat to those properties.

Now what have we? There is a young family which invested, a number of years ago, to buy the reservoir from the original owner and which, I am sure, will be in considerable debt for a number of years to pay off its investment. That family will have been looking forward to running a small business, but as a consequence of this Bill there is every possibility that those people will be left out of a home.

That is because of the bureaucracy within the Bill, of course, but also the incompetence of some officials within the Rivers Agency of this Minister's Department. When they were consulted, they said, "This reservoir is of no risk. Yes, you can build." Some of those said properties are about 20 metres to 30 metres away from a 13-feet clay bank.

I have spoken privately to the Chairman of the Committee, who has given me an assurance that, if the Bill comes in as it stands, there is an opportunity that £2,500 will go to every reservoir owner to have a report done. I am sorry, but I come from the car trade, and I am not as used to exorbitant salaries as some of our civil engineers are. Maybe Mr Porter from the Department would know more about that, given his background in civil engineering. Maybe the man who created the Bill is trying to create some sort of capacity for some within the civil engineering business. It says to me that they are giving out an olive branch to our Committee members to suggest that we will give £2,500 for a report to be done. I do not know who they are selling that to, but, in my mind, £2,500 would not go very far for tests on those reservoirs to see whether that would go ahead.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for giving way. Do you agree that there is a safety net within the Bill for those who may have problems with paying, as you mentioned, or with the costs? Do you agree that provision is built in to the Bill to take care of that for anybody who will have difficulty paying?

Mr Speaker: Before you respond, you referred to an official. It is not approved practice for us to name an official in that way or to impute that there was an ulterior motivation for bringing forward legislation. Officials act under the Minister's direction, and the Minister is accountable to the Assembly. I am not making an issue of it, but I am not certain where that line of discussion is going to take us or return us to. Let us avoid implying any motivations of the officials, other than that they are simply carrying out their actions and duties as defined by their Minister.

Mr Clarke: I accept your guidance on that. I am not sure whether I named the official, but I accept your guidance on it. I am sorry if I did. If I did, I apologise to Mr Porter. [Laughter.]

Mr Speaker: You named him again.

Mr Clarke: Sorry, did I?

I will come on to the Member's intervention in a moment, but I want to go back to the £2,500. Rivers Agency should have been aware of the £2,500 on the timing for those planning applications, particularly in my area. I have concerns for other areas as well.

I will move on now to the other olive branch that has been suggested. I would go so far as to say that the Committee has been sold a pup. There is an olive branch in the legislation by way of a provision that means that they could get compensation to allow them to do works. I chose my words carefully; I said "could". It would have to be enacted. So, it is not by consequence of the Bill that the money would follow. If Mr McMullan wants to make an intervention again, I am happy to give way. If he wants to tell me that his Minister has privately given him an assurance that there are millions upon millions of pounds to be spent to bring the private owners' reservoirs in particular up to a standard, given that it was her Department who left those who own those reservoirs at risk now, I am happy to give way. It is because of the Bill that those individuals are facing the financial consequences that they are and that they are going to be out of pocket. I am happy to sit down if the Member wants to intervene. If he has an assurance from the Minister that she is going to pick up the tab in all the cases where her departmental officials made mistakes, I am happy to give way.

Mr McMullan: I will intervene on a different matter, but I am sure the Minister will answer that for you. You talked about the floodplains being so close to houses etc. That is a planning issue for the Department of the Environment. As you know, PPS 15 is out for consultation. Do you not agree that you are straying into planning law and FLD 5? Where does that sit with what you are saying?

Mr Clarke: I have to say that I am very surprised that a man who was involved in local government for so many years, particularly a man from the glens, does not understand how planning works. There are statutory consultees. I remind you that, in some cases, one of those consultees is the Rivers Agency.


10.45 am

So, where there is a reservoir, the consultee will be the Rivers Agency. Where someone wants to build a house within 30 metres of a reservoir, the Rivers Agency should be consulted, and I am sure that it would have been consulted because, on many occasions, the DOE is very zealous, probably overly so, in how it consults. However, I am sure that in cases where there is a large reservoir, it does consult. What confuses me is how the Minister's departmental officials saw fit to approve planning permission for properties close to reservoirs.

The interesting thing about all of this is the categories. Again, in speaking to some Members, the low-risk reservoirs that none of us is really worried about are those where properties are not at risk. The only reason why some of those in my constituency are at risk is because of the actions of the Minister's Department in agreeing to planning permission. Had the Minister's Department been doing the right thing, she should have refused those on the grounds that it was unsafe and that there was risk of the neighbouring reservoir breaking its banks.

When you talk about risk, one of the interesting things for me, as made in my opening point, is that England has much greater reservoirs, but limits such as those proposed in the Bill are not being brought in there. That is the reason why I propose that we change it to 25,000 cubic metres, to at least give some of our private owners an opportunity. That is because another thing about the funding is that all reservoirs that are owned by the public sector will enjoy taxpayers' money being spent to fund and repair them. That is a luxury that I do not think that the Minister has been explicit about, but I look forward to her contribution later. Maybe she will be explicit today and go on record to say that all reservoirs now in private ownership — by consequence, default and fault of her Department — will be funded by her Department to bring them up to an acceptable standard as required in the Bill. To make that somewhat easier, I propose, in this group of amendments, to increase the provision to 25,000 cubic metres as opposed to 10,000 cubic metres.

Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): It is my pleasure to speak as Chairperson of the Committee. Before I move to presenting the Committee position on this group of amendments, I will take the opportunity in my opening speech to outline the work that the Committee did in its scrutiny of the Bill. I will also highlight some of the issues that came out of that scrutiny. I thank Committee members and the previous Chairperson Paul Frew for all the work that they did on the Bill. Considerable hours of Committee time, dedication and lots of energy went into the scrutiny of the Bill, and into finding and suggesting solutions to the issues that arose. I thank the Committee Clerk and Committee staff for all their hard work and dedication.

The Reservoirs Bill was referred to the Committee on completion of its Second Stage on 4 February 2014. The stated purpose of the Bill is to introduce a legal and administrative framework for regulating reservoir safety in order to reduce the risk of flooding as a result of dam failure in the Northern Ireland. The legislation aims to provide assurance that people, the environment, cultural heritage and economic activity are better protected from the potential risks of flooding from reservoirs. A total of 17 organisations responded to the request for written evidence and the public advertisement, and a copy of the submissions received are included in the report.

The Committee noted immediately that there was a lack of submissions from one particular group, namely private sector reservoir owners. We also heard from Rivers Agency officials that this group had proved difficult to engage with during the consultation on the policy of the Bill. As a result, the Committee organised an event specifically for private reservoir owners, which was useful in enabling us to get an understanding of their concerns. We began to realise that it had come as a big surprise to many to hear that the body of water they had on their land was a reservoir. It had been there longer than living memory and was assumed to be a natural feature and part of the land. For many of the private sector owners, the fact that the structure had been standing for hundreds of years with no trouble or problems meant that they had real difficulty getting their head around why this new and burdensome system of inspections, supervision and maintenance was required. Many were worried about the cost implications of compliance. The lack of information on that increased those concerns and caused real anxiety and distress.

The Committee also took oral evidence from Northern Ireland Water, which is the single largest owner of reservoirs in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Water owns 48 of the 75 reservoirs in the public sector. We also heard from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) on aspects around decommissioning or draining reservoirs. We are concerned about that happening as a result of the Bill.

We heard from local government, namely Belfast City Council, Craigavon Borough Council and Newry and Mourne District Council. Local government owns a considerable number of reservoirs and considers many more in their area to be essential assets for community and social use. The evidence that we got from the councils, particularly from Newry and Mourne regarding Camlough reservoir, helped to shape our thinking and opinions on the Bill.

A small number of reservoirs are owned by the third sector. Most of those owners are community based, and many operate on a shoestring budget. The third sector groups were extremely vocal and gave us interesting examples of the potential negative impacts that the regulations proposed in the Bill could have on them. Their main concern, like the private sector owners, was the cost of implementing the regulations arising from the Bill. There was a fear that they could be put out of business because of the Bill.

The Bill proposes that reservoirs be subject to a system of regular inspections and supervision visits by qualified engineers who are experts on reservoirs. Therefore, we also spoke to the Institution of Civil Engineers. We questioned its representatives for some time on a range of issues in connection with the frequency of visits, the cost of such visits, fees, the cost of capital works etc. While we were impressed with the professionalism of those engineers, the evidence collected perhaps raised more questions than it answered.

The Committee carried out its clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill and printed its report prior to the summer recess of 2014. However, at that time, there was one area that the Committee was still unhappy with and on which it was unable to agree the amendment suggested by the Department. That area was the frequency of visits by engineers. As a result, during its clause-by-clause scrutiny, the Committee recorded that it was not content with the relevant clauses. In November 2014, the Department and the Committee returned to that issue and eventually agreed a series of amendments. Those amendments will be debated later, but, to be clear on its revised position, the Committee produced an addendum to its original report. That report was printed and distributed to Members shortly after the Easter recess. There are, therefore, two Committee reports.

Let me be clear that the Committee has no concerns with the principle of the Bill regarding the protection of people, the environment and economic and cultural assets from the consequences of a dam failure and a reservoir flooding. We are firmly in agreement on that. The Committee believes that the thousands of people in Northern Ireland who live in the flood path of a reservoir need protection, and we are aware that the reservoir owners are currently liable under common law for any flooding that might occur. However, the Committee had a number of concerns on how the Bill proposes to offer that protection. We had major concerns about the lack of information on the condition of reservoirs and the cost to bring them up to scratch. The risk designation process and the lack of clarity around financial implications also created difficulties for the Committee. We also felt that there were insufficient checks and balances on reservoir engineers and that the Department appeared unwilling to accept an oversight role. However, I am pleased to say that we eventually managed to get amendments from the Department to address those concerns, thus the large number of amendments in front of us today.

Overall, I think that I can be frank and say that the Committee did not like the Bill. The reason for that dislike was the feeling that the Bill was a sledgehammer to crack a nut. In other words, it was introducing for a small number of reservoirs a potentially burdensome system that was not needed. After all, only 137 reservoirs will fall under the Bill, and, of those, 75 are in the public sector. Most of those 75 are maintained to the spirit of the legislation already. So, essentially, the Bill is about imposing a new regime on 50 private-sector and nine third-sector reservoirs. That is 59 reservoirs and 120 clauses. That is a sledgehammer approach, and, really, there has not been a problem with flooding from reservoirs in Northern Ireland. We remain to be convinced that, if there were problems, the Bill would be the right approach to dealing with that issue.

The Committee has sought and gained changes to the Bill that, in our opinion, make it better. We have also sought and gained changes that are outside the Bill, such as the small initial grant aid to enable the audit of reservoirs and the new, more detailed flood maps. Even with the amendments and the other commitments, the Bill is not ideal or even prefect.

Before I conclude my introductory remarks, I want to say a few words about areas of the Bill that we explored and agreed, for a variety of different reasons, to not seek amendments on.

The Bill has a clause to allow for grant aid in the future. The Committee recognised that the need for grant aid was essential for many community-based organisations and private owners who would not have the necessary finance to enable reservoir repairs and could, as a result of the Bill, incur a significant financial burden. The Committee therefore had no concerns with clause 105 on grant aid. We only wished that the Department could have been more specific on the amount of money available for grant aid, the rates of that aid etc.

The Committee heard that a number of reservoir owners were considering decommissioning their reservoirs before the Bill became law, as there were deep concerns about the impact that the requirements the Bill would have on them. What soon became apparent was that there was a misconception around what decommissioning meant. The Committee heard that a reservoir often acts as a collection point for large volumes of water, and if it was not there, that water would flow elsewhere, potentially causing flooding. Therefore, permissions would be needed around decommissioning to prevent such flooding.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for giving way. Decommissioning is something that I meant to expand on in my contribution. If we go back to the example of private owners, and I am directing this more at the Minister, would consideration be given to an exemption of the proper regulations for those reservoirs in private ownership? There are cases where people cannot afford to do the work to bring them to the standard that is required now but was not required previously. There would be an opportunity for those individuals to drain those reservoirs, but there is a consequence in that the planning authorities may see a change of landscape. Will the Committee ask the Minister to support an exemption for those individuals so that they can drain their reservoirs to decommission them entirely?

Mr Irwin: I thank the Member for his intervention. The issue that you raise needs further consideration.

The Committee heard from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) that draining water from a reservoir could lead to a breach of environmental legislation due to the potential for pollution, flooding, fish kill etc. The Committee also considered the environmental, social and recreational impacts of reservoirs and that those would be lost to an area on decommissioning.

The Committee also heard that if a reservoir is decommissioned and the water level is drained below the 10,000-cubic-metre limit, because it still has the capacity to hold that amount of water, the reservoir would still fall under the remit of the Bill. The Bill provides that any actions to discontinue or abandon a reservoir have to be supervised by a construction engineer and that various consents and approvals are required before that can happen. Therefore, the Committee considered but took no position on that aspect. That concludes my introductory remarks on the Bill.

I will now discuss group 1, which deals with a series of amendments on the risk designation process, including amendments put forward by the Minister and those in the name of Trevor Clarke and Paul Girvan concerning capacity.


11.00 am

I will discuss the ministerial amendments first. The Bill outlines a risk-designation process at clauses 17 to 23. This section of the Bill, as it stands, outlines the requirement for the Department to give every controlled reservoir manager a risk designation of high, medium or low. This is to be done as soon as reasonably practical after the reservoirs are registered. The Bill also outlines how a review and an appeal of the risk designation would happen and what matters would be taken into account in giving the risk designation. Each risk designation of high, medium or low would bring with it different operating requirements. The risk designation given to each reservoir would therefore create a system of inspections and supervised visits leading to a repair and maintenance programme that the reservoir manager must adhere to. That operating regime varies according to whether the reservoir is designated as high, medium or low. This also includes enforcement procedures, offences and penalties for non-compliance. The Committee considered that the risk-designation process was, therefore, at the heart of the Bill.

The Committee noted, however, that there is a light touch for low-risk or low-consequence reservoirs and was content with that aspect. When giving a risk designation, the Department must take into account the matters mentioned in clause 22. Clause 22 refers to the adverse consequences of an uncontrolled release of water from a reservoir and the probability of such a release. However, it soon became clear that the risk designation will not take account of the probability or likelihood of the reservoir failing, despite being specified in the Bill.

The risk-designation process will only, at this point in time and for the foreseeable future, take adverse consequences or impact into account. Clause 22(2) is at page 12 of the Bill, and I will not repeat it here. The clause takes a number of things into account, including human life or human health, the environment, economic activity and cultural heritage. Of those criteria, the most important one is loss of life, and no one would argue with that. Where a reservoir breach could endanger one or more life, it will be assessed as high impact. So, if there are any houses in the flood path of a reservoir, the reservoir will be given a high-risk designation. No account would be taken of the speed and depth of water. So, a long, slow and low seep of water resulting in flooding of one inch in an inhabited house would be classified as high risk. The Committee indicated that it agreed with the importance placed on human life but that account needed to be taken of the type of flooding likely. The Committee expressed concern that the risk-classification methodology proposed in the Bill was based on impact with no weighting given to likelihood or, indeed, speed and depth of flood water.

As it stands, no consideration would be given to any remedial works that a reservoir manager may carry out. In other words, no matter how safe the reservoir is or is made to be, it will continue to be ranked as high risk unless all risk to human life — the consequence — is removed from its flood path. Members in Committee often referred to that as the Hoover dam scenario. You could have the safest, best built, most highly maintained dam in the world, but, because one person lived downstream, it could be deemed as high risk. The risk assessment was not based on the likelihood of failure, just the consequence.

The Institution of Civil Engineers and the Department stated that the problem with the risk-based approach was that, at the moment, there is no universally accepted standard to assess the likelihood of a dam failing, nor is there likely to be any universally accepted standard in the near or long-term future. The Committee had difficulties with that. Why put something in the Bill that was not going to be used now or in the future? That was just misleading and, therefore, unacceptable.

The Committee discussed other concerns it had with the risk-assessment process in considerable detail over a number of meetings. It would appear that, short of the removal of the threat to life, by, for example, the removal of habitable dwellings, nothing could be done by the reservoir manager to change their designation. This was a second and more fundamental issue. It could create what could be perceived as an inherent unfairness to the reservoir manager. No amount of investment by the reservoir manager or compliance with the operating regime and undertaking of safety measures would enable the risk designation to change over time.

A third concern was shared with some who gave evidence to the Committee, such as the Ligoniel Improvement Association and the Belfast Hills Partnership. A representative from the latter stated on 25 March 2014:

"You could, for instance, have two high-risk reservoirs in an area — one that needed urgent attention and one that did not — but would they both be called high risk? We see that as a problem."

In other words, the risk assessment approach did not make reference to the urgency of repairs or maintenance, and that appeared to the Committee to be counterproductive. The Committee therefore voted during its formal clause-by-clause consideration on 3 June 2014 that it was not content with the risk designation clauses and would reserve the right at Consideration Stage to recommend to the Assembly that those clauses not stand part of the Bill.

The Committee took that position on the clear and firm understanding that, if the Assembly agreed the clauses, it would be creating major difficulties for the practical implementation of the Bill. Those difficulties would affect not only the Department but reservoir owners and managers. The Department responded by proposing amendments to address the Committee's concerns.

It may appear on the surface and to the casual reader that the amendments are only terminology amendments; that is, that "risk designation" be replaced by "reservoir designation" throughout the Bill. However, that is not the case. Those amendments in the round, along with other amendments and practical undertakings, correct a fundamental unfairness in the Bill.

It is not just the terminology amendments. The Department proposes to address the concern of the Committee on changing risk designation by amending clause 22 to provide that issues such as those in paragraphs (a) to (e) of clause 22(3) — for example, how a reservoir is maintained — may be considered for consequences and probability of an uncontrolled release of water.

In the Department's opinion, that opens up the potential for a reservoir designation of high consequence to be changed to medium consequence where a reservoir manager has completed all the works in the interests of safety and those works have been certified by the inspecting engineer. We shall hold the Department to that by recommending that any future Committee assess whether that happened in practice.

The amendments were tabled at the Committee meeting of 10 June 2014. The Committee considered them and noted that it had not been given sufficient time to consider the policy implications and potential impacts of the proposed amendments. It had concerns that the operating regime in the new proposal did not show sufficient change and, in fact, might make the situation worse for the reservoir manager.

The Committee deferred making a decision on its formal view of the amendments until 17 June, when it took further oral evidence on the issue. The Department explained that, in recognition of the fact that it was speed and depth of water, as well as volume, that created the risk to human life, and in response to Committee concerns, it was in the process of procuring new flood maps. The maps would allow velocity and depth of floodwater from a reservoir to be mapped, as well as volume. That would provide a more detailed analysis of the consequence of a flood and therefore allow for a more accurate designation. It was also pointed out that the amendment would create greater flexibility in the Bill to allow for change in designation through, for example, the ability to carry out works that would divert floodwater or change its speed and/or depth. On 17 June, the Committee considered the information provided and voted that it was content with the amendments.

In summary, the Committee was not content with the policy content of the Bill as it related to the risk assessment process. The fact that, after a long and protracted process, it accepted the second set of amendments proposed by the Department was based much on the fact that the Department was doing further practical work on risk designation. That practical work, namely the flood inundation maps, was the additional reassurance that the Committee needed to approve these amendments. The two go hand in hand.

At further briefings, when the Committee checked up on the flood maps, departmental officials were able to assure us that the use of such flood maps had enabled a much more detailed and effective risk assessment process. As a result, we have seen a change in the numbers of reservoirs, with an initial designation of 151 being brought down to 137. That means that the insistence of the Committee on the issue has taken 14 reservoirs out of the equation. The Department is continuing with that work and hopes to take at least another six to 10 out of the equation.

Let me also assure the Assembly that there is crossover between those amendments and the amendment on the frequency of visits by supervising engineers. Together, those amendments mean that there is a possibility that the reservoir manager, if he does everything that is required of him, can change and downgrade the risk designation. In many ways, that was an inherent unfairness that the Committee was not happy with. Those amendments, plus other amendments and the practical work that has been undertaken by the Department, have made this part of the Bill fairer.

Therefore, on behalf of the Committee, I indicate that the Committee is content with the amendments in group 1 that have been tabled in the name of the Minister. I will now say a few words on the issue of the capacity of controlled reservoirs and the amendments tabled in the name of Trevor Clarke and Paul Girvan.

The Committee considered the definition of a controlled reservoir within the Bill at clause 1. It was defined as a structure or area capable of holding 10,000 cubic metres or more of water above the natural level of the surrounding land. The Committee considered whether there would be any positive impact if the level was changed to 25,000 cubic metres. Based on the initial figure of 151 reservoirs, information from the Department showed that, whilst the proposal would remove 31 reservoirs from the remit of the Bill, only three of the reservoirs would be classed as a high or medium risk, and it would have no impact on third-sector owners.

It should be noted that, if the threshold is moved to the higher capacity, the three high- or medium-risk reservoirs will not be able to apply for initial grant aid, and maintenance and repairs costs will have to be met from their own finances. We felt that that might be a disadvantage to those three owners, but we have no idea of who they are or what they might think of that. It is just a guess. As far as the Committee could see, the impact of changing the capacity would be to mostly remove private sector low-consequence reservoirs and no reservoirs from the third sector. As such low-consequence reservoirs will be subject to light touch regulation, and the Committee had no concerns on that.

That is the Committee position on the issue. I am going to say a few words in my capacity as DUP spokesman for agriculture on Mr Clarke and Mr Girvan's amendments. They take three privately owned reservoirs out of the equation in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, 25,000 cubic metres is the norm. We are told that that is to be reduced to 10,000 cubic metres. If we accept Mr Clarke and Mr Girvan's amendment, we can at some time in the future reassess the situation, and a lower limit can be reintroduced. Mr Clarke's amendments would help those reservoirs in particular.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am a member of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, which devoted a significant amount of time from February to June last year to scrutinising the Bill. On behalf of my party, I thank the Committee and its other members for working closely together, the Department for giving advice and Stella and her department for their work.


11.15 am

It is fair to say that this presented the Committee with a challenge, given the very technical nature of the primary legislation. It is also fair to say that it was not the most popular piece of legislation that the Committee has been asked to consider. For many members, including me, it is perhaps an engineers' charter. The only people who appear not to benefit are the people who own or manage reservoirs, particularly those in the rural community, many of whom have inherited reservoirs from families. Indeed, many of these people did not until recently even know that they possessed a reservoir and had no idea of the responsibility for managing such structures.

The same applies to fishing clubs, many of which have assumed responsibility for what they thought was a lake or a pond only to find out that it is a reservoir, with all that goes with it. Therefore, I fully understand the intention of the proposed amendment. It is to ensure that only reservoirs that are capable of holding 25,000 cubic metres or more would be regulated, thereby removing such reservoirs from the scope of the Bill and associated management regime.

It has to be said that the Committee devoted a significant amount of time looking at the threshold of 10,000 cubic metres. In fact, this was a major concern for Mr Irwin, who now chairs the Committee, and the rest of the Committee at the time. The Committee considered changing the threshold to 25,000 cubic metres, as the amendment proposes. In fact, it also considered a threshold of 15,000 cubic metres. However, based on the information provided to us by the Department, we decided that there was little or no benefit in making either of these changes. Therefore, we did not seek an amendment on this issue.

Scotland has legislation on the books to reduce the threshold from 25,000 cubic metres to 10,000 cubic metres. Similarly, England and Wales, which have not been mentioned here, have the same legislation to reduce it down to 10,000 cubic metres. However, this should not be about the numbers of reservoirs that can escape being regulated by the Bill. It is about keeping people safe and reducing the chances that dam failure will occur.

I appreciate that it is a long time since significant reservoir failure. It is some 17 years, in fact, since the spillway failed at Tildarg dam and caused the flooding of houses. However, the truth is that many of these reservoirs date from the 19th century and were built to provide a source of water to the linen mills and corn mills that served our farming community. Also, for many, particularly those in private ownership, the water is held back by clay core dams. These are not concrete structures like Spelga or the Silent Valley. Therefore, if nothing is done, it could only be a matter of time before we get another dam failure.

I fully appreciate that, for many reservoirs owners, the terms of this Bill raise all sorts of concerns. Planning is one, and Mr Clarke did raise that. Under this Bill, if anybody wants to build below a dam, they now have to talk to the manager of the dam. If that manager says no to houses being built, no houses will be built. That safety is in there in the legislation.

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr McMullan: Go ahead.

Mr Clarke: I appreciate your comments, and I think that, going forward, that is possibly useful. It is not much comfort to those who already own dams. As I indicated earlier, the Rivers Agency allowed a number of houses, particularly in my constituency and I am sure in other areas. Whilst it may be cold comfort going forward, it is not much comfort or solace for those who are now facing difficulty.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for his intervention, but we must look at where these 20-odd dams are. They are located in sparsely inhabited areas. Indeed, with the property boom that we had in the last few years, we should have seen more building if they were going to be a danger, but we did not. We have not seen that much building in front of these dams, and, in fact, the report says that one of these dams has the sea as the only thing in front of it. I do not think that there is this big problem of building in front of dams because the safety is in there. If a developer has to build below a dam, he has to do his work and cannot do it unless he has permission from the manager of the dam to go onto the land to do his testing. That becomes an agreement between the two parties, but if the manager says no to it, then no it is. The developer cannot override his decision. That is clearly built in there.

I feel for the owners, not least those complying with the cost. It was for that reason that the Committee devoted so much of its time to scrutinising the Bill, time that has resulted in the 200-odd amendments that we are debating today. However, the Assembly has a responsibility to consider the safety of those who live and work below a reservoir and those who use reservoirs for recreation. It also has a responsibility to ensure that such structures are as safe as possible. Going back to some of the reservoirs that are used for recreational purposes: those dams that are owned by, say, Northern Ireland Water still hold a manager in the third-party agreement. Those who are leasing that do not have anything to worry about.

It is generally accepted that a dam breach from a reservoir that holds 10,000 cubic metres or more of water can cause great harm or even death. Therefore, that should be our starting point and the minimum level at which we regulate reservoirs. To set the level any higher than that would place the lives of our people at risk. It is a risk that the Assembly need not and should not take. Safety for everybody is paramount. It is for that reason that I do not support the proposed amendment and I encourage the House to vote against it.

Mr Byrne: I am glad to speak on the Consideration Stage of the Reservoirs Bill. A massive 214 amendments have been tabled to the Bill, mainly by the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development and, obviously, by the Rivers Agency. I will be speaking on risk designation and the amendments that have been tabled by Mr Clarke and Mr Girvan. I thank the Minister for taking into account the concerns of the Committee during the previous stage of the Bill and commend her for bringing forward many amendments at the behest of the Committee. I would also like to thank and commend my colleagues on the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development for the massive undertaking of work that was completed. It was due to the scrutiny of the Committee that we have managed to make the Bill, hopefully, fit for purpose.

The Reservoirs Bill has arisen as a result of a requirement from the European Union floods directive. In Northern Ireland, we have a range of impounded water structures, be these local lakes or dammed-up reservoirs, like those in the Mournes or the Sperrins. For example, the Spelga dam or Silent Valley. The Reservoirs Bill is intended to categorise these water impoundments or reservoirs so that ongoing periodic structural examinations are carried out in order that risk to public safety, in relation to possible reservoir dam failure and consequent flooding, is minimised.

The Committee has been considering the Bill for nearly two years, through many meetings and considerable debate within the Committee, as well as between the Committee and Rivers Agency senior staff. After the Bill was presented by DARD, there was intensive and ongoing debate in the Committee Stage of the Bill's scrutiny. From the outset, the Committee was concerned about the Bill on a number of fronts. We heard a range of those concerns earlier. They primarily centred on reservoir categories and risk designation; the role and function of regular engineering reports; and cost factors, including the cost of capital or remedial works and improvements for non-publicly owned reservoirs. At the outset, the Committee would have liked DARD and Rivers Agency to compile an audit report on the state of all the designated reservoirs, so that a proper analysis and assessment could be carried out on the physical and structural state of the reservoirs, many of which are over 100 years old.

Initially, Rivers Agency proposed to designate reservoirs on a risk assessment, based on a probability-of-failure estimate, but that proved to be difficult and unrealistic, and the Committee was unhappy with that proposal. The large majority of the amendments in group 1 speak to the idea of designation of risk.

In the debate at Second Stage, I said that it was important that the Bill protect users of reservoirs without putting unnecessary burdens on private owners. The risk designation process in the legislation does exactly that. The designation of high, medium or low risk, which would be decided by the Department, would mean different operational requirements, enforcement procedures, and offences and penalties for non-compliance. During the Committee Stage, I was concerned that the method of classification proposed was based only on impact and did not take into account the likelihood of renovations or improvements that owners or reservoir managers completed to comply with the engineer's report. This would mean that, no matter how safe the reservoir was made, it would maintain the same designation.

We decided that the use of "risk" in the Bill was misleading. We had concerns about the word "risk" as a designation when there is absolutely no chance of a reservoir owner or manager being able to change or reduce that. I feel that the term "risk and consequence" would be better, because, at the end of the day, there would be high consequences downstream if there were a breach. I am glad that the Department listened to these concerns and proposes changing "risk" to "consequence".

We were looking for more fairness in the system to encourage an owner or manager to invest in a structure and gain from that investment. They would have the opportunity to change the consequence of the reservoir. The change of the word "risk" to "consequence" accounts for 66 amendments in group 1, and a further 22 amendments change the phrase "risk designation" to "reservoir designation". I am happy to support these amendments, which have been brought forward by the Department to make risk designation more suitable for reservoir owners and managers. I am glad that these amendments take away some unnecessary burden on owners and managers of reservoirs.

One of the main concerns surrounding the Bill is the responsibility placed on the reservoir manager or owner to ensure legal compliance with a series of operating requirements. These requirements, the operating regime, are largely based on directions of and are overseen by various types of reservoir engineers, as appropriate to the task. One of the main concerns centred on the cost of hiring engineers and the frequency of engineering reports relevant to the reservoir category, be it high, medium or low risk.

The Committee was content, eventually, that a risk designation of reservoir category should be determined by reference to the risk and consequence of failure, as measured by possible damage to the number of households and businesses downstream. The estimated flood damage of a reservoir failure is the critical factor in determining reservoir classification. The three categories of a controlled reservoir are high, medium and low. The compliance requirements for each category vary in relation to the periodic inspection by the appropriate engineer and the consequences of acting on the report, if necessary, by the reservoir manager. The reservoir manager, or the owner where the reservoir is privately owned, is legally responsible for compliance and operating within the requirements.

Amendment Nos 1 and 2, proposed by Mr Clarke and Mr Girvan, raise issues related to the damage consequent on a dam failure. Obviously, the higher volume of water that would flow from a damaged reservoir is crucial. I contend that the two critical factors to be considered are, first, the public interest principle and, secondly, the precautionary principle. As a legislative body, we have to concern ourselves primarily with the public interest rather than the individual interest of a particular reservoir owner.

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Clarke: I accept your point and I understand why you would say that the public interest is paramount. However, would you not give any consideration to a situation where it was the Department, by default, that put properties at risk by permitting people to build beside a dam? I know that, as Mr McMullan said earlier, the likely event of that happening in the future is, hopefully, very low. You are right about the risk, but what concerns me is that the Department should, at the very least, foot the bill to make dams safe where properties are at risk, given that it permitted people to build and live in risk areas.


11.30 am

Mr Byrne: I thank Mr Clarke for his comments and views. I would contend, however, that, over the last 20 years, housing developments have been passed by the Planning Service that should not have been passed, given the risk of flooding. I can give one example at Beragh, and the Minister is very aware of that. About 20 houses have been built there in the last 10 years that should not have been built, because of the flood risk. It was thought that flooding would not be experienced within the 100-year limit. Unfortunately, it happened within five years of the houses being built.

It is better to be sure than sorry. Given that the change of volume designation from 10,000 cubic metres to 25,000 cubic metres would only pertain to two or three high-risk, privately owned reservoirs, it would seem wiser to stick with the proposed 10,000 cubic metres limit to determine a controlled reservoir of impounded water. Given that the majority of controlled reservoirs are in public ownership, it seems appropriate to stick with the consensus of the Committee on that volume limit.

I want to put my support behind the amendments that have been tabled by the Minister. Those amendments will make the Reservoirs Bill fit for purpose and ensure that owners and managers of reservoirs will be rewarded for making any changes that they are required to make so that reservoirs are of the correct standard.

In conclusion, I want to pay tribute to my fellow colleagues on the Committee and, in particular, the Clerk of the Committee, Stella McArdle, and her staff. There were times when we felt that it was Stella's Bill. I would also like to praise the Rivers Agency staff — the chief executive, David Porter, and senior official Kieran Brazier. They were always constructive and committed. Aoibhinn Treanor was also very good with her advice and guidance in relation to the Assembly procedure for the Bill.

The Committee worked extremely cooperatively and gave sincere scrutiny to the Bill as it went through it clause by clause. It has been a thorough exercise. The Committee demonstrated strong leadership on a number of critical points, and the Department and the Rivers Agency eventually saw fit to accept the need for change to reflect our concerns. There were times when the Committee pulled the handbrake. We were right to do so, because we got the necessary amendments to make the Bill more sensible and realistic. The whole exercise has been a learning experience for us all, and the time has now come to pass the Bill into law.

Mr Elliott: The Bill was some way through its Committee Stage when I rejoined the Committee, so I picked it up at a later stage. I appreciate the work that has gone into the Bill by departmental officials, the Clerk of Bills and the Committee staff. The work has been significant and underestimated for the type of Bill.

I have heard a number of terms used during the debate. One of those is that the Bill is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but you do not have over 200 amendments to a Bill without serious negotiations and discussions. People need to appreciate the work and, indeed, the cooperation that has gone into it. Maybe political parties could learn something from the resulting discussions between the Rivers Agency staff, the Committee staff and, indeed, the Committee itself.

I understand the rationale for the Department bringing the legislation forward. There is similar legislation in the other parts of the United Kingdom, so I suppose that a next step was obviously to bring it to Northern Ireland. We have heard some Members in the debate describing the Bill as an engineers' charter, and that came up time and again in the Committee. That is the last thing that I want. I do not want it to just be a money-spinning exercise for the engineers and for the private owners of some reservoirs to fall victim to that.

That is the last thing that we want to happen. Dear help us, Mr Speaker, I know how Departments can exaggerate some aspects, put a lot of onus on owners and make it extremely difficult to work with Departments. I do not want that to happen here, and I certainly do not want to put my name to legislation that will make that happen.

That is why there has been huge concern in the Committee in general — it is no different in our party — about the proposals, particularly those in relation to reservoirs in private ownership. That is why I put it on record today that, while I and the Ulster Unionist Party support the amendments, it cannot be taken for granted that we will continue to support the Bill the entire way through it. We will judge it every time it comes forward on its own merits. I have had huge concerns in some of those discussions in Committee.

The Department's amendments in this group, proposed, to be fair, in conjunction with the Committee, are helpful in that the risk designation is much less onerous on owners, especially private owners. I welcome that. I can tell you that, if those amendments had not been tabled, the Ulster Unionist Party would have voted against the Bill. I want to make that clear.

I understand the rationale behind Mr Clarke and Mr Girvan's amendments of increasing the volume designation up to 25,000 cubic metres. I think that is the current position in other parts of the United Kingdom. There are some proposals to bring that down to 10,000 there, but I understand that that will not happen in Wales until the autumn of this year and in Scotland until maybe next year. For England, I do not think there is any suggestion of when it might happen. I understand the rationale, but I am slightly concerned that it does not bring a huge number of privately owned reservoirs out of the equation; there are two in the high-risk category, which is the main category. However, I have to warn that there is a clause that allows the Department to bring any reservoir in, even if it is below 10,000 cubic metres, if it feels that it is a high-risk designation anyway. We need to be mindful of that as well.

In broad terms, I can understand and, indeed, support where the Members are coming from. However, listening to Mr Clarke's opening remarks, I felt that he was almost talking against the Bill as opposed to just talking against the volume in the reservoirs or the amounts that the reservoirs hold. Again, from our perspective, our support for the whole Bill cannot be taken for granted. We will assess the amendments as they come forward. At this stage, the Ulster Unionist Party and I are happy to support Mr Clarke and Mr Girvan's amendments in this group around increasing the volume, on the basis that the position is similar in other parts of the United Kingdom. I will speak to our amendment, which is in the next group, when it comes up, but it is relevant to this aspect as well. I will leave it at that.

Mr Lunn: I rise with some trepidation, not being a member of the Committee and not having known until last week that I was even likely to have to speak on the Bill. Kieran McCarthy is unavoidably absent today, so you will have to put up with me. My remarks will be fairly general for that reason.

Clearly, the Bill has been well scrutinised by the Committee, and there appears to have been a lot of cooperation between the Committee, the Rivers Agency and the Department. We now have what we have. We are talking about safety in this group of amendments, and there is potentially enormous risk with a reservoir. It is clearly in the public interest that they are properly maintained and that the regime is properly regulated. There has been a lot of talk about flood paths and floodplains today. I can think of some reservoirs in my area, such as Stoneyford dam, which towers above the village of Stoneyford. Boomers dam, also in Lisburn, towers above the Pond Park area. Both areas have hundreds of houses. The Church dam in Hillsborough actually suffered a failure some years ago, and that caused a certain amount of damage. The situation was slightly helped by the fact that it is not a particularly big dam.

Until now, it seems that there has been a lack of a formal legal framework for reservoir management. That is now being tidied up by the Bill. We appear not to have been complying with our EU obligations to identify, assess and manage potential flood risks.

We support the Bill. A huge number of amendments have been proposed by the Department, which is maybe surprising at this stage, but, when you look at them, you see that they involve changing "risk" to "reservoir", "risk" to "consequence" or "matters" to "issues" — I love that one. That takes care of so many of the amendments, although I am sure that they are all absolutely necessary and have been well discussed.

Again, we are talking about safety. I agree with other Members who said that "better safe than sorry" had to be the maxim here. It is a question of public interest and public safety. To me, it does not really matter who owns the reservoir or dam: if it is a question of safety, ownership does not come into it.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Member for giving way. On that very point, I think that it matters to the owners if it costs £1 million to upgrade a dam. If it is in public ownership, the taxpayer or the ratepayer pays for it, whereas, if it is in private ownership, it is up to the private owner to pay for it.

Mr Lunn: Yes. I will try to rephrase what I said, although I think that it was fairly obvious that I was talking about public safety. The matter of who owns the dam is not of consequence. Public safety has to be the priority at all times. I have heard quite a bit of discussion about private ownership here, and I am sure that, if I were to delve more deeply into the nuts and bolts of it, I might have quite a bit of sympathy with private owners, particularly some who have inherited the situation and perhaps do not even want the reservoir. I heard a suggestion from somebody about draining small dams. I do not know what the Minister's view is on drainage, but, if emptying a dam in a controlled way is an option to take care of the problem, why not?

As far as the amendments are concerned, we have no issue whatever with the ministerial amendments, but we will not support the DUP amendments, amendment Nos 1, 2, 100, 101 and 102. We are not persuaded by the suggestion that reservoirs of between 10,000 cubic metres and 25,000 cubic metres are safe enough to be largely unregulated. I notice that the explanatory memorandum states:

"it is generally agreed by reservoir engineers that an uncontrolled release of 10,000 cubic metres ... has the potential to result in loss of life and significant damage to property."

I have also heard cynical comments about the Bill being some sort of engineers' charter. Frankly, I have more confidence in the Institution of Civil Engineers than to make a suggestion like that. I presume that the comments apply to reservoir engineers as well. You have to take account of the views of experts; you cannot just say that they are generating some kind of —

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lunn: Sure.

Mr Clarke: I appreciate what the Member is saying about experts. Did he hold the same view when the experts were consulted on planning to permit people to build beside dams? There are experts in the Rivers Agency, and I am sure that there are some still there who dealt with those applications. Those experts said that it was safe to build houses close to the dam.

Mr Lunn: Yes, the question of building at unsatisfactory locations, whether below a reservoir or, as has happened so much in England, on floodplains close to rivers and so on has been much discussed. In England at the moment, we are getting to the point at which houses cannot get insurance any more, or, if they do, they have a flood excess of about £50,000 because they have been built on a floodplain.


11.45 am

As far as DOE planning experts are concerned, I think that if they look at a planning application on the potential flood paths from a reservoir and can be assured that it is safe, properly maintained and properly inspected, while you would not say that that made a case for building houses in those places, it does give them some comfort that there will not be a catastrophic flood. That is what the Bill is actually about. We will oppose the DUP amendments and support all the rest. I do not really have anything more to say on that.

Mr Allister: As I said in the Second Reading debate on the Bill, I think that it is excessively burdensome and overreaching in what it seeks to do. I have two reasons for saying that. First of all, in the last 150 years, there have been five dam failures in Northern Ireland — five. There has been no loss of life whatsoever, yet here we have a Bill that will put upon the owners of any areas of impounded water huge burdens and, to private owners, great expense. It is a question of the proportionality of whether the legislation is good and necessary. It seems to me that it overstretches itself to be unduly burdensome on the individuals concerned.

The second reason why I think that the Bill is of that nature is that it is not as though there is no legal protection for anyone who is unduly affected in the eventuality of a dam failure because, under common law and the previous ruling in the case of Rylands v Fletcher, anyone with control over a dangerous item — and, in law, impounded water is treated as a dangerous item — is liable for any damage that is caused by the escape of the impounded water. There is already in law a remedy for anyone who is adversely affected in respect of a dam failure.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate the point that he is making. However, would he accept that sometimes it is better to try to determine whether there is a likely possibility of dam failure on foot of an examination by an engineer and his report, rather than wait until the calamity happens and then resort to the legal process?

Mr Allister: I understand the concept that prevention is better than cure — of course I understand that. However, the prudent owner of an area of impounded water will know of their liability if there is a failure. Therefore, they will already have taken prudent steps, I would have thought, to make sure that there is not a future escape, knowing that they personally could be liable for that. To put on that person the burden and expense, not of such inspections as they might be advised are necessary and have proven sufficient in the past, but of such investigations and technical requirements as someone who is sitting in a Rivers Agency office decides are necessary, is quite a different matter. It is not the official who determines what the obligation will be who has at all to put his hand in his pocket to pay for it: it is the hapless individual who may have inherited the item or whatever of impounded water who will be put to the huge expense and repeat inspections which the Bill introduces. It is in those areas that I believe this Bill is wholly disproportionate to the requirements of the situation.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with me that it clearly came out during the consultation we had with some owners who came here that they did not realise that what they had on their property was a reservoir until they were told? This Bill will help them. On the aspect of cost to the pocket, it is clearly stated in the Bill that, in the cases of those who cannot pay, the Department will look at that and may take over the reservoir. That is clearly in the Bill, so we cannot take a broad brush and claim that the whole thing will cost people millions. Do you agree with me that people did not realise what they had on their properties?

Mr Allister: If people did not realise that impounded water was what it is, and would be caught by this Bill, frankly, all it takes is an education exercise. We are talking about 50 or 60 reservoirs. All it would take is a visit to those; it does not take a Bill to draw to the owners' attention the obligations that they have. I hear what the Member said: "Oh, there's going to be some sort of safety net to protect people from undue expenditure." Is there? Is it emphatically laid out in the Bill that people will be underwritten in respect of that? I do not think so. There is some generalised indication that help could be available, but there is no meat on those bones whatsoever and there is lots and lots of room to wriggle out of that situation.

From its general principles, this is an unnecessarily oppressive Bill, which goes further than it needs to. That is why Mr Clarke's amendment is sensible. It tries to diminish the number of people unnecessarily caught by the import of the Bill and at least deliver to them the exit route that is available elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We were told at the start of this debate that this is all necessary under the floods directive of the EU. I have a personal challenge as to whether that is right. Even if it is right, how could it be that you can implement the floods directive in GB with a 25,000 cubic metre threshold, but it takes a 10,000 cubic metre threshold in Northern Ireland? That is gold-plating, and this House should reject it.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will begin by addressing the amendments tabled by Mr Clarke and Mr Girvan because, obviously, they affect the parameters for what we mean by "a controlled reservoir" and are therefore central to defining the reservoirs that will be regulated by the Bill.

The proposed amendments seek to increase the capacity threshold for controlled reservoirs from 10,000 cubic metres to 25,000 cubic metres. I remind Members of the purpose of this legislation, and I know that other Members have referred to it. The premise behind the legislation is to protect the public from the risk of flooding caused by an uncontrolled release of water resulting from the failure of a dam. This Bill is about keeping people safe; that is its primary purpose.

I also want to explain that the 10,000 cubic metre threshold contained in the Bill is not an arbitrary figure and was included following advice from the Institution of Civil Engineers. It is the volume of water at which uncontrolled release has the potential to result in loss of life and significant damage to property. It is not surprising, therefore, that reservoir legislation and statutes in England, Scotland and Wales have also set the threshold at 10,000 cubic metres.

Mr Clarke referred to what actually happens in England. I want to make it very clear that, while 10,000 cubic metres is on the statute book in England, that provision has not yet commenced because the English Tory Minister has a policy of deregulation. That certainly is not the way that I come at this. This is very much about addressing a real risk to the public, and that is the premise of the Bill. When we have the opportunity to set policy and legislation, it is correct that we take the proper advice, which we have done in this case, and determine the proper size and threshold for our own legislation.

During evidence analysis, it was determined that, in practical terms, the change in the capacity threshold to 25,000 cubic metres would remove 18 reservoirs from the scope of the Bill. I imagine that the proposer of the amendment would regard that as a success. However, our primary thoughts need to be about protecting the people who live and work downstream of those reservoirs. I will come back to some of the points that Mr Clarke raised in a few minutes.

Analysis of the 18 reservoirs that would be removed shows that one third have a capacity of just below 25,000 cubic metres. Those reservoirs are close to highly populated areas such as Lisburn, Carrickfergus, Coleraine and Ballyclare, and one other reservoir, with a capacity of just over 17,000 cubic metres, sits above a highly populated area of north Belfast. It is important that those people and their properties are protected from the risk of flooding through reservoir failure. As I said, 10,000 cubic metres is considered to be the volume above which there is the potential to result in loss of life. The amendment, if accepted, would remove all those reservoirs from the scope of the Bill. Therefore, the safety of the people downstream would be dependent on the goodwill of the people responsible for the reservoirs. That would not be acceptable. Anecdotal evidence indicates that reservoir managers do not fully understand their responsibilities and do not carry out the necessary inspections or routine maintenance of their structures to keep them as safe as possible. I am, therefore, entirely satisfied that setting the threshold at 10,000 cubic metres is the right thing to do. As Members have pointed out, the ARD Committee also considered the issue during its detailed scrutiny of the Bill, and it concluded that it was content with that as a threshold. Furthermore, the introduction of a different threshold would be contrary to one of the principles of the reservoirs safety policy that my Executive colleagues agreed at their meeting on 7 November 2012. For those reasons, I will oppose the proposed change to the threshold. When it comes to voting on the amendments, I urge Members to consider above all else the potential risk to life that those reservoirs pose.

Before I turn to my amendments, I will pick up on a few of the points that were made by Mr Clarke, particularly in relation to previous planning decisions, which, obviously, were outside the remit of my Department. The fact that something was wrong in past and planners got it wrong does not mean that we should not try to fix the problem now. There is a real risk to those people, who were granted planning permission by the planners. The reality is that, whilst we can talk about a problem of the past, it should not impact on what we try to do now.

Mr Clarke: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs O'Neill: I am happy to give way.

Mr Clarke: I note that you are lambasting Planning Service. However, you omitted to suggest that your officials got it wrong in the past. They would have been consulted on those applications.

Mrs O'Neill: Again, you have it slightly wrong: in the past, Rivers Agency was a consultee; it was not a statutory consultee. In the current and the new planning system, it is a statutory consultee. That is right and proper. If something was wrong in the past, that does not mean that we should sit on our hands and do nothing now to protect the people who have been put in danger because of planning decisions that allowed building near reservoirs. The Bill is about trying to protect those people. It is proportionate. It is trying to give them the security and reassurance that they deserve. We need to be correct about what we say. Planning might have got it wrong in the past, but that does not give us a reason to do nothing now.

You asked whether owners could have an exemption if they drew down their reservoirs. Again, planning approval may be required if that is going to be the case. I am content for my officials to work with those reservoir owners on developing a plan, if that is what they choose to do. I am happy for officials to work with them and for that to go through the normal planning process. In this instance, with the new Planning Policy Statement 15, Rivers Agency will be a statutory consultee; it will be part of that conversation. There is a way for us to look at that. As the legislation sets out, there is a phased approach to this. There will be opportunities for the planners, the reservoir owners and Rivers Agency to work together to find a solution if an individual owner feels that that is what they wish to do.

Mr Clarke sought assurance around money to bring reservoirs up to a certain standard. As I have clearly said — I know that my officials have clearly said this in all the conversations that they have had with the Committee — there are two phases to the Bill. The second phase cannot be commenced until we have a report on the current condition of the reservoirs. When we have that information and a full understanding of the financial implications — we are giving people grant aid to establish that information — I will be happy to take that to the Executive because it is in the public interest. I am happy to take that to the Executive on the basis of the information that we have. We very much have a phased approach to that. I think that I have addressed most of the points that you raised in your amendments.


12.00 noon

I turn now to my amendments in the group, the majority of which arise from the detailed scrutiny of the ARD Committee at Committee Stage. I want to put on record my thanks to the Committee Chair and members and indeed Stella and the other Committee staff for the considerable time and energy that they have devoted to the Bill. I also thank previous members for their input to the process. The Bill has been examined carefully, and quite a number of helpful suggestions have been made on an ongoing basis. I am happy that we are able to take those on board in the amendments proposed today.

As I said, the policy objective of the Bill is to introduce a risk-based approach to the management and regulation of reservoir safety in the North. The Bill provides for my Department to give a designation of high, medium or low to all reservoirs that fall within the scope of the Bill. The designation will be based on the adverse consequences of an uncontrolled release of water from a reservoir as a result of dam failure on people, economic activity, the environment and cultural heritage. In order to be proportionate, the Bill enables the reservoir designation to determine the management and maintenance regime applicable to particular reservoirs.

The Committee raised concerns about the use of the term "risk", as it suggests something to be avoided or something that is at the point of causing harm. However, reservoirs, if properly maintained, are safe, so I accept that "consequence" is a much better term. I propose that all references in the Bill to "risk designation" are changed to "reservoir designation" and that references to "high-risk", "medium-risk" and "low-risk" are changed to "high-consequence", "medium-consequence" and "low-consequence". Those amendments account for the vast majority of the amendments in the group.

The Committee was also concerned that, as the designation is based solely on the adverse consequences of failure, there is no benefit to a reservoir manager in investing money and undertaking works in the interests of safety, as this would not result in a change to the designation of the reservoir. I, therefore, propose, through amendment Nos 35 to 42, to make it clear that the assessment of the reservoir designation will allow for other issues to be taken into account when considering reservoir designation. Examples of such issues are the purpose for which the reservoir is used, its age, the condition of the reservoir and how it is maintained. That means that investment in improvement works may enable a lower level of regulation to be achieved for some reservoirs.

These amendments, if accepted, will provide my Department with a degree of flexibility in the designation process and, most importantly, open up the potential for a reservoir designation to be influenced by the actions of the reservoir manager. As a result of these amendments, a number of consequential amendments are required. I, therefore, propose amendment Nos 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10. I also propose amendment No 45, which introduces a new clause to make provision for my Department, by regulation, to amend the matters to be considered when giving a reservoir its designation. In particular, that would allow the Department to include the probability of an uncontrolled release of water when such a methodology is developed. The amendment also allows for the term "risk" to be reintroduced to the Bill if considered appropriate. I am pleased that the Committee has supported all the amendments.

The group also includes amendment No 193, which proposes a change to the procedure for regulations being made on the matters to be taken into account when deciding the reservoir designation. The amendment is in response to a recommendation to the Committee from the Examiner of Statutory Rules and will provide that such regulations cannot be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the Assembly.

That is my contribution to the debate on the amendments in group 1.

Mr Girvan: We are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut to some extent, and I have difficulty with some of this. I will speak to the amendments that Trevor Clarke and I have tabled.

I understand and take on board the commitment made by the Minister that she will make sure that financial help will be given and provision made if this goes through and work needs to be undertaken on some of the reservoirs, dams or ponds, whatever you want to call them.

The rationale for an increase in the volume from 10,000 cubic metres, as proposed by the officials, to 25,000 is helpful, maybe not to everybody but to those whom it removes from what I believe is a draconian system that would give them an awful lot more bureaucracy to have to deal with. Ten will be removed from the low-risk area, and there will be some benefit in that area as a consequence.

I appreciate that one of the two from the high-risk area happens to be in the area that I represent — in Ballyclare. I visited and was involved in a fishery that was running on that dam. I tell you this: if this were to be driven through, we will be looking for people to decommission certain watercourses. Unfortunately, if they do so, they will remove very valuable resources, which are used not just to store water. They have become leisure facilities for many individuals; they have become fisheries; and they have become a recreation opportunity for people.

As we have put forward, I think there is merit in saying that we should help the 12 individuals and private owners who will take advantage of not being included under the legislation. If we can remove any from it, it is better. The large percentage is associated with the public sector. I appreciate that, if there is a necessity for maintenance and there is risk associated with water storage facilities associated with Northern Ireland Water or any other public body, those will have to be addressed, and money should be put in place to ensure that that happens. That is natural risk assessment that will be undertaken.

I appreciate that any competent landowner or owner of such a facility will ensure that there is not a problem. They do not, wilfully, go out to let things go downhill. They are protected within law, as stated. There is a responsibility on individuals whose land these reservoirs are on to ensure that they are not going to cause a problem. I own a small piece of land, and I ensure that water running from my land is not going to impact on or cause a problem to my neighbour. If it did, I would be happy to try to put it right.

One of the proposals put forward by the Department is that there is a twice-yearly inspection of certain reservoirs. I must congratulate the Committee: I am not on it, but I congratulate it on being able to pull that back and ensure that it will have to come forward to be approved by the Committee. We cannot approve the Bill until all these issues are addressed.

In relation to the amendments tabled by Trevor Clarke and me, I have to agree with what has happened. We are talking about development that has been consulted on. Regardless of whether they are statutory consultees, they are consulted and have been consulted on three applications that I am aware of in the last 10 years. Development was permitted to go ahead, and no associated issue was raised. On that basis, this is something for which responsibility falls on those who responded to the planning department, regardless of whether they are deemed to be statutory consultees. They were still consulted on three fairly major applications in which they allowed development to go ahead, with no concern being raised at that time. However, we find that a number of the dams in private ownership are still included in the medium-risk area. That is by the way.

It is common sense to not just gold-plate, as some people have stated. That is probably what some people wish to do. They wish to include every puddle in the legislation. I do not think that that is totally necessary. I think that 25,000 cubic metres is recognised as a dam. England has accepted it. I appreciate that some people say that they are going to change this in Wales and they are going to change it in Scotland. They have not yet changed it, and England has not changed it. On that basis —

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for giving way. Will he agree with me that the legislation in Scotland is to be changed and that England and Wales will follow? We have to ask ourselves why they are doing that. It is being brought down for safety reasons to 10,000 cubic metres, which is far more than what the Member calls a "puddle".

The Member said that, if he had a dam on his property, he would make sure that it was up to standard. How would you do that? You do not know the state of the dam, so you would need to get an engineer in to do what you said you have a responsibility to do. The Bill helps people do that. They get grant aid to have the first inspection. Everything will come into line. England, Scotland, Wales and here will come into line. You are talking about being only a year out. What price do you put on safety?

Mr Girvan: I take safety on board. We had it stated here today that, in the past 150 years, there have been only five breaches of dams or reservoirs, all of which caused no loss of life.

I do not really agree with what you said. You said that I would agree, but I do not, on the basis that, although Scotland has legislation on the table, that does not mean that it will be passed into law. It could well fall before the next election there and not be taken forward. Many things are put forward, and I am sure that many see plenty of issues in Bills that are waiting to be put through while hoping that they do not have to put them through. They hope that there will be a change in the elected body before that happens, resulting in the proposals falling at the next election and such Bills having to start again. That may well be the case in some instances.

It is wrong to state that England is proposing a change. They have nothing to state that there is any change coming. Scotland and Wales have, but I understand that England has not started anything.

I appreciate that we have a responsibility to ensure that people are safe in their home and that villages and areas are protected. Using the 25,000 cubic metre threshold is a fair compromise when it comes to not having over-regulation as the way forward. We are happy to move the rest of our amendments.

Mr McMullan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Girvan: No, I have given way to you already. We will move the amendments, including amendment Nos 100, 101 and 102. We support an increase from 10,000 cubic metres to 25,000 cubic metres.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 (Structure or area which is to be treated as a controlled reservoir)

Mr Speaker: I will not call amendment No 2, as it is consequential to amendment No 1, which has not been made.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.27 pm.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Agriculture and Rural Development

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I inform the House that questions 5, 11 and 13 have been withdrawn. We will start with listed questions.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I have followed the recent reports about dog breeding. I am committed to protecting and safeguarding the welfare of all animals, including dogs and pups.

My Department made the Dog Breeding Establishments Regulations in 2013 to impose new licensing conditions to protect the welfare of all dogs and pups in breeding establishments. A person breeding dogs without a licence or in breach of their licence conditions can be fined up to £5,000 and imprisoned for six months.

When it comes to dog breeding rules, we have the strictest controls across these islands. Councils are responsible for enforcing the controls, and the legislation provides them with strong powers. Legislation alone will not stop illegal puppy farming. That will take a concerted effort by the public, dog buyers, welfare charities and enforcement agencies working together to identify breeders, licensed or unlicensed, who put financial gain before the welfare of their dogs and pups. All evidence of illegal dog breeding should be reported to councils for full investigation.

Those responsible for animals, including dog breeders, must also comply with the Welfare of Animals Act 2011. I strongly believe that anyone found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering to any animal should face the tough penalties set out in the Act, which currently mean up to two years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

The implementation of the Act is being reviewed, and the interim report on that review is out for public consultation. A copy can be found on my Department's website. As the Dog Breeding Establishments Regulations are made under this Act, their implementation is also being reviewed.

Given recent publicity, I want to provide additional time for people to provide their views on dog breeding. I have, therefore, extended the consultation closing date until 21 May.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Minister for her answer. The BBC 'Spotlight' programme clearly illustrates that whatever legislative regime we have, it is imperfect. It is not properly working, given the level of greed, exploitation and downright cruelty that we saw. Will the Minister explain what steps she will now take to put an immediate stop to that type of trade; to prevent it happening now and in future; and to allow dog breeders who rely solely on good practices to continue without unjustified stigma?

Mrs O'Neill: You are absolutely right: it is important that we do that. As I said, legislation alone will not drive out puppy farming. We need a concerted effort across all agencies.

We have strong legislation compared with other jurisdictions. However, there is always room for improvement, which is I why I set out last year, after a debate in the House, to review that legislation. On the back of the recent attention that this issue got, I extended that consultation. I am of the view, and I have published the report on the website, that I am minded to look towards strengthening the legislation where necessary and making sure that the Department has in place the strongest possible legislation.

The Member is obviously aware that councils enforce the action, and we need robust enforcement on the ground. I believe that this happens. However, in the incidents that we witnessed in the media over the last number of weeks, in which criminality is involved, there also needs to be a full PSNI investigation.

With a concerted effort, we can strive to drive out that illegal activity and create a safe space for those involved in good practice to be able to carry out their normal trading.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for her comments and answers so far. Does she accept that not all dog breeding establishments live up to the standards and requirements of the Welfare of Animals Act? What can be done to further reinforce compliance with the legislation and with the remit of district councils?

Mrs O'Neill: As the Member is aware, it is the responsibility of councils to enforce dog breeding controls, the Welfare of Animals Act 2011 and the Dog Breeding Establishments Regulations. There are strong controls, and it is up to councils to enforce them on the ground. I know from engaging with councils that their enforcement officers would be more than happy to receive information from the public on concerns about any underhand practices in the industry. Puppy farming is not illegal, but strong protocols need to be in place. When people do not adhere to those protocols, council officers need to take strong action.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. The Minister touched on this issue in her previous two answers, but will she tell us what legal standards and conditions apply here that dog breeders must adhere to?

Mrs O'Neill: The 2013 regulations require that all commercial dog breeding establishments be licensed. The regulations provide each council with powers to inspect and grant licences for establishments within their control.

The dog breeding establishment conditions include providing suitable accommodation, welcome facilities and diet; microchipping all dogs within seven days of arrival on the premises if they are not already chipped and pups before they are eight weeks of age; the age at which the bitch can first be bred and the number of litters she can produce in her lifetime; the minimum age a pup can leave a breeder; and maintaining records and having a written socialisation and enrichment programme for approval by the council. A council may also apply additional conditions in the licence if they feel that that is required.

My Department provided guidance to council enforcement officers on the licence conditions, and, if an operator cannot meet the standards of the legislation, a licence cannot be granted. If a licence has been granted but the establishment is no longer complying with the standards, the licence must be revoked.

Mr Lyttle: I welcome the extension of the review of the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act by the Minister to include consideration of the serious issue of puppy farming. Does she agree that dogs are not a commodity, they should be bought from licensed breeders and, if there are recommendations from the review of animal welfare legislation in Northern Ireland on reform, she will action them without delay?

Mrs O'Neill: I can absolutely give that assurance, which is why we embarked on the review process after the debate last year, which the Member contributed to. A number of recommendations have been made, but, in light of recent developments and the attention given to the issue, there may be scope to take a look at strengthening the legislation. I am committed to doing that, which is why I am carrying out the review.

We could bring forward some changes. In the interim report, there was a suggestion on penalties: they could be increased to 12 months' imprisonment on summary conviction and five years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine on conviction on indictment. There is scope to make sure that we do everything we can to create a deterrent for this illegal practice. The message to the public is to be careful about where you buy your pups and your dogs: you should use reputable people and make sure that people have licences and are looking after the animals that you are buying. If people are in any doubt about someone's practices, I encourage them to contact their council enforcement officers to investigate.

Mr Allister: The Minister referred to us having very strong legislation. Since the 2011 Act and the 2013 regulations came into effect, how many prosecutions have there been, and how many licences have been revoked?

Mrs O'Neill: I do not have the figure for the number of licences that have been revoked. For dog breeding establishments, there has been one conviction, but, under the Welfare of Animals Act 2011, as you will be aware, over the last number of months, there have been high-profile cases, and stringent sentences have been handed down by the courts, which we welcome. That in itself shows an effectiveness. As I said, whilst I believe that we have very strong legislation, there is always room for improvement and that is the process that I have embarked on.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Pat Ramsey is not in his place. I call Ms Anna Lo.

Mrs O'Neill: I fully endorse the Executive’s decision to create a new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. There will be considerable work to ensure that the new Department is fully operational following the Assembly elections in May 2016.

My Department already engages with environmental and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on a wide range of issues. I recognise the positive role that NGOs play in policy and delivery across our existing responsibilities. There is engagement, to name just a few examples, on agrienvironment schemes, water quality, the Greenhouse Gas Implementation Partnership, development of the agricultural land use strategy and fisheries issues. We have a constructive relationship on agriculture and the environment, which I look forward to continuing to develop and build on.

These are early days in the creation of the new Department, and a small team is being set up to begin to map out what needs to be done. However, going forward, I see continued engagement with the environmental NGOs as important. I welcome their support as we jointly work to achieve positive environmental outcomes. My permanent secretary will be meeting representatives from the NGOs in the coming weeks, and they will be discussing the implications of the departmental restructuring and the role of the NGOs in the delivery of environmental functions under the remit of the new Department.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for her response, and I welcome her proactive approach to looking at the two Departments working together.

I am sure that she will agree about the environment sector's important role. Will she give a commitment that, before finalising any details about the group for the two Departments that she talked about, there will be engagement or a public consultation on how the environment function will move forward?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I can give the Member that assurance. As I said, we will begin that process of engagement with the sector, and we want to continue the strong working relationship that we have. I do not see any reason that that will change in the future. As we shape the new Department, it is key that we use the expertise in the NGO sector and make sure that it feels parts of the process. Obviously, both we in government and NGOs have a key role to play in making sure that we provide what we should be providing on the ground.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. What existing environmental functions will transfer to the new Department after restructuring?

Mrs O'Neill: The environmental aspects of DOE are currently contained in its environment and marine group. The group covers an extensive range of policies and functions. The following functions will transfer to the new Department: environmental protection; drinking water; land and resource management; industrial pollution and radiochemical matters; the marine; and other policies areas, including climate change, air quality, water quality, the habitats directive, environmental noise, invasive species and the carrier-bag levy.

Mr Dallat: The Minister will agree that the environment is the most critical aspect of life for us and future generations. Can she give us some indication of what the relationship will be with the Environment Agency? Will it have the independence and the teeth to go after those who pollute our land and our waterways?

Mrs O'Neill: Obviously, that will be the intention, but, when we are shaping the new Department, it is very important that we get the balance right. There was always a bit of concern around different policy perspectives from DARD and DOE points of view, so there is a challenge to meet there between environmental issues and what farmers do on the ground. I believe that the two areas of work will complement each other. They will work very well. We have to use the time ahead to make sure that we iron out any of the challenges that are there. If the Environment Agency were within the Department, I would want to make sure that the agency was fit for purpose and able to chase those people who are flouting the law and breaking the rules by damaging the environment. There will be tremendous benefits from bringing all those things together under the umbrella of a new Department.

Mr Swann: The Minister will be aware of a perception among farmers, compared with those in other industries, that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) over-regulates, over-inspects and over-persecutes them. If NIEA becomes part of the new Department of Agriculture, will she work to make sure that the inspection agency actually understands the industry that it is inspecting?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, absolutely. The Member will be aware that I said previously that we are looking at the whole inspection regime and at how we can tidy it up, create fewer inspections and perhaps do a number of activities in the one visit. There is the potential to make sure that we do that. All inspectors are well trained. Their job is not to go out to make life difficult for people. Sometimes, that can be the perception in the farming industry. I suppose that it is about how we can work with the industry to help it to be able to flourish, while also protecting the environment. I think that the whole area of work coming under the one umbrella will lead to benefits in the long term not only for the farming community but for the environment.


2.15 pm

Mrs O'Neill: The European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) is the successor to the European Fisheries Fund (EFF), and officials are currently working with colleagues in the Marine Management Organisation and DEFRA to ensure timely implementation of the scheme to support the fishing and aquaculture industries.

The key to the implementation of the new funding programme is the approval of the operational programme, which describes how the money allocated by Europe will be spent. That document is currently being drafted by DEFRA, with input from other fisheries administrations, and is expected to be formally submitted to the European Commission over the next number of weeks — it had been due by the end of April. The Commission then has 6 months to work with DEFRA to ensure the plan is approved by October 2015. At that stage, the Department can consider opening the programme to applications for funding.

In parallel to that work, the Department is working with the Marine Management Organisation to deliver the operational processes required to administer the programme, which will involve the development of a new IT system to underpin the administrative process. The new IT system will also allow applicants to make their claims online. I am confident that this will ensure an easier application process.

I anticipate that all of the work will be finalised on schedule, and the EMFF will open for applications in autumn 2015. In the meantime my officials will provide updates, including forms and guidance, via the DARD website, which should be available early in the summer.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer, and I am sure the local fishing fleet will be glad to know that the system will be easier. Something else that is bothering the local fishing fleet at the minute, of course, is the incident with the submarine in the Irish Sea only a matter of days ago. I want to thank the Minister for her activity in relation to that, coming down to Ardglass and meeting the crew of the trawler involved. Can I ask for an update on what the Minister has been able to do?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for inviting me to go down and meet with the fishermen. It was very clear and evident that the fishermen are concerned. They are concerned every day that they go out, given the fact that they do not know what has actually happened. I raised the issue with the Ministry of Defence, which needs to be transparent because fishermen, going out every day, are taking their lives in their hands. They do not know if they are going to encounter a similar instance again.

We need answers on this. Fishermen need to know whether it was a submarine and what it was doing in their fishing grounds. I spoke to Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, and she assured me that they are not aware of any Navy submarines in or close to the area at that time. That begs the question of who was in the area. There are a number of questions that need to be answered, because the incident very clearly posed a threat to the life of the four people who were on board the ship. The risk of it happening again remains. These people are concerned for their livelihood and their families are concerned for their lives, every day when they go out, until they receive the answer. I will certainly be questioning the Ministry of Defence, the Secretary of State, the Department for Transport and the marine accident investigation branch to get answers for the fishing industry which, as the Member rightly said, deserves the answers.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. I welcome the further funding from Europe for developing our agrifood economy. What grant aid support from Europe will DARD be applying for to assist the fishing ports of Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel? I am thinking specifically of something like the Kilkeel vision 2020 for the new port.

Mrs O'Neill: The Member will know that the main aim of the EMFF is to support the delivery of the reformed common fisheries policy in member states. For us that will include the current issues around the landing obligations and the need to minimise levels of by-catch for the fleet. Therefore, the EMFF, in the first instance, will obviously help with gear trials, research on reducing by-catch, developing the infrastructure for the handling of the by-catch and adapting fishing gear for fishing vessels.

Similarly to the EFF, the EMFF will provide support to the local fishing industry for its ports infrastructure, dealing with the issues you have set out. It will support them in promoting safer fisheries, processing aquaculture operatives and community-led local development. The Department is working with the fishing industry to develop those detailed proposals, and then it plans to work with the fishing communities over the summer to get them into a state of readiness so that, when the programme opens in the autumn, they are ready to bid in. The fishing industry is waiting for the new programme to open. I am keen to work with it to make sure that everybody knows how to avail themselves of the funding and what is eligible under the funding. We will be doing that work over the summer.

Mrs O'Neill: I was pleased to announce the opening of my Department's new rural micro capital grant programme earlier this month. The programme will contribute to reducing poverty and social isolation within rural communities through the provision of a micro capital grant to eligible rural community organisations. Financial support of up to £1,500 is available for selected projects. This is intended to encourage rural community and voluntary groups to improve and develop their facilities and assets, which, in turn, will contribute to improved community engagement in the local area.

The programme is designed to be very accessible for applicants and administratively straightforward to deliver. Projects selected for funding must fit with the overall objective of the programme and align to the themes of modernisation of existing premises or assets, ICT, or health and well-being. These have proven to be particularly effective themes in tackling poverty and social isolation and are relevant to all of those living in rural communities, from the very young to the elderly.

The programme aims to engage a geographically broad range of rural groups, including hard-to-reach rural organisations in remote areas. For this reason, the rural support networks that are currently delivering the rural community development support service will promote and deliver the micro grants programme on a subregional basis to ensure as wide a reach and impact as possible.

I anticipate that over 150 rural community organisations will directly benefit from the initial £200,000 set aside in my tackling rural poverty and social isolation budget for this new scheme. If there is sufficient demand, this allocation could be extended. The new programme represents an excellent opportunity for community groups to build on their existing roles of strengthening community engagement and improving the lives of those living in rural areas.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her response. Will the Minister outline the specific details of the scheme, such as grant rates, matched funding and project duration?

Mrs O'Neill: The rural micro capital grant programme can provide grant aid from a minimum of £200 to a maximum of £1,500 to eligible rural community-led voluntary organisations. Capital grants will be provided at a rate of up to 85% of the total project cost, to a maximum of £1,500. Applicants are expected to provide a minimum of 15% matched funding towards the project in the form of a cash contribution. Applicants must incur the initial cost of approved purchases and then claim the grant back once the project is completed. No advance payments will be provided. To ensure that as many groups as possible benefit from the programme, groups will be allowed only one award each. Applicants must be able to complete their project and claim the grant within four months of the date of the award.

Mrs McKevitt: How does DARD propose to deliver the programme to promote smaller rural businesses?

Mrs O'Neill: There certainly will be opportunities under the new rural development programme once we have clearance from Europe, and we hope to get a letter of comfort, at least, to get things moving. You will be aware that the local action groups have now been set up and are working on strategic plans for their areas. One of the measures in the programme is designed to support rural business directly, but there is also quite a lot of scope under tourism and the other measures.

The details of this programme are available on the DARD website if the Member wants more detail, but there is a tailored measure to support rural businesses. The current rural development programme served rural business well and created a considerable number of jobs. We look forward to doing even more of that under this programme once we get it up and running. I hope to start delivering funding into areas shortly after we open the programme over the summer months.

Mr Swann: I have met the Minister about credit unions in rural communities. Will the micro capital grant programme be open to credit unions? I know that credit unions experienced difficulties in gaining access to the rural development programme.

Mrs O'Neill: There were some difficulties. I will have to write to the Member to clarify whether they will be eligible. There are some issues arising from European rules in the case of financial services. Depending on the setting of the credit union and how it is run, there may be opportunities, but I will clarify that for the Member in writing.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Moutray is not in his place. I call Mr Patsy McGlone.

Mrs O'Neill: The draft rural development programme was formally submitted to the European Commission on 14 October last year. The Commission observation letter on the draft programme was received on 31 March this year. We look forward to being able to start the formal adoption process, with the aim of having our programme approved as soon as possible, ideally before the summer. However, given the delay in receiving the Commission's observation letter, in the worst case scenario, we would expect to obtain programme approval by September 2015. The Department continues the work to make sure that the necessary business cases are in place and to design the proposed schemes so that they are in a state of readiness to go as soon as we get the green light from Europe. In the last number of days, the Twenty-six Counties have received a letter of comfort from Europe. We expect to receive something similar that would allow us to get the work going and the expenditure on the ground as soon as possible. Ideally, our intention is to have it on the ground before the summer.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister give the House some detail on the delay and what has caused it? Will she also tell us what measures have been put in place to make sure that things eventually speed up?

Mrs O'Neill: The delay has occurred because we are waiting for Europe to give us the green light to go ahead. I think that the Commission possibly underestimated the amount of work that was involved in clearing and approving all the operating plans from all the member states. We await the green light to go, but, in the absence of that, as I said, we are developing the business plans and getting the projects on the ground. We have also established our local action groups (LAGs) and have given an indication of the allocation of funding to each LAG. We are in a state of readiness and are good to go as soon as we get the Commission's approval.

So far, the Commission has only approved 27 of the 118 operating plans that are with it. We expect that it will clear somewhere in the region of 30 to 40 this month, and we are obviously pushing to have our plan approved before June. In the absence of full clearance, if we can even obtain a letter of comfort, we can open the programme. As I said, we are ready to open the programme as soon as we have that green light.

Mr Irwin: Given the large number of observations from the Commission — I think that there were over 300 — is it not inevitable that it will take longer for the programme to be approved?

Mrs O'Neill: There were quite a number of observations. We can accept quite a number of those and can move very quickly to address them. Over the last number of weeks since we received the letter, officials have had a number of teleconferences with officials in Europe, and we are working our way through the observations.

As I said, the Commission has only been able to clear a small number of the 118 papers that went to it. However, it has said that it is working on that backlog and intends to try to turn around a number of the papers very quickly.

A number of issues were raised by the Commission about the environmental and climate change objectives, and it wanted a bit more detail on some other issues. A lot of things were minor, and we will be able to address those. My intention is to keep the pressure on Europe and keep pushing to get the green light so that we can open the programme as soon as possible.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister elaborate on some of the key issues that were raised in the observation letter?

Mrs O'Neill: The Commission raised 315 observations, but the majority of those were minor and technical in nature. However, a number of key issues need to be addressed, particularly in relation to areas of natural constraint (ANC). The Commission requested that the method used for the calculation of income forgone and the additional costs for the exclusion of disadvantaged areas are detailed. It also wants a bit more detail on the programme's environmental and climate change objectives and the agrienvironment climate measures. There were also some issues with some of the cross-cutting themes of the programme.

One of the other issues is the fact that we did not include an option of support for the organic farming sector. I have given a commitment to the organic farming sector that I will look at that and see if we can. That was not identified in the consultation as something for which there was major demand. However, farmers who are engaged in organic farming believe that they are entitled to support, and I have given a commitment to look positively at that if a business case can stack up.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions. Mr Pat Ramsey is not in his place.

T2. Mr Rogers asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what her Department is doing to address the lamb-labelling issue, given that the good weather has contributed to a great lambing season, with farmers having great crops of lambs, but, just as they are about to bring them to market, there are labelling issues with the Republic, and they are taking a significant reduction in the price of their lamb. (AQT 2422/11-15)


2.30 pm

Mrs O'Neill: The Member is right: historically, a significant number of our lambs have gone to the Twenty-six Counties for slaughter and then further export into premium markets across Europe. Recently, there was an issue when some processors refused to take lambs in some instances, while others took them but the farmers had to take a reduction in the money they were offered. I am very concerned about this, and I have raised it consistently because it is based around the country-of-origin labelling. I have raised it consistently with Simon Coveney. I chatted with him last night, and I am speaking to him again today.

We have tasked officials with looking at whether we can produce a voluntary label. I have approached Europe, which has an open mind on producing a voluntary label that would serve the industry well across the island and take away any trade barriers that there would be as a result of country-of-origin labelling. The Member will be aware that the European legislation now says that you have to indicate where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered. If it was born in the Six Counties and slaughtered in the Twenty-six Counties, it cannot be sold as Irish lamb in other European markets. I am extremely concerned, because this is the time of year when farmers go to market. I assure the Member that, at a European level and working with DEFRA and Simon Coveney, we are trying to find a solution through a voluntary labelling process.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her answer. Lambs are the just the same whether they are reared in the Mournes or in Carlingford. Can you put a timeline on the negotiations and discussions? It is important to farmers that they get a reasonable price for their lambs.

Mrs O'Neill: All I can say is that I know that it is an immediate problem, and we are working closely on it. As I said, I raised the issue with Simon Coveney again last night, and I expect a phone call from him again today. We have both tasked our permanent secretaries with this, as it is a high-priority issue that needs to be dealt with. They have been working on it for some time in advance of the European rules coming into play. All I can say is that I am aware that it is an immediate issue, and we are trying to find a solution.

T3. Ms Boyle asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, given her recent visit to Strabane, for an update on the Strabane DARD Direct office. (AQT 2423/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill: Things are going ahead smoothly, and we are on target. As I said when we were up there, this is a positive news story. We are creating 30-plus jobs in the DARD Direct office. Things are going well, and I think that we can look forward to having that new office opened on schedule for next year. The beauty of that office is that a number of services will come together there. That, in itself, was very useful and was a very good use of public money, given that a number of Departments were going to locate there together.

Ms Boyle: I thank the Minister for her response. Obviously, she will be aware that this is a good news story for Strabane. Is she confident that the planned works will go ahead and that the opening of the DARD Direct office will be next year?

Mrs O'Neill: I assure the Member that we are working to that time frame. At this stage, we have no reason to believe that there will be any delay in it. It is full steam ahead for the project. The work is on the ground, and we hope to have all our staff moved into their new premises next year.

T4. Mr Flanagan asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for an update on any progress made on increasing trade exports and improving access to new markets for our agrifood sector. (AQT 2424/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill: We have made quite a lot of progress, particularly on pork. I am pleased that, last week, one of our processors was inspected by Chinese officials responsible for approving the North and Britain for the export of trotters. That all went well. I am also delighted that we have Chinese inspectors here for the next couple of days to inspect our processors so that we can open up that export market. We are delighted to have made that progress. We have been waiting for the Chinese inspectors to visit for quite a number of months, and it is great that they are here.

I also intend to follow that visit up at the end of the month. I will seek a number of political meetings in China. We will spend four or five days there, and, hopefully, we will be able to get positive news about opening up that market for pork. I am very confident that that will be the case. We have a first-class product and first-class processors with really high standards, and I have no doubt that the Chinese inspectors who are here at the moment will be as impressed as the delegation that was here last week.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí. I could not agree more with the Minister about the standard of our pork products, particularly things like Pat O'Doherty's black bacon in Enniskillen. Given the threat of a European exit and the commitment by some parties here to push for a referendum on leaving Europe, will the Minister outline how important she feels EU membership is for this part of Ireland for trade and other opportunities for the agrifood sector?

Mrs O'Neill: Obviously, EU membership opens up opportunities and doors for our exporters. It affords farmers and processors alike significant advantages in trading with the other 27 member states. You can even take it in a purely local context and consider its contribution to the local economy and the farming industry. In 2014, there was £248 million of single farm payments, £23·6 million was distributed through the less-favoured areas compensatory scheme and £20 million was invested through the agrienvironment scheme. Our agricultural and rural communities are so dependent on the subsidy that comes from Europe.

Being part of the EU allows our industry to achieve most value from its worldwide export markets. When you look at the benefits to be achieved, it really calls into question why some parties consider that pulling out of the EU would be beneficial to the local farming industry. I dare say that, if you asked any farmer, any person who lives in a rural community or a rural business that has benefited from the rural development programme, they could certainly tell you the benefits, because they feel them in their income every week. It is madness for anybody to consider that pulling out of the EU would benefit our local industry: clearly, it would not.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn within the appropriate time. Mr David McNarry is not in his place for question 6. Question 7 has been withdrawn within the appropriate time.

T8. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, while pleased that she had a question in mind, to outline the cost assumptions for the relocation of DARD headquarters to Ballykelly and whether it would not be better to put aside that money for front-line services. (AQT 2428/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill: No. The Executive have a commitment to relocate public sector jobs. There is unfairness, real imbalance and inequity in the distribution of public sector jobs. This will be the first Department to move lock, stock and barrel into a rural area, and it is right and proper that that should be the case. People in rural areas are entitled to have the same public service opportunities as those who live in more urban settings. The benefits for the north-west are tremendous — the economic benefits, the construction of the building, the ongoing servicing of the building and the fact that people in the public service can get a better work/life balance. For me, it is full steam ahead for the project. There is an Executive commitment. We need to see more Departments doing it. We need to provide equity in access to public sector jobs, so full steam ahead.

Ms Lo: Thank you. That was a very clear answer from the Minister. Given my earlier question about a new Department taking in agriculture and the environment, what will happen to DOE's staff and its headquarters?

Mrs O'Neill: That will be managed as part of the wider Civil Service rules. You would imagine that the staff who want to do so will transfer with their function, but the group that we have established will manage all of that and make sure, in conjunction with trade unions, that there is a seamless process for staff, because, obviously, they will still be providing a service. That is not going to change. It is just where they provide that service from that may change.

T9. Lord Morrow asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what discussions about river pollution she has had this year with angling clubs. (AQT 2429/11-15)

Mrs O'Neill: I have not had any discussion with angling clubs in relation to river pollution this year. If the Member wants to raise a particular issue with me, I would be happy to receive that representation.

Lord Morrow: I am disappointed that the Minister does not think that angling is important enough for her to have discussions with angling clubs on river pollution. What discussions has she had with the Department of the Environment or DCAL on river pollution?

Mrs O'Neill: I have not had any discussions with the Environment Minister either. However, officials at that level in Rivers Agency and DOE engage regularly on all these issues. I am happy to provide that to the Member. He is referring to an issue in very general terms. If he has an issue, he has not raised it with me, but I am happy to receive that representation.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 10 has been withdrawn within the permitted time. As the next period of questions does not begin until 2.45 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until then.


2.45 pm

Culture, Arts and Leisure

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I inform the House that questions 2, 10 and 13 have been withdrawn. We will start with listed questions.

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): I thank the Member for her question. Museums has advised me that the range of literature sold through its outlets is reflective of the collections and exhibitions held each year at the organisation's three sites. The sale of books and other literature is part of Museums' retail operations and is intended to enhance the understanding of its collections and exhibitions, and that also helps to generate income for the organisation. It has also informed me that its retail operations are not of themselves subject to equality proofing and cultural monitoring, because they are aligned to the Museums and Galleries (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 and the museums policy for the North. The Museums and Galleries Order requires the board of trustees and the museums to assist the public to interpret the significance of its collections and exhibitions. Museums policy specifically requires museums here to embrace the principles of equality of opportunity and to develop good relations beyond any legislative requirement to do so. That policy was subject to equality proofing by my Department.

Mrs Hale: I thank the Minister for her in-depth answer. As a keen supporter of culture, arts and the Ulster Museum, I was disappointed on Easter Monday when I visited with my daughter and found a distinct bias in the range of books and literature for sale in the shop towards all things of a nationalist and republican nature. British, Ulster-Scots, Orange or even wartime items were practically non-existent, thus providing a biased, one-sided view. I have spoken with the Ulster-Scots Community Network, and it has informed me that neither it nor the Ulster Historical Foundation has ever been contacted by DCAL or the museums about literature sold at the museum. I revisited the museum on Friday, so will the Minister tell me who makes the decision about the choice of literature displayed and sold?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to come to her question.

Mrs Hale: What steps are being taken to ensure that a balanced view, including the arrival of the Vikings, the Normans and the Plantation, is being exhibited at our museums?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am disappointed that the Member was not happy with her visit or, indeed, with the exhibitions or the literature sold. I am happy to write to the museum to that effect. I am concerned that, given the amount of money that we have put into the ministerial advisory group on the Ulster-Scots Academy (MAGUS) — over £3·5 million — specifically to enhance and enrich the literature, cultural services and facilities to places like the museums, we have all fallen short. I am happy to write to the museums to query this and also the Member's concerns. I will also query what the Ulster-Scots Community Network and the Ulster Historical Foundation have been doing with the money that they received to do exactly that.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. Will the Minister advise us on other themes that are covered by the literature sold by the museums?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I can give you a few examples. I have been informed by the museums, the Ulster Museum in particular, that there is literature on archaeology, art, dinosaurs, prehistoric life, farm life, geology, nature and wildlife. However, I am happy to try to furnish the Member and, indeed, Mrs Hale with a full list of all the exhibits available to be sold in the shop.

Mrs McKevitt: Under the Museums Order 1998, does the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure have a role to play in the process of how museums display literature and the range of books that is available to buy?

Ms Ní Chuilín: In short, no; it does not. That is why the Museums Council is there: to inform Ulster museums about trends, the authenticity of exhibitions and the articles that need to be done. In the past, however, the museums have responded to demands. If anyone has any concerns about what should be there rather than what is not there, I believe that the museums will respond positively. However, it would be wholly inappropriate for me, or any politician for that matter, to interfere by saying what exhibitions should or should not be there. You can certainly have an opinion, but direct interference is nothing short of censorship.

Ms Lo: Last year, a number of curator vacancies were not filled. Do we now have enough curators to man all our museums?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I prefer the term "to staff our museums", Anna, but I will let you off with that one.

The short and honest answer is that I am not sure. The curators and specialists we have at our disposal through the three museum sites are second to none. They have a very good reputation locally, nationally and internationally. I am happy to raise the Member's query with the museums, and I will certainly write to her to give her the details of her query.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. My Department is working closely with Loughs Agency and Inland Fisheries Ireland on jointly developing and promoting the recreational angling product here, including in South Antrim, through participation in key angling shows throughout Ireland, Britain and Europe. DCAL also attends the Irish Game Fair, which is held at Shane's Castle in Antrim, which is in the Member's constituency. The event attracts a considerable number of visitors, and DCAL promoted a number of new initiatives to encourage greater interest in angling, particularly among children and young people.

In South Antrim, my Department manages Stoneyford reservoir and the Toome canal, which are very popular waters for anglers in DCAL's public angling estate. There are also a number of private fisheries in South Antrim, including the Sixmilewater and the lower Bann.

Mr Clarke: I appreciate the Minister's answer. I note that DCAL is fairly active in the area. However, given the direction of your ministerial colleague in DARD, can you give any assurance to those in the fishing sector who have reservoirs — you referred to one — and whose business may now be at risk because of the actions of the Reservoirs Bill? What assurance can you give them that you will help to fund them, given that they may not have the capability to fund themselves?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member is aware that I am responsible only for the public angling estate. The waters that I mentioned, particularly one, are private concerns. I lease the fishing rights for reservoirs from the owners. The Member will be much more across the issue than I am, but my understanding is that, when it comes to public safety, particularly around health and safety, there are no regulations in place. That is part of the rationale behind bringing forward the Reservoirs Bill. If the Member has any concern about a particular fishery, whether public or private, I am happy to meet him to hear his concerns. The last thing that I want is for people involved in indigenous work such as fisheries and angling, which goes back generations, to be put out. As I said, I am happy to meet the Member to have those discussions.

Mrs Overend: Considering the importance of angling in South Antrim, will the Minister provide an update on the study to establish the baseline of the fish population in Lough Neagh?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am liaising with my colleague Michelle O'Neill on that. I am working with the Lough Neagh Partnership and other concerns, including some of the councils. As the Member will be aware, her constituency borders Lough Neagh, but many others do as well. In the discussions, there is a cigarette paper between everyone. We want to ensure that Lough Neagh is preserved, and we are looking at fishing rights, recreational and leisure opportunities, future leisure opportunities, and leisure and economic regeneration for the area. I will write to the Member with details after I consult my colleague Michelle O'Neill on the question raised.

Mr Rogers: There is a great wee niche market in which to develop the tourist potential of angling right across the whole area. What are you, as Minister, doing to promote angling as a sport?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Through Sport NI, well before my time and in my time, we have been working very closely with the governing body of angling and some of the angling clubs across the North and across the island. Loughmacrory in my colleague Declan McAleer's West Tyrone constituency is an example; it held an international junior trout angling competition. There are many other examples across the board of young people getting involved.

The recent review of angling made something like 30 recommendations, and one of them was to help support the sport of angling through not only working with the clubs but encouraging others who have not really found angling yet to try it. Hats off to the angling community; they are doing very well. What has been missing in the past is greater collaboration and cooperation and, indeed, partnership with Government. That report gives us the opportunity to try to bridge some of those gaps and make things better for the angling community across the island.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. As the Member might be aware, Libraries NI needs to complete a business case aimed at securing the necessary resources for the development of a new and improved library in Enniskillen before it will be in a position to present any plans to me on a suitable location for the facility. Work on this business case is under way, and I expect the exercise to be completed by November. The possibility of relocating the existing library to the old Erne Hospital site and sharing with other public sector organisations, like South West Regional College, is being actively considered as part of the business case process.

This process also requires that the benefits of any relocation be fully tested and evaluated alongside a range of other potential options. One of the many options is that the library should remain at its current site, which is readily accessible to the centre of Enniskillen and its entire population and where the library has already built up a strong and valued presence in the community.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. The new Lisnakea library that opened on 8 May is a fantastic facility for the town. I look forward to you coming to open it officially. Does the Minister recognise the importance of Enniskillen library to the county and that there is an urgent need for its improvement?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his kind remarks. Enniskillen library is Fermanagh's main and largest library. I recognise that there is a need to provide the service, particularly given the size of the county. Libraries NI estimated that that library serves a catchment population of around 60,000 people, which is quite a big amount. I am aware that the condition of the building is deteriorating and that useable space in the library is limited. I am concerned about the heritage collections and their need for better storage, and I know that Libraries NI shares those concerns. It is for these reasons that we have encouraged Libraries NI to develop a business case to look at these deficiencies and, as I said in the main answer, to look at the options for relocation or a new library in the future.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the next Member, I remind those who are rising in their seats seeking to ask a supplementary that this question is specific to one site.

Mr Dunne: We all recognise the importance of libraries. All libraries, including the libraries in Fermanagh, need books. Can the Minister give us an assurance that, in this financial year, she will endeavour to find funding to provide stock for all libraries across Northern Ireland, including those in Fermanagh and north Down? [Laughter.]

Ms Ní Chuilín: I congratulate the Member on his ingenuity in weaving Fermanagh and north Down into one breath. The Member will be aware that, within the budget settlement that we received, which fell far short of where it needed to be, I prioritised libraries within the DCAL family at 7·5%, when arts, sports and museums, for example, received a much higher cut to their budget. Within that was the protection of not only stock but the accessibility of computers and broadband through the uplift in the e2 system. I am confident that Libraries NI will ensure that the stock in Fermanagh and your constituency does not drop. Certainly, I will ask Libraries NI specifically about the stock in the two constituencies that you mentioned and write to you with the answer for same.


3.00 pm

Mr Dallat: The Minister will, of course, know that there is a very long and rich history to the library in Enniskillen and recognise that, historically, people could not afford to buy their own books. Is the Minister committed to that same principle at the turn of the century? Can she assure us that it will apply across the North?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I certainly can give that commitment to the Member, because it is important. Last night, we met a group of kids from north Belfast and the Shankill who went to South Africa. They told us that children cannot access education unless they have a pair of shoes, and the parents cannot afford to buy shoes. We need to make sure that parents who cannot afford to buy books, their family and, indeed, their community, are not disadvantaged. That is why libraries are there. That is at the core of the business of libraries. I want to ensure that if people need books for pleasure or to help them with study, further education or exams, libraries will provide them. Libraries have done a very good job thus far in doing that, and I have no reason to believe that they will not continue to do that.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. Both academies will have an important role to play in the enhancement and development of their respective languages, culture and, indeed, the development of the academies. In relation to Irish, there is a need for an academy that will address a range of issues and gaps in the teaching, learning, acquisition and use of the Irish language, particularly for adults. The ministerial advisory group on the Ulster-Scots Academy has developed, as part of its remit, options and a preferred proposal for the creation of a physical Ulster-Scots Academy to maximise the social, economic, community and cultural benefits of Ulster Scots.

In order to progress the development of the academies, I plan to conduct separate public consultations to ensure that the public and, indeed, stakeholders have their say in what both academies will seek to achieve.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Bhí an grúpa MAGUS bunaithe i Márta 2011. Cad é atá déanta ag an ghrúpa suas go dtí an pointe seo? The ministerial advisory group on the Ulster-Scots Academy was established in March 2011. What has been achieved by that group since then?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member probably heard me mention to Mrs Hale the amount of money that has been spent on the ministerial advisory group on Ulster Scots so far. I will correct what I said earlier: it is actually £3·4 million rather than £3·5 million. The Department has provided £3·4 million to the ministerial advisory group over the past four years. That has enabled a wide range of achievements, including the development and research strategy for the Ulster-Scots sector; a comprehensive business case for the options around the physical academy; the new Ulster-Scots hub and Discover Ulster-Scots Centre at the Corn Exchange in the Cathedral Quarter, which I opened in November of last year; and 76 projects which have been funded by the MAG across the three work streams of language and literature; education and research; and history, heritage and culture. I certainly acknowledge the work that has been done so far and that there is still much to be done.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her answer so far. I note what the Minister has said about her work with the MAGUS. Has she held scheduled minuted meetings with the Ulster-Scots Agency? Have there been action points from those meetings with the Ulster-Scots Agency with outcomes in relation to the establishment of an Ulster-Scots Academy across Northern Ireland and, indeed, the border counties?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I have not had any formal meetings with the Ulster-Scots Agency about the MAGUS. At this stage, the ministerial advisory group on Ulster Scots just reports to the Department directly, but I will be involving the Ulster-Scots Agency in the future work of the MAGUS, because I intend to review the MAGUS. Although I extended the ministerial advisory group on Ulster Scots until next year, I intend to shorten that extension to December of this year and, between now and then, conduct a review of the group's functions. I certainly envisage that the Ulster-Scots Agency would have a role in the future of the Ulster-Scots ministerial advisory group.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cheist a chur ar an Aire. An bhfuil aon bhuiséad leagtha i leataobh i dtaobh bhunú na n-acadamh seo? Has the Minister set aside any particular budget for the establishment of the academies?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The short answer is no. We conducted the initial scoping studies from DCAL's budget for the Ulster-Scots Academy and an acadaimh for the Irish language. We now need to go out to full public consultation separately on both, because I believe that many in the sectors have opinions on what the academies should have. I would like to hear from stakeholders, including parents, practitioners in education and, in the case of the Irish language, those responsible for language acquisition. I even want to hear examples of what has happened in the rest of the island and in Europe. Once that happens, I envisage that business cases for both will be brought forward and substantial moneys will be asked for. You are, I imagine, talking about well over £20 million for both.

Ms Ní Chuilín: A Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will group questions 6, 7 and 11 and thank the Member for his question.

The Windsor Park project is currently under construction and work is progressing well. Reconstruction of the pitch, which commenced in May 2014, was completed in August last year. Demolition of the south stand is complete, and construction of the east and south stands has commenced and is, again, progressing well.

On Tuesday 31 March, the Department was informed by the IFA that there was a structural problem with the existing west stand. Since then, DCAL has been in close liaison with the IFA on the matter. On 20 April 2015, the board of the Irish Football Association met to ratify a recommendation from the national football stadium project team that the west stand should be demolished, following recent structural damage. This recommendation came after a series of meetings with all interested parties and following the review of a structural engineer's report. Demolition work will begin immediately.

In addition, the upcoming UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier against Romania, on Saturday 13 June 2015, will be played at Windsor. The project team has produced a plan that should enable the necessary capacity to be met for this game by accelerating works on the project in the east stand, south-east quadrant and south stand. I am glad that every effort is being made to ensure that the international game scheduled for 13 June will take place in Windsor Park as planned.

Mr Hilditch: My having declared the relevant interest at question 6, there is a slight concern in the football fraternity in relation to cost, moving forward. If extra money is required for Windsor Park, can the Minister guarantee that the remainder of the regional stadium money is still available and will not be touched?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware, because he was at the CAL Committee last week when he or one of his colleagues asked one of my officials who would fund the provision of the west stand, that I understand that that will come from insurance and will not impact on the budget that we have set aside for Windsor Park and the development of the subregional stadia thereafter.

Mr Swann: The Minister referred to insurance paying for the stand. If we have to wait for the insurer to pay up, can she give any indication as to when she expects the new-look kop stand to be completed?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I do not anticipate that any of us will have the difficulty of waiting to go through the bureaucracy of an insurance claim. There is an acceptance of the issues and, certainly, that structural damage was done to the west stand. The contractor is, coincidentally, the construction firm that is looking at the Olympia and Windsor Park redevelopments. That makes it easier, as there is no contest between one set of contractors and another or one owner and another. Notwithstanding that, I expect to hear this time next week, if not sooner, that not only is it resolved but there is a date, because I understand that demolition work needs to start as soon as possible. That will start, and, thereafter, we will get a timetable for the demolition work, planning permission and the work that is to be completed on the kop stand.

Mr G Robinson: Can the Minister confirm whether the stand will be ready for 2016 or even before that?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Well, 2016 starts on 1 January 2016, so I assume that the Member is asking whether the west stand will be completed in line with the overall project. It is my anticipation that that will be the case and that, if there is any delay in the overall timeline, it will be very small. I think that everybody in the House accepts that the IFA and soccer fans in particular were put in a terrible position when they heard what had happened. We are all very thankful that no one was injured or hurt, because, given what happened a few days earlier, we could have been dealing with a worse situation.

I am encouraged by the attitude that everybody has taken. Everybody has taken a can-do attitude. We have a big problem. We all know that we need to fix it, and above all else we need to make sure that people, particularly the IFA and the soccer community, are not penalised as a result of something that happened and that the overall redevelopment of Windsor Park happens without too much delay.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí go dtí seo. Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. An dtig leis an Aire a rá cén uair ar tugadh an cás gnó bunaithe chun tosaigh agus an raibh baint ag an ghrúpa teicniúil sábháilteachta leis an togra tosaithe sin do na trí staidiam? Can the Minister outline when the original business case (OBC) was brought forward and whether the safety technical group was involved in the initial proposal for the three stadiums?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Sport NI appointed FGS McClure Watters in October 2009 to prepare an outline business case on behalf of the three governing bodies. DCAL submitted the OBC to DFP in October 2010, and DFP approved it on 7 March 2011. That includes the current safety technical arrangements. The groups that are involved in the process now were involved then. Hopefully, that will help.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I met the chair of the Arts Council in advance of budget reductions being implemented and asked that, in considering funding applications for 2015-16, it seek to ensure that front-line services are protected. My officials continued to liaise with the Arts Council and affected organisations following the communication of the arts funding decisions for 2015-16 to discuss other potential funding sources or opportunities for collaboration and partnership that would allow programmes to continue to be delivered, albeit in an alternative way. I fully recognise the value that the arts can bring to individuals, communities, the economy and, indeed, wider society. I continue to promote that value, and I am bringing forward an arts and culture strategy that will emphasise the importance of arts and culture in creating a cohesive society, contributing to positive health and well-being, promoting tourism, helping the economy and acting as a driver for the creative industries and, indeed, for artistic excellence.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: This must be a very quick supplementary, Ms Overend.

Mrs Overend: OK, thank you. I thank the Minister. Does the Minister agree, given that the arts sector, including the performing arts, is a major contributor to the health and well-being of our people, that serious efforts need to be made to deliver the finance needed for it?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I totally agree. To that end, we are bringing in an overarching strategy in which all the Departments can help to contribute to the arts and the economy.

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


3.15 pm

T1. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for her assessment of the contribution of the EastSide Arts Festival to the growth of the arts and the social and economic regeneration in east Belfast and whether her Department has been able to invest in that fantastic festival. (AQT 2431/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I totally agree with everything the Member has said. Indeed, DCAL, through the Arts Council, has contributed to EastSide Arts; it is one of the cultural partners. They have been working together since well before the World Police and Fire Games. Along with other cultural partners, EastSide Arts put on a brilliant exhibition and continues to do excellent work in the east of Belfast.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for her response. Given the significant public support for maintaining the 2014-15 level of public funding for the arts, how does the Minister propose to secure appropriate funding for the arts and creative industries in Northern Ireland?

Ms Ní Chuilín: EastSide Arts is one of the groups that was awarded a level of funding that it had never received before. Unfortunately, the situation with other groups that received funding prior to groups like EastSide Arts was that they were unhappy that the new groups received money when their budgets were being reduced, and a small number of groups did not receive any support from the Arts Council. I know that they are extremely disappointed.

It is important that there is overall recognition of the role that arts, culture and the creative industries have to play not only in the sense that they make people feel better about themselves and their communities but in their regeneration contribution to the economy, to education and to further skills. When the overarching strategy is brought to the Executive, I hope that all parties will give it support.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 2 has been withdrawn. Mr Pat Ramsey is not in his place.

T4. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on the Cairde Teo group in Armagh, of which she is well aware, which is trying to provide a cultural hub in the Armagh city area. (AQT 2434/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. Along with others, including An Ciste Infheistíochta, some local councils, the Lottery Fund and other sources of funding, I have had meetings with our officials in DCAL and officials from Armagh council and An Ciste Infheistíochta about looking at Cairde Teo and other cultural hubs. They have a great opportunity to provide a cultural space for people in the community and to act as small and medium-sized enterprises. Everyone is working collectively to have Cairde Teo achieved not just for the here and now but to make it economically sustainable in the future.

Mr Boylan: I thank the Minister for that detailed answer. She recognises the value of the project. Will she keep me updated on the project and consider meeting the group as the project grows in the future? Go raibh míle maith agat.

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that I have met groups from his constituency before, so I am happy to meet groups from across the board. I have done that and will continue to do that. I am aware that, in recent days, my officials have been liaising with Cairde Teo and Ard Mhacha, and they will continue to do that. They are working closely together to help the groups meet the deadlines for funding and help them shape up the development and proposal. They are working with other partners, including An Ciste Infheistíochta and, as I mentioned before, Armagh City council. I am happy to meet the Member, the group and others about the development. It is very positive for that area and very positive for culture.

T5. Ms Boyle asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she will meet to discuss how to develop the Gortin glen area of west Tyrone, albeit that she may not be familiar with Gortin glen, which is a beautiful part not only of this island but of west Tyrone, with huge potential for facilities for physical and leisure activities, much in the same way as Tollymore forest park. (AQT 2435/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: Certainly, I am happy to meet the Member, representatives and groups to discuss the issue. I am not familiar with Gortin glen, although I am aware of the proposal. We have done work on our waterways. In particular, there is the experience of Tollymore, as the Member mentioned, and the angling at Lough Neagh that we discussed earlier. I am happy to use our natural resources to build and develop opportunities around physical and leisure activities, as well as cultural, community and festival opportunities. I would be delighted to meet those people, who, no doubt, will tell me how beautiful Gortin glen is.

Ms Boyle: I thank the Minister for that response. I look forward to her visiting Gortin glen sometime in the future. My office will liaise with her private office to agree time and date for that meeting. Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Thank you very much.

T6. Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what tangible and actual steps she has taken to enable boxers from Northern Ireland who aspire to compete for Great Britain and Northern Ireland actually to achieve that aspiration. (AQT 2436/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I have encouraged the governing bodies of boxing to talk to each other, and Sport NI has done the same. The Member will be aware of the report of a group that carried out an investigation of allegations of sectarianism in boxing. As the Member is aware, that report made recommendations on how to improve relations, but it certainly did not substantiate some of the allegations. One of the recommendations to come out of the report and, indeed, from other conversations was that children who identify themselves as either Irish or British should have the opportunity to box for the governing body of their choice, so that is where it rests. Other than ensuring that those conversations happen and trying to facilitate them as much as possible, that is as much as I can do.

Mr Allister: Apart from apparently claiming to endorse the aspiration, is it not pretty clear that the Minister has not actually done anything tangible to advance the matter? It is still not advanced, despite it being a need crying to be met for many, many years. The Minister just seems comfortable with that position.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Unlike the Member, I do not use the Floor of the Assembly to criticise or make assertions or, indeed, allegations and not substantiate them. I have gone above and beyond — I have used the legislation from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — to ensure that children, regardless of who they are, how they describe themselves or how they identify themselves, can compete and represent a country or nation of their choice. I do not need to be advised by the Member about what I need to do; I know what my responsibilities are. However, the Member should be aware that the majority — the overwhelming majority — of children and young people who wish to progress their amateur boxing career wish to do so with the Irish Amateur Boxing Association. I believe that it is politically driven adults like him who make it really difficult for children who, perhaps, come from a Protestant/unionist/loyalist area and want to box for Ireland. He should support them and not get political about who they box for or who they represent or compete for. We all need to get behind our athletes, regardless of how they identify themselves. I think that the children and young people have been much more mature in the way in which they approach this than people like you, Mr Allister.

T7. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what efforts her Department is making to promote participation in sport for those with physical disabilities. (AQT 2437/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I have had and will continue to have a very good relationship with Disability Sport NI. I know that there were concerns previously about the budget reductions, and I believe that Disability Sport NI and Sport NI are working through those. Indeed, my officials are also working through those, which is vital.

In addition to what Disability Sport NI has done, the three governing bodies — the Ulster Council of the GAA, Ulster Rugby and the Irish Football Association — have done excellent work in including children and young people, and even adults with disabilities, in those sports. We are doing well, but there is always much more that we can do.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for her answer. I recently had the privilege of meeting the Ulster Barbarians, the only club of its type in Northern Ireland. It meets at the Antrim Forum each week to play wheelchair rugby. What can the Minister's Department do to support the good work of clubs such as that and to ensure that more such clubs are set up so that the disabled community has appropriate access to sport?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am aware of the group and the work on disabilities, particularly in the Member's constituency. She mentioned rugby as an example, but the issue is really about disability and access.

The three governing bodies and Disability Sport NI have done great work in promoting sport and physical activity for people with disabilities. I will continue to ensure that access to sport, arts, culture and creativity, particularly for people with disabilities, is protected as best as possible. The governing bodies, which probably account for 84% of participation in sport across the island, will also continue their good work with groups, particularly for rugby, Gaelic and soccer, working with schools and Disability Sport NI.

T8. Mr Ó hOisín asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to ensure that feedback is provided at the earliest opportunity after the responses to the consultation on the draft Acht na Gaeilge have been analysed, given that she will be more than aware that the consultation ends next week and whether she agrees that the work of Conradh na Gaeilge, Glór na Móna agus, i mo cheantar féin, coiste forbartha Carn Toghair, Glór Léim an Mhadaidh, Glór Dhún Geimhin and the many other groups that have worked on this should be put on record. (AQT 2438/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: All groups that respond will be given feedback. The consultation closes next Tuesday, 5 May, and I encourage everybody to feed into it. The work of the groups that the Member mentioned — I am sure that there are many others — particularly with children, young people and families, is exemplary. They are exemplars. I have no doubt that they will feed into the consultation. There is still a week left, so it is not too late to respond.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra sin. Like the Minister, I remind people that there is still time to respond to the consultation. Will she and her Department ensure that detailed feedback on the draft Bill is provided and brought before the Assembly?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am certainly happy to do that. The Member is on the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, and he will also get that feedback. It is important that that happens. People feed into consultations and do not know where it goes after that. That is a big criticism across the board, so I understand that. Aontaím leat go hiomlán. I totally agree that we need to ensure not only that there is feedback but that any themes and trends as part of the consultation are shared with the entire community. If people take the trouble to respond to a consultation, particularly if they are positive, they are entitled to hear the responses not only to their points but to others.