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Official Report: Monday 01 June 2015


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

Assembly Business

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I raise again the vexed issue of the failure of Departments to respond in an acceptable time frame to questions for written answer, and ask for the assistance of your office. On this occasion, I refer to two questions to the Department of Finance and Personnel, AQW 35938/11-15 and AQW 35939/11-15, tabled almost nine months ago, on the important subject of the disposal or sale of the Northern Ireland debt portfolio by the National Asset Management Agency to Cerberus. Despite those questions being tabled almost nine months ago, and despite the importance of the topic, they still go unanswered. It really is a frustration for Members. This is but an example of the continuing failure of Departments to address their responsibility to answer questions.

Mr Speaker: I have considerable sympathy for the Member, and indeed for Members who find themselves in a similar predicament when pursuing legitimate issues in the legitimate expectation that their questions for written answer will be responded to. The Member will understand that this is not something that comes directly under the authority of the Speaker; but I make it clear that I have considerable sympathy with the position that you find yourself in. You have put this matter on the record once again, and I hope that Ministers will take note. Let us move on.

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: I call the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, Mr Mike Nesbitt, to move the Ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints (Amendment) Bill.

Moved.—[Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister).]

Mr Speaker: No amendments have been tabled to the Bill. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly to group the three clauses of the Bill for the Question on stand part, followed by the long title.

Clauses 1 to 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints (Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes in which to propose and 15 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members called to speak will have five minutes.

That this Assembly notes the position paper produced by the Committee for Education on area planning; and calls on the Minister of Education to implement the recommendations contained therein.

The Committee’s scrutiny of the area planning process began almost three years ago. In the intervening period, the Committee has undertaken a number of formal and informal evidence sessions with many stakeholders, including parents, teachers, principals, representative organisations, the relevant arm's-length bodies and not forgetting, of course, the Minister and his Department. The Committee also benefited from support from a special adviser, Professor Tony Gallagher. The end result of all that work is the position paper before the Assembly today with its recommendations. At this stage, I would like to take the opportunity to thank all our witnesses, particularly Professor Gallagher, for their contributions to the Committee’s scrutiny.

As with a lot of things in life during the last three years, things have changed in the process. The Committee has changed its membership on a number of occasions and has changed its chairmanship twice. At this point, I would like to pay tribute to my two predecessors who were involved in the process, Mervyn Storey and Michelle McIlveen. It is perhaps appropriate in an education debate that there is a feeling of getting up and reading out someone else's homework today, given the work that has been put in over the last three years. Also during that period, the education and library boards have become the Education Authority, viability audits have been replaced with annual area profiles, and the area planning coordination group appeared to change its membership and also became a steering group. The area planning process itself was driven by other longer-term changes, demographic and budgetary, and by the unchanging need, which I think all of us would agree on, to improve education outcomes for all our children.

To be clear at the start, the Committee for Education accepts the need for area planning. Put simply, it is good to plan for education. It is correct to do so on an area basis. It is the right thing to do in order to address expected changes in the school population and to improve provision for all our children. Given the strong importance that all communities attach to education and the equally strong linkages between our schools and our cultural identities, it is perhaps not surprising that the process has proved to be complex and sometimes controversial.

It is also fair to recognise that the process of area planning is made more complicated by the highly sectoral nature of our education system and the lengthy transition period that we faced in the education and library boards becoming the Education Authority.

Having said all that, I must also say that neither the sectoralisation nor the highly charged nature of school planning was a secret or should have been a surprise to anybody. The dogs in the streets would no doubt have told the Department of Education — and we have some very wise dogs in this country — that area planning was a substantial change management challenge. It could also have easily been spotted that area planning would generate significant angst within schools and, almost inevitably, accusations of unfairness and inconsistency. What is concerning is that the Department, the education and library boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) did not seem to fully understand that at the time.

It is anticipated that, now that the Education Authority is in place, there will be a review of area planning, and, looking to the future, hopefully things may change. I trust that, as part of that process, the Department will accept that the Education Authority is not the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) and that, consequently, there is still more than one planning body for schools in Northern Ireland. That being the case, the Department will still have a key role in leading and managing the change in our schools.

At the start of the area planning process, there were many references — they have been fairly constant — to the surplus school places.

First, there was reference to 85,000 and, then, to 74,000. It became apparent to the Committee that the Department was using a different set of figures from those that were used by the education and library boards and CCMS. Members found the use of different sets of figures to be, at first, surprising and, then, confusing.

In a change management system, rule number one is to communicate clearly and consistently and to immediately scotch any suggestions of ambiguity or arbitrary decision-making. The two sets of figures, which differed by around 10,000 or 11,000, and perhaps also the mysterious designation of everywhere outside Belfast and the city of Londonderry as "rural" — I am sure that that designation came as a great surprise to people in Rathcoole, Kilcooley or the Old Warren Estate in Lisburn — appear to amount to clear breaches of that basic first rule of good change management.

We may hear arguments today that the Committee's reference to the Bain criteria is completely out of place and that these criteria are no longer used in any way. I refer Members who make that point to pages 17 and 18 of the Western Education and Library Board's primary area plan, which was published less than a year ago. Admittedly, the reference is to revised Bain criteria of 85 children and composite classes as determining, amongst other things, the sustainability of a school.

The Committee was very much impressed by the evidence from parents and teachers from small rural schools on this issue. The Committee takes the view that Bain-type measures of the sustainability of a school are overly simplistic. The Committee believes that a dashboard of measures that assesses the value added in schools while also recognising the importance of cost is a better way to evaluate provision. We may also hear today that the dashboard is in fact departmental policy. That being the case, perhaps the Department could have advised the education and library boards and CCMS before they published their area plans. Indeed, we hope that the Department will endeavor to make faster progress in actually establishing the dashboard.

I also want to mention the needs model. This is the methodology that the Department uses to project demand for educational provision on an area basis. I suspect that, some years ago, a lot of the assumptions underpinning the model in respect of the level of identification of communities with particular educational sectors may well have been highly accurate and reasonable. I do not believe that that is the case any more. I suspect that colleagues will refer to the outworkings of that in places like east Belfast. We now have an increasing level of diversity in our school population, including many more newcomer pupils from outside Northern Ireland and more children designating as neither Protestant nor Catholic. In parts of Northern Ireland, there is a trend towards a greater level of mixing, which is something to be welcomed. For instance, last week, in my capacity as Committee Chairperson, I met representatives from St Columbanus' College, which is in my constituency, and the Committee previously visited Methodist College. Neither of those schools is integrated and therefore they operate under a label and a certain level of assumptions. Instead, they might be termed "super-mixed schools". The needs model needs to recognise and promote this very welcome organic mixing of the major communities in Northern Ireland. I suspect that, in the debate, there may be others who will want to say how the needs model particularly treats the integrated sector.

The Committee also felt that it was a serious error to omit the further education sector from the needs model and thus from educational planning for over-16s on an area basis. The Committee also commented on the different timescales for and treatments of the two largest sectors in relation to area planning. It simply does not make sense for the Catholic maintained and Catholic voluntary sector to be permitted to plan their provision separately from the controlled and other denominational grammars. This approach undermined cross-sectoral solutions and, coupled with representational issues at the steering group, fed a perception that the controlled sector was not getting a fair deal.

I understand and am glad to say that the controlled sector support council and other groups will have some form of representation in the area planning steering group. I hope that in a future timescale for area planning, reviews will be inclusive and synchronized and will thus promote cross-sectoral and innovative solutions.

Finally, as Chair, I want to talk about consultation. The Committee does not have extensive resources. It does not have easy access to schools or to all parent or pupil organisations. It does not have steering groups that include a wide range of arm's-length bodies. I suppose that, in many ways, the Committee is asking itself how it was able to do a better job at times than the Department and its arm's-length bodies when it simply came to listening to stakeholders? What is wrong with the consultation processes? Why did the Committee consistently receive such forthright and eloquent feedback from teachers and parents on area planning? Why did those same representations appear to fall on deaf ears in DE and its arm's-length bodies?


12.15 pm

The Committee believes that it is time for a new departmental mindset in respect to consultation. To be sure, there is no doubt that hard choices and unpopular decisions will have to be made. The Committee however feels that that makes active listening and meaningful engagement much more important. Members particularly felt that, had there been a proper explanation to parents of the benefits of area planning resolution, including a greater linkage with the new capital builds, at least some of the problems, delays and angst that we have seen in some parts of Northern Ireland could have been avoided.

The Committee takes the view that area planning is necessary to deliver a better educational experience for all our children. That will inevitably mean some level of rationalisation of the schools estate. The wide-ranging and difficult process has simply not been managed in a satisfactory manner to date. I hope that, in taking forward the anticipated review of area planning, the Minister will consider and ultimately implement the Committee’s position paper. As the Chairperson of the Committee, I therefore commend it to the House.

I want to turn now to a number of points in my other capacity as a DUP MLA. All those points are compatible with the report. In moving forward, there is an opportunity, with the report and the creation of the new Education Authority, to effectively restart, reboot and re-evaluate. We need to ensure that we do that on the basis of a level playing field and a sense of fair play across the sectors. Particular concerns had been raised about the controlled sector, and I am very glad that, when the Education Act was being put though the House, we secured the creation and, indeed, direct representation of the controlled sector body. It is vital that that moves ahead swiftly and that all the pieces are put in place by the Department. I call on the Minister to clarify that.

Secondly, the experience that people have had of the implementation of area planning has been somewhat piecemeal. For the sectors and from a geographical point of view, part of which comes from the division of the different boards and sectors, I am sure that we would all agree that area planning needs to move forward on a much more strategic basis.

Thirdly, we will hopefully shortly see the Department's legislation on shared education, and that is also an area that the Committee has looked at in some depth. As we look to the future, it is important that the linkages are there between shared education and area planning and that many of the old assumptions about the numbers and the lack of robust statistics are tackled. When I was speaking as the Chair, I mentioned St Columbanus' College in my constituency. That is a maintained school, but its intake from the Catholic community is less than 50% of its numbers and, on that basis, it is a super-mixed school. Where there is good practice, be it there, Lisanelly, Methody or other places, that should be taken into account when we look at area planning. Allied to that, we need more robust statistics. We have seen variable measurements for the number of surplus school places, which can be difficult to judge because it can be a moveable feast. In my constituency, very sensible adjustments were made reduce the nominal amount of surplus places in at least two of the local primary schools. In effect, the rooms in their buildings were being used for other purposes beyond the primary school and an artificial number had been created. As we move forward with area planning, we have to ensure that everybody is working off the same assumptions and information.

Finally, as has been mentioned, as we move forward, we need greater listening, particularly to the needs of schools and parents. As was indicated, we need a much more proactive process in that area. In the last couple of years, we saw the problems when the former Southern Board seemed to jump ahead with the proposed changes to the Dickson plan, which clearly went against a lot of the concerns that had been raised locally. I would make the more general point that, as we move forward with area planning, we need to have much more of a responsive nature, be swifter in our responses and have a much greater degree of engagement with the public.

As I said at the outset, from Committee and party points of view, there is good value in the idea of area planning and it should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, with the way in which the implementation has gone, we have seen a number of flaws within the system.

This debate and the Education Authority's review process provide an ideal opportunity. If lessons are learned from the mistakes made in the area planning process over the last few years, we can have a process on which we can move forward together and in which we look not simply to have greater cooperation and efficiency but to improve the standard of education. The opportunity is there, and I urge the Department and the new Education Authority to grasp it. I commend the report and the recommendations of the position paper to the House.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I speak as a member of the Education Committee on what is an important topic. I recognise the Chair's comments, and it is worthwhile that we reflect on the fact that area planning processes are necessary to advance accessibility and the educational attainment of all our children and young people. It is worth reflecting that the tone coming from the Committee is that things will change in future. It is important to acknowledge that we need to move forward to an inclusive and evidence-based process. We also need to reflect on the additional statutory powers that will exist in relation to area planning processes and, indeed, the Education Authority's responsibility in that.

It is important to reflect on the context that took us to this point and the fact that, in 2013-14, there were approximately 162,000 primary-school pupils in 839 schools. It was clear at that stage that enrolments in one third of primary schools was falling below the Department of Education's sustainable school threshold. We need to be mindful of the indications that we were given of the almost 67,000 unfilled school places: 12,000 in post-primary schools and 55,000 in primary schools. That was a key challenge for all of us, legislators and otherwise.

It was right that we moved to a position of commissioning the education and library boards, CCMS and the other sectors to engage in the area planning process. The process started with the viability audits, and there were indications that 46% of primary schools were evidencing stress, either in formal intervention or in enrolment. There were similar scenarios when we looked at secondary schools and, indeed, grammar schools: stress in either educational attainment or formal intervention.

It is important, however, to reflect on what we have learned through the process to date. We need to be mindful of the level of response to the consultation: almost 50,000 responses. It is also worth noting the geographical differences in those responses. Those from the Belfast Education and Library Board area were largely positive about what was proposed, but there was a stark difference in the responses from my region, the Western Education and Library Board area, which were largely negative. There are lessons in that about the geographical issues.

In the Committee's learning through the process, we listened to individuals such as Colin Knox and many others, who, quite often, cited inconsistency and significant dissatisfaction with the area planning consultation process. Much was said about the process in the Western Education and Library Board area and about the low level of agreement among respondents. Reference was made — we would be foolish to ignore it — to the 7,629 people in the Western Education and Library Board area whose views were ignored. The messages were stark and challenging. Many stakeholders argued that the consultation was tokenistic and failed to meaningfully engage.

At this point, I want to reflect on the learning and make the point that the plans are simply a process, at this point. In my view, it is an evolving process at this point, and it is important to be particularly mindful of the recommendations in the Committee's position paper. Area plans must be reviewed and should be consulted on through a formal, meaningful and robust statutory process. Any actions emerging from area plans, such as new schools, closures or amalgamations, will and should be subject to development proposals. That means that statutory consultation must take place. That is critical.

This is now about leadership from the new Education Authority, as referred to in recommendation 1, to ensure that we learn the lessons and that area planning is undertaken in a transparent way.

Mr Rogers: I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the matter today after the work that the Committee carried out in compiling the report. Before I go any further, I thank Peter and his staff for the way in which they compiled the report. I call on our Minister to take careful heed of the report and implement its recommendations.

The seven years and £17 million that was squandered through ESA did little to help the area-based planning process. The Committee found only a limited impact of area planning to date. Education is the building blocks of an individual's life and our economy. Every child should have access to the highest possible quality of education. A quality education should not be the luck of the draw.

With the Education Authority now in place, it is vital that we get area-based planning right. We lack a precise and clear analysis of the situation at present. Without it, we cannot plan for the future. We have plans from the boards, CCMS and whatever is left over. In addition, our colleges of further education have been left out of the process, despite the integral part they play in our education system. They offer a wide variety of courses, academic and skills-based, and they play a key role in local learning networks and shared education. In one sense, we are encouraging shared education, but, on the other hand, we are cutting off the best vehicle of shared education: the entitlement framework. It is time that we had one cohesive and strategic plan in place that takes account of our unique educational landscape across the North. What was evident was the lack of transparency and the real mistrust felt by parents, schools and other stakeholders around this. They do not feel listened to or confident. The Department is in danger of promoting a culture of competition, with schools trying to outdo each other rather than complement each other. Area planning will not succeed if schools operate in a climate of suspicion. That is something that the Department must address.

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

One of the SDLP's main concerns is how rural schools fare in all this — or, rather, any school outside Belfast or Derry, which is the Department's bizarre definition of "rural". As it stands, we are left with a situation where a school in Lisburn must satisfy different sustainable criteria from one down the road in Belfast or where a school in Newry has the same sustainable criteria as one in the rural Mournes. Part of that set of sustainable criteria is that rural primary schools are expected to have more than 105 pupils, and schools in Belfast or Derry are expected to have more than 140. For post-primary, that number rises to 500. Whilst it is certainly important to take into consideration the number of pupils, no satisfactory explanation has been given of the rationale behind those figures. As far as I can see, they seem to be arbitrary lines drawn in the sand. Numbers are important, but we must take into consideration good leadership, the quality of teaching and learning and financial viability. That is just one of the flaws that has been exposed in the Bain proposals. Those flaws will have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on our rural schools, their communities and our rural economy.

I must also raise concerns regarding just how seriously cross-border cooperation is being pursued. As far as I can see, little real consideration has been given to it. Consider, for example, the provision of post-primary education in Fermanagh. A more sustainable and viable option may be a school 15 miles away in Donegal, not a school in Enniskillen that is maybe an hour or an hour and a half away by bus. Excuses used include that it is a different education system and that they transfer at 12 instead of 11, but educationalists know that those issues are not insurmountable.

If there is a will, there is a way. Unfortunately, it is evident that there is not the will for real and meaningful cross-border cooperation to ensure that cross-border communities can be sustained and have viable schools in their own areas.

Through the Education Authority, there is an opportunity for a joined-up approach, but there needs to be a better analysis of the school estate centrally. We have many oversubscribed schools and, on the other hand, many empty desks. I urge the Minister again to —


12.30 pm

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

Mr Rogers: — review these plans and take the opportunity to get this right. I commend the report.

Mrs Overend: I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate. I add my commendation to the Committee Clerk and the Committee staff for all their work on this issue. As the Chair of the Committee said, the inquiry began back in 2012, which was long before I was a member of the Education Committee. However, one could not fail to be acutely aware of the area planning process ongoing in every constituency.

The future of primary and post-primary schools was sent into disarray, not knowing how the area planning process would proceed. There then followed a time of contemplative action. The first recommendation that area planning should happen in a "transparent and consistent manner" is a common-sense approach. It is one that you might not expect to have to suggest because that should already have been a given, but sadly not. The process would have moved along more smoothly if all the various bodies had worked within the same process and at a similar pace. If the whole school estate ideal was to work together for the betterment of all our children, I am afraid that that did not happen either.

I consider the most significant recommendation of the Committee report to be number 5:

"The Committee recommends that the Department should require its ALBs to plan educational provision on a truly area basis to a single timescale including all sectors and Further Education colleges where possible and that cross-sectoral solutions should be given consideration as appropriate."

I actually think that this is not strong enough. Cross-sectoral solutions were explicitly meant to be the norm, dating back to the start of the process, with the viability audits and the first area plans produced by the education and library boards. After all, the Minister said when launching this process on 26 September 2011:

"As part of this process there will be close consultation with the other sectors."

In the Assembly, on 22 October 2013, he said:

"As Minister, I see far too many development proposals that are written as if the school up the road does not exist." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 88, p311, col 2].

Has the area planning process lived up to the rhetoric? Throughout the process of listening to schools and parents across Northern Ireland, we have heard of cases where schools in some sectors were protected at the expense of schools in other sectors just around the corner. Meanwhile, there was also the issue that an area plan was developed without consideration of schools across the border. Before you think that I am referring to the Republic of Ireland, I mean across the borders of different education and library boards. I speak as a member for Mid Ulster, where we have schools in the North Eastern Education and Library Board and the Southern Education and Library Board. It is imperative that the area plans look across that particular border.

So far, area planning in education has not lived up to what it was meant to do. The reality is that sectors have reorganised and rationalised their estates, independent of others, before and after the process was launched quite some time ago. Recent debates in the Assembly have suggested that there is no consensus about where we should be going in a vision for our education system. It seems abundantly clear to me that the Minister has no inclination to take on vested sectoral interests. There is a policy vacuum and an attempt to reorganise a fragmented system where some sectors have their own sectoral bodies with their own agenda and some have been allowed to unilaterally rationalise their own schools estate. That has led to confusion.

Can this process be truly described as area-based planning when the maintained sector has already planned its own future with little regard for shared education, and open hostility to integrated education? There is continuing uncertainty in many parts of our divided education system, and no leadership has been shown by the Department or the Minister. Of course, we debate this report with a growing recognition that we are on the verge of another Budget crisis and that the £500 million extra money for shared education is very much in doubt. How will that affect area planning needs? It needs to be thought through. I trust that the Minister will address that when responding to the debate.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I will end there. I support the Committee motion.

Mr Lunn: The process of area planning, I am sure, has been going on for much longer than the formal process that we have been involved in since September 2011. That is when the Minister commissioned the boards and CCMS to work together to produce a way forward for area planning. Mrs Overend politely suggested that, perhaps, that did not work too well in the case of CCMS. I will go further and say that it did not work at all in the case of CCMS because it has proceeded in its own sweet way for the last four years to plan its own estate. There has been no evidence of any serious input from CCMS by way of a rational, overall, unbiased view of the system that we have.

The Chairman said that there was good value in area planning. Again, that is putting it mildly. It is vital that we get area planning right and that we get it right as quickly as possible. We have already spent four years, and more, on it, and we have had the viability audits, which produced the figures that Ms McLaughlin referred to. Eighty-four per cent of secondary schools are in some sort of stress, according to the criterion used. We have also had the area planning coordination group, which was subsequently replaced by the area planning steering group. If there is some difference between those two, I would like to know what it is. All of that has led to what Members have referred to as the needs model, which is addressed in our recommendation 4.

I will highlight one or two features of the original process. The first requirement was to ensure a network of sustainable schools within reasonable travelling distance. It did not say "within sectors"; it said, "within reasonable travelling distance". How can you possibly do that without the consideration of cross-sectoral solutions, where appropriate?

Another feature was to identify realistic, innovative and creative solutions to address need, including opportunities for shared schooling on a cross-sectoral basis. Frankly, how does shared schooling help the situation if you have too many schools? It merely prolongs the agony; it does not help the process that we are supposed to be about. That is not to say that shared schooling does not have its place. There is big momentum, at the moment, towards a shared solution. I notice that every primary school in County Fermanagh that was identified as being under stress, or, in other words, under threat of closure, is now involved in a sharing solution. That is how it should be while we make up our minds about what to do about the overall situation.

Others mentioned the requirement to explore opportunities for cross-border planning. As far as I am aware, there has not been any of that. Mr Rogers referred obliquely to the situation in Brollagh in Fermanagh, where there may be a solution, but is that being actively explored? Are opportunities being taken along both sides of the border to explore the obvious opportunities that arise for minority communities? I do not know. Maybe the Minister can tell us.

I will go back to the needs model. I would not want to cross swords with the Minister, because we do not agree on this, but he will probably correct me in due course. The needs model militates against the integrated sector. There is no doubt about that. I accept the Minister's acceptance of his obligation to facilitate and encourage the integrated sector, but the needs model effectively gives him a let-out, because it means that the other sectors have to agree before there is any increase, or potential increase, in the capacity target for integrated schools. So, let us see where we go with that.

I see that my time is nearly finished. All that the area plans, as they stand, have done so far is produce a lot of anxiety and worry amongst schools, parents and pupils. So, we have to get on with this.

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

Mr Lunn: Frankly, I propose an independent review — something similar to the Donaldson review of health — with nobody with a vested interest having an input. Let us see what would come out of that.

Mr Newton: I support the report. I want to come back to a couple of things that the Chairman said, but first I would like to outline some of the experiences in area planning that my constituency has had over recent years and to indicate that although, obviously, area planning is essential — taking up some of the points that Members have made — it has to be holistic area planning that covers every sector of our education system.

I will mention a few experiences, Mr Deputy Speaker. I turn first to Dundonald High School, which was recommended for closure by the South Eastern Education and Library Board, and the reaction of parents to that closure announcement or "consultation on closure", as it was put. The school served the community in the largest or second-largest estate in Northern Ireland, and there was a lot of anger about that. However, that anger turned into a very positive area of work, and the work that parents did along with their elected representatives was recognised by the Minister, who reversed his decision or, rather, made the decision to keep the school open. One of the factors that came out of that, in terms of area planning, was that, while that school served pupils from the local estate, it also served pupils from the Belfast Education and Library Board area. Had Dundonald High School closed, some of its pupils would have gone to Belfast schools, yet there was no consultation or communication between the South Eastern and Belfast education and library boards, prior to that recommendation coming forward. That not talking obviously indicates that there is no real area planning taking place.

The same is true in the case of Orangefield High School. The Belfast Education and Library Board went along and recommended closure to the school's board of governors, the parent board of governors and to the school parents in general. Indeed, it indicated that, in other schools in the area, the cap would be lifted to allow the pupils to transfer in. That was not correct. The cap was never lifted, and the pupils had no chance of getting into the favoured schools, despite the fact that pupils were taken along to the schools and it was indicated to them that they should sit a test to decide which class they would go into in their new secondary school. School uniforms and transport were discussed, but that was not part of an area plan.

In another case, the Minister was threatened with judicial review. That was in the case of the closure of Knockbreda High School and its amalgamation with Newtownbreda High School to form the new Breda Academy. That was really about the concerns of pupils, again, with the merger of a school from the Belfast Education and Library Board area with one from the South Eastern Education and Library Board area or, rather, the closure of one and the formation of a new school. Currently, there is a lot of concern among parents whose children go to the three feeder schools of Strandtown Primary School: Dundela, Greenwood and Belmont primary schools. I hope that that can be sorted out via some degree of area planning, but it is causing a lot of concern to parents and the pupils who attend those schools.

Then there is the ongoing Elmgrove/Avoniel school situation, which involves the closure of one and merger with another. There is a great need for communication with parents to involve them in decision-making, so that they can at least see the rationale to make an argument, and a need for communication with and support from elected representatives. A degree of planning needs to take place, so that we can all benefit from this.

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

Mr Newton: The Chairman has indicated the need for area planning, and the report sets that out. I do not think it is anything other than a basis on which to build for the future.


12.45 pm

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I too welcome the opportunity to talk on the position paper. I want to put on record my thanks to the Clerk and his team, who have put an enormous amount of work into the paper, as they do always. It is important to say that. Also, I thank the schools, stakeholders and communities — the pupils and parents — who travelled to this Building. We went out to engage, and people were very welcoming to the Committee over the last number of years as we looked at the issue. It is right to put on record our thanks to them for raising the issues with the Committee.

From the start, it has been clear to me that there is a real need for change. Perhaps what has sometimes not been clear to some people is that it is a process of change. It is a journey, and it simply will not be an overnight transformation. The process will be fluid and will involve different types of review and analysis and looking at exactly where we are going. Perhaps the last speaker, Mr Newton, touched on that when he mentioned Dundonald High School. I was very privileged to be invited to have a look at the school during the process, and I was delighted to go along. It was clear that it was a school that had suffered, in previous years, as a direct result of no area planning in east Belfast. There had not been enough community engagement, and the leadership of the school had maybe not been what it should have been. The area planning process has certainly been to the benefit of that school. It seems to be on a far better footing and perhaps has a brighter future ahead. That shows where the situation has been fluid and flexible. The Minister was able to meet the needs of that school at that time to afford it that chance. To me, that is what the entire area planning process is about.

Despite the cries, sometimes, of "Crisis" and "Catastrophe", that we have heard about area planning from some quarters, it has not been that. We have had a steady process of change. Some people are perhaps frustrated that the pace of change is not enough or that there is too much change. They see alternative or hidden agendas in it. I simply do not see that. The position paper touches on some of the issues. It mentions some of the tweaks or changes that need to happen or would be fruitful. No doubt the Minister and his area planning team in the Department will look at that as we move forward.

I am sure that Mr Lunn will not be surprised that I do not have the same concerns around the needs model that are outlined in recommendation 4, but I will not die in a ditch over it and I certainly will not divide the House over any disagreement. I am happy that the report reflects, at various points, that some Members had alternative ideas. I also do not recognise in the area planning process the attack on the rural schools that is sometimes claimed. I simply do not see that. The process takes the special needs of our rural schools into consideration, and it was a mistake earlier to suggest that if a rural school does not have 105 pupils it is somehow in danger. It is not. There are various schools — I have worked for some in my own community — with fewer than 105 pupils that are fairly sustainable and are under no direct threat. The area planning process has not been a threat to them. It is wrong to send out messages publicly that this is somehow a numbers game. I have lost count of how many times the Minister or anybody else has said that area planning is not a numbers game and does not come down to numbers. It is about the sustainable schools policy and everything else. It is important to say that. The rural dynamics of the North suggest that we will have schools in rural areas that are under stress. Equally, we will have schools in urban areas that are under stress. If our schools are under stress, then they are not providing the services that we need to be part of an area planning process. Well then, so be it.

The areas we really need to look at to push forward and improve are engagement and consultation, not just for education but for government as a whole. We need to find better ways of engaging with and empowering local communities at the very bottom of society. If this is to be a bottom-up process, we need to ensure that every family, every parent and every pupil feels a part of the process and feels exactly what area planning is. I would hazard a guess that there are families out there who could not tell you what area planning is or what it means, and we need to address that. We also need to be far more imaginative and should not set limits to some of the solutions to area planning. There should be absolutely no limits. We need to see models of all shapes coming forward, and the vested interests of institutions should not be a barrier to that. The Department needs to show real leadership on this. That is what we are starting to see.

Mr Lunn: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hazzard: I will indeed. Go ahead.

Mr Lunn: Going back to the needs model, does the Member agree with me that the Committee noted that no examples had been provided of changes to needs model projections for the integrated sector based on parental demand?

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

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his intervention. I am happy to note that. I just do not see the same criticisms as the Member sees. I also do not see it as the threat to integrated education that the Member outlined earlier.

Finally, given the massive change we are seeing here — this will be a journey of change — it is only right that we also acknowledge the financial environment we are in. We need to have a very fine balance between protecting the interests of the public purse and investing in our education estate. I do not envy the Minister in the difficult job of designing an estate that is fit for the 21st century and the needs of a global education market. I am happy to welcome the report, and I look forward to some of the changes in the future.

Mr McCausland: As a member of the Committee, I want to thank the Clerk, the staff and all others who contributed to the preparation of the report.

As the Chair of the Committee said, it is good to plan, and that needs to be done on an area basis. It is more complex in Northern Ireland than in many other places because of the range of sectors we have and the fact that the Education Authority is only coming into place now.

The recommendations in the report speak for themselves. Therefore, I want to take the opportunity to highlight a couple of situations that I have had experience of with planning in my constituency of North Belfast. The situation with the two Model schools very much came to our minds in the last few days, because you now have two controlled secondary schools in north Belfast — the Boys' Model and the Girls' Model — and the two Ashfield schools at the other end of the city. This year, it was encouraging to see that the number of children who applied to the Girls' Model was around 22 or 23 above the number that could be taken into the school. Eventually, some were accommodated elsewhere, but quite a number are still not settled. It is interesting that, when the letter went out to the parents about the situation, they were offered alternative schools. The schools they were offered as alternatives, since they could not get into the Girls' Model, were seven Roman Catholic maintained schools in various parts of Belfast, an Irish-medium secondary school in west Belfast and an integrated school at the far end of the city. Those were the schools in Belfast with vacancies. There were no vacancies in the controlled schools. The parents in Ashfield were experiencing a similar situation. It is clear that we have not been getting it quite right as yet and that there needs to be a lot more thought to ensure that, as we plan for the future, there is adequate provision in the various areas of the city.

One thing that has fed into that shortcoming in the past has been identifying future need and the way in which that is calculated. There are areas where large numbers of vacant brownfield sites will be developed over the next number of years, many of them for social housing. That needs to be taken into account when calculating future need and therefore how you would plan. When social housing goes into those areas, then, because of the way in which it is allocated, a family with more children will be more likely to be at the top of the list and therefore get one of the new houses when they are built. On that basis, we need to look again at simply having an overall view that, if so many houses are built, so many children will come into the school population. There is a need to review that.

When we spoke to officials from the Department, I was interested to find that, in terms of the linkage between the area plan and prioritisation for new build, there had been several occasions when the prioritisation system was altered and the role of the area plan enhanced within that prioritisation process, yet no equality impact assessment was carried out of that fact. You change criteria, but you do not look at the EQIA implications. Yet, when you have a highly sectoralised system, as we have, with large numbers of controlled schools and maintained schools, I would have thought that it was fairly obvious that you would carry out an EQIA. When the officials were asked, they looked at each other and the answer was, "No, we did not do that". The linkage of area planning into new builds can have a damaging, divisive impact, particularly in the controlled sector, where you find one school being told, "You can have a new school if the other school agrees to close". That leads to friction and division in communities.

We need a system that is responsive to local needs. I encourage the Minister to give careful attention to the things that have been set out in the report. It is a good report, and I commend it to the Minister.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on the Committee's position paper. I should say from the outset that I support some of the recommendations; I am not so happy about others, but I do not think that they are worth getting into a ding-dong battle about.

Area planning is an essential part of any strategic development of our education system and the schools estate. Every young person is entitled to access and experience high-quality education. There is no debate about that. No child should have to suffer an inadequate educational experience, but we all know that many children have suffered inadequate educational experiences. Our aim as public representatives should be to end that trend.

I have stated many times in the House in previous debates that we, as public representatives, should avoid any temptation to engage in political point-scoring around the issue of our children's education. I am not saying that we cannot have disagreements, but they should be carried out in a mature way. I am not suggesting for a minute that there has been any political point-scoring in the debate today, but it is an issue that we should bear in mind in general when we debate our children's education. It is much too important an issue to become the subject of unseemly squabbling.

I appeal to everyone involved in the debate to have as their primary focus the education of our young children. For those children to have access to the best possible education, there needs to be long-term planning. That means ensuring that we have the right type of schools where they are needed. Currently, there is a large number of empty desks in our schools. I am not going to engage in a debate about the actual number of empty desks — I know that there has been some disagreement about that — save to say that, where schools are experiencing stress because of falling enrolment trends, there is a need to take action. Sometimes, that may mean the amalgamation of two schools, and, other times, it may mean closure. Whatever the decision, a development proposal must be submitted to the Department and be subject to a statutory consultation.

The Minister has shown that he is prepared to take account of and listen to those who engage in consultations, but what is more important in all this is that there is transparency, openness and consistency in the area planning process. There is a responsibility on the Department to ensure that any consultation is a truly bottom-up process. My colleague Chris Hazzard referred to that. There is no contradiction between an MLA lobbying on behalf of a school that may face amalgamation or closure on the one hand and, on the other hand, supporting the area planning process. That is the nature of the world that we live in.

I have said in the past that sometimes there is an emotional attachment to a particular school, maybe because a parent or siblings went to it.

However, there is a responsibility on all of us as political leaders to ensure that parents, particularly those whose children are in a school that faces amalgamation or closure, and teachers have all the information about the area planning process and about the school that their children are attending. I know of instances in the past when parents were aware of an unsatisfactory inspection report about a particular school —


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

Mr Sheehan: I appeal to everyone involved to give leadership and to ensure that all the information is out there for parents to access.

Mr Kennedy: This is an important debate. I broadly welcome the recommendations made by the Committee of Education after its consideration of these matters. As a former Chairman of the Education Committee, I can well understand the amount of work involved in producing a report of this nature.

I particularly welcome recommendation 6, which is that the Department of Education and its arm's-length bodies:

"should work with schools, communities and area learning communities to facilitate sharing, cooperation and innovative solutions to area planning problems, particularly in rural areas, so as to promote higher quality, better value for money educational provision."

The members of the Education Committee and the Minister will know of the issues surrounding the Armagh area planning proposals. I encourage everyone to continue to work to resolve all the issues in a way that will not descend into a winners and losers scenario. Whilst the debate is largely concentrating on general themes to be taken forward in area planning, I want to draw the Minister's attention to my concern about an issue in my constituency, as other Members have done, which needs his urgent attention. Indeed, he will know of the urgent correspondence that he received from me overnight. It is, I believe, relevant to area planning, in that the issue of parental choice should always be a factor in considering outcomes.

The Minister will recall that Markethill High School recently applied to his Department for a temporary variation of some seven places, only to be refused. The school, which is in mid-Armagh, enjoys a deservedly high reputation for its educational outputs and quality, and it is popular with parents. It serves the growing, mostly unionist, population in the mid-Armagh area. At this stage, I should declare a personal interest, in that my wife is a teacher at the school, but I do not believe that that represents a pecuniary interest or is a reason for me not to comment on the matter. Obviously, the school, its leaders and the board of governors were very disappointed by the outcome of their application, but that has been compounded by the decision taken last week by the Minister to grant a temporary variation of some 24 places to St Paul's High School, Bessbrook.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not objecting to the granting of the temporary variation to St Paul's, which is also in my constituency, also provides an excellent education to its pupils and is also popular with parents. However, I seek to highlight the different outcomes from the Minister's decisions, and he needs to explain that urgently. These are two successful non-selective schools within a few miles of each other, both serving their local community very well, yet Markethill High School has been denied its request. The Minister should also know that the situation has been further compounded by the very unhelpful comments made by his party colleague Mickey Brady MP MLA, who, in welcoming the St Paul's decision said:

"This is a perfect example of team Sinn Féin delivering for people on the ground."

I believe that such comments are not only disgraceful in themselves but give rise to the very deep suspicion felt by people and parents in my community that there is more than a whiff of party politics being played out here — deeply sectarian and offensive politics, too. I listened with interest to Pat Sheehan saying that there should not be any political point-scoring. The Minister needs to address this issue urgently, and he will know that I have requested an urgent meeting with him and other representatives to thoroughly discuss the matter. I hope that the Chairman and the Education Committee also investigate the issue.

These issues all impact on local area planning, and I trust that the House will support my raising of the very serious issues that I have highlighted today. I await with interest the response of the Minister.

Mr Wilson: I also welcome the recommendations of the report, though I suspect that, given the behaviour of the Minister in the past and his current decisions, they will be ignored by him. Mr Sheehan can call that political point-scoring, but I believe that it points to the political reality. This Minister seems to be incapable, first of all of grasping the economics of education or the political implications of some of the biased and party-driven decisions that he makes.

The whole issue of area planning is very sensitive, because people are attached to their local schools. They feel that when a school is closed it is a loss to the community. If people are to be persuaded that area planning and the decisions that result from it are for the good of their community, there are a number of things that they must be assured of. First of all, they must know that there is a degree of consistency in the decisions. Secondly, they must know that the decisions have not been made on a political basis. Thirdly, they must know that the decisions have a good, sound economic basis.

Yet, look at some of the decisions that have come from the Department of Education in recent times. Danny Kennedy illustrated one or two of them in his constituency. We have had many discussions in this Assembly about the opening of an Irish-medium school in Dungiven. How can the Minister persuade people that one of the criteria that will be used when considering the closure or opening of a school is economics — the number of pupils and the sustainability and viability of the school — when we see the kind of inconsistent and party political decisions that are driven by him?

I want to give an illustration of that in my constituency; one which you will be aware of, Mr Deputy Speaker. There is a surplus of secondary school places in Carrickfergus, where there are good schools that all perform well. Yet, only this week, despite that surplus of places, the Minister announced 150 additional places over a period for the integrated school in Carrickfergus. Within a stone's throw of that school, there are two secondary schools that are undersubscribed and which take pupils from all backgrounds and areas. Yet, their position is being undermined by the increase in capacity in the integrated school. That is a proposal that was opposed by the board; it is a proposal that has been opposed by other schools; it is a proposal that does not make economic sense; it is a proposal that robs the other schools of pupils; it is a proposal that —

Mr Lunn: I thank Mr Wilson for giving way. Does he not accept that the decision to increase the enrolment at — presumably — Ulidia Integrated College is based on parental demand and parental choice?

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

Mr Wilson: If that is the case and the Minister is responding to parental choice, looking at the report, he should be granting, and I am not recommending this, far more places to controlled grammar schools and maintained grammar schools because they have the lowest number of unfilled places at 1%. If that is the route that we are going to go down, and that is the route that the Member is advocating, we are in very dangerous territory.

The Minister indicated to me in a written answer that one of the attractions of many integrated schools is that, if people choose an integrated school and travel from a distance, they are more likely to get free school transport. Fifty per cent of those who attend an integrated school get free school transport. That is a massive attraction, but it is an artificial attraction. If he starts basing his decisions on the attractiveness of a school, he will find that we have the problem of increasing capacity in areas where there is already overcapacity and, indeed, of adding to the transport bill for the Department of Education.

We need area planning — I am an advocate for it — and we cannot waste resources at a time when we are in difficulty with expenditure on keeping surplus school places open. However, it must be done on the basis that people have confidence that the decisions have a degree of consistency, are not politically driven and are not driven by a Minister who clearly either does not understand the economics and the politics of school closures or is so driven by narrow party sectarian interest that he is prepared to override that and, in doing so, annoy people and undermine the good work that people try to do in an area.

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Fáiltím roimh an deis an rún seo a phlé inniu agus tuairimí na gComhaltaí a chluinstin. I welcome the opportunity to debate the motion and to hear the views of Assembly colleagues — well, the views of most of them. I wish to acknowledge the work of the Education Committee in producing the report and the witnesses who gave evidence.

Clearly, there continues to be significant interest in and scrutiny of the area planning process in many quarters, and that is absolutely appropriate. In responding to the debate, I want to take a few moments to set out my vision for area planning. It is my job as Education Minister to make decisions that will determine the shape of the education system for many years to come. They are often hard decisions, but I make them in the best interests of all pupils. Every pupil is entitled to access high-quality education and curricular experiences, and it is the needs of pupils that are at the heart and purpose of area planning. To carry out area planning is to identify the needs for the future and plan effectively so that we have the right type and size of schools in the right places to meet the needs of children today and tomorrow.

There are many challenges in this work that the report outlines and, on many occasions, recognises. Low enrolment numbers lead to pressures on school budgets, undermining efforts to provide a broad and balanced curriculum. We continue to operate in a restrained financial climate, the severity of which was not envisaged in the Bain report or the sustainable schools policy when they were drafted. I know that any change in the provision in an area, particularly a school closure, can be sensitive for the local community. No one should be under any illusions that, when I stood up in the Chamber in September 2011 and announced my intention to drive forward area planning, I thought for one moment that it would be an easy journey. It was always going to be a difficult journey, both at the strategic and local level. Many of our schools have long been at the heart of their community, and proposing any significant change or impact beyond the school gates also has an impact on the community.

It has to be said that the best way to keep a school open is for the local community to send their children to that school. That is key to keeping a school open. Too often, I have had to deal with school closures where, quite rightly, people have signed petitions that were sent to my Department with thousands of names. However, the most important document that anyone can sign in relation to a school is an admission slip. The admissions form that says that people will send their child or children to a school is the best way to keep it open.

As I have said before, this is a relatively new process that has not been attempted on this scale. In September 2011, I set out the challenges of area planning. Yes, we are learning, and yes, we are listening, and we are continually trying to improve the process. My Department's sustainable schools policy specifies criteria that provide a broad framework for assessing a school's long-term educational sustainability. That policy provides the basis for the current area planning process. The policy's six quantitative and qualitative criteria and associated indicators provide a framework for assessing a school's sustainability. I will remind the House of what they are: quality educational experiences; stable enrolment trends; sound financial position; strong leadership and management; accessibility; and strong links with the community. Those criteria are not weighted, nor are they used in a mechanistic fashion. Any review of a school's future viability is considered on a case-by-case basis in the context of the Department's policies and statutory duties — statutory duties fall into place in recent decisions that I have made on the integrated and Irish-medium sector — and taking account of local circumstances.


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It seems to me that the main themes of the recommendations in the report point to the need for clear communication about the need for area planning; how it will be done; how stakeholders can work together and feed into the processes; how we use the tools that we have to achieve these ends — for example, the needs model aligning capital resources with area planning — and the measuring of surplus places. On consultation, I agree with Mr Hazzard that government in its entirety can and should improve consultation methods across many areas, but I have said that in the House before. Take this example — this information is contained in the report — the area planning consultation received 50,000 responses across the boards. That is a significant input from society. I often hear complaints about the variety of localised consultation processes, and I am not in a position to comment on any of them. However, I have said before that if, during a consultation process, your argument did not win out that does not mean that you were not listened to. It is a different context. You may have put an argument or an alternative point of view forward, but the fact that that was not the final argument does not mean that you were not listened to during the consultation process.

Turning to the first and fifth recommendations, I am clear about the necessity to continue to send a message to the education and wider community of the purpose of planning, what it is and what it is not. It is not a hit list of school closures. I welcome the fact that the Committee also recognises that. That is why I agree with the thrust of both recommendations. I agree that the process must be consistent. I have already mentioned the criteria against which any development proposal is assessed. They ensure transparency, consistency and equity in decision making on sustainability across school sectors. That is why, in providing strategic direction, I agreed in March of this year that area plans, both for primary and post-primary schools, would be reviewed, consulted on and published together in all regions for the first time by July 2016. They will then be reviewed on a three-year cycle. I expect to see an annual action plan to accompany the area plan. I expect that action plan to reflect how the needs of all sectors will be provided for and to see the planning and managing authority priorities for schools exhibiting stress and how those schools will be supported and how the sustainability issues will be addressed. The first annual action plans are due in September of this year.

As a result of those changes, planning authorities will be able to bring forward a coordinated suite of proposals that reflect changes needed to deliver the vision in area planning. As Members will be aware, planning educational provision in any area is the statutory responsibility of the Education Authority working in close conjunction with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the integrated and Irish-medium sectors and others. To facilitate openness, transparency and communication, I have agreed that all sectors are represented at every level, from the local planning groups on the ground through to the regional working group and, at a strategic level, to chief executive level.

The statutory development proposal process is the only means by which any significant change to a schools estate can be made. The first step is that the area plan is published and consulted on and changes are made where required. The only significant change to a school, whether that be closure, expansion or amalgamation, is made through the development proposal process, which is down to a detailed two-month consultation process.

Any development proposals brought forward from now on will have been the subject of discussion at local level. All options, including the cross-sectoral option, should be considered at this stage. The views of all stakeholders will then be fed from the local level into the regional plan.

Further education colleges are represented at the area planning and local levels, and I welcome the input of further education representatives, although I note the comments from the Committee in relation to the needs model and the projection of post-16 provision. Duplication of provision is wasteful of everyone's resources and across Departments. Planning authorities must submit a case for change accompanying the development proposal (DP). Robust and verifiable evidence must demonstrate how the proposal is aligned to the relevant area plan and how it will support the implementation of departmental priorities and policies. The rationale for change will therefore be clear to everyone in the school and the wider community.

I turn now to recommendation 2. Changes have been introduced to better align development proposal decisions and capital investment projects. Mr Department's strategy for capital investment in the coming years will continue to focus on supporting the development and delivery of a network of viable and sustainable schools in the context of 'Schools for the Future', a policy for sustainable schools shaped by the outworkings of the area planning process. The criteria and scoring mechanism for the selection of those schools have been included in my 2012, 2013 and 2014 announcements of new-build school projects and are set out in the protocols published on my Department's website.

In order to more closely align capital investment to area planning decisions, an initial gateway was introduced to the protocol in 2014. The first step in the process required planning authorities to ensure that all outstanding area planning uncertainties have been dealt with before a project can be considered for a new build. This was seen as a means of incentivising the relevant authorities to deal with outstanding area planning issues, and was introduced to prevent capital investment projects being announced but subsequently delayed due to the statutory DP process. The scoring system in the most recent protocol also included significant additional scores for schools where a recent development proposal has been approved and further weight where, following the DP decision, a school was operating on a split site. Again, these changes were introduced to improve the alignment of the DP and capital investment processes. The constrained capital budget, however, remains a significant issue. Lack of capital funding means that it will not always be possible to implement changes approved following the debrief process immediately. My Department will continue, however, to work with schools and the wider communities to explain the constraints and to implement the accommodation changes as quickly as possible.

Turning to recommendation 3, I do not accept that there are shortcomings in the current measurement of school surplus places, nor do I understand the assumption of co-dependency between enrolment and curriculum. I do recognise, however, that it is not the information itself that could be improved, but how it is used. All six interrelated criteria set out in the sustainable schools policy are used to assess development proposals and the sustainability of the school, including finance, enrolments and quality of education. The Department can already seek the advice of the independent professional educationalists, the Education and Training Inspectorate, on every DP. Schools have access to the services of CASS. So, without more detail, it is difficult for me to see how an independent education improvement service would operate, although I understand it relates to a previous report of the Committee.

I turn now to recommendation 4. In order to plan effectively, the statutory planning authorities need information. The Education Authority publishes, and uses, information on enrolment, finance and attainment levels for every school, primary and post-primary, in the annual area profiles. Mr Lunn stated that he and I disagree on the needs model, although I note from the report that the Committee itself has several different opinions on the needs model and its worthiness. Let me be clear: the needs model is a planning tool, whose purpose is to give numbers for growth in three broad sectors for the planners. The needs model estimates school population projections at district council level and provides an indication of the numbers of pupils who will attend grant-aided schools over a 10-year period. It is up to the planning authorities, in consultation with the integrated, Irish-medium and other sectors, to make the case for change. I am open —

Mr Lunn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr O'Dowd: Just one moment.

I am open to considering the shape and use of the needs model in response to any suggestions put forward by the local area groups and area planning working group.

Mr Lunn: Thank you for giving way. You seem to be accepting that there may be some shortcomings in the needs model, but can you provide an example of when integrated sector totals have been adjusted to recognise growth beyond that suggested solely through population change? Maybe Ulidia is one.

Mr O'Dowd: Standing here, I am not in a position to give an example, but what I am saying to you is that the opportunity is there, although, I have to say, much of the debate referred to the challenges that area planning faces in relation to sectors in this society. When you listen to the debate in the Chamber, you can hear that there are people who are clearly in favour of one sector or another and are totally opposed to one sector or another. That just reflects the challenges that we have in relation to area planning.

Turning to recommendation 6, I do not see the focus of area learning communities being area planning. I think that would take them away from their objectives. Finally, on recommendation 7, I am more than happy —

Mr Newton: Will the Member give way?

Mr O'Dowd: I am running out of time. On recommendation 7, I am more than happy to review our consultation processes.

Turning to some of the individual comments made during the debate, I have to say that I found it astonishing that Minister Kennedy came into the Chamber, in an unusual sidestep from protocol, and made serious accusations against me as Minister about a school where his wife works.

Mr Wilson: Only because they were deserved.

Mr Kennedy: Answer.

Mr O'Dowd: At a school where your wife works. You state that your concern is non-pecuniary; I totally reject that assertion.

Mr Kennedy: Answer.

Mr Wilson: Only because they were deserved.

Mr Kennedy: Answer.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): All remarks should be made through the Chair.

Mr O'Dowd: So keen was Mr Wilson to attack me as Minister that he backed up Mr Kennedy's argument, not even knowing what Mr Kennedy's argument was. In fact, when he finished his speech, he had to go over and ask Mr Kennedy what his argument was. I am more than happy to deal in the realm of reality — more than happy to deal in the realm of reality — but I am not going to stand here, be insulted and have accusations made against me by Mr Wilson, who does not even know what the argument is about — he does not have a clue what it is about — and by a gentleman who has come into the Chamber to defend a school that his wife works in. I think that is completely unacceptable.

Mr Kennedy: I declared an interest.

Mr O'Dowd: On that point — [Interruption.]

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You will confirm that, in the course of my remarks, I made the personal relationship absolutely clear in relation to my wife being a teacher at Markethill High School. I declared that openly before the House. We are listening to a political smokescreen, as usual, to hide old-fashioned bigotry.

Mr O'Dowd: Further to that point of order —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. Can I deal with this one first, please. A point of order has been raised, and the Member did declare his interest in the course of the debate, which is appropriate. Members, can we move on with the issue, please?

Mr O'Dowd: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Member has made a serious accusation against me of being involved in bigotry, which is completely —

Mr Wilson: It would not be the first time.

Mr O'Dowd: It has now been backed up by Mr Wilson from a sedentary position and is completely against my code of conduct as a Minister. I would like the Speaker to investigate this further in relation to both gentlemen.

Mr Wilson: There are probably plenty of examples for him to look at, too.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): It is important that all Members listen carefully to each other and treat each other with respect. Can we now move on?

Mr O'Dowd: Can I just clarify it with you? Are you going to look into that matter in relation to the serious accusation that has been levelled against me in the Chamber?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I will ask that the Hansard report be reviewed, but I point out to the Minister that the code of conduct for Ministers is not an issue that is dealt with by the Speaker's Office, as far as I am aware, but we will ensure that the Hansard report is reviewed. Can we now move on, if the Minister has finished?

Mr O'Dowd: I have, yes.

Mr Weir: On behalf of the Committee, I would first of all like to thank all of those who contributed to today’s debate, particularly the Minister, who has come along to give his response on it. I think we got into a little bit of the ding-dong that Mr Sheehan earlier indicated that we had avoided; perhaps indicating that, whatever else, Mr Sheehan is not a prophet.


1.30 pm

This has not just come out of the ether. As has been indicated, the Committee did a lot of work and gathered a lot of evidence. It was good to see that a number of contributors thanked the Committee for the work that it had done, and I reiterate in particular the thanks to Professor Gallagher for his work on the position paper. It is important that the Department and the Minister study the recommendations of the report and, even if there is disagreement on some of them, find some of the information to be useful and enlightening.

Before highlighting the key contributions to the debate, I would like to briefly remind the House why the Committee undertook this work. Sometimes, Committees undertake scrutiny for ideological or even political reasons; in the past, there has even been the accusation that Committees have brought reports simply to annoy, embarrass or generally admonish Ministers for the sake of it. I am sure that that has never happened in this House, but there is that accusation from time to time. This is not one of those occasions. The Committee began its scrutiny more than two years ago in response to the concerns and complaints of schools and parents. The Minister referred to the vast quantity of responses on area planning. That shows the importance of the issue to people. When Committee members set aside the time and listened, they found that the concerns were reasonable and the complaints addressable.

I think that everybody has acknowledged that area planning is a significant challenge. That said, I think that the Committee genuinely believes that the recommendations in our position paper are eminently doable and would go a long way to getting buy-in by schools and parents in the area planning process. The Committee understands that a review of area planning will be undertaken. That is a crucial set of circumstances. It hopes therefore that there will be discussions with the Department on the subject in the not-too-distant future. From that point of view, this is not the endgame for the Committee but merely a staging post.

I will turn to some of the themes that emerged from contributions. Two things that were fairly consistent throughout all the contributions were that everybody accepted, without reservation, the need for area planning and change and that having empty desks in schools was a problem that needed to be sorted out in a strategic manner. Similarly, it was admitted by everyone, to varying degrees, that there were flaws in the area planning process itself. On those two positions — the need for area planning and acceptance of the flaws in its implementation — there was a wide spectrum of views. Probably the most enthusiastic on area planning was Chris Hazzard's contribution. Others, like Mr Wilson and Mr Kennedy, were considerably more sceptical on the issue. However, I think that everyone on all sides accepted that there was a need for change. Maeve McLaughlin highlighted that it needed to be evidence-based and indeed that there was much to reflect on and learn.

Mr Newton: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that never again should a consultation process be undertaken by an area learning partnership or whatever in the sense that pupils, teachers and parents perceive there to be a predetermined outcome to that consultation process and, indeed, that, as indicated under recommendation 6 of the report, sharing, cooperation and innovative solutions ought to be sought in area planning?

Mr Weir: I completely agree with the Member. I think that it has been highlighted by a number of Members that even, shall we say, those who are most robust in their defence of what has happened in area planning would accept that there has not been that full level of consultation and inclusiveness. The need for inclusiveness as we move forward was highlighted, for instance, by Maeve McLaughlin and Chris Hazzard. Sandra Overend highlighted that the position on implementation, particularly in consultation, left things in disarray. Seán Rogers said that there was a feeling out there that parents just were not being listened to. This seems to be a fairly consistent theme. It is right that one of the key elements of our report's recommendations is that there has to be both inclusiveness and a feeling of real, positive engagement. If people take a view that area planning has a different motivation or, indeed, is coming with a predetermined outcome, proper results will not actually arise from that.

A number of Members raised the issue of cross-border cooperation, particularly Seán Rogers and Trevor Lunn and, perhaps in a very different context, as she admitted, Sandra Overend. That lack of joined-up thinking has been highlighted.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

While the Minister accepted that there were some problems, he was a little reluctant to see too much in the way of problems. However, a number of Members raised the needs model and, indeed, how up to date it was and whether it reflected reality. Trevor Lunn, Robin Newton and Sammy Wilson raised that issue. Trevor Lunn raised the issue of whether it was responsive enough to the needs of the integrated sector. Sammy Wilson also raised the integrated sector but had a slightly different view of the appropriateness of the needs model. One of the things that were abundantly clear — it was raised by Nelson McCausland and Robin Newton — is the extent to which future needs that are based on demography do not appear, in individual cases, to have been taken into account all that well. We have seen situations in which there has been a danger of schools closing in almost a domino effect and pupils perhaps being shuffled around. A number of Members — Robin Newton, Nelson McCausland, Sammy Wilson and Danny Kennedy — raised very specific issues about their constituencies. Whatever the vision and widespread buy-in of the idea of area planning, it has perhaps been seen to fail to respond in individual constituencies. Indeed, one of the concerns raised was that, at times, the Department has taken a too-rigid approach to the variation in enrolment numbers and that there has perhaps been a failure to respond to local needs. While that is a slightly different issue to the needs model, the fact that the needs model has also not fed in properly to things has also been significant.

The variation between the sectors in pace and process was highlighted by a number of Members, particularly Sandra Overend, Trevor Lunn and Nelson McCausland. As highlighted by Seán Rogers, there is a need, on a cross-sectoral basis, to be a lot more strategic in our thoughts. There is clearly a feeling from the Committee that, in proceeding, we need to ensure that all sectors feel that they are on a level playing field and will be dealt with fairly.

Mention was made — it is also referred to in the report — of the need to be all-encompassing of the different sectors. For instance, Seán Rogers raised the issue of the exclusion of further education colleges. Indeed, if we are looking at overall area planning for the post-16 category of pupils, that also needs to be brought in.

A number of Members, including Chris Hazzard and Seán Rogers, raised the importance of rurality and the need to ensure, as we move forward, that the needs of genuinely rural communities are taken into account. That leaves aside the argument raised about the issues around the definition of rurality. If I can turn —

Mr Elliott: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I will give way briefly.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Member for giving way when he is making his winding-up speech. He mentioned rurality. Over recent times, there has been an indication that some schools in the Catholic maintained sector in Fermanagh, such as Brollagh and St Aidan's in Derrylin, will be retained, and that is very positive. However, in the same respect, the Minister closed down Lisnaskea High School last year, a very important school in the controlled sector, and now plans to amalgamate the Collegiate Grammar School and Portora and close the Collegiate.

Mr Weir: The Member will be aware of the circumstances in Fermanagh a lot better than I will. This highlights the point made by a number of Members: we need a level playing field and something that is cross-sectoral and strategic in nature that, consequently, takes into account all the sectors at the same time and at the same level and recognises that the needs in rural Fermanagh are not the same as those in Craigavon, Bangor or inner-city Belfast. There has to be that flexibility as well.

I turn briefly to the Minister's remarks. He set out his vision for area planning with the needs of children at the centre. He highlighted budget pressures and the sensitivities of local communities to school closures and amalgamations. I do not think that anybody would particularly disagree with his vision, but I suppose that the issue is whether what happens in practice matches that vision.

The Minister, while not accepting everything in the report, accepted that improvements to area planning were required and indicated that they were in hand. He accepted the need for consultations to be improved but argued that the existing process had been engaged with by a large number of respondents. Again, we come down to the issue of simply getting the responses. I appreciate the Minister's point that, if the final decision is not necessarily what you wanted, it does not mean that there has not been proper engagement. However, we need to see an improvement in the quality of the engagement. The evidence given to us was fairly consistent on that.

The Minister highlighted the planned improvement and synchronisation of area planning, with action plans being issued in September 2016. He advised that development proposals would take into account cross-sectoral solutions and confirmed that the FE sector will be directly involved in future area planning. He referred to revisions to the capital programme criteria. A bit disappointingly, he disputed recommendation 3 and referred to the sustainable schools policy. We believe that recommendation 3 needs to be properly taken on board. He advised that it was for planning authorities better to interpret and make use of the needs model. However, there are some concerns about its accuracy. The Minister did not accept recommendation 6, which was also disappointing.

If we look at this in an optimistic way, we all accepted the need for area planning. There has been an acceptance throughout the House of some of its flaws. The key challenge to the Department, the Education Authority and all those involved is the extent to which changes are made to ensure that all future implementation is fit for purpose. I can, perhaps, distil this into one exchange that occurred. The Minister, while he did not, unfortunately, support all the recommendations in the report, he made reasonably positive noises about them. My colleague Mr Wilson expressed cynicism that whatever noises the Minister made, he would, ultimately, simply ignore the recommendations. That is the key test.

I find myself in the unusual position of saying that I hope that Mr Wilson is wrong. The key challenge to the Minister, the Department and the Education Authority is that we have area planning that does what it says on the tin and that has not simply a good vision but a practical outworking that delivers change in our school system that is inclusive, fair, strategic and allows all sectors to feel that there is a level playing field. That is the key challenge for us all as we go forward. I commend to the House the motion, the Committee for Education's position paper and its recommendations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the position paper produced by the Committee for Education on area planning; and calls on the Minister of Education to implement the recommendations contained therein.

Private Members' Business

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other contributors will have five minutes.

Mr Dickson: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the vital importance that the Human Rights Act 1998 plays in the lives of citizens of the United Kingdom; further recognises the importance of this Act to the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution of policing and justice powers; and rejects any attempts by the Conservative Government to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998.

I welcome the opportunity to move the motion on the subject of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is an issue of the utmost importance to our everyday lives and in maintaining confidence in the institutions of government here in Northern Ireland. This year, 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the document that laid the basis of our constitutional parliamentary democracy and which, for the first time, imposed real limits on the state and instituted meaningful rights for its citizens.


1.45 pm

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Dickson: I will.

Mr Allister: Does the Member agree that a key component of Magna Carta, to which, I hope, we all subscribe, is that the nation state would have sovereignty in the making of its own laws and in the interpretation of its own laws? That is the very thing that the Member, in his motion, wants to destroy.

Mr Dickson: I think that, as I progress through what I have to say, Mr Allister will understand that I do not subscribe to that view.

Since then, the people of these islands have progressed far through revolt, revolution and reformation. Today, we enjoy rights and freedoms that our ancestors could barely have fathomed. It is perhaps ironic that, today, we stand here debating the potential rolling back of those hard-won rights. Our Prime Minister, buoyed by a slender and unexpected majority in the Commons but held back by the need to fight fires on his right, is seeking to mount a populist, rather nonsensical and, indeed, damaging attack on the constitution of the United Kingdom. It is an attack that could ultimately lead to the UK sleepwalking out of the European Convention on Human Rights. I and the Alliance Party will meet Mr Cameron and Mr Gove's misinformation with facts. We will meet their attacks on the liberties of our constitution with resolute opposition. We hope that other parties in the Assembly will join us today in making such a statement.

Perhaps it is worth reminding the Assembly of the ultimate origins of our modern Human Rights Act. The 20th century was one of intolerable wickedness on the part of state actors. Improvements in communications and technology made government control much more efficient, and it ushered in the era of the totalitarian state in the interwar period. The rights and dignity of individuals became subservient to the aims of the state and a handful of individual rulers who usurped power. As we know, millions of so-called undesirables — political dissidents, the mentally ill, Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other minority ethnic groups — perished as a result.

Mr Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Dickson: No, I want to make progress.

Ultimately, one of those states began the most devastating and brutal war ever witnessed. More than 60 million people died, the vast majority of whom were civilians who died at the hands of a state actor. Nothing was in place — nothing — to limit the executive power of those monstrous regimes. Post-war, we affirmed "never again". Under the direction of Winston Churchill, the rights of European citizens were to be clear, guaranteed and inalienable through the groundbreaking European Convention on Human Rights, with its court independent of any Government. With the incorporation of the convention of rights into UK law by 1998, citizens have had the direct ability to secure their rights ultimately at the European Court in Strasbourg. Unlike before, there was a natural progression through the domestic courts, which increased the UK's participation in reaching judgements.

Rights are quite often described and considered as an abstract concept until one finds oneself and one's rights violated, so perhaps a few tangible examples of when and why the Act provides justice to our citizens will be helpful to begin with in this debate. The case of the British Airways employee Nadia Eweida, who had been told to remove a small cross necklace that she was wearing, was taken to the European Court in Strasbourg under the Human Rights Act. Our Government — the British Government — argued that her necklace was not a generally accepted means of practising religion, and so argued that it was not a human rights issue. However, the court disagreed; it found that her rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion were violated.

Another example of the use of the Human Rights Act helped to get justice for Patience Asuquo, who was brought to the United Kingdom as a domestic worker and nanny. For two and a half years, she was abused, physically and mentally. She was not paid or given time off, and her employer withheld her passport. The police were initially uninterested in that gross violation of her rights, but article 4 of our Human Rights Act, which prohibits slavery and forced labour, forced the police to investigate on her behalf and prosecute her employer.

Would a British bill of rights, as it has been called, provide the same protections? I, for one, do not wish to have either the Conservatives or the right-wing newspapers of this country deciding which rights are fundamental and which are frivolous. Undoubtedly, social rights would take a back seat. Furthermore, we would find that writing that out of our law would make the UK's position on the ECHR and the Council of Europe untenable. How preposterous would it be that states that constantly flout human rights laws, such as Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, remain full members of the ECHR while Britain feels it too onerous to comply with the rules at Strasbourg?

As the text of the motion asserts, the Human Rights Act also has a central significance for the people of Northern Ireland. In the hard-won peace settlement of 1998, which most parties here are supposed to be committed to, we enshrined these fundamental rights into the very functioning of our institutions. The Good Friday Agreement required the United Kingdom to incorporate the ECHR into law in Northern Ireland to ensure access to the courts for our citizens. Furthermore, the Patten report, which forms the very foundation of our modern Police Service, instils an ethos of human rights into the very heart of policing, with strong observance of the ECHR. Removing that from the statute book would have a profound impact on the way in which we hold police accountable, and may even undermine confidence in communities that were traditionally ambiguous, at best, towards the police.

It is the right to appeal to a higher court outside the grasp of the British Executive that maintains confidence in our system of justice, policing and governance overall. It is, indeed, part of an international treaty between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. I am heartened that the Irish Government continue their commitment as a guarantor of the agreement. I just wish that the United Kingdom Government would fully recognise their responsibilities. Scotland has indicated that it will oppose outright any changes to human rights law, and we must send a similarly strong message to Whitehall. Unlike other battles, this one is only beginning and it is one that we can win.

The rhetoric from Whitehall and the right wing of the Tory Party has cooled, and the repeal of the Act has been shelved. Nevertheless, we must keep up our guard. The Prime Minister and others may spring this irrational policy back at any time in an attempt to satisfy the right wing of their party. I hope that no party here represented at Westminster would contemplate backing such a shoddy policy and undermine fundamental rights for the people of Northern Ireland to suit their political purposes.

I have heard people say so often, "Human rights are for other people. I do not need human rights. What have they ever done to help me?" I would like to leave on the record today the words of the Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s, which may offer an interesting perspective on the rights of society. Writing of the years before his arrest, Niemöller said:

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me."

These injustices are the origins of our Human Rights Act. We must step up to protect our rights or risk losing them. I encourage and urge the House to support them.

Mr McCausland: The motion before us today has been somewhat overtaken by events. Prior to the election, the Conservative Party's position was, as I understand it, that it would move directly to a repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998. Since then, it seems to have moved to a position of consultation. However, I tend to support the initial position, which is that we should move to repeal the Human Rights Act because, quite frankly, it is a cause of concern to many people across the United Kingdom, given the way in which the human rights agenda is operated and the way in which that agenda has been hijacked, particularly by the political left in order to further its agenda of evading and circumventing the political process. What they are unable to achieve at the ballot box, through the democratic process — things for which they cannot get support amongst the people of the United Kingdom — they seek to have implemented by use of a human rights agenda and the courts.

Reference was made earlier to the Magna Carta. That is not the only occasion on which the United Kingdom has had a proud record on human rights. We might also refer to the Glorious Revolution, the Williamite settlement and the Bill of Rights contained in it. Moving beyond our own shores, we might also think of the influence of such people as our own Francis Hutcheson and his teachings in respect of the Scottish Enlightenment on what happened in the American revolution.

I was taken very much by the comments made by some of the "special interest groups", as they are described in Northern Ireland. We have, first, the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ). Some years ago, Fiona Murphy, on behalf of the Committee for the Administration of Justice, said:

"For Northern Ireland, the Human Rights Act formed part of the Good Friday agreement. Not only would creating a 'British' bill of rights be unacceptable to people in Northern Ireland, it would undermine an international peace agreement.".

So, the fact that it was a "British" bill of rights that was being proposed was an anathema to the Committee for the Administration of Justice, which perhaps tells us more about CAJ, its political stance, its political bias and its political position than it does about any proposed bill of rights.

Ms Ruane: Will the Member take an intervention?

Mr McCausland: I am happy to.

Ms Ruane: I ask the Member to withdraw his comments about CAJ. In my view, and from my experience, CAJ is a collection of individuals from across the political spectrum and none, with human rights experience, academics and human rights activists. It is a bit disappointing to hear the comments made about an established human rights group.

Mr McCausland: The fact that Caitríona Ruane rushed to her feet to defend CAJ probably says more to reinforce what I have said, because it is an organisation that has frequently operated to a Sinn Féin agenda more than anything else.

Ms Ruane: Please. This should not be —

Mr McCausland: Sorry, Mr Speaker, we cannot have two Members on their feet at the one time.

Ms Ruane: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. That is a very dangerous statement to make, and it is absolutely untrue. I ask the Member to withdraw it. The CAJ is not working to a Sinn Féin agenda. It is absolutely wrong for somebody to say that in the House.

Mr Speaker: I know that the Member is well enough experienced to know that there should be no personal references across the Chamber. I have made that clear previously. I heard the personal remarks. I will, if necessary, review Hansard if we do not proceed in a more respectful manner. We can make our arguments without, I think, impugning the reputation or the motivation of Members.

Mr McCausland: Mr Speaker, if you do reflect on what was recorded in Hansard, you will see that I referred to the Member, because the Member had spoken, and I also, I think, referred to her indirectly. I did not refer directly to her or speak to her; I was referring to what she had previously said.

Bear in mind that one of CAJ's previous directors spent time as a director of a republican ex-prisoners' organisation. I think that to be the case. Furthermore, I think that the current director was, certainly at one time, a member of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland. That sort of pedigree says something about the organisation. It helps to explain why it finds it offensive that there would be such a thing as a British bill of rights.

We also had the comments on this matter from Amnesty International. I will move on, because my time has virtually gone.

The unionist community is critical of the Human Rights Act, the way in which it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights, and of the fact that it has been abused on a regular basis by criminals and terrorists who have used spurious challenges to avoid deportation.

If we are going to protect human rights, let us think about the human rights of innocent victims, rather than the supposed human rights of those who are perpetrators and want to avoid justice.

This is simply a way of evading or circumventing the political process. It is a very undemocratic position, with a lot of this human rights agenda and human rights sector. Therefore, I certainly welcome and support what the Conservative Party seeks to do, whether in part or in whole.

Mr Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Caitríona Ruane.


2.00 pm

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Arts and Leisure

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): We start with listed questions. I inform Members that question 14, should we get to it, has been withdrawn.

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his question.

The Executive endorsed an investment of around £36 million for subregional stadia development for soccer as a priority in the next comprehensive spending review (CSR) period, and a resource budget of around £600,000 was allocated by DFP in February to allow my Department to start to the development of the programme. A strategic outline business case has been developed and was submitted to DFP for approval in February.

My Department has been developing the programme and has worked closely with the Irish Football Association (IFA) to ensure that it is aligned to the IFA facilities strategy and that the Executive and DCAL’s priorities have been fully incorporated into the programme. Programme-specific details — eligibility criteria, funding strands, funding limits — are currently being finalised. Plans for formal consultation with key stakeholders are under way.

Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for her response. Are clubs being given all the necessary information to assist them to make their applications? Who will administer the fund? What is the number of clubs that are likely to benefit? Will the funding be spread across the Province?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. As I said in my primary answer, the terms of reference and the consultation are being developed by my Department. Clubs that are interested in applying for subregional facilities will know of the workshops that will be planned as part of the IFA's consultation roll-out. They will get all the information they need in order to make a decision and help them shape up an application. If the Member has any particular clubs in mind, it is important that he contacts the IFA as part of that consultation to ensure that it gives the clubs all the information that they need. It is really important for clubs to have as much information as possible in advance of committing themselves to an application. I assure the Member that, once that process has happened, the IFA will make recommendations, but, at the end of the day, the decision on which clubs receive funding as part of that programme is mine.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I ask the Minister to expand on her response and give further clarity on who is responsible for the subregional programme. What form will public consultation on that programme take?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her supplementary. Primarily, DCAL is responsible for the development of the subregional programme for soccer and additional facilities for the other two of the three big sports thereafter. In relation to consultation, as I said to Mr Anderson, it is important that all the clubs have as much information as possible. I am confident that the IFA will roll out a very robust consultation process that will probably last around 12 weeks in order to ensure that clubs right across the North have an option to get as much information as they need before submitting their application.

Mr Lyttle: I welcome the much needed funding for football stadium facilities across Northern Ireland. Will the Minister give us a bit more detail around the likely timeline for the allocation of that funding?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am sure the Member heard — maybe he did not — my primary response to Mr Anderson. Initially the subregional programme was not due to kick in until the next CSR, which I suppose, without the added year on the mandate, would have meant this year. Not waiting for that, I have already put money into a specialist in DCAL to continue the work on the subregional stadia programme. The outline business case is with DFP, and I imagine it will be approved sometime in the summer, although it is freezing in here and you would not imagine the summer has started. Hopefully, when we come back from the summer recess we will be looking at the consultation process, which will last 12 weeks. I imagine that, certainly before the end of the year, applications will be submitted and we will be considering them. It is substantial money: £36 million is to be distributed among soccer clubs in the North.

Mr Beggs: The Minister has alluded to the process of determining who will be successful. Will she also indicate when the funding will be available and when it must be delivered by, so that it does not drag out? Can she also indicate any other limitations or constraints on the funding so that any urgent issues, such as health and safety situations and essential improvements, can be made to benefit the junior game?

Ms Ní Chuilín: First, two of the criteria need to be around planning permission and security of tenure. It is important that groups and clubs that apply have a long lead-in period, particularly around planning permission, if they are going to look at developing facilities outside their current footprint. That, in itself, will take time, and we need to work with and support clubs through that process. I am happy to do that. The subregional programme was really going into the next mandate to be spent across that mandate, well in advance of the end of it. It is important that clubs get the information and support they need to make an application. They need to make an application on the basis that, if successful, they will need a further lead-in period to seek security of tenure, if they have not already got it, as well as planning permission in order to spend substantial capital moneys.

Ms Ní Chuilín: With the Deputy Speaker's permission, I will group questions 2 and 6. I thank the Member for her question.

On 18 May this year, Sport NI announced plans to invest £17·5 million of lottery funding in sports facilities projects across the North over the next five years, which will result in significant investment in sporting and leisure infrastructure and will help to increase participation in sport and physical activity across the communities.

The programme will be delivered through three strands: a single-facility strand, a multi-facility strand and a performance facility strand. Sport NI has indicated that £8·75 million — half of the total — will be allocated to single-facility and multi-facility strands, which will benefit sports clubs and communities. The investment will also contribute to DCAL's priorities, such as targeting social need and tackling deprivation through sport, by providing improved sporting and leisure access across our communities, including those who are in under-represented groups, such as females, older women and people with disabilities.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for her response. What influence will local authorities have in distributing the money to ensure that it is distributed where it is needed?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I understand that local authorities have been in discussions with Sport NI for some time. Most, if not all, local authorities by this stage — particularly before they amalgamated into the super-councils — should have prepared a facilities management plan for their area based on their facilities management plan, which is based on clearly identified need. They were entering into discussions about the potential and possibilities for any mergers in the future.

I understand that those discussions are ongoing. With the facilities management plans and with the identified need being detailed right across the North, it is better to get the spend where it is needed and where it can be spent quickly and for the benefit of the community. I am sure that the Member will agree with that.

Mr G Robinson: Could the Minister outline how she intends to ensure that the money will be equally distributed in all areas of Northern Ireland?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am sure that the Member heard my response to Ms Sugden, and, as he comes from the same constituency, he certainly will have seen the investment that went into Coleraine. We need to ensure that local government works collectively with Sport NI and any other potential sources of funding to have many needs addressed throughout the community but primarily to make sure that there is access and participation for all — not just in soccer clubs, GAA clubs and rugby. They make up a big percentage of sport on this part of the island, but we need to include as many other sports as possible and even people who just want to use it to enhance physical activity through walking clubs as well.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Could the Minister tell us how DCAL will promote greater participation in sport and physical activity for older people, young women and people with disabilities?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I know that he has been listening, and, as I said, district councils, the Active Communities programme and even Sport NI all work closely with a number of the sporting organisations and bodies. That is important. Some of the bodies include Special Olympics and Disability Sports NI, which has the 5 Star Disability Sport challenge. It is important that we work with all the governing bodies, and, in recent years, there have been very good examples of the three big sporting bodies working together to look, in particular, at older, more seasoned athletes and people who used to play and have maybe let it pass for other activities. There has been a participation gap for women, and all people with disabilities need to be included in the proposals as well. It is important that we look at where the gaps are and do our best to try to close them.

Mrs McKevitt: Has it been determined what percentage of the overall fund will be awarded to each of the three strands, namely the single facility, the multi-activity facility and the performance facility?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Yes, money has been set aside for each strand. For example, the single-facility strand has a budget of approximately £2 million, and that is primarily aimed at increasing participation in sport in community and club structures. That can range from anything from £10,000 to £100,000. I will definitely get all the details. The multi-facility strand has a budget of almost £7 million, and those awards are anything from £100,000 to £1 million. The performance strand has a budget of almost £9 million, and, while there are no limits on that, it would be for fairly big capital programmes. It will be done on the basis of the assessment of that capital project overall. That is to be welcomed, because, when local government and sporting bodies were talking about coming together at the start, they were always shy of a few hundred thousand pounds, which made the projects unviable. This is an opportunity to try to bridge that.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I understand that questions 3 and 4 have been grouped. I thank the Members for their questions.

Unfortunately, there is a shortfall in my Department's capital budget for 2015-16, which means that it must be restricted to meeting contractually committed expenditure only. The earliest that my Department can consider capital allocations beyond contractual commitments will be after the outcome of the June monitoring round is known. The musical instruments for bands scheme is therefore on hold, and I will submit a bid in June monitoring. In addition, the ongoing promotion of some pipe band contests and solo competitions and, for example, the all-Ireland fleadh, have been examples that I have used to try to bring additional money in.


2.15 pm

I am still very supportive of the role that the culture in musical bands and the marching bands tradition has to play here, but given the situation that my Department is in financially, it is something that I hope will change in the not-too-distant future.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for her answer. Following a study recently undertaken by DSD outlining the significant benefits that bands have on the local economy in Northern Ireland, does the Minister agree that such funding is value for money? Will she ensure that it is a priority as the outcome of the June monitoring round?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The study is not recent; it is a few years old, but I suppose that it is something that the Department can rely on if it so wishes. It pointed up the amount of money that was invested, particularly around the Twelfth, but I would be loath to use it because the gaps in the study did not point up the amount of money that is potentially lost. However, I value the role that marching bands have to play, so I wish to separate marching bands from that study, if the Member does not mind. I do not think that the study lends itself to the cause of the marching bands, but I have made a very robust bid for June, and I hope that that is met.

Mr Douglas: Will the Minister outline what sort of funding has come from the Arts Council for Northern Ireland under the musical instruments for bands scheme?

Ms Ní Chuilín: In recent years, it is well over half a million pounds. In fact, it is probably well over £700,000 so far. Given the demand and the need for marching bands from all traditions right across the North, there is a demand for that funding pot to be increased. The June monitoring round will help to bridge a small gap, but, fundamentally, we need to look at not just the role of marching bands but music, even for young people and not-so-young people of our age, Sammy, who want to pick up a musical instrument and get involved in jazz, traditional music or other forms of music. I think that we need to look at the long term, acknowledging the roles and the importance of marching bands in the community, but other forms of music are also demanding pots of money.

Mrs D Kelly: Given various Departments' responsibility for the promotion of good relations, I wonder whether you or any of your officials have given any consideration to having additional criteria for grant aid for musical instruments to bands so that they have to show respect for other communities in the usage of them?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I appreciate the Member's question. It is something that comes up usually before the summer recess or directly afterwards, and it is important. First, let me assure the Member, because it has been raised in this House on several occasions: any band that is in receipt of funding from the Arts Council, for example, and that has broken the law and may be subject to criminal proceedings, will not be a recipient of grant-aided funding. That is clearly laid out in the Arts Council's criteria. There has only been one band that that applies to, and it has not applied for funding this year. It is important that they not only sign up to but demonstrate good relations and mutual respect. That is part of cultural diversity that we all aim and claim to be part of. We need to see what that looks like.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. DCAL provides funding for festivals, and it is distributed through the community festivals fund. As the Member is aware, the fund is administered by local councils, which also provide match funding, set criteria and make individual funding decisions. I have been advised by Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council that the Scarva and District Cultural Society has been awarded funding for the Royal Thirteenth event in 2015 through the community festivals fund. In addition, the Ulster-Scots Agency has been approached by the organisers, and a meeting is to be held shortly, with a view to the agency providing some entertainment at the event.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for her response. Given that the demonstration on 13 July in Scarva is one of the largest one-day cultural events in Northern Ireland, attracting some 100,000 visitors annually, and given its contribution not only to the local economy but to the preservation of culture and heritage, does the Minister not believe that there should be a joined-up approach to funding?

Ms Ní Chuilín: There will be a joined-up approach to that and other events. My money going through the councils means that it is joined up: that is DCAL and local government providing community festivals funding. The Ulster-Scots Agency has come back with a very positive response, so that is another joined-up event. I am sure that the Member is aware of other funding opportunities that he, others and the organisers can approach. Certainly, I think that that is an example of where joined-up government will have an outcome.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister outline how applications to the community festivals fund are evaluated?

Ms Ní Chuilín: We rely on work involving local government, the Department and the Arts Council. There is a policy and guidance framework, and the councils work very closely with event organisers to make sure that they are aware of the conditions. That is also clearly laid out in a letter of offer that the councils provide. Councils provide DCAL with the evaluation. It is important that festivals consider what they are applying for from the very start and ensure that the conditions of their grant have been met. That should come out very clearly in the evaluation. It is fair to say that those small bits of money are normally applied for by the same groups every year, so it is in their best interests to come back with a very strong evaluation. To be fair, most of them do.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. Is there any stipulation in the community festivals fund that events must have a cross-community aspect?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Not that I am aware of. I know that, for some time, some groups have very naturally worked together across the community. However, I am also aware that single identity work has been ongoing. We need to try to encourage mutual work across and between communities as much as possible. Certainly, most of the councils are very familiar with some of the groups. As I said in answer to the previous question, for a long time, the same groups have been applying for small bits of money to provide valuable festivals, but I do not think it is incumbent on councils to insist on cross-community work. When it is not there and there is no possibility of it being there, it is off-putting for groups that are trying to do it.

Mr McCarthy: The questions so far have all been about funding — £36 million for this and £17 million for that — Casement and Windsor Park. Will the Minister advise the House that, if she and her Executive colleagues do not get their head out of the sand very shortly, there will be no funding for anything in Northern Ireland, let alone —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. The Member will resume his seat.

Mr McCarthy: — the Scarva demonstration.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member is long enough here to know that the question should be directed at the question on the sheet.

Mr McCarthy: The Scarva demonstration.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Sorry, is the Member questioning the decision of the Chair?

Ms Ní Chuilín: To be fair to the Member, he is normally one of the people who jumps up and asks for £10 million for this and £2 million for that, and that is his job — he represents a constituency. However, I will not take lectures from Kieran or anybody else on trying to protect those who are most vulnerable. If the Member has a specific question about something in his constituency that might need support — the Member writes to me quite a lot — I will be happy to respond, but I will not take any lectures from people who want to go into water charging, prescription charging and taking free travel from the elderly. I do not think so.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Minister, the same rule applies to you.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. Construction work at Casement Park has been delayed following the outcome of the judicial review in December of last year. Since the ruling, the GAA, DCAL and the relevant team members have studied the judgement to ensure that any new planning application fully addresses and takes into account the points that were raised by Justice Horner. There remains a strong resolve within the Ulster Council of the GAA to submit a new planning application. I anticipate that a 12-week planning consultation process to support the planning application process will commence in the coming months.

Windsor Park is under construction, and, notwithstanding the recent issues regarding the west stand, the project has progressed very well. The project team and the IFA are striving towards delivering the required spectator capacity for the forthcoming Euro 2016 qualifier against Romania on 13 June. On 20 April, it was agreed that the west stand should be demolished. After receiving approval from the IFA's insurer, the west stand has been demolished, and the details of the next steps are being developed between the IFA, the insurer and the project team.

Mr Ross: Does the Minister agree that it is important that we get a stadium the size of Casement Park, with the associated capacity, for Northern Ireland to bid for major events such as the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and other events? On that basis, is she confident that there will be a planning application submitted at an early stage, and is she confident that that will get approval so that we have a capacity of in and around 30,000, which will allow us to bid for major sporting events?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member has pointed out the issues that were raised as part of the strategic outline business case for the all-stadia programme, in which the three sports were going forward together. We have a fantastic facility at the Kingspan Stadium, Ravenhill, which is providing great opportunities not only for people on the field but for those off the field. The same will happen with Windsor Park, and I hope the same will happen with the redevelopment of Casement Park.

I anticipate the Ulster Council bringing forward a planning application in the autumn. They will use the summer to consult. They will consult widely and ensure that the comments that were made by Justice Horner in December of last year are fed into that consultation. I agree that there needs to be a capacity of at least 30,000, not only to meet the conditions and criteria of the business case but to attract other events that were laid out in the business case and as part of the consultation. It would be an absolute tragedy if people decided to set their face against something, but they need to have an opportunity to talk about the difficulties that they have around planning. I hope that the 12-week consultation process will be an opportunity for people to do that.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Minister provide details on the actions that she has taken to address the safety concerns that were raised by the chair of the safety technical group (STG) at the CAL Committee meeting on 30 April?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. He is a member of the CAL Committee, so he will be aware that I went to the Committee. I want to ensure that safety is paramount: it has been, and always will be, paramount to me.

In line with good practice and programme management, in relation to the allegations that I heard on 30 April, I instantly initiated a project assessment review of the stadia programme, which will include a specific focus on the issues raised around the Casement Park project. The review has been commissioned through the CDP and will be undertaken by independent experts. Normally a report is published to the Department, but I will ensure that the Department publishes the report publicly so that people see that as much as can be done is being done.

I am reluctant to get into anything else because there is a whistle-blowing allegation, and it is important that people have the confidence to come forward and make such allegations and that it is not subject to public consultation.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Minister advise us of what she thinks about the emergency exit plan for Casement Park?


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Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member is talking about an exit plan for a previous application. He is on the Committee, and I have heard and seen some of the questions that he has asked. The Member will know that, as part of any new planning application, new plans will be brought forward. I assure the Member and other members of the CAL Committee that I will ensure that, as part of the consultation process, the Committee will see any new design, including exit plans, evacuation plans or anything else that comes with it.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for the updates. Can the Minister advise on who is responsible for the liability or for recouping the costs of the repair to Windsor Park and the recent construction problems that there have been in one of the stands?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The IFA is working that out with the contractor and its insurer, and I am led to believe that this is being done with a can-do attitude. I am very certain that the liability not only for the demolition but for the completion of a new west stand will not come from DCAL or, indeed, the public purse. That will be sorted out between the IFA, the contractor and its insurers.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Question 1 has been withdrawn.

T2. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she agrees that it is surprising that, given the worldwide expertise and experience that exists in stadia development and building, safety considerations for such a relatively small stadium arose only at the very last minute, and whether she believes that she should have known about them at an earlier stage. (AQT 2562/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: If the Member is referring to Casement Park, safety considerations are there at the start, the middle and the end. Safety considerations for any big capital programme are there throughout. However, what was different was the level at which the safety concerns were reported. The allegation that they were suppressed is something that I completely refute. I am looking forward to the outcome not only of the review but of the investigation to see what lessons can be learned.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that, perhaps, in retrospect, we might have been better to have gone ahead with a super-stadium at the Maze and avoided all this nonsense?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member is aware that there was not political agreement for that, so it is kind of a moot question. I have absolutely no doubt that it is something that is in the past, and there is nothing that we can do about that now. The three governing bodies are getting on with developing their programmes. Let me assure the Member that the work and the relationships between those three governing bodies are really good, and I have no doubt that those relationships will endure well beyond the completion of these projects.

T3. Mr Dickson asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to assure the House that she will cooperate with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure by attending its meetings as part of its inquiry into the debacle over Casement Park. (AQT 2563/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: Not only can I assure the Member that I will, but I have already been to the Committee, and I anticipate being back at the Committee. I will be fully cooperative.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I call Mr Ian McCrea for a topical question.

Mr I McCrea: Thank you, Deputy Speaker. Sorry, I think the —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I apologise. We need a supplementary question from Mr Dickson.

Mr Dickson: Minister, thank you for your assurance that you will fully cooperate. Given the concerns around this project, can you assure the House that no corners will be cut in respect of delivery of what is clearly a pet Sinn Féin project for west Belfast?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I resent that remark. I think that that is ridiculous, to be frank. I am surprised, because the Member is normally more sensible than that. I will certainly ensure that safety is paramount in the redevelopment of Casement Park, as it will be for the other facilities. Not only have I gone in front of the Committee but so have my officials. We will continue to do so if and when needed, and I will leave it at that.

T4. Mr I McCrea asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she can gave a date for when the work at Windsor Park will be completed, given that the difficulties with the stand have cast doubt over the original date of November this year. (AQT 2564/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will appreciate that we are working that out, but I do not anticipate a very big delay. He is right that completion was due by November 2015. I imagine that the delay will be just a few months, because, to be fair to the IFA, it has a great team there. It is working very closely with the Department and has a very good working relationship with its contractors, which is not always the case with capital builds. I anticipate that the delay will be a matter of a few months rather than several months.

Mr I McCrea: The IFA not only has a great wee team working on it; it has a great wee team that plays in the park. Perhaps the Minister will join me in congratulating the young Cookstown lad, Stuart Dallas, who scored his first international goal last night alongside Cookstown's Aaron Hughes, who is now the most capped outfield player. Given that a European Championship game is scheduled for 13 June, can the Minister give any details about whether the temporary arrangements that the IFA hopes to have in place will still be in place for that match?

Ms Ní Chuilín: First, I join the Member in congratulating his constituents. He manages to weave them in, but that is what topical questions are about. Congratulations to young Stuart on his appearance.

I am working through the processes for 13 June with the IFA at the minute. Everything that I have heard thus far has been in the right direction; it has been encouraging and positive. The IFA is working through the procedures and protocols to do what is needed, not only to have as much capacity as possible, but to have done that against the backdrop of a lot of challenges, particularly around the Kop stand. I am happy with developments thus far and content that everything is going in the right direction to ensure that maximum capacity is there to help to meet the rules.

T5. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on the cross-community sports programme element of the Together: Building a United Community (T: BUC) strategy. (AQT 2565/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member has raised the topic of community relations before. The programme is developing very well. DCAL is one of a number of Departments working towards the overarching strategy of T:BUC. The pilot scheme that we had in the greater Village area and the Falls/Grosvenor area has worked very well. I knew that even before I got the results of the evaluation. We are talking to colleagues in OFMDFM about rolling it out, not only in deprived areas but in rural areas. I am very happy with the direction that it is taking.

Ms Lo: I am pleased to hear that it has been progressing well. Does the Minister intend to evaluate the whole process and produce a report?

Ms Ní Chuilín: As I said, the first programme was a pilot scheme. The evaluation of that scheme stated that it was successful, that there was a need for it, and that there is a need for more like it. Some of the tweaks in the programme came from the young people who participated, which is very good. If anything, the lessons that we have learned are that we need to incorporate those young people's ideas into the design of the next programme. That is happening at the minute, and I have no doubt that, once the overall T:BUC programme is finished, OFMDFM will ask each Department to provide contributions to an overall evaluation report.

T6. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, further to recent evidence given to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure by Mr Paul Scott, to advise the House when she, as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, became aware of the concerns about the emergency exiting at Casement Park. (AQT 2566/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member is on the Committee: he was there on 23 April when my officials were at the Committee; and he was there on 30 April when Mr Paul Scott made his allegations. He will know the answer because I told him when I was there. Perhaps he did not understand me when I said that I was not aware of the seriousness of the allegations that Mr Paul Scott made until I heard them when he gave evidence to the Committee on 30 April. Since then, I have initiated two very robust processes. His colleagues in DFP are involved in that investigation and review, certainly the review, anyway. It is not just DFP: the British Westminster Cabinet Office is also involved in the investigation.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister. Will the Minister give an assurance that any new design proposals for Casement Park will deal with the emergency exiting issue and not bury it as in the past?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I wonder at the coincidence of his and Basil's question; maybe he is reading from the same script. Let me give the Member the same assurance as I gave to Basil McCrea and to anybody else listening: I will ensure that safety is paramount. I have done so and will continue to do so. Any new plans submitted as part of a new planning application will be subject to at least 12 weeks' consultation. I anticipate that the CAL Committee, of which Mr Dunne is a member, will not only see the plans but have an opportunity to contribute to the consultation. I am sure that he will look out for exiting, egress, access and, indeed, any other aspect of concern. I am delighted to see so many people supportive of the redevelopment of Casement Park.

T7. Mr McKinney asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for her assessment of the importance of music, musical instruments and tuition, particularly for children, and to outline the action that she could take to resource a strategy to maximise update, in light of the fact that he does not quite know how we have reached this new, depressing level where it appears that we are about to start politicising musical instruments and music, which, of course, should be about harmony. (AQT 2567/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am not sure what the Member was referring to. I have not made it political and would resist any attempt to do so. I understand that the Member is coming from the same position. Some time ago, I met the marching bands forum, which is one aspect of musical tuition. There are others: I have met people from Comhaltas and from the all-Ireland fleadh committee in Derry and so on. I went to the Ulster Fleadh and all the rest. I also met children and young people who are involved in jazz and contemporary music, and the fact that music is important to them is important to me. Music is my thing, and that is something that I fully appreciate, participate in and see the importance of. It is important that, where possible in these financial circumstances, we invest in opportunities for children and young people to get involved in music.

Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister for her response. In the context of her latter remarks, will she undertake to liaise with her colleague the Education Minister to maximise the availability of musical tuition and music for all our children?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Absolutely. Not only are John O'Dowd and I sitting next to each other today, but our offices are close together. We have done so and will continue to do so. I have spoken to many principals and, indeed, boards of governors about not only music but art and physical activity in school. It is important that, within their current budgets, schools ensure that those subjects are not an afterthought but are built right into the criteria.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Mr William Irwin is not in his place. I call Mr Thomas Buchanan.

T9. Mr Buchanan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what engagement she or her officials have had with angling clubs to help to further that sport, given that she will be aware of the important role that angling plays, especially in tourism, in West Tyrone. (AQT 2569/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: It is a valuable asset not just in West Tyrone, which obviously has some beautiful scenery, but right across this island. Angling clubs have worked very closely together for years and will continue to do so. Angling is very important, and not just for community participation; it is intergenerational and helps increase tourism, particularly along the waterways that have a good yield of trout. I am, have been and will continue to be very supportive of local angling clubs.

Mr Buchanan: Will the Minister give an undertaking that she will meet the angling clubs in West Tyrone to help iron out any of the difficulties they may have?


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Ms Ní Chuilín: Certainly. I have met many angling clubs, and I am sure that I will continue to do so. If the Member has angling clubs in his constituency that he wants me to meet, I am happy to do that. Just find the office and we will get that sorted. It is absolutely no bother.

T10. Mr Ó Muilleoir asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for her assessment of the contribution of Carryduff GAC to sport and the community in south Belfast. (AQT 2570/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am happy to recognise the contribution of Carryduff. I know it is a big club. Like many clubs across sport and physical activity, the work it does, particularly across generations, is actually keeping people well, fit and safe.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Tá an t-am ag éirí gairid. Thank you for squeezing in the last supplementary question, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister give a commitment to visit the club and see the good work that is going on there? With over 1,000 members, it is the biggest club in Ulster, but, sadly, it does not get the resources it is entitled to.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am absolutely happy to visit Carryduff.

Education

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): As the Member knows, the Executive Budget has been cut by the Westminster Government by £1·5 billion over the last five years. As a direct result of that cut, there is significantly reduced money to spend on front-line services such as education. I have taken every action possible to protect education funding and the front-line services within the Department of Education's remit, ensuring that the priority is keeping teachers and classroom assistants in classrooms.

To date, furniture and equipment allocations have been made to five of the 22 school enhancement (SE) projects on site. I recognise the issues this raises for the remaining SEP projects, and I have allocated a further £1·8 million for the furniture and equipment need at capital projects on site. That is expected to fully meet the furniture and equipment requirement of SE projects in 2015-16. DE officials have prepared an in-year bid to the Department of Finance and Personnel to address the shortfall in funds for the furniture and equipment requirements in other capital projects currently on site.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his answer. Is he assuring everybody who has been told that they will not receive funding for furniture and equipment in schools that that will be remedied by his Department? The impression given is that they have new classrooms but no furniture.

Mr O'Dowd: I am assuring everyone who is listening that I am trying my best and we are exploring options for how we fund furniture and equipment going into the future. It depends on the project. For instance, in school enhancement programmes, if additional classrooms are being provided to schools, there will certainly be a shortage of furniture, but, if we are replacing classrooms or an existing room, there will already have been furniture in that room, so we have to ask how we use that furniture and equipment going into the future.

As I said, the Member is aware that £1·5 billion has been cut from the Executive Budget. All Departments are suffering as a result of that. When we look to the next three years and at the spending plans of the Conservative Government, we can see that there will be further cuts to our public services, hence the reason why we are in the middle of the crisis we are in at the minute and why there are talks going on in other places. We wish success to those talks. That is the reality of reduced budgets — reduced front-line services.

Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist. I appreciate that the reduction in funding has come as unwelcome news to the early years sector. By far the majority of correspondence I have received on the matter has been from MLAs. I have had one invitation directly from a recipient of the fund. I have answered 51 Assembly questions on the topic and 27 correspondence cases on behalf of nine of the 153 groups. I have received petitions on the matter from two of the current 153 recipient groups. In my response I have once again highlighted the cuts to the Executive Budget as a result of Westminster spending plans.

I recognise that some worthy programmes may be impacted upon as actions are taken to protect front-line services within the Department's remit.

The early years fund was established by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in 2004 to help to sustain certain early childhood services when Peace II funding ended, and it has remained available only to those applicants who were in areas of greatest need at that time. A recent review of the fund has highlighted the inequitable nature of the fund for this reason. Importantly, there are children across the North who are equally deserving of support who cannot benefit from the fund and whose situation must also be considered. It is essential that any funding is allocated in a fair and transparent manner to ensure that those who need it most can avail themselves of it.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the fact that each £1 that is invested in early years education saves £18 further on in each individual's life, does he agree that the £2 million that was invested in this particular initiative was money well spent, considering that, as he said, it benefited 153 communities, created 177 jobs, created 2,500 early years places and helped 620 children with special educational needs —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Have we got a question?

Mr D Bradley: — and 250 children whose first language is not English? Does the Minister not consider that to be a very good investment and money well spent?

Mr O'Dowd: Investment in early years is very good investment, but I contest the Member's figures and the way in which he has presented them. This fund has not created 177 jobs; in some instances, it sustains jobs. It has not created 2,500 preschool places; they are funded from an alternative budget. Not one preschool place will be lost as a result of the cut to the early years fund. I am trying to avoid ending the early years fund, but 2,500 places will not be lost. Indeed, only this weekend, we published the figures for children who have been successful in gaining a preschool place. We now have up in the high 99% of children who have achieved preschool places, so how have we lost 2,500 places?

I accept that organisations that are losing funding, quite rightly, have a right to lobby for funding, but I do become concerned when I read and hear alarmist figures that have no substance and cannot be backed up in any way. I will support early years funding because I believe that it is a good way forward. I will not support it on the basis of alarmist figures from anyone.

As regards early years funding in the future, Members may recall a debate in this Chamber — I think that it was in December 2014 — when a motion was put before Members to support classroom activity solely. As I said before, my party colleagues put forward an amendment which covered a wide range of areas. That was rejected. The Assembly called on me as Minister to invest in the classroom. That is exactly what I did at the end of the budget with very limited resources. You cannot now come back to me and say, "Oh, by the way, what about the early years fund, youth services and all these other services?" When it came to the crunch and the vote in this Chamber in December 2014, you all voted for funding to go directly into the classroom. That has an impact on the early years fund.

Mr Weir: The Minister has already referred to it, but, whatever scale of early years funding is available, can he indicate what practical measures will be taken to ensure that applications are treated in an open and accessible way and that it is not simply a case of it being rolled over to groups that have received it in the past?

Mr O'Dowd: The Member makes a very valid point. This has been a concern. The review that was carried out on the early years fund highlighted the concern that, in fact, it was a closed fund. If you were in at the start, you stayed in. No new applications were made to that fund. I am seeking a way forward for the early years fund. I am trying to establish a budget line for it. I will make a bid in the June monitoring round. I will also examine very closely my own budget to see whether we can continue the early years fund throughout this year. My preferred option would be to open it up to a new programme. The provider of that programme would be open for further discussion and debate. I want to open up a new programme, to which all relevant groups will have an opportunity to make a bid. They will then be judged against the criteria, and funding will be awarded in an open and transparent way.

I understand that there are frustrations from both sides of the argument on early years: organisations that are losing money currently, and those that did not get money in the first place. I am trying to open up a new pathway, but I have to secure funding first.

Mr Allister: I am disappointed that I sense a lack of sympathy from the Minister about a situation that is of his creation. Surely he realises that a number of playgroups and preschool arrangements are vitally dependent on a significant contribution to keep their doors open? Talk of a new fund will not solve the problems of those who face a situation in September in which they may lose a huge percentage of their funding, have to lay off staff and even have to close their doors. Now is the time to address the matter urgently. Does the Minister not agree?

Mr O'Dowd: The Member does not sense a lack of sympathy from me; he senses a sense of reality. The Member will know that groups that are affected by funding cuts will of course lobby. As I said to Members previously, I am at times frustrated when I hear some of the claims that are broadcast on the airwaves and when I read in the newspapers about the impact that this will have on preschool places and a wide range of community infrastructures. Those claims do not stack up when you look at the situation in detail.

Preschool places are funded from a completely different budget line to the early years fund. I have made several commitments today that no one will be disadvantaged in obtaining a preschool place because of an end to the early years fund. I want to support community and voluntary organisations because they play a vital role in our society and our communities, but I also have a responsibility. I am sure that the Member will agree that any fund that is created should be open to everyone; it should not be a closed fund, as is the case with the current fund. I am sure that he will also agree that groups that are as equally deserving as groups that currently achieve funding from the early years fund should be allowed, at least, to apply to the fund and be judged against the criteria.

Sometimes, I am accused of being somewhat blunt on a number of matters. My responsibility is to achieve funding for early years moving forward. I am looking at my budget, and I will make a bid in the June monitoring round. Both of those matters will be explored, and I hope to come out the other end with a successful conclusion to them.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister outline what funding is available to deliver those programmes at the moment?

Mr O'Dowd: From the early years fund that we have been discussing, there is still £900,000 available between now and the end of August. To complete the year, I need an additional £2 million, and that is what I am seeking.

The Department of Education spends somewhere in the region of £220 million annually on early years interventions, which includes funding to early years, preschool and other early years organisations. That is quite a significant and worthwhile investment from the Department of Education. I will emphasise this time and again: we have the funding for preschool places and to keep those places in the future. The challenge for me and perhaps the Executive is to find the £2 million that will keep the early years fund running. I will say it again: we have to open up that fund to other bidders.

Mr O'Dowd: Ligoniel Primary School is a controlled school and, as such, falls under Education Authority control. It is for the Education Authority to prioritise its minor works budget allocation in line with the priorities that I have identified. Those priorities include inescapable statutory requirements, such as health and safety and obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act, as well as existing contractually committed works. The Department has recently approved a temporary variation to increase Ligoniel Primary School’s admissions and enrolment numbers. That was granted following confirmation from the school that additional pupils could be catered for within the existing school buildings and that no additional accommodation would be required.


3.00 pm

Mr McCausland: The Minister will be aware of the history of the situation. Back in the 1980s, at the height of the Troubles, several classrooms and toilet and storage facilities were separated from the rest of the building so that a nearby nursery school could be accommodated in the suite of buildings. The position now is that the school is able, just about, to bring children in but is not able to meet the requirements that would normally be expected for seven-class provision over seven years. Will he at least enquire as to what might be done by the Education Authority about the provision of one mobile classroom, which would ensure that the school was able to meet the full requirements of the seven classes and, therefore, there would be no need for composite classes?

Mr O'Dowd: I am more than happy to raise the matter with the Education Authority, but I also suggest that the Member raise the matter with the authority himself. He may already have done so. The authority has a responsibility to be as open and frank with elected representatives as it is with the Minister, but I am more than happy to raise the matter with the Education Authority and report to the Member on Ligoniel Primary School.

Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his response to that question. We are now in June, and many schools that are making plans for their September intake find themselves in the same position as the Ligoniel school. Will he expand on the work that DE is doing with the Education Authority to ensure that schools have a good line of communication with the authority so that steps can be taken to inform them whether they will be provided with additional classroom accommodation in September?

Mr O'Dowd: As I said in my original answer to Mr McCausland, it is for the Education Authority to prioritise its minor works scheme. It may have set its priorities. The minor works funding this year has reduced dramatically for all the reasons that I have already rehearsed during this Question Time. There are significant pressures on minor works programmes moving forward, and the Education Authority has to prioritise in light of disability discrimination, health and safety and other statutory obligations. It is vital that there is open and clear communication between the Education Authority and schools. Schools need to know what their accommodation will be in September because it will come very quickly. I am more than happy to raise the concerns expressed by Members in the Chamber with the Education Authority, but I urge Members also to contact the authority directly. As I said to Mr McCausland, it has a duty to be open, frank and transparent with elected representatives as well.

Mr O'Dowd: Legislation requires that all preschool settings give priority to children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Preschool settings are responsible for setting any subsequent criteria. Priority is given to children from socially disadvantaged circumstances in the preschool admissions process because research has shown that they experience more difficulty at school than any other children. This is part of our wider efforts to tackle educational underachievement. 'Learning to Learn: a Framework for Early Years Education and Learning' includes an action to implement remaining actions from the review of preschool admissions, including one to examine the definition of socially disadvantaged circumstances with a view to ensuring that the relevant criteria are up to date and, if need be, expanded. I also want to examine the criteria to ensure that they do not disadvantage low-paid working parents. I have asked my officials to consider the issues associated with extending the priority criterion.

Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for at least part of his response, but I remain unconvinced that he realises the depth of feeling on the ground about the criteria that are enforced on schools, leaving working families disadvantaged compared with those on benefits. Will he confirm that, given the increase in the birth rate and its impact on already overstretched provision, he will consider extending the provision that currently operates on a part-time basis, especially in places such as Waringstown, where there is considerable oversubscription?

Mr O'Dowd: The Member has raised a number of points. Regardless of parents being on benefits for whatever reason, my job is to look after the children in these matters. Children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are at a greater disadvantage when starting school than those who are not. That is an evidence-based statement. There was a debate earlier around early interventions, early years etc. If we make an early intervention, we ensure that the child has a greater opportunity to succeed in education, and we save money further down the line. I accept that there is an argument from low-paid families who face financial challenges and are out working and trying to make ends meet. I accept that there is a further responsibility on my Department to assist those families. As I said, I am asking my officials to look at how we broaden the social disadvantage criterion. It was caught up in the welfare debate, but I think that we can move it on in conjunction with the welfare debate or separate from it. It is now time to move that on.

In relation to part-time and full-time provision, evidence-based research shows us that there is no significant difference between part-time and full-time provision for a child. Ideally, I would like to provide up to four hours for all children. The finances are not there to do it, but I am satisfied that the provision that we make in part-time is good for the child's development.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister have any intention to widen even further the prioritisation criteria for preschool admissions to the working poor?

Mr O'Dowd: As I outlined to Mr Moutray, I intend to try to move this forward. As I said, it is tied up in the welfare debate. It may be tied up in that further because, as I speak, I am thinking that the Conservative Government may well do away with a number of benefit entitlements. We are concerned about the future of family tax credits and what bandwidth those will be in. The goalposts may continually change on us, but I want to assist low-income families who are out working and who, quite rightly, recognise that there is a disadvantage to their children as well.

It is also worth noting that the social criterion operates only for 25% of children who apply for preschool places, and I am in a position to say that over 99% of children who applied for preschool provision this year have been provided with that. No one, at the end of the day, is being left out because of the social disadvantage clause. I am an elected representative; I know about the heat that it can cause around some of these issues, but I believe that the principles of the policy are right. They are making a difference to our educational achievement, but I recognise that there is an argument to widen the criterion.

Mr Rogers: Thanks, Minister, for your answers thus far. The sustainable schools policy guidelines for travel time to school state that primary-school children should not travel for more than 30 minutes and post-primary-school children should not travel for more than 45 minutes. Will the Minister provide some guidance on travel time for preschool children?

Mr O'Dowd: As the Member is aware, there are no set criteria for travel time for preschool children, but we certainly would not want them to travel for longer than that set out for primary-school children. We try to provide services as close to the family home as possible, although that is not always possible. I suspect that the Member's question has been triggered by the letter that parents receive if they are not successful in getting a place. That gives the entire list of preschool providers in an area, some of which may be 30, 40 or 50 miles away. There is no suggestion in the distribution of that letter that parents should consider sending their children that far. It is a generic letter sent from the regional offices of the Education Authority to parents. Every parent will receive the same. I understand why it causes some concern and, at times, anger among parents when they receive it, but it would be more expensive and a logistical nightmare to break it down into even smaller areas. We have to think about those matters as well.

Mr Lunn: The Minister has, rightly, highlighted twice that over 99% of applications for preschool places this year have been satisfied. Does he have any concerns about the balance between the statutory and non-statutory sectors and in the long term, perhaps, the need, as funds allow, to redress that balance in favour of the statutory sector?

Mr O'Dowd: There has been an ongoing debate in education for many years about the value of each of the sectors that provides preschool education. I would just caution the Member on some of these matters. The second question that I was asked today was about the early years fund. That fund goes into the community and voluntary sector and it allows that sector to provide preschool places and early years intervention. It also allows it to be sustainable and provide very many other services in the community. I would caution against removing preschool places in the community and voluntary sector in favour of the statutory sector for a variety of reasons, including that we would decimate the community and voluntary sector's funding.

Education and Training Inspectorate reports show that there has been a constant improvement in the delivery of preschool education in the community and voluntary sector. We will ensure that that continues. I have invested more and more money. I cannot remember the exact percentage but, over the last number of years, the amount of money that I have invested in preschool settings in the community and voluntary sector has risen quite considerably. That allows the sector to invest and provide more and more curricular activity for the children involved. It also allows the sector to provide training and decent wages so that it attracts the right staff. All those things are at play, so it is not simple. Even during my time on the Education Committee, there were some quite lively debates on this matter between the various sectors. I have no doubt that those debates will continue.

Mr McNarry: Going back to Mr Rogers's question, the Minister's answer and the idea of the generic letter, the Minister quite rightly identified parental anger when that generic letter is received. There is a geographic list of where they can go. On the basis that that can be misinterpreted and provoke anger — it certainly has among my constituents — will the Minister be in a position in future to ensure that such a letter is worded more carefully and more appropriately so as not to cause any consternation to parents? The message that he has given in the House today is perhaps one that parents and schools would like to hear. Perhaps his press office might do something about —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I think that we have got the gist of the question, Mr McNarry.

Mr McNarry: — getting that answer out. Would he go along with that?

Mr O'Dowd: Yes. I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with you. You have a point about communication. It is about the use of language and the information on these matters given to parents, elected representatives, the media etc. I have raised it. During the review a number of years ago, one of the areas that I raised with the then education boards was the use of a generic letter. I am more than happy to return to the Education Authority and work with it on that. I am not ruling out any options, but I do not think that there is an opportunity to break it down into tighter geographical areas because, logistically, that would be quite difficult. However, I do believe that there is an opportunity to reword the letter in a way that sets out to parents exactly what is meant and the intent of the letter.

Mr O'Dowd: As I have set out, the Executive's Budget has been reduced by the Westminster Government by £1·5 billion over the last five years. I have taken every action possible to protect Department of Education funding. However, it is simply not possible to protect every element of it. I have endeavoured to minimise the impact as far as possible by ensuring that all groups that currently benefit from the early years fund will continue to receive funding to the end of the current academic year on 31 August 2015. I have committed to review my budget and any other opportunities for funding to establish whether a fund can be established for the early years sector that would be open to all applicants and not just current recipients and aligned to the priorities of DE.

I fully recognise the importance of the fund. As I have said to other Members who have asked questions on this, over 11% of the entire DE budget, somewhere in the region of £220 million, is dedicated to early years. That includes fully funded early years programmes, identifiable funding for nursery schools, nursery units of primary schools and the foundation stage. It also includes other relevant expenditure such as that allocated to special educational needs, early years capacity building and extended schools funding.

Mr D McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his answer. I appreciate the time constraint. I am sure that the Minister would agree with me that there is no group in society more vulnerable and more in need of protection than children of preschool age. Therefore, what assistance is his Department going to give such groups — particularly in rural areas, which are going to be particularly hard hit by the reduction in funding — to help them to source funding from other sources?


3.15 pm

Mr O'Dowd: My first priority is to try to achieve funding to continue through this academic year, up until 31 August. It is important that we do not lose important community assets in isolated communities, particularly isolated rural communities, through the loss of the early years fund. I am conscious of the situation and will continue to monitor it. I have not admitted defeat on this matter yet, but if I am not successful in identifying the £2 million in my budget or achieving the funding bid to the Executive, we will work very closely with the organisations that are currently funded to signpost them to other funding organisations.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I can take one very brief question from Mr Chris Lyttle.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that every MLA recognises that we have to incur budgetary reductions, but how can the Minister justify a 100% reduction to the early years fund?

Mr O'Dowd: Because I am in an area now where chipping away a few hundred thousand here and a few hundred thousand there does not work any more. The Member will, as he said, appreciate that all budgets are under severe financial pressure, but I have to save tens of millions of pounds. In the past, I was able to take a percentage away from a budget line; I am now at the point where I have to end budget lines to make the savings required. It is far from satisfactory to me and, I am sure, to anyone in the House, but that is the reality of the current financial situation.

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

T1. Mr Rogers asked the Minister of Education whether he will make a bid for the Sentinus STEM programme in the June monitoring round, albeit that he is delighted that the Minister is seeking extra funding for early years. (AQT 2571/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: No. I have to be realistic in that this is the June monitoring round. Traditionally, there are very limited opportunities to obtain money from this monitoring round. I have had to prioritise my bids. I have made bids that, I believe, are, possibly, important to the Executive and the House and based on the lobbying that I have received. The early years fund has been top of that list, so I have included it and not Sentinus. That does not mean that it is not important; it means that I am being realistic about what funding I can achieve.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for his answer, although I am very disappointed because STEM is necessary in enriching our students' learning and to our economy. Has he any plans to seek extra funding for the Sentinus STEM programme in future rounds?

Mr O'Dowd: I will keep my options open for future funding rounds. However, the Member will be aware that funding is still going into the Sentinus STEM programme. It still has a budget line; it is still able to carry out very good work in that area. So, it is still operational, and I will keep my options open going into future monitoring rounds.

T2. Mr Middleton asked the Minister of Education for an update on what discussions, if any, are taking place on the future use of the Foyle College and Ebrington Primary School sites after the completion of their new build. (AQT 2572/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: The future use of the sites will be a matter for Foyle College and the Education Authority, which will be the manager of the Ebrington school site. I am aware that there are suggestions in the Derry area as to what the future use of that school and school site should be. In that case, it is a matter for discussion between the proposers and the relevant ownership authorities.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that it is important that those sites be of use to local communities? Will he work with the relevant authorities to ensure that those sites are of benefit to the local area and are not left in dereliction?

Mr O'Dowd: I am more than happy to work with the relevant authorities on that matter. In fairness to him and other representatives in Derry, you always have a plan and a call for what should happen next. That is a credit to you all. I know that there is some discussion about educational opportunities for the site, perhaps from the further and higher education sector, which would seem interesting and exciting. I do not want to see sites lying derelict anywhere; I want to see investment, growth, jobs being created and community infrastructure being strengthened.

The way to do that is through the use of former, for want of a better term, government sites. I appreciate that Foyle is under the ownership of trustees etc, but I am more than happy to work with anyone who has ambitious plans for moving forward.

T3. Mr Byrne asked the Minister of Education to outline the situation in regards to capital new-build programmes for amalgamated schools, particularly for two primary schools in Omagh town: St Colmcille’s Primary School in Brook Street and Loreto Convent Primary School in Brookmount Road. (AQT 2573/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: As the Member will appreciate, I am not in a position to comment on the individual schools. During an earlier debate on area planning, one of the recommendations in the Committee's report was that investment should be aligned to area planning, which my Department already carries out. Where there are amalgamations or development proposals that have come to a conclusion and are being implemented, capital should be aligned with them. We are doing our best on that in the Department. The Member will also be aware that the Department of Education has taken a 20% cut to its capital funding this year, which is proving difficult for the delivery of the full scope of the projects that we hoped to have on the ground either in this year or next.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept, however, that, in a situation where we have an amalgamation of two primary schools on different sites, it poses particular problems for the management and the principal of those schools? Should priority be given to those situations?

Mr O'Dowd: As a general principle, I agree that that provides additional hurdles for the principal and senior management team of any school, but I also advise the Member that, in terms of scoring for capital projects, there is a score for amalgamation. If a school has amalgamated, it will score additional points in relation to the building policy. Therefore, the school and the amalgamation is recognised as part of the capital programme. Speaking in general terms, at this stage I do not have enough funding to move all projects forward in the future, but I will continue to try to secure funding.

T4. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister of Education how he views situations in which local post-primary schools are hugely oversubscribed and have to turn away local pupils who live in the local area, attend local feeder primary schools, are in the top categories of the admissions criteria and come from families that have been associated with those schools for generations. (AQT 2574/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: This is one of the pillars of area planning. There was quite a good debate — apart from sections of it, I have to say — earlier in the day about area planning. The Committee report is worthy of very careful consideration by all Members involved. We have to ensure that we have in place an area plan that recognises population shifts, growths and declines and that our schools, both primary and post-primary, are able to adapt to that in the future. However, there are areas where, in my view, area planning should be much further advanced than it is and managing authorities should have in place plans that would respond to variations in population growth at any time.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas fosta leis an Aire as a fhreagra sa chás seo.

I thank the Minister for his answer. In the absence of area plans, in cases where there is a proven need for extra places will the Minister look at other possibilities that will fulfil the need in the meantime?

Mr O'Dowd: I will, and I have. The process is called temporary variations. There will be instances where it is the appropriate method to move forward and others where it will not. However, that does not negate the responsibility on managing authorities to bring forward area plans that meet the need of an area.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Question 5 was withdrawn.

T6. Mr Sheehan asked the Minister of Education what is being done to standardise special educational needs (SEN) provision throughout the Education Authority area. (AQT 2576/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: The Education Authority is working to develop a regional approach to the delivery of the current SEN framework. The purpose of that regionalisation is to ensure equity of access for all children to special educational needs services and to promote a more cohesive and harmonised approach to supporting some of our most vulnerable children across all the Education Authority regions. The provisions in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill and revised SEN regulations and statutory code of practice will provide a rounded and considered package of measures that will contribute to a more responsive and less bureaucratic framework moving forward.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. How will the Education Authority regionalisation, together with current SEND legislation, impact on SEN provision and the statementing process?

Mr O'Dowd: One of the rationales for bringing forward the Education Authority legislation initially and one of the very strong arguments for bringing forward the Education Bill was to ensure that we had harmonisation of services across all regions. One area of concern was the provision of SEN services, where one board area might provide different services from the one next door, so that children literally half a mile apart were receiving different services.

There is an opportunity for the Education Authority to bring forward plans for a regional service that meets the needs of all young people. The SEND Bill is about modernising the statementing process; it is not about the deletion or removal of the rights of any of our children or their parents. It is about strengthening the legislative basis on which we move forward and, indeed, speeding up the statementing process, which is very often a matter of frustration for parents. I am sure that all elected representatives in the Chamber have experience of working on behalf of parents on the statementing process and are aware of the difficulties in approaching that. The SEND legislation is about modernising a very convoluted and complicated process.

T7. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Education whether he agrees that, given the protests on the Donegall Road about the proposed amalgamation of Donegall Road, Fane Street and Blythefield primary schools, the proposal does not have local support and has, in fact, caused a lot of uncertainty for parents and teachers, and whether he believes that this premature decision will go ahead. (AQT 2577/11-15)

Mr O'Dowd: I am not in a position to comment on an individual proposal, especially one that is in pre-consultation mode with the Education Authority and the local community. I encourage everyone with an opinion on this to make it known to the Education Authority and keep their mind focused on the fact that education delivery is not about buildings but about the provision of good education for all our young people. I do not mean this in a disrespectful way to anybody involved in any of the protests, but I am not as interested in "Save our Schools" as I am in saving our education.

Ms Lo: The problem with this is the lack of a site and lack of certainty about when and where the school will happen. Will the Minister consider putting forward a firm proposal on where the school will be before he decides to close the three schools?

Mr O'Dowd: It is not the job of the Minister to do so; it is the job of the Education Authority to, first, bring forward a development proposal if it wishes to do so. I will then go into a two-month consultation period, during which I am more than happy to meet elected representatives, parents and representative groups to discuss the proposal. I do not wish to go into the detail of any development proposal that may come to me on this matter, but the general principle is that it is up to the Education Authority or the managing authority to bring the proposal forward. It is not the job of the development proposal to develop a site; that is separate again. It will be a matter for the Education Authority to identify a site for any future proposed amalgamated school. They are joined issues, but two separate issues in terms of how the decision-making process works out.

T8. Mr F McCann asked the Minister of Education to outline the key points in the report released by the Department last Thursday that showed figures for the number of pupils who had achieved GCSEs. (AQT 2578/11-15)


3.30 pm

Mr O'Dowd: It makes for welcome reading. We have seen a continued increase in our young people achieving five good GCSEs from A to C or equivalent, including in English and maths. Now, 63·5% of our young people leave school with that. That is almost five percentage points up on the last report from a couple of years ago. So, the intense focus on raising standards is paying off, from the initial investment in early years, right through primary school and into post-primary school. The hard work of teachers, parents, pupils, communities and community leaders in raising the focus around the need for educational improvement is beginning to pay dividends for our young people.

Mr F McCann: The percentage of pupils achieving GCSEs from A to C in 2009-2010 was 71·9%, which increased to 78·6% in 2013-14. That is to be welcomed, but can the Minister outline how his Department intends to continue that upward trajectory?

Mr O'Dowd: As I outlined, this is a multi-agency approach. I use the term "agency" advisedly. We debated this much last year when we were making changes to the common funding formula. The evidence shows that a child from a socially deprived background is less likely to do well in education. So, we have to invest in jobs, community infrastructure and families and have to ensure that people are given an opportunity to be everything that they can be from the family home. When they go through the school gates, we have to ensure that our teachers are motivated and focused — thankfully, the vast majority of them are — that there is a strong board of governors and strong leadership in the school, and that the school has close links with the community and the community is playing its part. If any one of those pillars falls down, the child is automatically disadvantaged. Yes, the Department of Education will continue to focus inside and outside the school gates, but we have to ensure that the family and the community are supported as well if we want to see continued educational improvement for our young people.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Members, time is up. You may take your ease while we change the Table.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly recognises the vital importance that the Human Rights Act 1998 plays in the lives of citizens of the United Kingdom; further recognises the importance of this Act to the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution of policing and justice powers; and rejects any attempts by the Conservative Government to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. — [Mr Dickson.]

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an rún seo, agus gabhaim buíochas le Páirtí na Comhghuaillíochta, mar is díospóireacht an-tábhachtach í seo. I welcome the motion and thank the Alliance Party for bringing it forward, because I believe that this is a very important debate.

For the record, Sinn Féin called for and supported the Human Rights Act, and we are deeply concerned about Tory plans to consult on or any attempt to repeal the Act. The implications of the plans to repeal it and reject the current oversight role of the European Convention on Human Rights are enormous for the administration of justice, policing and equality in the North. It is also a direct attack on the Good Friday Agreement and the international treaty signed by the British and Irish Governments, which gives legal effect to the agreement. Not only was the agreement approved by referendum, it was incorporated as a treaty between Britain and Ireland and was lodged with the United Nations. It is treaty series number 50, 4705. Article 2 of the treaty binds the British Government to implement provisions of the multiparty agreement. I have some of the agreement with me. Paragraph 2 of the section on rights states:

"The British Government will complete incorporation into NI law of the European Convention on Human Rights ... with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency."

It was very disappointing and worrying to hear the cavalier attitude of Mr Nelson McCausland earlier, who threw out wild, inaccurate claims about CAJ. He is not here now. He may be busy with something else, or he may not be interested in human rights. Maybe he did that because it was the easy option. Maybe he did not have his work done on preparing for the debate. I would like to read something into the record about CAJ, because the claims made about it this afternoon were nothing short of disgraceful. CAJ is an independent human rights organisation. It has cross-community membership in the North. CAJ seeks to ensure the highest standards of justice and campaigns on a broad range of human rights issues. CAJ seeks to ensure the highest standards and administration of justice by ensuring that the Government comply with their obligations in international law. It is a member of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and has received many international human rights prizes, including the Reebok human rights award and the prestigious 1998 Council of Europe human rights prize.

I understand that the Cheann Comhairle is looking at the comments, and I am sure that I speak for the entire House, maybe with the exception of some in the DUP, when I say that I assure the membership of the CAJ, the human rights community and human rights academics that Mr McCausland's comments do not reflect the view of the Assembly. As I listened to him, I was struck that the human trafficking law came into effect today, spearheaded by Lord Morrow. There was a wonderful event in the Senate, which I attended because I believe it is a very important piece of legislation, and practically the entire DUP Assembly team was there, and they applauded and gave a standing ovation to a woman who fought for human rights on the platform of human rights. Yet, an hour or so later, we have a Member of the same party making such spurious, inaccurate and wild allegations about the human rights community. So, I hope that the contributions of the DUP in the human trafficking debate reflect the ethos of the sentiments that I heard, rather than the ill-thought-out contribution of Mr McCausland.

I respectfully suggest that he rereads the quote that Mr Dickson read out at the end of his contribution. Sinn Féin will continue to work to ensure that we have the Human Rights Act as it is, and, as a society coming out of conflict, we badly need that. It is one of my favourite quotes; so I am sure that Mr Dickson will not mind if I repeat it, because I think that it is important that we all listen to it again. It was from Pastor Martin Niemöller, who was a Protestant pastor and social activist:

"When the Nazis came for the Communists, I did not speak out —
As I was not a Communist.

Then they locked up the Social Democrats, I did not speak out —
I was not a Social Democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out —
As I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, I did not speak out —
As I was not a Jew.

When they came for me, there was nobody left to speak out."

Mr Attwood: I thank the Alliance Party for bringing forward the motion today. I agree with Mr Dickson's comments in respect of the direction of travel of the Prime Minister and the new justice secretary in England. I will not be as casual as Mr McCausland when he said that this debate was overtaken by events, given the lack of references to the Human Rights Act in the Queen's Speech.

Mr Dickson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Dickson: The Member might not have caught up with the news today, but, at lunchtime, Number 10 recommitted the Prime Minister to breaking the link. He is determined to proceed.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Attwood: I was not aware of that, but it corroborates my point that we have not been overtaken by events. My view is that the reason why the Prime Minister might have made that comment today is that, in the fullness of time, on the eve of an in/out European Union referendum — and this party will vigorously campaign against withdrawal from the European Union — the British Prime Minister will trade a yes vote to stay in Europe for a no vote for the Human Rights Act. In order to bring dissident elements in the Tory party into line to try to get a possible yes vote over the line, he will throw other things into the negotiation to try to justify a yes vote. One of those things will be doing damage to the Human Rights Act.

As Members have outlined, at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement is a rights-based approach. As I have said endlessly in the Chamber and in other places, that is because, when our national conflict was fully evolved, it revolved around issues of law, order and justice.

On many occasions, the narrative of conflict on this island was informed and defined by disputes about issues of law, order and justice. The failure to have in place proper rights, provisions and standards fuelled and added to those disputes. That is why the wise authors of the Good Friday Agreement, in their interventions in respect of policing, justice, human rights and equality, created structures and architecture to mitigate and legislate against invasions of rights and protections in the future such as we had in the past. If, through the stated commitment that Mr Dickson has brought to my attention, the British Prime Minister will do damage to the Human Rights Act, let us be very clear: we are undoing and doing damage to the Good Friday Agreement; we are undoing and doing damage to the rights, the culture and the approach that are at the heart and centre of our new democracy and stability going forward; and we are doing damage to protecting people's rights.

Generally, the Human Rights Act is a sword to deploy against wrong, but it is also a shield to protect what is right. That is the essence of the Human Rights Act. When you cut through the fog that the British Prime Minister and others are trying to create, you see that it is something that protects the citizens of not just Northern Ireland and Britain but the rest of the island and far into the wider European context. It is a sword to deploy against the wrong, but it will be a shield to protect the right. We must never move away from all of that.

We want to go further. For all the strength of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights that it reflects, there are many more provisions. If, going forward, we are to have a rights-based approach on this island, especially in the northern part, we must consider the many other examples of international codes and conventions on the protection of human rights that have application to our society. When we were negotiating and implementing Patten and when the legislation was being passed in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the code of ethics built into its architecture and into the new beginning to policing went beyond the European Convention on Human Rights. It was informed by the wider principles and provisions of UN conventions. Is anybody any less for the fact that our Police Service has a code of ethics that, when upheld, is to the benefit of each citizen and each community in the North? I think not. Those examples — there are many others — are good grounds for why, even at this late stage, we should look for a bill of rights, which was committed to in various agreements entered into by governments and parties heretofore. There is a further opportunity to build into the architecture of Northern Ireland a bill of rights relevant to the particular circumstances of here.

Mr Speaker, I agree with the comments made by various Members about what Mr Nelson McCausland said. When you review Hansard, I urge you to note that in his comments about members and former members of the CAJ, he named one person, he identified two others and he purported to visit on them various political allegiances as well as the allegiance of that organisation. If that is not a reason to name somebody in the Chamber, I do not know what is.

Mr Elliott: I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue in the Chamber and, indeed, further afield, as I might have the opportunity to do in the days that lie ahead. When you hear some in the Chamber talking, you would think that the only reason why we have freedom today in this society is thanks to Brussels, the European Court or the European Convention on Human Rights. Even a cursory examination of the facts tells a totally different story. History tells us that the British people did not need a European-based Human Rights Act to guarantee their freedom and liberty. It was not the United Kingdom that witnessed the rise of the twin ideologies of communism and fascism in the first half of the 20th century. Rather, it was western Europe that fell under the sway of fascist dictators like Hitler, and Russia was conquered by Marxism. The political stability of the United Kingdom endured with a constitutional monarchy in which Governments were changed at the ballot box. People shunned divisive and destructive ideologies, and political freedoms remained protected by our own laws and courts.


3.45 pm

The European Convention on Human Rights was a post-war construct, a package of laws designed by nations, including the United Kingdom, that was aimed more at preventing continental Europeans from ever again going down the path to destruction and madness that those who had been prepared to follow the fascist leaders of the 1930s trod. By the end of the war, Europe was also aware of the cruelty and misery that accompanied communism, and the subsequent experience of the people of Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, to name but a few, bore that out. In other words, the European Convention on Human Rights was intended to guarantee basic rights that had been utterly usurped in western Europe during wartime and were being usurped in eastern Europe during a Cold War of peace by Soviets.

The 1998 Human Rights Act was introduced by Labour and put the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. It meant that people in the UK could bring cases about their human rights to domestic courts, but it also meant that the Strasbourg court became the final court of appeal for human rights cases. It was never intended to provide protection for criminals and terrorists, nor did the British people ever vote to give judges in Europe the power to overrule British laws and judicial decisions.

Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?

Mr Elliott: I am happy to give way.

Dr Farry: The Member is, to an extent, conflating the Human Rights Act with opposition to the European Convention on Human Rights. Given that the Ulster Unionist Party has been keen to cite clauses of the convention in its submissions on parading, does he not feel that he is in danger of losing the point that his party is trying to make for its own political self-interest, never mind the good of the community as a whole?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Elliott: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank Mr Farry for his intervention. I am pleased that he is so concerned about the parading organisations in Northern Ireland. It is a pity he would not show more sympathy and respect for them when they are trying to exercise those basic human rights and have a peaceful and legitimate parade. Instead, he stands on ceremony, and some of his party colleagues try to stop some of those parades, which is unfortunate.

I noticed that his party colleague Mr Dickson cited a number of what he claimed to be positive examples from the European Convention on Human Rights. What about the like of the Qatada case, where the Home Office spent at least £1·7 million over eight years on trying to deport a man once accused of being Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe and was repeatedly thwarted by human rights laws? Such cases are very negative, and the UK Government, with a British rights policy, should be able to bring them to a positive conclusion rather than being stalled by human rights law in Europe.

What was wrong with the Prime Minister's statement that:

"I want these decisions made by British judges in British courts, not in Strasbourg."?

As far as I am concerned, that is quite a legitimate request. It is a legitimate position to take, and I support it. Why can the UK not have its own bill of rights instead of having to rely on Strasbourg and Brussels to that extent? I do not see the absolute basis of the Alliance proposals, and I will oppose them.

Mr D McIlveen: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. If I was to stand here and list all the reasons why I am proud and happy to reside in the United Kingdom, we would be here till late in the evening. However, in the top ten of my favourite things about being part of the United Kingdom is the fact that we are not bound by a written constitution in the way that other countries are.

All that we have to do is look west to the United States to see how destabilising to a national Government a written constitution can be. We have seen in recent days in the United States how they are sometimes tying themselves in knots over constitutional issues. I am glad that our forefathers in the United Kingdom established a system of government that is agile, flexible and able to move with the people.

Already, I think that the very core of the debate has been missed by some of the contributors. This is not a debate about human rights in the United Kingdom; this is a debate about a piece of legislation called the Human Rights Act, which, I believe many would argue, has failed to deliver what it was designed to do. We all know that the Act was brought in in 1998 by a massive majority Government in the United Kingdom that wanted to try to ensure that fewer cases were brought directly to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and to try to deal with issues internally before it got to that stage. Whilst I am broadly supportive of that principle, this Act has failed to do that. The people who are arguing against any sort of a change in the Human Rights Act are, in my view, afraid. All that they are doing is admitting their fear of change and of making a piece of legislation that has not worked better. That is what this debate is ultimately about; it is what the debate at Westminster is about. It is about how we can make the human rights protections for people in the United Kingdom better. That is at the core of this argument.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Mr D McIlveen: I gladly will.

Mr A Maginness: The Member says that the Human Rights Act has failed. In what respect has it failed? It has brought into British jurisprudence and here in Northern Ireland the values and the standards of the convention. That is what it has done, and it has been very successful in embedding itself in the jurisprudence of this jurisdiction.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr D McIlveen: I thank the Member for his intervention. In my view, it has failed in what it was ultimately set up to do, which was to try to ensure that fewer cases went to Strasbourg and that more were handled within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. That is not the case because there are more cases now being handled by the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Mr D McIlveen: I really am running a bit low on time. There are more cases now being brought to the European Court of Human Rights than when the Bill was introduced. That is the point that I am trying to make. That is why Westminster is now looking at this issue and saying that something has to change.

I support my colleague's contribution today, and we will be voting against this motion. Why are some Members concerned about how the existing Human Rights Act has been used? Why is there a suspicion in some sections of this House that the Human Rights Act and the legislation that has flowed from it have caused problems and are something that we should be concerned about? I think that the people who have been advocating on behalf of the Human Rights Act have a responsibility too. It is highly irresponsible to claim that human rights legislation and the equalities that are supposedly flowing from that should be used as a Trojan Horse to grind people down. That is a misuse of a particular piece of legislation.

When, under human rights legislation, a business in this country is taken to court, challenged and loses for failing to promote something that is not even legal in this jurisdiction, we have a serious problem. Human rights legislation is being used adversely and as a weapon against people. As Mr Elliott mentioned, on the issue of parading, human rights legislation has been used to trample down the human rights of other people, particularly in the community that I predominantly represent. Therefore, when human rights legislation has been used in such an erroneous way, and when a new Government come in and start to look at how it can be better and how trust can be regained in the human rights agenda, it is entirely unreasonable for people who have been using it as a weapon then to cry foul. Of course, on that basis, people are starting to look at the human rights legislation and say that something has to change because, in many cases, it has been used as a weapon to beat people. As Mr McCausland said this morning, when people have failed in their political objectives, they seek to railroad their opinion on other people through other objectives and in an undemocratic way. That is why we oppose the motion.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Beidh mé ag labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin seo. I will speak in favour of the motion tabled by the Alliance Party. It is fair to say that most people would have a degree of suspicion when a Government try to repeal, or propose to try to repeal, a very recent and significant piece of legislation. Mr Attwood, in his contribution this afternoon, gave us more food for thought with his scenario around the European referendum, which I think is worth considering.

The question that we should ask ourselves is why it was necessary, particularly in the context of an international treaty — the Good Friday Agreement — to have the Human Rights Act as part of it. When people start to examine the need for it, particularly in this state as we try to repair the damage and the lack of confidence in many of the institutions, particularly around policing and justice, it is only natural and understandable that people in Sinn Féin, supported by the SDLP and the Alliance Party, will do all that they can to ensure that the principles of the Good Friday Agreement will not be undermined and that the Human Rights Act will remain very much a part of the judicial process and, indeed, the justice process.

I found it strange, in the course of the debate, that Mr McIlveen talked about the virtues, although perhaps that should be "virtues", of the British constitutional system. He said that if he had to list all those virtues, we would be here for the rest of the evening. That might be the case from his perspective, but he then went on to question why a Government, when elected with a large majority, bring in what they think to be a vital piece of legislation. That is one of the virtues of the British constitutional system: that Governments do that and do it for the right reasons. People can question it, but that is one of those virtues.

Other people commented on the performance of Nelson McCausland. It was very interesting that he did not make any particular point about either the strengths or weaknesses of the Human Rights Act; he seemed to attack the people who supported it and he listed some of them. He implied that, if you were once a member of the Communist Party of Ireland, you should not seem to have any opinion on human rights. In fact, if you have an opinion on human rights, it is detrimental to his position. Mr McCausland almost rebuked the British Prime Minister for daring to slow down the process of examining that legislation, yet I heard Jeffrey Donaldson say, on Radio Ulster, that it was at the intervention of the DUP that the British Prime Minister changed his mind. I am not sure whether Nelson and Jeffrey have had a discussion on that issue.

As to the need for and the desire to ensure that the Human Rights Act remains, there is the idea, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement, of a rights-based approach. The British Prime Minister may have his reasons, and Mr Attwood outlined some view of that. However, when Tom Elliott was speaking, he said that Britain does not seem to have a need for the Human Rights Act. If that is the case, why fear it? If all the laws in Britain are so good and wholesome, why fear the Human Rights Act? The Human Rights Act only protects people who believe that their human rights are being undermined.


4.00 pm

Mr Elliott: I thank the Member for giving way. I did not say that they did not need a Human Rights Act; I was not speaking against it. I was merely saying that there were human rights in the United Kingdom long before there was intervention by Europe. I think that is bound to be broadly accepted. On your point about the control of policing or other aspects of life in Northern Ireland, you can still have that without being part of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McCartney: Thank you very much, a Cheann Comhairle. I suppose that is a fair enough point, but our view is that you strengthen rights and give people more protection. Why oppose it, therefore? It has been pointed out by many, many people in many, many avenues. I have heard people make different arguments here — unionists have used the European Convention to promote aspects of legislation that we were featuring here. You cannot take the view that it is good one day but so bad the next that we have to do away with it. Everybody in every piece of legislation has their favours and puts weight on it, and then some days they will not. The best way to ensure that a rights-based approach underpins all that we do in the Assembly is to have a Human Rights Act to assist that process.

Mr Givan: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. It was interesting that, in opening the debate, Mr Dickson failed to provide any proper examples; indeed, some of the arguments put forward I regard as entirely spurious. One was that, if Britain withdrew from the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia would somehow become non-compliant. They are already non-compliant; they are one of the primary states that flagrantly breach the European conventions and are consistently up before the European Court of Human Rights. There was also a point on policing, which Mr Elliott covered, about how the police would not be accountable for how they carried out their duties from a human rights perspective. That is simply not the case. As others have said, human rights did not just arrive in this jurisdiction through the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. Some of the arguments put forward have been questionable.

The main concern that I have with the Human Rights Act is that it allows the courts to subvert democracy in the United Kingdom. It openly invites judges to intervene and change laws in the United Kingdom, contrary to what at times is the democratic will not just of Parliament at Westminster but of the Assembly here. That has been recognised openly by Sir Declan Morgan. He said in a speech in 2012:

"in my jurisdiction the incorporation of significant elements of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law has caused a change in the relationship between the judiciary, the executive and the legislature."

The relationship has been changed through the Human Rights Act, which allows the courts to look at convention rights and change the law. Any democrat would resist unelected, unaccountable judges being responsible to develop the law on issues of social policy — some of them very sensitive — crime and national security.

Why should we be subject to the judgements of a European court in Strasbourg giving prisoners the right to vote? In my constituency, I do not particularly want over 1,000 people in Maghaberry being given the right to vote. It would be enough to elect a councillor on the new council. Why should we be subject to those court judgements, when that court has ruled consistently against our ability to deport foreign nationals who have engaged in serious criminal activities? There are a host of judgements that do nothing to enhance what are proper human rights but instead have denigrated the human rights that are encapsulated in the European Convention.

In and of themselves, very few, I think, would be able to argue against those convention rights, but the court in Strasbourg has interpreted the convention as a living instrument and applied proportionality, so that somehow judges sit over society and say, "This is what I think is proportionate. This is what I think is more reflective of what a democratic society would want, and therefore I will make the ruling and make a change". That is a change that elected representatives, mandated by the people, should be responsible for making, irrespective of those decisions.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that it is not simply a question of democratic deficit but of how the courts have taken on mission creep and that what has happened has gone beyond the original intentions?

Mr Givan: "Mission creep" sums it up very well in terms of what the 1998 Act has facilitated, brought in by the Labour Government.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr Givan: No, I will not. Mr Dickson said that he did not want the right-wing Conservatives and right-wing media being responsible for what human rights should be in the United Kingdom. It was OK when it was the left-wing liberals of the Labour Party and the Lib Dems, his sister party, at Westminster. It was OK for them to make such a sweeping change in the law, but it is not OK for those of us who value democracy being responsible for those decisions.

I am opposed to the 1967 Act that Westminster legislated for, but at least it was democratically elected people who brought the change in; it was not the judges or the courts. I am opposed to other things that have been brought in, like gay marriage in the rest of the United Kingdom, but at least it was through the democratic process that it happened; it was not some cultural warrior wearing a wig in a courthouse who brought in the changes. That is what the Human Rights Act facilitates in the European Convention on Human Rights — changing sensitive social policy issues that should be for the House to decide on.

The European courts have allowed terrorist foreign nationals to remain in the United Kingdom when they should have been deported. Why? Well, the view is that it is their right to a private life and family life, the family life that actually allows prisoners to engage in creating families through artificial insemination. In a 2007 Strasbourg court judgement, that is what was facilitated for prisoners. Seriously, I appeal to Members: democrats should take back control of those decisions. We should not allow the subverting of democracy that has been engaged in by some members of our judiciary and happily facilitated by other so-called democrats who cannot get their way through this House or at Westminster to make changes but are happy for a judge to do it.

Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. When you review the comments of Mr McCausland, will you also review the last comments of the Member who just spoke? He referred to current members of the judiciary subverting our democracy.

Mr Speaker: I will take a look at it when I am considering the other remarks.

Mr Givan: Let me finish with a quotation from the Home Secretary, Theresa May:

"the law in this country is made by the elected representatives of the people in Parliament. And our democracy is subverted when judges decide to take on that role for themselves."

Mr A Maginness: On the point that Mr Givan has raised in relation to judicial activism, that is common to all jurisdictions. Go to the United States, Canada, any continental country or Dublin, and you will see that judicial activism in one shape or form takes place. That is the reality of any democratic society. The courts play a role where the law is being interpreted. It is a fact of life, and as politicians we have to accommodate that.

Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maginness: Yes, sure.

Dr Farry: Does the Member agree that democracy should not be conflated with simple majoritarian rule? Democracy is not only about elected representatives making decisions but about having courts to uphold people's rights. Human rights and the rule of law are also cornerstones of democracy in the widest sense of the concept.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr A Maginness: Yes, I accept that. It is a much wider concept than simply majoritarian rule, as we know here to our cost.

The fact is that we are trying to develop a system here where government is based on consensus. It is not working terribly well, I have to say, but, nonetheless, that is and should be our aim, and it is certainly the aim under the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement called for the convention rights to, effectively, be integrated into our legal system and into our courts.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for giving way. Mr Givan made the point about the number of pieces of law that came into effect because of democracy.

Given that the Good Friday Agreement, which, admittedly, his party does not support, was endorsed by the majority of people in Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole and introduced the Human Rights Act into Northern Ireland, should we not defend it on behalf of our people?

Mr A Maginness: Well, yes. I accept the generality of the point, although it did not actually introduce the Human Rights Act per se: that was coterminous with the Good Friday Agreement. If there had been no Human Rights Act on its way through Parliament at that stage, it would have had to be legislated for. I would remind people that also promised in the Good Friday Agreement was a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, which was supplementary to the convention rights that came into being here as a result of the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act was a great achievement by Tony Blair and his Government. It is very important. It has embedded convention rights. Mr McIlveen is absolutely right that it was a deliberate attempt to bring convention rights into British courts. That was the right thing to do. In fact, it is so embedded now that there is no way, even if you were to repeal the Human Rights Act tomorrow, that you would change the jurisprudence now, which is human rights-based and convention-rights based. It is just simply inconceivable that you could do that. That is the way judges and lawyers think. There is no way in which you can remove that from our jurisprudence, whether in London or in Belfast. You just cannot do that. That is a fact of life. If you do not believe me, read what the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said. He said that the Act is "well embedded". Further to that, he said that it is well embedded in the constitutional settlements that underpin devolution throughout the UK, making it difficult to do anything against the wishes of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments. What the Tory Government are presently attempting to do is wrongheaded because it will not work. It cannot work. It certainly cannot work without the consent of the various constituent parts or devolved Assemblies throughout the UK.

The further point that one has to make is this: if you were to repeal the Human Rights Act, the convention rights still stand because Britain, the UK, is part and parcel of the European Convention. It is a treaty member. It has a solemn obligation to carry out and obey the values and what has been laid out in the convention. It is the duty of the Westminster Government to do that unless the British Government withdraw completely from the European Convention. It is inconceivable for a leading country in Europe, indeed throughout the world, to withdraw from the convention. It is just absolutely inconceivable and is something which, in effect, is nonsense.

Indeed, people have said that the reason why the repeal of the Human Rights Act was put into the Conservative Party manifesto was simply as a last-minute attraction to those people who traditionally supported the Conservatives but were not quite supportive enough —

Mr Speaker: Thank you.

Mr A Maginness: Sorry: I will finish there.

Mr Weir: I am glad that Mr Maginness is not infringing on our human rights by carrying on beyond his allotted time. [Laughter.]

I find myself agreeing with him on one point at least. Like a stopped clock, it may be that we agree twice a day. On his last point —

Mr A Maginness: Just be careful what you agree with.

Mr Weir: Well, I am sure that you will have no problem with what I agree with, which is the motivation behind the Conservatives' pledge in their manifesto. I suspect that it was to create a sort of UKIP-lite appeal. Clearly, it is difficult to know the cause and effect, but the Conservative manifesto ended up getting 331 Conservatives elected while one was elected from UKIP. Whatever the large volume of votes there was for UKIP, it seemed to have a degree of success. If I were being cynical, I suspect that the Conservatives perhaps believed that they would be forced into some form of situation in which there was a coalition Government and they wanted to have various things that they could jettison to show that they were willing to accommodate, most probably, the Liberal Democrats.


4.15 pm

I appreciate that the movers of the motion tabled it well before the Queen's Speech, so they cannot be held guilty on that point. However, to some extent, the motion has been overtaken by events. It is undoubtedly the case, I think wrongly, that David Cameron is rowing away from this faster than the Coleraine rowing team that competed for Great Britain in the European rowing cup at the weekend. There is no doubt that he intends to abandon this and, hence, we saw the watering down of the commitment in the Queen's Speech. To some extent, the motion has become irrelevant. Like Don Quixote, we are tilting at windmills if we see it as a central point.

There is a degree of revisionism as well. To be fair to Mr Maginness, he, at least, slightly corrected that impression. The concept that the Human Rights Act 1998 was in some way central either to the Good Friday Agreement or to its passage by way of referendum is a high level of revisionist history. As indicated, the Human Rights Act was a pledge of the Blair Government in 1997. Irrespective of whether there was an agreement in Northern Ireland, a UK-wide Human Rights Act that would incorporate that into domestic law would have happened, and it was not, in that sense, a deal-breaker. As somebody who, for past transgressions, was involved in the negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement, I know that it was not a central element. Those of us with long enough memories know that, for anybody you spoke to at the time of the agreement, whatever side they voted on, prisoner releases, decommissioning, the formation of Government and the reform of the police were the key elements. I do not remember meeting anybody in the street during that period who said that the incorporation of the Human Rights Act was a key element of the agreement, but perhaps I move in different circles than some in the House.

Principally, the reason why I oppose the motion is, as highlighted by Mr Givan, a concern about judicial activism and its pushing of the boundaries. There is a degree of mission creep. As indicated, the courts always have to interpret the law and there is obviously, therefore, a balance to be struck. However, within a democratic society, I am concerned that we are moving in the wrong direction. There has to be a greater level of democratic accountability, and, to some extent, the courts see it as their role more and more, and above the democratic decision, to enforce what they see to be right. That is a danger in any democratic society. It is more dangerous when that judicial intervention comes from outside the democratic framework and is therefore not accountable. We are in a situation in which it is not simply British judges or even judges in Northern Ireland who are reaching particular decisions. The European Court is also taking part.

Mr Agnew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I will give way briefly.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he not accept that the judges are making their rulings and decisions based on laws that were created through democratic processes? They are making those decisions in the context of democratic laws.

Mr Weir: No, I do not accept that. They have gone beyond their remits in many cases.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Weir: We have seen, particularly in the European Court, mention being made of prisoner rights. I suspect that, if somebody was elected from Maghaberry, they may have a little bit of difficulty attending council meetings in the new Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, even with the modern technology of video links.

Nevertheless, there has been a degree of mission creep. If you were to go back far enough, I suspect that, among those who helped to set it up, the likes of Churchill would be spinning in his grave at the prospect. It goes beyond that. The United Kingdom and, before that, its constituent parts have a long history. If we were simply talking about abandoning the Human Rights Act and having no human rights protection at all, I would probably support the motion, but we are not. We are talking about putting in a British Human Rights Act, an Act that would build on the long tradition of the British Parliament. This year is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and there has been a movement from that, traditionally through an unwritten constitution and various Acts of Parliament. Those are the protections that we have in place, and I would like us to be dependent on those rather than the Human Rights Act. For all those reasons, I urge people to reject the motion.

Mr Allister: I detect among those who support the motion a considerable degree of muddle and misrepresentation of the situation. I do not think that anyone who is opposed to the present Human Rights Act is opposed to the existence of human rights. Indeed, I would have thought that each one of the rights that the convention adumbrates — the right to life, the right to family life, the right to freedom of expression — are rights that we all cherish and that, in any British bill of rights, we would expect to see ensconced in law. That is not the issue with the Human Rights Act; the issue is that it makes us, in the interpretation of that, subservient to the often politically motivated decision-making of a foreign tribunal. That is the problem.

The problem with the Human Rights Act is, in essence, summed up in sections 2 and 3. Section 2 makes it clear that, when it comes to interpreting the Act and any of the convention rights, any court in the United Kingdom must take into account not just the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights but even the opinions of the European Commission on Human Rights. Anyone who knows anything about European jurisprudence will know that the commission throws the ball as high as it can in all these cases, yet here we have legislation that says that, in adjudicating in our own courts, we must take into account even the opinions of the activist agenda promoted by the European Commission on Human Rights. Section 3, in similar terms, indicates that all our legislation must be interpreted in a manner compatible with the convention rights. This is the nub of the issue.

Mr Givan put his finger on it when he said that the problem is not the rights: the problem is the aggressive activist agenda of the European Court of Human Rights in interpreting those rights and in forever pushing the boundaries and substituting itself as the lawmaker and implementing in the law that which never would have a mandate from those who are supposed to be the lawmakers. That is the problem. It was rather neatly summed up by a comment from the current British judge on the European Court of Human Rights, a renowned Eurocrat, who said:

"the open textured language and the structure of the Convention leave the Court significant opportunities for choice in interpretation; and in exercising that choice, particularly when faced with changed circumstances and attitudes in society, the Court makes new law."

That is the nub of the issue. New law should be made primarily and in the main by Parliament and by Assemblies, not by the European Court of Human Rights sitting in Strasbourg. It is the pushing of that activist agenda and that judicial activism that are the real problem. That is why the Government, if it is their view, would be right to abandon the structure of the current Human Rights Act in order to liberate the United Kingdom, its Parliament and its courts from the constraints imposed by that judicial activism from Strasbourg. That is why it is right to aspire to re-establishing the sovereignty of the United Kingdom in making and interpreting its own laws. That is what those who oppose the motion aspire to. That is not an irrational position to take, nor is it an anti-human rights position. It is very much compatible with human rights, and that is certainly the position that I take. I find it rather nauseating to be lectured in the debate by some Sinn Féin Members —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is almost up.

Mr Allister: — who piously quoted those remarks. I remind the House that, when the Provos came for the security forces —

Mr Speaker: Thank you. The Member's time is up.

Mr Allister: — they were silent. When they came for the drug dealers, they were silent.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. I call Mr Steven Agnew.

Mr Allister: When they came for the informers, they were silent. Enough said.

Mr Speaker: Mr Agnew, I have one other name on the speaking list. I cannot award you the normal extra minute if you take an intervention.

Mr Agnew: OK. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Tom Elliott gave me the strongest argument to support the motion. When he talked about the origin of the European Convention on Human Rights in the Second World War, he said, "It wasn't us who had a problem. We had human rights. We had rights in Britain. We've a proud tradition of human rights. It was those other countries in Europe that had the problem". What better reason is there to spread the values of Britishness that Mr Elliott is proud of — indeed, I am proud of them as well — across the rest of Europe? The conflict that we saw was because of the lack of common international agreement. We took those values for granted here, but other countries had to be brought to the table. We still see Europe doing it with countries such as Turkey, which is looking to join the EU. There is a requirement to bring it to the table on human rights. What stronger reason can there be for a collectivist agenda for human rights?

The clue is in the name: human rights. They are not British, Irish, German or French rights; they are human rights. They recognise the common values, needs and protections that we all require, regardless of borders or where we happen to have been born. Those are the values that we should protect. They are the reason why we should be proud, at times, to cede some power; in return, there will be collective agreement that no citizen in Europe should live without the most basic protections for humanity.

Mr Givan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: I will give way briefly.

Mr Givan: Is it the protection of the victims who suffer persecution that we are all interested in, or is it the rights of foreign nationals engaged in terrorism or to give prisoners more rights? That is what has been happening through the European courts.

Mr Agnew: In his speech, Mr Givan talked about deportation as if, somehow, that in itself deals with the problem. Of course, that just says, "Well, it's not our problem any more. We can export the problem". It is about having a collectivist approach to work together. If we stand alone, we are lesser. The Little Britain approach espoused by UKIP and being supported by others today actually weakens Britain. It may give us more powers over some of the issues outlined to make the decisions within a UK context, but, on the international stage, we make ourselves irrelevant. We go it alone and stand alone, and we would be the weaker for it.

The irony in some of what is being said is that the repeal of the Human Rights Act would not exclude the UK from the remit of the European Court of Human Rights. The effect would simply be that we could not take such cases in the UK. The irony is that those who seek to repatriate powers would actually be saying, "Our courts will not deal with these cases. Our citizens will have to go to Strasbourg or Europe". They would be given no recourse to justice under human rights law in the UK. In terms of a British —

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: I will not give way. I have only one minute.

The other problem is that the Tories have not outlined which rights they wish to take away from us. This is clearly not about strengthening our rights. There is nothing to stop the UK Government giving their citizens additional rights over and above those given to other citizens in Europe. Will they tell us which rights they wish the people of the UK not to have that their European neighbours have?

Why does Mr Cameron believe that we should have lesser protections than our European neighbours? Why does he feel that such protections should not apply to all our citizens?

For those reasons and for the benefit of humanity, including the people of the United Kingdom, I believe that we must keep the Human Rights Act.


4.30 pm

Mr B McCrea: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate the efforts that you have made to let me speak. I will say at the outset that I spent five years as chair of the Policing Board's human rights and professional standards committee. During that time, I got to look at a number of really interesting issues from a human rights perspective, guided by one Keir Starmer. There were interesting debates, including on the introduction of the taser, which not everybody agreed with, and changes to stop-and-search powers, which not everybody agreed with. I got to understand how the human rights legislation framework works, which is why I am a big advocate for it.

When I listened to the speeches today, one of the issues that disturbed me a little is that human rights terminology has got itself a really bad name, much of it not justified. Look at the number of cases that actually come before the Court of Human Rights. Of the 2,082 complaints against the United Kingdom last year, the court rejected 2,047. It found no violation in 23 and upheld just 12, which is 0·6%.

Mr Givan made what I thought was a most appalling speech. Heaven help us if we ever live in a country where Mr Givan has the say-so about what happens. I actually think that there is no better testimony for why we need a Human Rights Act than what Mr Givan said. Let me deal with the issue that he brought up about prisoners not being allowed to vote. The court did not say that every prisoner should or should not be allowed to vote. What it talked about was proportionality. If you are in prison for only six months, should you be allowed to vote or not? Of course it is different if you are in there for 30 years. In the democratic mandate that he wants to fight it —

Mr Givan: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: No, I will not let you come in because you would not let me in. If you cannot have a debate, do not try to interject. This is a democracy, and I will have my say.

Mr Speaker: I remind you not to point across the Chamber. Address each other with respect. Thank you.

Mr B McCrea: What the court does say though, for example, is that a blanket voting ban on every single prisoner is not consistent with the convention by which Britain is legally bound. Interestingly, that is a view that a parliamentary Joint Committee emphatically endorsed last week when it said:

"The Government has failed to advance a plausible case."

It is when you get down to the nitty-gritty and understand the whole issue of human rights that you get sensible decisions. I really do believe in a separation between the judiciary and the legislators. I think that it is right that you should legislate, but the reason why I oppose mandatory sentences in almost every case that comes through here is that, when you look at individual cases, you see that there is always something else to be taken into consideration. We should support the judiciary. The judiciary should be independent. The judiciary should not be beholden to legislators in the way that Mr Givan thinks that it should be. I have to say that this place will be a much worse place if we get political interference in the courts.

We talk here about whether human rights affect us. They affect all of us. What is the problem with defending the right to life, the right to a private life, the right to free assembly, the right to a fair trial or the right to legal representation? What difference is a British judge going to make to a European judge? Let me conclude by saying that this is not Europe imposing its views on us. This is Britain imposing its values and principles on Europe. It was borne out of the atrocities of the Holocaust; it was borne out of states that do not have our 300 years; it is something that we gave to Europe and the world, and we should support it.

Dr Farry: Today should be an opportunity for the Assembly to unite and, indeed, to send a very strong message to the UK Government. The message is one of particular significance, coming from a devolved Assembly. I suppose that the jury is still out on exactly how the Assembly will vote in a few minutes' time. While we note that the item has been dropped from the Queen's Speech, that there will not be an immediate rush to legislation and that there is a fresh commitment to consult, I do not think that there should be any room for complacency, because the Prime Minister is clear that this is an issue that they intend to address by one means or another during the course of this Parliament. To be ever so slightly optimistic, I think that there may be some appreciation of the complexity of what they are presenting, of the fact that they have not thought through properly what they are committed to, of all the implications that will flow from it, and of the difficulty, as Mr Maginness outlined, of, if you wanted to do so, disentangling yourself from the jurisprudence in case law that has been built up over the intervening 17 years.

There is a number of core themes and, probably, three arguments in relation to the motion. The first is that the repeal of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a so-called British bill of rights is something that is wrong for the UK as a whole. We should be clear in saying that. It will mark a regression on human rights; it will risk clouding the commitment of the UK to the European Convention; and, indeed, it may be part of a slippery slope where the UK attempts to withdraw from the Council of Europe and from the convention itself. We will see a weakening of enforcement mechanisms in relation to the domestic route for human rights, and it may mark a return to the status quo ante that some of us may recall before the Human Rights Act, when people had to go directly to the European Court for redress for their human rights abuses. That process was very lengthy, very costly and, indeed, very selective. I am not sure that that is entirely something that we should be aspiring to as a society.

The Human Rights Act allows the courts to challenge primary legislation and, indeed, to overturn secondary legislation. I do not think that we should see that as a threat in any shape or form. The Act also allows the courts to take into account judgements of the European Court. Again, we should not see that as a threat. It is also worth stressing that the convention and, as a consequence, the Human Rights Act, is a framework of rights. Very few rights, in themselves, are absolutes, and, in most cases where rights are cited, balance and proportionality have to be applied to the situation.

I come from the perspective that rights are natural and universal. Through conventions, we recognise rights and ensure that they can be enforced, but those documents were written at a particular time and in a particular context. Very few people who were around in 1950, when the European Convention was being put together, would have envisaged the range of social, economic and political issues that governments and citizens around the world are confronted with today. The world moves on, and the way in which conventions and, indeed, domestic bills of rights, are interpreted changes as well. That is a perfectly natural process and part of a democratic process.

There is also a danger that we will send a very damaging message around the world and, indeed, to Europe, in particular, especially in the context where, regrettably, human rights continue to be contested and unsecured in some societies.

There is also a very direct implication for Northern Ireland, given our circumstances with continued divisions and the legacy of our troubled past. There are particular commitments in the Good Friday Agreement that we need to be extremely mindful of as an Assembly. We also have to bear in mind the particular implications for the new beginning for policing. I see that the DUP has entirely deserted the Chamber. However, it is worth stressing that the rather silly argument was made that, if we do not have the Human Rights Act, the police will not, all of a sudden, start breaching human rights. Of course, that will not be the case. The important point that has been lost is that the presence of the Human Rights Act and the human rights approach to policing is a very important confidence-building measure in the new beginning. That is the relevance of the point. It is not a comment on the police or, indeed, their intention, if they did not have this safeguard behind them.

It is worth referencing the commitment in the agreement:

"The British Government will complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency."

I am glad that Mr Weir has now joined us. He may dismiss the importance of bill of rights considerations at the time of the Good Friday Agreement itself, but it is important to recall that, over the 20 years prior to the agreement, when people were talking about the potential for a settlement in Northern Ireland, a bill of rights for Northern Ireland or indeed a bill of rights for the UK as a whole was always at the cornerstone of those discussions. It was not a bolt-on at the last minute in the agreement; it was recognised by many parties as being of absolute core importance.

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way on that point?

Mr Weir: I appreciate the point that the Member has made. The contribution that we have made is to say that what is being at least nominally proposed by the Conservative Government, if taken at its height, would actually be a British bill of rights. It is not saying that there should not be any form of rights or that there should not be any human rights protection. It is specifically as regards the incorporation of the European Convention. Indeed, as Mr Allister indicated, the issue is the idea of foreign judges essentially dictating what happens within the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom.

Dr Farry: The Good Friday Agreement itself is very clear on the issue. It is about the European Convention being directly enforceable through local courts and the power to challenge legislation. There is no ambiguity in that regard. There is a separate debate — I recognise that it is entirely separate — on whether we should build on the European Convention through a further Northern Ireland bill of rights. No doubt, we can return to that at another stage, but it is not the direct item for discussion today.

My colleague Stewart Dickson set out the context of the debate and cited important case studies. It is worth putting it again on the record that those were not about situations where human rights were being abused by criminals and terrorists, given the narrative that primarily comes from a certain quarter of the House.

Nelson McCausland got rather tied up in the issue around the CAJ. Without going into too much of that, it is worth putting it on record that, if there was a comment about the inappropriateness of a British bill of rights, it was not, as the Members may seek to suggest, because of an objection to the concept of Britishness; it was a comment about regression away from having a Human Rights Act and enforceable European standards in domestic law. That was the context in which that point was made.

Like others, I was disappointed by the contribution from Tom Elliott, who, very quickly, seems to want to throw his lot in with the Conservative Government. I am also concerned that, given the clear commitments in the agreement, the Ulster Unionist Party now seems to have completely abandoned all the commitments that it made back in 1998. Again, there seemed to have been a bit of confusion between the Human Rights Act and the European Convention itself. I reiterate the point that a number of parties in the Chamber have made great play of citing the European Convention when they are proposing reforms in relation to the contentious issue of parading. When it suits people, when they have a particular political issue to pursue, they are very happy to cite the Human Rights Act and the European Convention.

Let me clarify for Mr McIlveen that the Ashers case that he cited is primarily an issue in relation to domestic equality law. In the context of wider human rights legislation, it was not primarily a human rights case that was taken. Again, he talked about a written constitution: an important element of a written constitution is checks and balances. It is not about pure majoritarianism.

Mr Givan's comments were very disappointing. He talked about courts subverting democracy, entirely missing the point that democracy is not simply about majoritarianism and what happens in legislatures; it is also about the rule of law, human rights and the role of the courts. The courts are part and parcel of democracy. They are not someone outside democracy who comments on what happens; they are an integral part of the democratic process.

Again, I stress to Mr Weir that the legacy in terms of discussions around bills of rights and how central they have been to the political discourse in Northern Ireland goes back, I think, to Sheila Murnaghan, who first introduced the issue into the predecessor of this Assembly in the 1960s. The issue has been well discussed for over 50 years. We need to be careful in throwing out that issue.

Finally, I come to the comments made by Mr Allister, which were essentially about putting national sovereignty first. Mr Agnew adequately addressed those points when he said that this is about a wider international and European context. We should be a beacon for the rest of the world and set extremely high standards. We all benefit from those high common standards being applied across the piece.


4.45 pm

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises the vital importance that the Human Rights Act 1998 plays in the lives of citizens of the United Kingdom; further recognises the importance of this Act to the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution of policing and justice powers; and rejects any attempts by the Conservative Government to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998.

Adjourned at 4.56 pm.

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