In light of the public health situation, Parliament Buildings is closed to the public. No public tours, events or visitor activities will take place, until further notice. 

However, Assembly business continues. Check the business diary for Plenary and Committee meetings.

Official Report: Monday 08 June 2015


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

Assembly Business

Resignation: Mr Brady

Mr Speaker: Before we begin today's business, I advise the House that I have received a letter from Mr Mickey Brady giving me notice of his intention to resign as a Member for the Newry and Armagh constituency with effect from Wednesday 3 June. I have notified the Chief Electoral Officer in accordance with section 35 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

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

Mr Speaker: Mr Dominic Bradley has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member has up to three minutes to speak.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm an achainí seo a chur faoi bhráid an Tionóil. Thanks very much, Mr Speaker. I am delighted to be able to present the petition to the Assembly on behalf of the Firs Playgroup in Armagh.

The petition has over 2,000 names. The reduction in funding of the early years programme has animated the community right across Northern Ireland. As you know, preschool education is the foundation stone of the future education of the individual. We know from the work of James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics, that investment in early years education is an investment that bears fruit not only financially, with each pound invested in it saving the Government almost £20 further in the person's life, but, of course, in that it develops the child in so many ways and is certainly an intervention that is well worth the investment.

This particular programme has benefited 153 communities and created 177 jobs. It supports 2,500 early years places and has helped 620 children with special educational needs and 250 children whose first language is not English. The 2,500 places — 1,600 of which are in the funded preschool sector, with 900 places for younger children in a variety of settings — have been supported by the Department of Education fund.

The 1,600 places are vulnerable because the settings have small numbers of funded preschool places yet require at least two members of staff. If the staff who are paid for out of the Department of Education fund are lost, those settings will simply not be able to survive. There are no other sources of funding for the 177 staff who are supported by the Department of Education fund. The figures are not alarmist, as some have suggested, nor are they inaccurate. They are factually correct. That is why the groups have been funded up until now.

Thank you very much for the opportunity, Mr Speaker. I look forward to a positive outcome.

Mr Speaker: Can you bring up the petition? I am waiting with great expectation. [Laughter.]

Mr D Bradley moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.

Mr Speaker: I will forward the petition to the Minister of Education and send a copy to the Committee for Education.

Executive Committee Business

Mental Capacity Bill: First Stage

Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): I beg to introduce the Mental Capacity Bill [NIA 49/11-16], which is a Bill to make new provision relating to persons who lack capacity; to make provision about the powers of criminal courts in respect of persons with disorder; to disapply Part 2 of the Mental Health (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 in relation to persons aged 16 or over and make other amendments of that order; to make provision in connection with the Convention on the International Protection of Adults signed at the Hague on 13 January 2000; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill: First Stage

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): I beg to introduce the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill [NIA 50/11-16], which is a Bill to make provision for the establishment of the office of the Legal Services Oversight Commissioner for Northern Ireland; to make provision as regards complaints against members of the legal profession in Northern Ireland; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: I call the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to move the Further Consideration Stage of 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 selected, so there is no opportunity to discuss the Ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints (Amendment) Bill today. Members will, of course, be able to have a full debate at Final Stage. Further Consideration Stage is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

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 Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

That this Assembly condemns the disproportionate reduction of the Disability Action and community transport budgets; notes the very negative impact the severe reduction of departmental budgets is having on people with disabilities and the most vulnerable and isolated people in our society; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to urgently reinstate this essential funding.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate today. Like most in the House, I entered politics out of a desire to bring good to my community, to help my community and to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. I never expected that, one day, I would witness the most savage, the most callous and the most unjustifiable attack on the most vulnerable, the most isolated and the most exposed in our society. Unfortunately, I am witnessing an attack on the most vulnerable and isolated members of our community as a result of the unjustifiable and draconian cuts to Disability Action and rural community transport budgets. The cuts being brought about by the Minister for Regional Development and his departmental officials will reduce operating budgets by up to one third and will mean higher costs for passengers, a reduction in services and increased isolation.

We must not underestimate the importance of the Disability Action transport scheme (DATS) and the services provided through the rural community transport partnerships. In many instances, they offer the only transport options when an individual or group cannot use or access public or private transport. We should not make the mistake of thinking that those services are used solely by our senior citizens; our younger population is also heavily reliant on them, whether it is a school, a youth club, a scout group or a football team.

Our young, particularly those in isolated areas, need those services to access education, work and social requirements. This is ever-increasingly more relevant due to the Minister and his Department's abandonment of the public service obligations as they allow Translink to cherry-pick the profitable routes as it casts asunder rural and less-profitable routes, which enhances the isolation that many people experience. Even in cases where public transport is comprehensive, such as in urban areas, challenges still exist for service users. Many community transport service users do so because they are unable to use public transport due to the distance from public transport pickup sites, physical or mental disability, the need for specialist transport or support, or the cost of commercial public or private transport. In those cases, community transport and DATS services are often the only viable solution.

The Committee has taken evidence from community transport and Disability Action in recent weeks on the matter. We also afforded the Department the opportunity to justify its case. No doubt we will hear the same from the Minister later in the debate. We will hear, for example, about the pressures that his Department is facing because of budgetary restrictions and about how he is £60 million worse off than last year. He may also state that cuts to services amount to only 20% to 25%. The reality, of course, is that the Department's baseline reduction amounts to £3 million from last year. The reality also is that his Department has the fourth-highest budget allocation and that one third or more of the community transport budgets have been stolen from the most isolated and vulnerable people.

I acknowledge that the Minister has indicated that he intends to bid for £1·5 million to replace the funds that he and his officials have robbed from the most vulnerable and isolated citizens. However, he has allocated that not as a high priority but in his normal wish list of bids. There is an irony that, while he includes the replacement of those funds almost as an afterthought, he is seeking some £9 million in capital bids to support Translink. Whilst he and his officials have continually defended Translink's amalgamation of massive reserves, his officials are miscalculating the level of reserves held by some community transport providers; they have advised them, against the advice of the Department of Finance and Personnel, to use their limited resources, which puts their services further in jeopardy. To those who are disabled, are socially or geographically isolated, or those who cannot afford public transport, the services provided by those partnerships and organisations are often their lifeline to the wider world.

Without these services, users have little or no access to the health, education, work, social and leisure opportunities that many in the House take for granted. This increases the feeling of isolation. Indeed, the likes of the DATS group, which has had its entire budget removed, is in itself an opportunity for social interaction. In many circumstances, the services being provided are the difference between living independently and living in a residential care home.


12.15 pm

The decision to cut these budgets so severely is a bad one. As you will no doubt hear during the debate, Committee members continue to be critical of the absence of negotiation, the lack of visibility of the level of reductions and the subsequent attempts by officials to try to paint the reductions in a better light. Members of the Committee were unanimous in wanting to bring the motion to the House, we were unanimous in our condemnation of these cuts being brought to bear in the first instance, and we were unanimous in wanting them to be reversed. Simply including a bid in a wish list is not enough. The Minister needs to make these moneys a priority. It is time for him to make a good decision and put the needs of the most vulnerable and isolated to the fore. It is time that he delivered against his stated objective of providing transport services designed to give people with disabilities and those living in rural areas improved access to work, education, healthcare, shopping and recreational activities and, by so doing, reduce their social isolation.

Having spoken as the Chair of the Committee, I want to add some personal remarks as a member of my grouping. During briefings that we had from some of those groups, it was clear that their interaction with the Minister's officials was poor, if not abysmal. The officials left it until the last moment before giving them any indication of their budget. It strikes me that some in his Department have made it very difficult for those groups to survive or to organise their finances.

As I said in my earlier remarks, officials talked about the groups' high reserves. We learned in the past about Translink's high reserves, but they never decided to rob Translink of its reserves. We have groups here who lost one third. In my comments as Chair, I referred to the DATS organisation, which provides a service to people who have severe disabilities and require specialist driving assessments. Its entire budget was removed. It is an awful indictment of the Minister and his officials that they removed that from such vulnerable people. The entire budget line of transport groups linked to that organisation was also removed. Despite the Minister receiving such a small cut to his £344 million budget, he has decided to attack the most isolated and the most vulnerable — the people who deserve support the most.

Translink provides an excellent service in many urban towns and villages. However, the DATS service is a lifeline to people in the most rural, isolated and vulnerable areas. Since the decision to slash its budget, many old and vulnerable people in my constituency have contacted our office about the difficulty that they now have because of cuts to the services and changes that the service providers are having to make because of those cuts. We will hear others from the Minister's party jump to his defence, but the Minister did not lose one third of his budget. He did not lose 1% of his budget. However, the Minister has decided to attack the most vulnerable and take one third off them.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion. I find it very difficult to disagree within anything that the Chair of the Regional Development Committee said. I note with concern the "disproportionate" — that is the word in the motion and is certainly the most active — cuts, particularly of the Disability Action and community transport budgets.

I commend the work of Community Transport Network NI, which is a network of 10 community transport providers that lobby for community transport on a not-for-profit basis. The aim is to reduce social and rural isolation and provide safe, affordable and accessible transport for some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. In my local area, which is covered by North Coast Community Transport, some 60,000 trips covering more than one million miles were made last year.

That is the equivalent of more than 40 times around the world. Further afield, across the 10 partnership members of the network, some 243,967 trips were carried out at an average cost of £14·20 and a distance of 13·4 miles. I think that the real benefit of community transport is that for every pound invested in rural community transport partnerships, £12 of social value is created. I think everyone will see the value of that across the board.

The historical levels of funding into community transport, particularly from 2010-15, have been around £3·5 million per annum, with a core grant of £2·75 million. Now, in effect, that money will be cut by some 33% on average, and, in some cases, that may go as far as 40%. I know that it is somewhat less in other cases.

I pay tribute to the Community Transport Association, particularly people like Kellie Armstrong and Ian Wilson who have lobbied, extensively, the Committee for Regional Development and members thereof on behalf of the CTA. As recently as last week, I was in touch with Disability Action and, indeed, met up with Mencap to discuss the severe effect that these cuts will have on their members, particularly in respect of transport.

In my own area, we have Billy Moore from North Coast Community Transport. I have also touched base with Anita Flanagan from the Fermanagh trust and Paddy McEldowney from Easilink. Since most of the members of the Committee for Regional Development are rural-based, we are aware of many of the volunteer drivers who carry out such essential work, and, because some of us have a background in community development — indeed, I am the chair of the all-party group on the community and voluntary sector — we realise the importance that the sector has for us. We also realise the —

Mr Speaker: Time is almost up.

Mr Ó hOisín: Thank you, Chair. We also recognise the —

Mr Speaker: Sorry, my fault.

Mr Ó hOisín: OK. I think I am all right.

Mr Speaker: We really are interested in what you are saying.

Mr Ó hOisín: Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.

We also recognise the issues around transport poverty and isolation, and the effect they have on health issues. This is an example of something that has tied our community together. It has never been more important, given the reduction in the provision of public transport across the board. I can think of a local example whereby the only public transport to the local hospital, which might be only 15 miles away, involves taking the bus to the local village, if it is available, but may not be for the time it is required; taking a further bus, which, ironically, drives past the hospital; and taking a further service bus to the hospital. In real terms, six bus trips are required. It requires some logistics to tie that together if you make an appointment in the hospital. That also applies in the Causeway Hospital on the north coast.

A pilot scheme that is taking place in Dungannon was mentioned. I have yet to see the results or the benefits of that, but I will keep an open mind on it. The reductions in the Translink service have been acknowledged, and I acknowledge the bid for £1·5 million that the Minister has made to mitigate some of these cuts, but the bottom line is that that is disproportionate to the £9 million that is earmarked for Translink and the huge reserves held by that organisation, in comparison with the minuscule reserves that are held by those involved in community transport.

I have no issue about supporting the motion, and I am glad that it has been brought to the House. I hope that it gives some comfort to the community transport providers and volunteers who provide an essential service, particularly in rural areas.

Mr Speaker: I am sorry about the interruption in your presentation.

Mr Ó hOisín: It is all right.

Mr Dallat: Mr Speaker, 17 years ago, I left a secure teaching job to pursue the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly on the principle of equality, because I realised that equality was not simply between Protestants and Catholics, but between everyone. When I heard of the cuts affecting Disability Action, I was emotionally upset. Members may remember that, many years ago, one of the first people to arrive from eastern Europe as a migrant worker lost her lower limbs in a tragic accident. She became a friend, and is still a friend, of the family. I pay tribute to Disability Action, which was involved in that girl's learning to drive, resuming her life and continuing a very normal way of being.

I believe it was a bad mistake to target Disability Action and the other group. I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not have a party-political thought in my head as I speak. This is about people who I took a decision to represent in public life. Forget about party labels or the election that might be coming up next year or perhaps even sooner.

The cuts were announced in mid-March. They are implemented from 1 April. Disability Action expected to receive some kind of cutback but not such a ferocious one. Disability Action is represented right across Northern Ireland, and it simply cannot sustain the type of cut that was imposed on it and, at the same time, provide the essential service that it does. I am sorry that Coleraine is one of the areas that will no longer be able to provide the driving lessons that I mentioned earlier for people with a disability.

Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for giving way. He talks about how we were expecting cuts. I am sure that the Member will also remember the presentation from representatives of the community transport sector, who said that they had asked for approximately 10% less but were actually going to provide more runs. So they voluntarily suggested a cut, but obviously the cut went much further.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Dallat: Thank you, Mr Speaker. That leads me to my next point. Members may know that I am the longest-serving member of the Public Accounts Committee and I do not take prisoners easily. No group is more scrutinised than the 11 community transport groups. They are not answerable a few years after the event; they must make returns on a monthly basis, so there is no reason why the Department would not know that those groups represent good value for money. Again, like Disability Action, they provide an essential service. That was a bad mistake, and, as the Chairman and other members know, during our inquiry we discovered that there is some remote group within the Department, which probably has no contact with the outside world, that brought forward these arbitrary figures.

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

I am hopeful and I believe that the Minister, being the decent person that he is, will restore the money that went missing for Disability Action and the community transport groups. I believe that it is the only honourable way to address this problem, and, while we may have this debate, at the end of the day, I plead with the Minister: please put right those issues on which, I believe, some officials within your Department have totally misdirected you.

At the outset, I said that it is critical that, whatever our political problems, we do not forget the first principle of that agreement that was signed 17 years ago. The principle of that was to provide equality across the board. I cannot think of any more deserving groups than those that depend on Disability Action and community transport to provide them with a level of mobility to which, I believe, they are entitled. It would be a shame and disgrace if the Assembly were to go down in history as having taken away the meagre resources that those groups have to give people a reasonable chance of staying in communication with the outside world, visiting their doctors, dentists, physicians and attending hospital appointments — all the things that those organisations provide.

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

Mr Dallat: Yes, I will indeed. I conclude by placing my trust in the Minister, somehow, and in the Executive, because they play a critical role in this. Please provide the money for those groups.


12.30 pm

Mr Beggs: It is important to recognise and pay tribute to the community transport system, which benefits many community groups. In my area, I used to be involved with Larne Youth, which provided a vital minibus service to young people, and I would like to acknowledge that from the start. Community transport provides a vital service to many vulnerable and disadvantaged people, as well as to young people. That has to be recognised.

I have not yet heard during the debate what suggestions the Committee has. I have heard criticism of Translink's review of its bus services and I heard the Chairman say that it is looking at its least profitable routes, but what is his suggestion? I have not heard alternative suggestions.

It is important that we attempt to protect front-line services and, in particular, protect the most vulnerable and isolated in our community. Let us also remember we are talking about the budgets before the impasse of welfare reform hit us. That is still hanging over all of this. It is also important that we plan our budgets well ahead in Northern Ireland. There has been very poor long-term planning by the Finance Minister and the Executive collectively. I understand that the Finance Minister knew the draft Budget allocation for this financial year in July 2013, so why, in June 2015, have the Executive still not put a funding package in place, with the finance behind it, to fund a voluntary redundancy scheme to reduce the number of civil servants? That, in turn, would take pressure off other organisations where, unfortunately and regrettably, cuts have been imposed. Without those options, what alternatives are there? I put that back to the Committee members. Perhaps those of you who have yet to speak and the Chairman can suggest alternatives later in the debate.

When I looked at the feedback on the draft budget, I noticed that the Committee commented largely on the capital reductions. That does not solve the problem of the day-to-day running costs faced by the Department. I notice that it welcomed the Minister's requirement for Translink to draw on its resources. I want to know what resources are held by the community transport organisations. Are they too high? I do not know. Does the Department require some of them to be drawn on? When I was a local councillor, it was recommended that, at each budget, you should have 10% of your annual turnover in reserve for unforeseen matters and day-to-day running costs. What is the advice on a reserve for community transport? This is public money, and it should be used for its purposes, not sit in a bank account. I hope that that will alleviate some of the apparent reductions that might occur but I have to acknowledge that, with a reduced budget, there will unfortunately have to be reductions. Again, I am looking for someone to suggest alternatives in the day-to-day running costs in the Department. Where does the money come from? I hope that members of the Committee will support bids for additional funding.

Mr Dallat: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: Yes, I will.

Mr Dallat: I have listened very carefully to the Member and I respect what he says, but does he agree with us that, when speaking about alternatives or cuts, we should not attack the most vulnerable people in society? They do not have a choice or an alternative, and they depend on community transport for mobility.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Beggs: I agree that that should be avoided as much as possible, but I also note that the Committee were critical of the fare increases by Translink. Those will affect many people who are not entitled to free transport and may well be working, yet the Committee criticised the increases. Where does the Committee want the money to be funded from?

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: I want to continue.

I will move into a more constructive mode. I noticed in the Committee's report into bus transport in 2013 that there was a suggestion that all Departments should work together to make better use of money collectively and that we should look to how Scotland had introduced working across Departments. That has failed to happen here. With community planning coming forward, local councils could play a key role in working with all the Departments to make better use of our limited money for public transport. It is vital that we look at something new, and I hope that the Committee can drive that issue forward to protect local communities and ensure that more money goes to community transport. I genuinely believe that they can bring about advantages rather than continuing with the duplication of services that exists, but we need that drive to go forward and individual Departments not to work in individual silos. Who will take that forward? I understand that there have been a couple of pilot schemes, but I would welcome any update on that subject. Has the Committee had any further feedback since the report in 2013? Can the Minister say anything more about it?

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

Mr Beggs: If I were in local government today, I would be looking at community planning and the needs of the community and trying to put ideas together to get all the departmental money to lead to better outputs for our local communities.

Mr Lyttle: I rise to support the motion and to add my voice to the serious concerns about the disproportionate reduction of the Disability Action and community transport budgets and, indeed, express concern about the impact that it will have on people with disabilities, older people, vulnerable people and those isolated in our society. I add my voice to the call on the Minister for Regional Development to redress that funding issue. Indeed, I believe that he has made bids in June monitoring that may permit him to do that, and I look forward to hearing more about that from him today.

Let us consider the policy and legislative context of the issue. The Department for Regional Development is responsible for implementing the transport programme for people with disabilities. It is also responsible for the implementation of the accessible transport strategy from 2005, the vision for which states:

"To have an accessible transport system that enables older people and people with disabilities to participate more fully in society, enjoy greater independence and experience a better quality of life."

DRD can also, in accordance with the Transport (Northern Ireland) Act 2011, provide grant funding to bodies that provide transport services that are wholly or mainly for the benefit of members of the public who have a disability, are elderly or live in rural areas.

Indeed, in 2014-15, the total funding allocated to support community and disability transport services after in-year allocations totalled £7·45 million. However, the starting budget for 2015-16 totals only £4·99 million, which represents a reduction of 33%. That reduction will impact on rural community transport partnerships and on Disability Action's disability transport scheme, which will experience a reduction of 21%. The group service will be a 100% cut and the mobility centre will be a 100% cut as well. Those are the most startling facts about the issue.

The Disability Action transport scheme is a service for people with disabilities or for those who find it difficult to use mainstream public transport. Services provided are targeted at those over 80 and those who are registered blind and/or in receipt of either the mobility or care component of disability living allowance, which is a vital service in our community. It has been provided across Northern Ireland by Disability Action in partnership with community transport organisations. Disability Action had, of course, anticipated a reduction in funding but not to the level that we are talking about and not with the timescale that was given to address those reductions.

What will the impact be on services? I asked the Minister, in a question for written answer, for a rationale for the reduction in those services. In his response, he said that he believed that with "continued efficiencies", it would be possible to "minimise the impact on service users."

That, I am afraid, is simply not the case. In the Committee, we are hearing of fare increases from £1·50 to £2·30 per trip and of reduced hours of service. Currently, the service runs from 7.30 am to 11.30 pm Monday to Saturday and from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm on Sunday. Unfortunately, the proposed reductions are to 8.00 am to 8.00 pm Monday to Friday and 9.00 am to 5.00 pm on Saturday and Sunday. A 5% reduction —

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: Yes, I will give way.

Mr Beggs: What suggestion do you have for the Minister to live within his means for the Budget you approved?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for his intervention. He is inaccurate. Alliance Party Executive Ministers voted against the Budget and expressed concerns in relation to it. I will come to his question later in my contribution, but what we are detailing here is a disproportionate reduction to services for older people and people with a disability in our community, which, ultimately, will affect the mobility and independence of the people who need that most.

The mobility centre is providing a vital service as well. It is delivering driving assessments for people with disabilities to ensure they are able to gain adaptations to drive safely; driving lessons in specially adapted cars; driving theory courses, and essential information and advice for older people and people with a disability. It has experienced a 100% cut in funding from DRD. My understanding is that, in Wales for example, the comparable mobility centre is receiving in the region of £280,000 per year funding and is delivering a similar level of service. So, we want to hear from the Minister about how he is going to address that. Unfortunately, the reduction to the mobility centre also means that we will have a decrease from eight centres across Northern Ireland to only three.

We need to take into consideration the impact of delays and intransigence from Sinn Féin, SDLP and the Greens on welfare reform, but the Minister must also show leadership in considering other issues in his Department. He has shown little leadership to consider —

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

Mr Lyttle: — potential changes to water pricing, which takes up £300 million of the Budget every year. I think it is time that we recognise the impact of these decisions on the most vulnerable in our community, and I look forward to hearing from him today.

Mr Easton: It is quite shocking to see, as part of the Minister for Regional Development's efforts to reduce the DRD budget, the disproportionate cuts to the Disability Action and rural community transport budgets. In 2014-15, the budget given to those organisations and groups was £7·15 million. This year, it has been set at £4·99 million, which is a massive reduction of £2·1 million. It is an overall reduction of 30%, which, compared to other areas where there are reductions in funding, is quite extraordinary and disturbing.

The rural community partnerships help to deliver services in rural communities that allow people living in those communities the chance to have much-needed transport. The partnership delivers 243,000 trips across Northern Ireland, with an average of 13·4 miles per trip. For every one pound invested in rural community transport, £12 of social value is created.

This overall 30% reduction is quite disturbing in itself, but when we look, in particular, at the community transport networks and the 11 rural transport providers, we see a huge discrepancy in how much is being taken from each provider. This will need to be explained, and, hopefully, the Minister will be able to do that for me at some stage. For example, when we look at the cuts to each of the providers of rural transport, those seem to be based on the reserves of each organisation and the cost per trip. Hopefully, that can be explained for me.

While it would be wrong to say that they should not have to dip into some of their reserves, I have to question the logic of that, based on the extreme differences between each organisation's reduction in funding. Hopefully, the Minister will explain that. There seems to be a difference for each organisation. Why are some being cut more than others? Surely, they should all be treated equally.

Also, in a Committee evidence session, a question was asked about rural-proofing the budget, and there does not seem to have been any of that. Maybe the Minister could explain that for me as well.


12.45 pm

I note that many of the networks have written to the Minister presenting information on historical inequalities relating to how grants have been apportioned to the partnerships and have drawn his attention to partnership performance. Based on that information, can the Minister comment on the comments raised and the request that future allocations from the rural transport fund (RTF) be based on the average cost per trip across Northern Ireland, which stands at approximately £14? That appears to ensure fairness in grant allocations. I see that at least eight of the providers are asking the Minister for that.

I also see from a letter from Fermanagh Community Transport dated 26 May that it is querying where the Department is getting the figures for its reserves. The Department claimed that its reserves were an increase of 190%, but it turns out that that is really 24·5%. Is the Department getting its figures wrong in its assessment on reserves, and, if so, do we need to look again at those figures and the data that the Department is using and make sure that the figures are correct?

If we look at the impact of the excessive cuts, we see that there will have to be a reduction in the mobility centres from eight to three, with 10 jobs being lost by staff employed by Disability Action. DATS will see a reduction in its budget of £631,000, a reduction of 21%, which is quite huge. There is a reduction of 100% for group services and 100% reduction in mobility centres. That will lead to higher costs for groups using private-sector suppliers, a lack of accessibility transport options and more social isolation. The impact on the mobility centres will be that lessons for drivers will no longer be provided from the person's home. Customers will have to travel to one of the three remaining offices. That could be a round trip of 60 miles for some people. The cost of a driving lesson will increase from £25 to £35.

I certainly do not envy the Minister's task in resolving this. However, it is not fair on the people of Northern Ireland when we see the games being played by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Green Party over the Stormont House Agreement, which might have helped our budgets. I believe, however, that other savings can be found; and example of that is the 40 company cars provided for senior management in Translink —

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

Mr Easton: — and the nine company cars for Northern Ireland Railways senior management. I do not believe that we should be providing those services, and that is where money can be found.

Mr Moutray: I support the motion. Disability Action and the range of rural community transport partnerships that exist in Northern Ireland provide a vital service to many people. That can be partly highlighted by the fact that 4,500 people regularly use the services of rural community transport partnerships. Moreover, recent figures released by the Department highlighted that, in 2014-15, the partnership network delivered almost 240,000 trips right across Northern Ireland. The services provided by Disability Action and by community transport play a pivotal role in society today. Those groups enable people to live independently, to play an active role in their local community and to access vital services such as education, employment and healthcare.

Mr Anderson: I thank the Member for giving way. I am sure that, like me, the Member has had many complaints from concerned parents regarding cutbacks and reduced budgets for people with disabilities. Does the Member agree that any cutbacks in that area will seriously affect those most vulnerable people, especially those living in our rural areas — like you, I represent a big rural area — where transport is much in need? Cuts of this nature —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind the Member that interventions should be short.

Mr Anderson: — are causing further distress for those families, and they need more, not less, help at this time.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Moutray: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, although I think that most of it has been used up by now. I thank my colleague for his intervention, lengthy though it was.

There is now widespread anger and hurt in the community, which is felt by many, due to the severe reductions to those services in the year ahead. The grant available to partnerships to provide Dial a Lift services in rural areas has decreased in real terms by £1·4 million — from £3·6 million to £2·4 million — for 2015-16. In real terms, therefore, partnerships have endured a substantial reduction of 33% in the grant funding available to them to deliver these services for the year beginning 1 April 2015 compared with the funding that was available to them. My colleagues and I are also concerned at the disproportionate way those cuts have been implemented, with cutbacks ranging from a 25% reduction in funding for transport partnerships to a 40% reduction for others.

Furthermore, the Disability Action transport scheme has witnessed its funding being slashed by over £630,000, or 21%, by the Department for the year ahead. Consequently, Disability Action has been forced to increase fares and has had to decrease the hours that transport services are available. It is unfortunate that that may lead to increased isolation, particularly in rural communities.

It is a major concern that, because of the harsh cuts to Disability Action's funding, many disabled people across Northern Ireland may now have to face a situation where their personal mobility is greatly reduced, as well as their ability to lead independent lives. That is distressing not only for individuals concerned but for their families and friends.

In my constituency, the Down and Armagh Rural Transport (DART) partnership is facing a 28% reduction in the funding that it receives. I am particularly concerned about that development, because I know the work that DART does in our constituency under Mr Ian Wilson. Lives are going to be impacted by the cuts in the Craigavon and Banbridge area.

I feel that the Department should be seeking to invest in support for the community sector, not seeking to reduce its services, particularly when community transport will plug the gaps made by the withdrawal of some Translink bus routes from rural towns and villages across the country. Moreover, public transport is not a viable option for many elderly and disabled people who avail themselves of these services because the bus stop is too much of a distance to walk and the public transport that is available does not then meet their mobility requirements.

I understand that the Department's budget is under significant pressures for 2015-16, but the way the Minister has allocated his budget has, in my opinion, impacted harshly on vulnerable communities and individuals who cannot afford to be impacted in such a way. It is imperative that the Minister seriously reconsider as a matter of urgency the funding that his Department provides to Disability Action and the community transport network across Northern Ireland.

Mr Byrne: I also support the motion brought forward by the Committee. I think it is fair to say that Members have been very heavily lobbied by people in the community transport sector and Disability Action about the severity of the cuts.

In West Tyrone, as Members know, we have a significant rural constituency, meaning that many people there have historically faced social isolation and a dearth of public services. For the elderly and disabled people who live in rural areas such as Beragh or Trillick, a simple run to the shops or the bank is no easy task, and it is groups such as community transport and Disability Action that have been vital in granting people a better standard of living by providing them with a flexible transport service, often to attend a GP or hospital appointment.

As other Members said, Disability Action is facing funding reductions of over £880,000 this year. Its group service and mobility service centres are facing 100% reductions in their budgets, and the Disability Action transport scheme is receiving a cut of 21%, which is £631,000. Those reductions will seriously impact the lives of disabled people in Northern Ireland in personal mobility and independent living.

In West Tyrone, we have a community transport company called Easilink, which provides the door-to-door service for Disability Action. That community transport company uses many volunteer drivers and some paid drivers, who get reasonable rates of pay. People are therefore saying, "Why is there such a disproportionate cut in community transport and Disability Action? It seems unfair and discriminatory". In the current year, the budget proposal is to cut the community transport funding by around 33%. That is hard to explain or accept.

I think that departmental officials have been less than sensitive and less than caring, given the severity of the cuts to those particular interest groups, particularly the elderly and the disabled.

Ultimately, it is groups such as Community Transport Association (CTA) and Disability Action that seek to provide practical transport solutions to vulnerable people in Northern Ireland. They should be supported in such endeavours instead of being severely cut, as is the current proposal. I hope that, in the monitoring round, the Minister will get the support of colleagues to try to make sure that adequate funds are again put into the community transport sector and the disability sector, because of the sense of hurt and anxiety that there is among people involved in the CTA and Disability Action. The 11 community partnerships provide a local, flexible and reliable service in many areas for people across the North. I pay tribute to Mr Paddy McEldowney, the manager of Easilink, which covers the Derry, Strabane and Omagh districts. He and his committee have done excellent work for many years. The Assembly needs to demonstrate genuine concern for those who are disadvantaged and who need that vital service.

Mr Swann: In the Chairman of the Committee's opening comments, I think that he referred to how Members from this party would be jumping up and down to defend the Minister. I can assure the Chairman that the Minister is well able to do that himself, and I am sure that he will in his summing-up.

While I am fully supportive of the work that community transport does, including that of a number of community transport organisations that I have worked with that provide a vital service in north Antrim and the surrounding areas, I am bit a bit disappointed in the motion. On 18 May, a motion on funding cuts to the community and voluntary sector that Roy Beggs and I had tabled was debated, and the House passed it unanimously. The motion called on the Executive to take a collective approach and give a collective response to the cuts that may be made across the board, and some of the arguments have been remade today: that the approach should be coordinated, that the Departments should not work in silos and that Department officials should be working together better. Our motion called on the Executive:

" to act in a coordinated manner to ensure that the sector and its organisations receive the required level of support and funding allocations." — [Official Report, Vol 104, No 7, p3, col 2].

In that debate, we made it clear that the motion was not tabled as a party political point-scoring motion, and I think that that was accepted by all Members on the day. The Minister for Social Development, Mervyn Storey, a man whom I have respect for and his ministerial portfolio, finished up by saying:

"Let me move on to the discussions with the First Minister and deputy First Minister. After recent discussions with voluntary and community representatives, I wrote to OFMDFM to offer my Department's assistance to the overview being undertaken by OFMDFM junior Ministers on budget decisions across Departments." — [Official Report, Vol 104, No 7, p18, col 1].

That was directly an action to the voluntary and community sector. I wrote to the Minister for Social Development for an update, and the latest letter that I got back from him was on 29 May. Mr Storey's response was:

"I still await a response to my recent correspondence to the First and deputy First Ministers, where I offered my assistance and that of my Department to the overview being taken by OFMDFM junior Ministers on the budget decisions across Departments."

That was directly linked to community and voluntary organisations.

Our debate on 18 May was very clearly about a collective and coordinated response from the House and its Ministers to the voluntary and community sector. I did not expect the debate to be followed by what can possibly be described as party political — I will not say "point-scoring", because I do not want to go down that route.

Mr Dallat: Will the Member give way?

Mr Swann: I will.

Mr Dallat: To clear the Member's mind of any thought that the motion on disability and community transport was party political, I say to him it was not, because it was my suggestion that that particular motion should come to the House before the motion down for tomorrow. It was not party political, and I have made it perfectly clear today that my contribution is not party political. However, people who are affected will not give one hoot whether it is the Social Development Minister, the Regional Development Minister, the Executive or the Assembly as a whole. We have not lived up to the principles of equality.


1.00 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind the Member that, when he asks to make an intervention, it should be short.

The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Swann: I did not mind that intervention from Mr Dallat because he inferred that this should be the responsibility of the Executive. I took him as being genuine in that.

I referred to political opportunities that could have been taken. We go round the House and talk about how Ministers are not considering the vulnerable in our society. I could go round every party — Sinn Féin and its removal of early years budgets; the SDLP's removal of environmental organisations' budgets; the Alliance Party and the removal of support from NIACRO and the Pathways to Success education maintenance allowance (EMA); the DUP and the closure of care homes such as the Roddens, Pinewood and a number across Northern Ireland — and we could point and wag our fingers at each other. The Members in the corner, who are not Executive members, could say to get out of the Executive and do something. We must take responsibility. That is what we sought from Members of the House with our motion on 18 May: a collective response for the voluntary and community sector.

A concordat was signed by the Executive and the voluntary and community sector. We all have a responsibility to support that and to hold it up, because it is those people who are vulnerable and needy in our society. As the Chairman rightly said in his opening remarks, he was elected here to give those people a voice. That is why I came here. We need to look for a collective response rather than a motion here and a motion there. Let us get this sorted out and do it right. That is why I appeal to the Members who have some sway in OFMDFM. The Social Development Minister made a genuine offer to take a coordinated response to that. They should move on with it and accept it. Let us get something done that can support the people whom we are talking about today.

Mr Allister: I have some sympathy for the Minister, although I might temper that a little later in my remarks. [Laughter.]

This is a Minister who, as I see it, is trying to live within his means in a context in which the overseeing Finance Minister is about to take us down the road of fantasy budgets. This is a Minister who conscientiously seems to think that he should at least strive not to indulge in fantasy but to be tempered by reality, never mind the fact that the rest of the Executive are quite happy to embrace the politics of the phantom and the fantasy, so I have some sympathy with him.

I also have sympathy with him on another score. This is a Minister who plays the game financially and, when it comes to monitoring rounds, gives up money that the Department has, in contrast to the Education Minister. I stand to be corrected, but I do not think that the Education Department has ever surrendered money in a monitoring round. So a Minister who makes efforts to do what is supposed to be the right thing is vilified — more so tomorrow, it would seem. In that context, I have some sympathy with him.

I have to say, however, that I have more sympathy with some of my constituents. During the recent election, I was canvassing in Cloughmills. I met an elderly lady who was returning to her home, clearly very tired, and carrying two heavy shopping bags. She explained that she had had to walk a mile and a half from Logans into Cloughmills, because the community transport service had been removed. She said that the last Translink bus that morning was at 9.00 am, and the next one was at 4.00 pm, so there was not a proper public transport facility.

She said that taxis were beyond her means, and she was, therefore, faced with having to walk a mile and a half out to Logans to catch the passing bus and a mile and a half back. In 2015, that is not good enough. That is the real consequence of cuts to some of these community services. Whatever our political persuasion, this should exercise us all. The Minister, whatever the moral and financial compunction that he, unlike others, feels to live within his means, needs to do so in such a way as to minimise the impact on, in the words of the motion, the disabled and elderly — those who can least afford to bear the burden of losing services that someone sitting in an office might think are not needed. "We can do without that. Look at the money we would save", they say, with little or any thought for the consequences. Responsible, compassionate government needs to address those issues. As the Minister has discovered, not for the first time, he will get no thanks from his party political rivals in the Executive for playing the political game of being in the Executive.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member explain why he feels that a Minister who is at risk of spending beyond his budgetary control limits is playing the correct financial game?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Allister: It seems that, next week, if some people have their way, a fantasy Budget will be introduced to the House, which is supposed to set the financial frameworks. Today, then, are we meant to be seriously concerned when a Minister says, "These are my limits, quite properly so, and I must live within them", knowing that the total abandonment of financial probity and responsibility is coming down the tracks? It is in that context that I have the level of sympathy that I have expounded for the Minister.

Mr McCallister: I want to focus on several things, starting with the impact that there will be on my constituency. South Down is a large rural constituency, and many vulnerable people are very dependent on this type of service. In response to a question for written answer, it was revealed that there would be a huge cut in funding for Disability Action from £2·9 million to £2·3 million, or 21%. The question for the Minister is this: does any other part of his Department, or any area of the Civil Service part of his Department, face that level of cut, and, if so, how he would deliver it?

Colleagues throughout the House, from all sides, have spoken about the impact that these cuts will have on the services. In an area that straddles the Minister's and my constituency, namely the old Newry and Mourne District Council area, Newry and Mourne Community Transport were trying to develop services, including a service manned by volunteer drivers to take patients to and from appointments for cancer treatment, all of which might be put in jeopardy by these cuts. Has the Minister had any contact with the Department of Health about the impact not only on that service but on health and well-being overall? Let us face it: transport to get people out of their homes without it being, as Mr Allister said, a very difficult chore for them, is good for their mental health and well-being. We should be embracing that. I have to say that, if that service and the other services provided are not front line, I am not sure what is, or how the House would describe front line.

I also asked the Minister a written question about an equality impact assessment, to find out that, yes, there was one carried out on the regional transportation strategy and the accessible transport strategy when they were adopted, and one was carried out on the overall draft Budget, but those are now some time out of date, and it appears that there has been no impact assessment carried out on the current proposals. I would appreciate it if the Minister could say why that has not been done or will undertake to do that, because I think it is important that the Minister, the Department and officials making those decisions know of the impact that they will have, especially on vulnerable people and especially in isolated rural communities.

Mr McNarry: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCallister: Certainly.

Mr McNarry: Thank you. On the matter of fairness, does the Member agree that it is grossly unfair for groups such as Down Community Transport, which is close to his and my heart, to be expected to use their reserves to fund gaps caused by the Department?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McCallister: I appreciate that, Principal Deputy Speaker. I agree entirely with the Member. We are faced at this point with a public body like Translink that has massive reserves, and yet there does not seem to be the same pressure on it to use those. Why would we expect a community-based transport organisation to use what little reserves it may have, when we have no evidence as to what level of reserves it even has? I think it would be detrimental to it. It is something that the Department and its partners, predominantly in Disability Action, should be delivering. That is what I want to see. I worry about the health impact that it is going to have.

On the wider politics, Mr Swann talked about a collective Executive approach. I would dearly love to see a collective Executive approach on anything, let alone this. It would be great to see. I am a huge supporter of collective Cabinet Government. The Executive and our Government desperately need to see that. With every debate that we have in here, it is one party attacking the SDLP Environment Minister for cuts to Mourne Heritage Trust, or suddenly the DUP is lined up for a full week of attacks on the Regional Development Minister, starting today and with a motion of no confidence tomorrow. That is not how and why collective government should work. Who votes for the Budget? You have some parties that vote against the Budget. Some parties claim that they are all right because their Ministers voted against the Budget.

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

Mr McCallister: We need to get back to the idea of a Government acting collectively in the interests of the people, and particularly vulnerable people in isolated rural communities.

Mr Kennedy (The Minister for Regional Development): At the outset, I want to record my appreciation of the valuable services that the community transport providers provide to local communities and to some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society. As Minister, I have increased funding for community transport services year on year through internal budget allocations over and above the baseline budget. My track record in supporting these services has ensured that this group of service providers is in a reasonably healthy financial position.

I have listened carefully to everything that has been said, and officials have taken note. If there are specific issues not covered in my response, then we will endeavour to write back to the Member concerned.

I have repeatedly made it clear to the House that I have had to make very difficult and challenging decisions due to the budget that has been allocated to me. The services provided by my Department and its arm’s-length bodies impact on people's lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

We are talking about basic public services, including water services, a road network and bus and train services. I have had to make very difficult decisions on how to apportion the pain across those services, when, frankly, we ought to be investing in them. I assure the House that no areas have been immune from reductions, and, worse, I am now providing a skeleton road maintenance service with money that I do not currently have. The motion tabled by the Committee Chair does not, in my view, take account of the reality of the budgetary position that I face. This is despite that fact that, as recently as last Wednesday, officials and I have set out the stark reality to the Committee, then and on a number of occasions.


1.15 pm

I have to say that the Committee for Regional Development has been vocal in suggesting that I should restore the reduction from community transport, but I have yet to receive from the Committee any suggestion on how this could be achieved on the basis of my 2015-16 budget allocation. It is clearly fantasy economics to suggest that I could invest more in some areas without identifying where the funding should come from. Perhaps, it is another example of phantom budgeting. I wonder.

Community transport providers operate at a local level every day in towns, cities and rural areas across Northern Ireland to provide and deliver services to their members. The services are provided to people who are unable to access public transport for a variety of reasons. The grant provided by my Department is not a contract for a set number of trips; it is a contribution to the costs incurred by those organisations for the provision of community transport services. That is not to say that those organisations, like any organisations that receive funding from the public purse, should not have to demonstrate that they operate effectively and efficiently. As with every other public service, we need to scrutinise administration and bureaucracy and protect the front line as much as possible. I am pleased to advise the House that the community transport service providers have indicated a willingness to engage in the process in a constructive manner. We need to continue down this path. We need to be clear why there are variances in the average costs per mile and per journey. Not every transport provider has the same area to deal with; the geography is different. I need to be careful when I listen to some of the suggestions made to me on how we address the issue. In addition, there may be opportunities for the providers to share back-office services.

In Wales, they have been able to increase services while reducing costs. I have to say that I would need some convincing that we could not do likewise. It may not be easy, but my Department stands ready to assist the service providers in meeting the challenges before us. I recognise that that process will not happen overnight. We need to recognise also that some providers have built up sizeable reserves to cope with a rainy day. It is raining now — it is raining very heavily now. Having substantial funds sitting in a bank account while reducing front-line services is difficult to accept and difficult for everyone else to understand.

Mr Clarke: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Kennedy: No.

Given the limited budget available, my Department has allocated funding to community transport providers this year, taking account of costs and the financial position of each provider. I have also been very mindful of the need to maintain a network of services across Northern Ireland. I do not think that there is much merit in debates about ways of simply shifting funds from one organisation to another. We would end up with no services being provided at all in certain areas.

Members may not be aware of this, but I am pleased to indicate that all the community transport providers have signed and accepted the offers of grant made to them some time ago. Whilst we are debating the issue, my officials are moving on with the real business of delivering services to end users across Northern Ireland.

That said, I confirm that I will bid for additional funding in June monitoring for community transport services and other front-line services delivered through my Department in order to reduce the impact of cuts that I was forced to make due to my initial 2015-16 budget allocation. That bid will be to the tune of £1·5 million, which would simply bring us back to the situation of previous years. I am encouraged that there appears to be support around the Chamber today for that bid. I ask, therefore, that efforts be made to speak to political colleagues at Executive level to ensure that those funds are secured. That would provide at least a bit more breathing space to allow the changes necessary to reduce the cost base to be effected.

I turn to the contributions of Members. It was, in some ways, a predictable and slightly depressing opening from the Chair of the Committee for Regional Development. I am sorry to say that there was little or no sense of reality about the financial position that the Department faces. I regret that, but I am willing to continue to work with the Chair and the Committee to address all the issues.

Mr Ó hOisín commended the network and thought that the cuts were disproportionate. He raised the concerns, rightly, of the rural community. I represent a rural constituency; I know all about it, and I get representations too. I do not live in a bubble or with the dark forces that Mr Dallat seemed to indicate exist in my Department. I live in the real world; I represent real people and hear their concerns at first hand. It does not give me any pleasure to present cuts of this nature to groups or people providing essential community transport services, especially in rural areas, but we need to face political and financial reality.

I get slightly frustrated when I am criticised severely by Sinn Féin and other parties who are costing the Executive £2 million a week by not moving forward with welfare reforms. I have to say that £2 million a week would transform and seriously address many of the issues that I face in my budget not only for community transport but for road maintenance and structural repairs, grass cutting, gully emptying, street lighting and road marking. All of that would benefit substantially if only I had access to the £2 million per week that is being sacrificed for a political, ideological reason by Sinn Féin simply to obey their southern command. Do not come to me and complain about cutbacks when you are the authors of everyone's misfortune in this.

Mr Dallat assured us that there was no party political side to his contribution, and I am happy to accept that. Nevertheless, the financial challenges are there, and your party, Mr Dallat, is contributing to the blockage on welfare reform. It needs to look at that urgently and deal with it as quickly as possible.

Roy Beggs attempted to introduce an air of political reality by mentioning the financial challenges that we all face. Other members of the Executive are the same, and I have no doubt that there are challenges for every Department and everyone in charge of those Departments. This week, the focus seems to be on DRD and, perhaps, Danny Kennedy, but what is important is my focus and desire. I am more concerned about the attitudes of the people and impacts on front-line services beyond the confines of the Chamber than in some of the party-political posturing that we have seen.

Chris Lyttle introduced an interesting scenario. The Alliance solution to everything, apparently, is to impose water charges. I see no political consensus for that. Whilst I accept that that might be Alliance Party policy, it is certainly not Executive policy and it is unlikely to be so. I think that —

Mr Lyttle: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Kennedy: No, I will not give way. It is sometimes time to listen and learn.

Mr Easton raised the issue of rural proofing. In this case, because the policy predated the rural proofing initiative, it was not necessary. However, we do of course pay careful attention to all the necessary consultations that have to be undertaken.

Mr Moutray expressed the widespread anger on behalf of those areas that have been affected. I am aware of that, I am concerned about it, and I hope that there might be some consensus, particularly around the Executive table. It might not get a consensus from the Committee for Regional Development — it might be a little bit too optimistic to hope for that — but I hope that there would be more sympathy from the Finance Minister and Executive colleagues.

Mr Byrne highlighted the plight of the disabled and the elderly. He also paid tribute to the transport assistance service that operates in west Tyrone, which I have no doubt does that very effectively. I want to see that supported. However, the contribution from Mr Swann — the collective response — is the one that we should concentrate on.

It is on that basis that I make this plea: the provision of public services ought to be something that everyone in the House can agree on, no matter what their political persuasion, and I ask that the matter not be made into a political football. In my view, the Committee has failed to say where any additional money for community transport should come from. I am the Minister, and I have to deal with the realities that I face. I will continue to do that, and I ask the Committee to do so as well.

Mr Lynch (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. The Chair was correct that a number of community transport organisations will struggle to survive. Cathal Ó hOisín spoke about the number of trips and the social value of community transport services. He also spoke about the role and importance of volunteers and drivers. John Dallat spoke about the magnitude of the cuts and agreed that it was a bad decision. He pointed out that, whilst many of the organisations expected some cuts, they did not expect such a high level of unsustainable —

Mr Clarke: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lynch: I will.

Mr Clarke: The Minister did not take interventions, but he spoke about the organisations signing their agreements and moving forward. I want to remind the House and the Minister, who forgot to remind the House, that they signed those agreements on the basis of moving to a reduced service. They did not sign them in the full knowledge that it would be business as usual; they signed them in the knowledge that there would be a substantial reduction in the services provided.

Mr Lynch: I agree with the Member.

Roy Beggs paid tribute to the community transport sector but criticised the Committee for not offering alternatives. The Committee's role is to advise the Minister, and we have strongly advised him to reverse these cuts.


1.30 pm

Mr Beggs also talked about reserve levels, which are small and are maintained according to DFP guidelines — guidelines that the Department for Regional Development is advising against.

Chris Lyttle spoke of his concerns about the impact that these cuts would have, especially at the huge levels applied. Alex Easton talked about how disturbing the cuts were and criticised the way in which the Department calculated the cuts based on the level of reserves. He also said that the cuts had to be rural proofed.

Stephen Moutray talked about the vital services provided by transport groups and how they allowed users to live independently. He said that Disability Action had had to increase fares and reduce services, adding to isolation. Joe Byrne spoke of social isolation and of a dearth of services in rural areas. Robin Swann spoke of the need for Executive coordination and said he believed that the motion was party political — despite it being agreed by the entire Committee, including his own party colleague.

Jim Allister spoke of his sympathy for the Minister, who was trying to work within his budget. However, he said that he had more sympathy for his constituents who were being negatively impacted as a result of the cuts. John McCallister talked about the impact on his constituents and asked whether similar levels of cuts were being applied elsewhere in the Department.

The Minister spoke about the challenges he faces because of the Budget allocation and the difficult decisions he had to make. He talked about protecting front-line services and said that his officials stand ready to assist community transport organisations in achieving efficiencies. He did not, however, provide any justification for the disproportionate levels of cuts applied by the Department and said that all the organisations had signed their letters of offer.

There is overwhelming support for the restoration of the budget for these vital services. I call on the House to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly condemns the disproportionate reduction of the Disability Action and community transport budgets; notes the very negative impact the severe reduction of departmental budgets is having on people with disabilities and the most vulnerable and isolated people in our society; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to urgently reinstate this essential funding.

Private Members' Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this 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 McCausland: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the cultural, artistic and community importance of bands in Northern Ireland; recognises the importance of the musical instruments for bands funding programme; expresses its disappointment at the failure of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to fund the programme this year; and calls on the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to restore the funding for the programme.

The bands sector in Northern Ireland is one of our largest arts sectors in the Province, and I think it is one of the most important and significant. I refer Members to three reports; one was carried out by the Arts Council itself some years ago, when it reviewed the scheme for musical instruments for bands: that was the PricewaterhouseCoopers report in February 2006. Subsequently, a report was commissioned by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. It was formerly on the DCAL website and may still be there, although I have not checked. More recently, in 2013, a report was commissioned by the Department for Social Development, which brought forward the figures that, in Northern Ireland, we have over 660 bands, with an active membership of over 25,000 people.

Those independent surveys and reports were carried out for the Departments by reputable and respected consultancy organisations. When you have 660 bands in Northern Ireland and more than 25,000 people learning and making music in them, that is clearly, I suggest, our largest community arts sector.

There are two priorities that stand out in regard to arts and sport: participation and performance. In terms of participation — ie the number of people taking part — there is clearly a very significant contribution, with 25,000 people spread across flute bands, accordion bands, silver bands, brass bands and pipe bands. Those people are learning and making music on a weekly basis throughout the year. They are attending one or possibly two, and, in some cases, three, practice sessions per week. If you look at the pipe bands sector, you see that we have more pipe bands per head of population in Northern Ireland than Scotland. We also have a very good geographical spread of rural and urban bands. It is a very important sector that is deserving of strong support.

You can refer to the issue of not only participation but performance. People may say, "We are very good at what we do", "We're a very good sector" and so on, but you have to benchmark it; you have to be able to say, "Well, when you assess that, the evidence is there". In the case of bands, the evidence is there.

If we look at the pipe bands sector, we see that, for example, Field Marshal Montgomery has been world champions on numerous occasions. It is only one of the bands that are extremely successful at grade 1. When you look down grades 2, 3 and 4 — those are all very high standards; even grade 4 — at all the bands at all levels, whether it be in piping, drumming, the drum majors or any of the other different elements, you see that Northern Ireland is coming away with a whole raft of medals and trophies in competition after competition, not only in Irish or UK championships but world championships.
There are very few arts sectors where we can say, "We have the very best in the world". We have good theatre, good orchestras and a whole range of arts sectors and activities, but this is the one that I can think of where we are the best in the world. Dunloy Accordion Band, for example, performs at a very high standard. Through competitions, those bands are able to demonstrate not only mass participation but a very high standard, even up to world championship level.

The Belfast Tattoo in the Odyssey was an example of bands being able to demonstrate their quality, across a whole range of types of band, to a wide public audience. I think that the Minister was at the tattoo up in Londonderry at the Ebrington site, and I understand that she was impressed by the quality of some of the bands that she saw on that occasion. I think that everyone would have to admit that the quality is certainly there.

The other thing that is important to mention is that band membership can span generations. You can have maybe two or three generations in the one band, with the passing of skills from older members to younger members. It is about not only musical skills but social and personal skills. People learn to work in a group with others. They learn to develop those social skills working corporately. Young people gain personal self-confidence through becoming competent in a musical instrument.

There are personal, musical and social skills, but all that is dependent on having good instruments. The tragedy is that instruments today are extremely expensive. You could spend up to £10,000 on one instrument in some very extreme cases, but, for many bands, even the grant of a few thousand pounds that they were able to achieve through the fund has been extremely important for them in providing better quality instruments.

The contribution of bands to the economy through spend on instruments and transport is substantial. Members probably received a circular from the Ulster-Scots Community Network at one stage setting out some of the facts and figures. It said that bands from Northern Ireland represent Northern Ireland at events in Great Britain, USA, Canada, Norway, France, Gibraltar and Belgium and are regular visitors at prestigious events such as the Lord Mayor's show in London. So, this is an important sector.

It was, therefore, very disappointing to find that, when the budget was brought forward, this particular scheme, which has been going very successfully for a number of years, has been cut completely on this occasion. Other sectors had a cut imposed on them. It might have been 10%, 5%, 15%, 20% or whatever — there were cuts. We acknowledge that, because of a whole range of reasons, some external to Northern Ireland and some internal in the Assembly, cuts have been imposed. However, I could not find evidence of an entire sector being written out 100% in the way that this was. This was a 100% cut.

Our hope was that there would be some response and an opportunity to find a source of funding through the June monitoring round. The Minister was quoted in the papers and made some comments in answer to questions in the Assembly that were, I thought, encouraging. However, when I looked at the monitoring round and at what was being proposed, I found that I had to get a dictionary to check the meaning of the word "inescapable". Things get top priority where they are inescapable, but "inescapable" seems to have become a very elastic and flexible term.

What particularly interested me was that, whilst the funding for the band scheme was there as one of the bids, there were far more new bids being brought in for other things, particularly things regarding the Irish language that I know the Minister has stated her particular interest in and affinity with. I think that that is disappointing, because at a time when money is going to be tight — if, indeed, there is any money at all or any Budget at all — all these things are up in the air. However, the fact that this scheme was simply one among so many said to me that it was well down the list of priorities.

I encourage the Minister and the Department to look at this again. It is a modest sum of money in the scheme of things. It gives a very wide spread across male/female, rural/urban, younger/older and all these different areas. We hear members of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee applying pressure on the need to rural proof. One member in particular — he has just looked up — is very strong on rural proofing. Yet, the fact is that a large number of these bands are in rural areas. I encourage the Minister to think about this again, to give support to the bands and to reinstate the scheme. I believe that that would be very much appreciated and would do much to encourage the bands. It is sad to see bands sometimes having to rely on very old instruments. Given the change that it can make to the quality of the music and the experience for the young people, I think that it is very deserving.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom a rá ar dtús go bhfuil mé ag tabhairt tacaíochta don rún seo inniu. I support the motion today. Agus tá fócas an rúin ar mhaoiniú d’uirlisí ceoil. Its focus is on funding for musical instruments, but it criticises DCAL on the issue. I do not believe that that is valid.

When I look at the Minister's words, I see that she said that she intends to bid for additional funds for this valuable scheme in June monitoring and that she understands that the uncertainty will not be welcome for those in marching bands. We can see that over half a million pounds has been awarded under the scheme in the past three years. That shows a real commitment from the Minister. She says that she remains committed to supporting musical instruments for bands and will work to secure further funding when it becomes available. Le fírinne, bhí ráiteas an Aire dearfach, agus deir sí arís is arís go bhfuil sí tiomanta d’uirlisí ceoil ar chur ar fáil do bhannaí ceoil.

The Minister's statement, I believe, is positive. She reiterates her commitment to providing support for musical instruments for bands. Nonetheless, I support the general thrust of the motion. It is important to note the cultural, artistic and community importance of bands in the North. However, funding for instruments should include all musical forms. We should be encouraging the gamut of musical expression by initiating funding for as many musicians as possible so that the talents of all are nurtured and developed.


1.45 pm

One of the reports that the Member who has just spoken referred to was the 2011 report published by DCAL. It sought to provide information on the marching band sector and to aid its future development. The report was very wide ranging and informative and acknowledged the very positive impacts that marching bands have on their communities. I acknowledge that. However, it also drew attention to the negativity that is often associated with the sector. In one part, the report specifically states

"contentious or sensitive parades could be considered the largest single issue facing the marching band sector".

That must be seriously addressed.

It is also important that public money not be used to support any type of activity that is sectarian in nature or that disrespects other communities. A couple of years ago, we witnessed from a band a display of very offensive behaviour outside St Patrick's Church in Belfast. That was a precise example of what should not be happening or be supported by the fund.

Mr McCausland: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCausland: Will the Member join me, then, in highlighting the behaviour of a republican flute band outside St Anne's Cathedral?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Ms McCorley: I am not aware of the incident that the Member is speaking about, so I cannot comment on it.

I feel that it is important to note that most bands do not involve themselves in that sort of behaviour. Indeed, we have seen examples of very good behaviour by the Bands Forum in Derry, whose members have engaged very positively with other communities and, indeed, participated in the Sinn Féin ard-fheis earlier this year. That type of engagement is extremely positive and respectful, and we should all be seeking to see that replicated across the North, particularly in contentious areas such as north Belfast.

The report also references the contribution to the marching band tradition of the world-renowned flautist Sir James Galway. I listened to Sir James's comments in recent days. I imagine that he would not support the view that engaging in offensive behaviour is something that bands should be involved in.

Let us look at funding. Since 1995, marching bands have received £4·75 million. In comparison, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has received well under £500,000 for the same period. As I said earlier, we need to support all musicians, wherever possible. When Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann gave evidence to the Committee earlier this year, it told us that it supports 6,000 musicians and that its membership of 60,000 ranges in age from eight to 88. It also has a very positive impact on the community. The outcomes from the activity of Comhaltas, including the great success of the Fleadh Cheoil 2013 in Derry, are hugely positive and should be afforded a similarly high level of consideration as that given to the marching bands for the positivity that it brings to its own community.

While I am here, I would like to mention the Andersonstown school of music in west Belfast, which recently lost its entire funding. That is a great shame, because it provides tuition and support to many disadvantaged young musicians in my local area. I hope to see that funding reinstated also.

Mar sin de, tá mé ag moladh gur chóir comhionannas a bheith ann do gach sórt ceoil. Today, I am calling for equality for all musical forms. When the Minister is seeking further funding for marching bands, and I support here in that search, I urge her to consider other musicians, ones who do not belong to that tradition but who nonetheless must be encouraged and supported in their endeavours.

Mrs McKevitt: The musical instruments for bands funding scheme has been put on hold owing to budgetary restraints. As a member of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, I hear regularly about culturally important funding being cut. That has affected not only those who use the funding scheme but many who rely on funding from the Department and the Arts Council. I could stand here and name 100 groups that have had their funding cut — some by 50%, some by 100% — but I could not fit in all their names in the short time that I have to speak.

A request was made in the June monitoring round for the musical instruments for bands funding scheme. The bid was submitted to the Department of Finance and Personnel last week, and the outcome will be announced in the coming weeks. Indeed, the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure agreed to write to the Minister in support of the restoration of the fund. The Committee recognises that, while other funds are available for musical instruments, they are not usually open to many bands, and, as such, there is a special need for the musical instruments for bands funding programme to be restored.

The motion is timely because many bands march during the summer months. I hope, as do my colleagues in the SDLP, that this season will pass off peacefully. Whilst I support the reintroduction of the fund, I encourage the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to work with the Arts Council to ensure that access to the fund is available only to marching bands that adhere to a specific code of conduct. My colleague Mr Bradley will, I hope, elaborate on that point during his contribution.

I fully recognise the cultural and community importance of bands and the need for bands to work in a cross-community manner and to promote good relations. I wish to share with you all a story told to me by a neighbour who was a member of the Commons Silver Band. It demonstrates the good relationship that existed between the Commons Silver Band, an organisation going back more than 70 years, and Irish nationalist bands. The story goes that, on the eve of the 12 July parade, the canvas on the drum belonging to the Commons Silver Band was damaged. There was no time to repair the drum so members of the band tried to find a drum to borrow. A drum was found and offered to the band by the Irish National Foresters (INF) — a gesture of cross-community relations even before the term was coined.

Mr Dallat: The Member has inspired my memory to work. Did she hear this morning, on 'Thought for the Day' on 'Good Morning Ulster', about the two bands from quite diverse backgrounds that eventually discovered that they were playing the same tune? Does she agree that money should be invested to encourage people to play the same tune?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mrs McKevitt: I thank the Member for his intervention. That influenced me to add this wee story to the debate to lighten the mood of the House. I hope that the House is united and that we all sing from the same hymn sheet, if you will pardon the pun.

The only problem with the Irish National Foresters' drum was that its markings of origin had to be disguised, but, on 12 July that year, unbeknownst to the spectators, the INF drum kept the Commons Silver Band in beat.

I encourage more organisations to share instruments when possible and even to share their stories of cross-community cooperation because, sadly, most days we hear only negative news stories about bands.

I will finish by paying tribute to bands in my constituency, all of which play a very important role in our communities. I hope that no bands are lost due to a lack of funding. I hope that the June monitoring round will be successful in reinstating the musical instruments for bands scheme. The SDLP supports the motion.

Mr Cree: The objective of this funding through the Arts Council states that the programme is designed to:

"increase the quality of music-making in the community by helping bands replace worn-out instruments and purchase new instruments."

Should this funding not be considered for reinstatement in the current budget, what are the implications?

On 1 April this year, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure announced that the scheme was being put on hold. She advised us that the budget shortfall meant that she was unable to endorse funding at the present time but intends to bid for additional funds for this valuable scheme in the June monitoring round. I believe that she has done so.

Those are encouraging words, but, given the current crisis situation in the Executive at the failure of the Minister's party to agree the overall Budget, I wonder how successful she will be in the June monitoring round. June is now upon us, and there is a big question as to how much money, if any, will be available for redistribution.

I want to share with the House key findings from a study, 'Marching Bands in Northern Ireland'. In my opinion, the findings encompass the very essence of why it is important to secure and reinstate the musical instruments for bands funding as a priority.

Over the past three years, some £500,000 has been allocated in support of the programme. In the wider scheme of events, another year's secured funding would amount to just over £166,000, which is a small, although not insignificant, amount to release, given the wider cross-community benefits to be gained. The study states:

"Internationally, marching bands have a large following. They provide many outlets for those involved, should this be learning to play a musical instrument, being with friends, being part of a community ... Additionally, they provide further benefits for their wider communities and economies through events and revenue generation."

All of these key criteria, along with the claim that the motivation for forming a band:

"is often driven by social, economic, religious, political and/or cultural needs",

are, I believe, relevant and more than meet the criteria for releasing funding for cultural activities in Northern Ireland at this time.

Often, the media, unfortunately, give marching bands bad press, especially at sensitive times during what is commonly known, and has been referred to, as the marching season. Whilst we should not condone any unacceptable behaviour at these times by a minority of groups and individuals, neither should all bands be tarred with the same brush, as the press often imply. Marching bands extend much further than that narrow misconception.

Valerie Quinn, the chair of the Confederation of Ulster Bands, in her appraisal of the study of marching bands in Northern Ireland, commented:

"this large sector, with over 30,000 participants, has many strengths".

I agree with her that marching bands preserve our cultural heritage, support local communities and teach our young people new skills.

Finally, I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to restoring this vital funding and including it in her budget portfolio for 2016 and beyond. Adding continuity of funding and giving valuable support to the sector can only help to change the perception of marching band communities, locally and further afield. Mrs McKevitt, in her example, mentioned the cooperation between bands. I tell the House that that is by no means unique, and I know many instances of bands lending instruments to each other. That is healthy, and I agree fully that there should be friendly cooperation.

I support the motion on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until then. The debate will commence after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Anna Lo.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

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

Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Mr Speaker, with your permission, before I answer this question — I am sure that I am speaking for the whole community — I would like to express our support for Paul Finlay-Dickson, whose home was attacked at the weekend in a homophobic attack. I am sure that I speak for most people when I say that it was a disgraceful attack on that man, who is grieving because of the loss of his husband Maurice, who died in January.

To answer the question, we have regularly stated our commitment to producing a sexual orientation strategy in the Assembly and in the context of the good relations strategy, Together: Building a United Community. To achieve that commitment, we asked officials to commence a public consultation process. The first phase of that process ended on 6 June last year. Analysis of responses to that 12-week consultation period has been finalised, and the results are being used to inform the content of a draft sexual orientation strategy. The draft strategy is being developed using a co-design process with relevant stakeholders though the sexual orientation project team. A meeting of the project team took place on 15 April, and a further meeting is planned for June. Once developed, the draft strategy will be referred to the Executive for final agreement and publication in draft form. A further 12-week period of public consultation will then take place.

Ms Lo: The 10-year delay in publishing and bringing forward the strategy is a disgrace. The junior Minister mentioned the incident with Mr Paul Finlay-Dickson. Does the Minister not see the need for urgency in bringing forward the strategy? The consultation has taken far too long, and we are still seeing more and more delay.

Ms J McCann: I agree with the Member that the strategy has been far too long in coming. As we see and have heard from the PSNI, there has been an increase in hate crime of that type in recent times, and there is an onus on us to bring the strategy forward. As I said, that is what we are looking to do. We are trying to get it brought forward as quickly as possible with agreement on the strategy. I hope to be here saying that that will be brought forward in a short period ahead.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. The Minister has already touched on this, but does she agree with me that the strategy needs to be put in place as soon as possible?

Ms J McCann: Certainly, given that, as I said in my previous answer, there has been an increase in that type of hate crime. There have been some debates in the Chamber recently, and there is an onus on a lot of people, when they are speaking, to be very temperate in their language as well, because I believe that we need to send a very clear message to the LGBT community that it has the reassurance that the Executive will ensure that its needs and interests will be addressed by government. To re-emphasise, this process has been delayed. However, we have to redouble our efforts to ensure that the strategy is put in place as soon as possible.

Mr Eastwood: Given the very positive affirmation of equal marriage by the people of the Twenty-six Counties, what will the Minister's Department do to advance the cause of ensuring that all the people of Ireland have the opportunity to be treated as equals in their own country?

Ms J McCann: The Member makes a very valid point. The recent referendum in the South means that the North is out of sync with the rest of Ireland and Britain. We really need to ensure equality and challenge any time when there is discrimination against anyone, no matter what the reason is for it.

People have a right to choose who they want to marry, and it is particularly important to send a clear message out to our young people in the LGBT community so that they feel valued and are given confidence and reassurance. We have to do that from this Chamber in particular, but we also have to ensure that we are legislating and that anything that we do here is for everyone, that we are progressive and, at any time, we need to challenge homophobia in any other places where that leads to discrimination and everything else against people, particularly our young people.

Mr Cree: How many strategies in the deputy First Minister's Department's area of responsibility have yet to be published? What are the various reasons for the delays?

Ms J McCann: As the Member will know, a number of strategies are being developed. At the moment, we have the sexual orientation strategy, the racial equality strategy and the gender equality strategy. We are pushing forward on those. Junior Minister McIlveen and me attended the gender advisory panel last Thursday. We are hopeful that that strategy will come out very soon. When we are talking about strategies, we need to put the time in to get those strategies right. We need to talk to all the stakeholders involved. I emphasise that a strategy will go a long way to help in some of the issues, but it is about implementing the strategy, not just having the strategy there. The strategy is only as good as its action plan and implementation, so we need to get it right.

Mr M McGuinness: Executive party leaders continue to meet weekly to take forward the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. An implementation plan was drawn up in early January, and work is continuing on a wide range of commitments, including matters such as dealing with the past, flags, parades and emblems. The current impasse over the welfare protections agreed at Stormont House and since and the budgetary pressures stemming from the British Government have created very serious difficulties, which have implications for the agreement and the future of these institutions. Those difficulties need to be resolved. I still believe that it is possible to do that, and I am very much in problem-solving mode. What is required now is political will from all parties and both Governments to reach a suitable resolution that protects the most vulnerable in our society and the economic viability of these institutions.

Mr Girvan: I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. He alluded to the protection of the most vulnerable and some of the protections that had been negotiated and agreed in relation to welfare reform. Should direct intervention from Westminster be the only way forward, would those protections still be there for people who had the bedroom tax agreed previously?

Mr M McGuinness: For such an eventuality to occur — that is, the withdrawal of powers from this institution by the British Government — I have been on the public record as saying that that would be totally and absolutely unacceptable. What we need to recognise here is that the declarations of intent coming from the Treasury over the last while in relation to our future budgets and the £25 billion that it intends to cut from budgets all over these islands, with the exception of the South, some £12 billion of that is for welfare and £13 billion is for Departments.

Clearly, for the purposes of moving forward in a planned way, the questions that I have been asking of the Secretary of State over the last couple of weeks to identify for us the scale of those cuts in relation to this Executive have not been answered. I fail to see how we can plan for the future against the backdrop of some of the speculation that is coming from London in relation to all that. For example, speculation is rife about the prospect of the uplift that we would give to people on social welfare to ensure and protect their income. We are now being told — there is a lot of speculation about it — that, if there is an uplift, it is quite likely that it will be taxed by the British Government. People are talking about the taxation of carer's allowance.

The other important point in all this is that, when we talk to the British Secretary of State —

Mr Speaker: Two minutes is up.

Mr M McGuinness: I will come back to that in a supplementary.

Mr Nesbitt: Within the projections for new jobs created by lowering the rate of corporation tax, the Minister will be aware that there is a specific number from Invest Northern Ireland of jobs to be created once we set the rate and the date, rather than waiting for the corporation tax change to take effect. Those potential jobs are at risk because of the current impasse. Will the Minister share with the House the number of jobs at risk in that specific category?

Mr M McGuinness: I would prefer to focus on how we can avoid such a scenario, and one way of doing that is to ensure that we in this House do what the First Minister of Scotland has appealed to all the other parties in the Scottish Parliament to do, which is to join together to fight the cuts that are coming from London. The Member will be aware that there was a proposition from Scotland and Wales that Welsh representatives, Scottish representatives and representatives from here should meet. We were absolutely up for that meeting. That did not happen with our presence, but it did happen in Scotland with only Welsh and Scottish representatives present.

I think that we need to focus our attention on how we get the Stormont House Agreement implemented. My party is absolutely determined to see the Stormont House Agreement implemented, but it has to be done in a fashion that allows us to challenge the attempts by the British Government to continually undermine our budgets.

The point that I was going to make earlier is that Theresa Villiers keeps saying to us that there is no more money; there is no more money; there is no more money. Yet, the plans that the British Government have for us are to take more money off us. They declared that in relation to the July budget and the further articulation of that coming this autumn. I say to everybody in the House and every party in the House that we need to stand with Scotland, we need to stand with Wales, and we need to tell the British Government that this is unacceptable.

Mr Attwood: Last Thursday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that, independent of what happens in July and in the autumn, there will be in-year cuts to the current Budget measured in a number of billions of pounds. Have the Northern Ireland Executive, OFMDFM or DFP been advised that there are or will be any consequential in-year cuts for the 2015-16 Budget arising from what the Chancellor announced last week?

Mr M McGuinness: In recent times and at different meetings that we participated in, the Member and I have been on record highlighting the fact that there was speculation some time ago that there would be further in-year cuts to our Budget for 2015-16. That has now been made very clear by the Treasury. It is absolutely certain that, taking account of our proportion of all that, it intends to impose to further cuts on this Administration. That is without even talking about what is going to be announced in July, which is like a juggernaut coming down the track in relation to the budgets available to our Departments over the coming years when you consider a figure of £25 billion and what our proportion of that would be. I have asked the questions continuously, and the Member has been there when I have asked them. The answer that I get is, "Wait until July."

When it comes to future planning and our ability to deliver front-line services, the important thing is that this is not just about welfare. Anybody who thinks that this debate is just about welfare is living in cloud cuckoo land. This is a bigger debate about the intentions of this British Government to impose further cuts on vital Departments in this Administration, which will detrimentally affect people who are in employment. It will threaten their jobs and the jobs of others in society who are working to deliver within the health service and within the education system, not to mention all the other Departments.


2.15 pm

Mr Allister: We all know that the deputy First Minister has backed out of the welfare deal that he made at Stormont House, but the Stormont House Agreement also promised other things, including the delivery of structures for an opposition by March. March has come and gone by three months. Has he also backed out of that commitment?

Mr M McGuinness: I absolutely reject any suggestion that I have backed out of any commitment. When I give commitments, I keep them. I made a very firm commitment to the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society when it moved from the King's Hall to Maze/Long Kesh: I kept my side of the bargain; others did not keep theirs.

In relation to the Stormont House Agreement, it is quite interesting that the Member has focused on the issue of an opposition. He forms his own one-man opposition in the Assembly, and he is very proud of that. There are ongoing discussions taking place at the party leaders' meetings for the purpose of ensuring that, as we go forward, we put in place arrangements for an opposition if there are parties in the Assembly — which I doubt — prepared to take it up.

Mr M McGuinness: We are aware of the British Government's intention to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of rights. Responsibility for such legislation lies with the British Ministry of Justice and the NIO. As a devolved Administration, we have a responsibility to implement and monitor human rights obligations and to provide advice on equality and human rights issues. OFMDFM carries out that role by liaising with the British Government in relation to matters on United Nations conventions, including providing input for reports and briefings for delegations attending UN oral examinations.

Any repeal of the Human Rights Act will have enormous implications, particularly for compliance with the Good Friday Agreement. The proposals have attracted criticism from various groups and individuals, such as the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, Jonathan Edwards and Simon Thomas of Plaid Cymru, a former British Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, and, locally, Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the Human Rights Commission, and Brian Gormally, director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice.

I am pleased that, just last week, the Assembly resolved to reject any attempts by the British Government to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. We will continue to keep a watching brief, and as more details emerge on the proposals we will wish to discuss them with the British Government.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. He mentioned the Good Friday Agreement. How would any move to repeal the Human Rights Act be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement?

Mr M McGuinness: As the Member, and everyone else in the House, knows, the Good Friday Agreement was an agreement between the British and Irish Governments and many of the parties that participated in those negotiations.

Article 2 of an annex to the Good Friday Agreement binds the British Government internationally to the multi-party deal, which was endorsed through joint referenda on the island of Ireland in May 1998. After it was ratified, both Governments lodged the agreement as a treaty with the United Nations. The British Government committed to the complete incorporation into law here of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Any attempts to displace the European Convention on Human Rights and to repeal the Human Rights Act will have enormous implications, particularly for compliance with the Good Friday Agreement. Any lessening of human rights law, and specifically the repeal of the Human Rights Act, would be a grievous breach of the Good Friday Agreement and would mean that the institutional architecture of that agreement was seriously undermined, particularly in respect of policing and justice matters.

Mr Campbell: Is the deputy First Minister aware that part of the reason for changes to the Human Rights Act being demanded is that, particularly in GB, there have been a number of instances where legal representations have been made on behalf of people who have been guilty of very serious criminal and terrorist acts and have used the Human Rights Act to try to mitigate their heinous actions? Does the deputy First Minister agree that that has been the case?

Mr M McGuinness: I think that one of the primary considerations of this British Government in relation to ending the Human Rights Act and bringing in a British Bill of rights is all tied up in the ongoing so-called negotiation that is taking place between David Cameron and others in the European Union. It is quite obvious that as part of a menu of issues that the present British Government wish to renegotiate is the whole issue of the ability of the European Court of Human Rights to make important decisions in relation to member states. I think that that is the prime motivation. In relation to the matters that the Member mentioned, I think that, in the context of the law as it stands, there is the ability to bring those who are involved in criminality before the courts.

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

Ms J McCann: The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry was initiated by the 2009 Assembly debate about the historical institutional abuse (HIA) of children. Its terms of reference refer to children under 18 years of age, and it was on that basis that the inquiry was designed and its chairperson and panel members appointed.

Mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries were not established principally for the care of children and had many residents who were over the age of 18. To the extent that the inquiry has received applications from people who spent time in a home of this type here while under the age of 18, those will be considered. Until all applicants have been interviewed, it will not be possible for the inquiry to make a final decision on whether these cases properly fall within the terms of reference.

It is the view of the inquiry chairperson that the inquiry simply could not cope with some major new area of investigation within the timescales imposed by the Assembly. He felt that considering amending the scope of its terms of reference at this stage would undermine all of the considerable work that has already been done and the effort that has gone into reaching this critical juncture in the inquiry.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Can the Minister give us any more details of what options are in the scoping papers?

Ms J McCann: The Member asks a very valid question, because I think we realised that a number of people fell outside the terms of reference. The previous junior Minister, Minister Bell, and I met a number of individuals and organisations in relation to that. As I said, we were aware of it.

We asked officials to go away and bring us back a scoping paper that would look at some of the people who fell outside the remit of the current inquiry. They came back with a number of options, which include the following: extending the terms of reference of the HIA inquiry to include women aged 18 and over who were in mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries; commissioning academic research into mother and baby homes and laundries; establish an interdepartmental working group led by the Department of Health to review the evidence and make recommendations to the Executive; invite the Committee for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to consider and advise on the issue of the mother and baby homes, including the Magdalene laundries; appoint independent experts to review the evidence and provide a confidential listening forum; and establish an independent statutory inquiry into mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries.

We are currently looking at all of those options, and, obviously, meeting the people who were directly involved and who were in those mother and baby homes and who had their children forcibly taken off them, in many cases, and put into forced adoptions. We are very conscious that we need to talk to the people who were directly impacted by this and look at whatever option will be best for them.

Mrs D Kelly: In light of the refusal of the British Government to include Kincora in the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, what way forward or action has OFMDFM planned to take to have Kincora included? Has it had any discussions with the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry that is being held here?

Ms J McCann: The Member will be aware that, on 30 September last year, we unanimously agreed that we would rather see the Kincora Boys' Home investigated by Westminster's independent panel. I think that we were all very disappointed when we heard that that was not happening. We have had consultation with the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry and Sir Anthony Hart, and we are conscious that he recently released a joint statement to say that they would be working together. There is also an ongoing judicial review as requested by one of the people who was in Kincora. As I said, we are doing our best to ensure that as many powers as possible can be transferred over, but I share the Member's disappointment that that inquiry is not taking place at Westminster.

Mrs Overend: Given that the HIA inquiry has added a module investigating the paedophile activities of Father Brendan Smyth, does the junior Minister agree that it is unfair that some victims are excluded from the HIA inquiry on the grounds of where the abuse took place rather than because of the nature of the abuse?

Ms J McCann: Yes. We have been in consultation with individuals and groups representing victims of clerical abuse. When we looked at the issue of people who fell outside the remit of the current inquiry, one thing that we considered was people who were the victim of clerical abuse outside institutions. We will continue in our efforts to reach some sort of position where we can take that forward.

Victims of sexual abuse, no matter where it happens, still face lifelong challenges. We need to be sure that, when we consider putting something in place, the terms of reference include people who have suffered this type of abuse no matter where it took place or who the perpetrator was.

Mr Speaker: A number of loud conversations are going on around the House. I am much more interested in hearing the questions and answers.

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

Ms J McCann: Expenditure on the social investment fund (SIF) to date is £1,576,366. That includes expenditure for consultancy support provided to steering groups in 2013 to develop their area plans. Of the overall programme, £53·5 million or 67% is now committed to 33 projects across the nine social investment zones. Many of those projects are to roll out over a number of years; therefore, immediate actual expenditure is not desired or expected. However, we are contractually committed to this expenditure, and the funding is ring-fenced and committed to those projects.

Expenditure is entering a key phase, with 12 revenue and five capital projects due to start delivery or build in the next few months. Due diligence work is progressing for the remaining capital projects, and it is anticipated that they will move to tender for design teams later in the summer. Work on achieving business case approval for the remaining projects is continuing.

Mrs McKevitt: The junior Minister must acknowledge that, four years after the announcement of the £80 million fund, less than £2 million has been spent. She has to acknowledge that there are multiple difficulties with SIF. With the delays in allocating spending moneys, will she confirm whether there will be a SIF 2?

Ms J McCann: I do not know whether there will be a SIF 2. The Member makes a valid point about the delays, and I am very conscious of them. We have discussed this quite a lot at Question Time. Because SIF includes other Departments, getting through the economic appraisals and everything else was a lengthy process. The letters of offer and all that are there now. I hope that those projects will come to fruition, because I know that there is frustration for people in the community who want to see something happen on the ground. I am very keen that those projects are driven through as quickly as possible.


2.30 pm

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

T1. Mr Buchanan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether, as we approach the parading season, the deputy First Minister agrees that the Parades Commission is discredited and incapable of solving or finding a solution to the parading problem. (AQT 2601/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: No, I am sorry: I do not agree with the Member that the Parades Commission is discredited. The Parades Commission has been in place for a considerable time and undertakes a very onerous responsibility in assisting civic society and the police to ensure that the peace that we all believe is precious is preserved.

It is hugely important, as we approach the marching season, that we all — all the key stakeholders and key players — use as much influence as we can in what could be a volatile situation to ensure that peace remains on our streets and law and order is observed by everybody. Obviously, it is a huge issue, and, as someone who has experience in the north-west of how parading can be resolved — I am not the only one with that experience, as some from the Member's party have also played a very positive role, along with the Apprentice Boys, the business community and the Bogside residents, to bring peace on the streets of the north-west — I would like to see that extended to every part of the North. We are all very conscious that we face into a difficult situation again this year in north Belfast, and I appeal to everybody to use their influence to encourage people to get round the table, as was the case in the north-west, to seek resolutions. I think that, if people do that, resolutions can be found.

Mr Buchanan: Will the deputy First Minister use his influence to encourage his party colleagues across Northern Ireland to desist from protesting at traditional, legitimate parades?

Mr M McGuinness: When you look at the fact that there are many thousands of parades right throughout the North, you see that the parades that are contentious are few and far between. I encourage everybody, including all those in my party who, I know, play a very positive role in contributing to keeping the peace on the streets, to continue with that work.

T2. Mr McGimpsey asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an assessment of the damage done to community relations in south Belfast as a consequence of the comments made by the director of the Council for Ethnic Minorities, specifically in relation to the consultation on the new consolidated primary school. (AQT 2602/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: I think that we all recognise that the issue of community relations and the battle against racism require all of us to play a positive and constructive role. Patrick Yu, in my view, has for a very long time been very much to the forefront of assisting the process of ensuring good community relations.

In the context of the future education of children in that area, the particular matter that the Member raises is really an issue for the Department of Education. I know that an ongoing process is taking place on all that. I am sure that Patrick Yu, who has played a very powerful and positive role in the past will continue to play that role in the future.

Mr McGimpsey: Will the deputy First Minister agree with me that one of the best ways forward for community relations is to provide the new primary school, which has been in planning for somewhere around 15 years?

It is much needed. It would bring together all the local communities, which strongly support it, and integrate newcomer communities with the local community so that we live together, work together and are educated together, rather than continue with a form of segregation, which we appear to be developing.

Mr M McGuinness: On that matter, which has found itself in the headlines in the past seven days, there is a duty on all of us to play a positive and restrained role in how it is resolved. The final decision on the future education of children in that area of south Belfast obviously rests with the Department of Education. I am sure that whatever decision the Minister takes will be the one that he thinks is in the best interests of the children from that particular community. At this time, all of us need to be very conscious of the words that we use and of the responsibilities that we as elected representatives have to ensure that we deal with such matters in a way that is consistent with bettering community relations, not exacerbating them.

T3. Ms Boyle asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to express their condolences to the family of Paul McCauley, following Paul's tragic death at the weekend after nine years in a coma as a result of a sectarian attack in Derry. (AQT 2603/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: This was an appalling criminal act carried out on a defenceless young man and his friends, which has resulted, nine years later, in the tragic and very sad loss of his life. I spoke to Jim McCauley yesterday. I am sure that everybody in the House will be very keen to put on record their sympathy, prayers and condolences to the family, who have conducted themselves with great dignity over the past nine years.

I very much welcome the comments made this morning on the BBC by William Hay, now Lord Hay. He exhorted people in the loyalist/unionist community to cooperate. I want to stress that I think that the vast majority of unionists in the Derry area are as appalled at what happened to Paul McCauley as anybody else, but the reality is that there are a tiny minority who were involved in that act and involved in assisting those who were involved in that act. William Hay hit the nail on the head this morning when he made it clear that people should cooperate with the Police Service so that the criminals responsible for what happened to Paul McCauley can be brought before the courts.

Ms Boyle: I thank the Minister for his response. Given the tragic nature and circumstances of Paul's death, as the Minister outlined, what more can be done, particularly in the communities that the perpetrators come from, to assist in securing justice for Paul and his family?

Mr M McGuinness: Paul's father has been in the media over the last nine years but specifically in the last 48 hours. He appeared on Radio 5 Live and did so again this morning, and it was heartbreaking to listen to him. It is also heartbreaking to hear his analysis that more could have been done in the unionist community to identify the perpetrators and bring them before the courts. He is using language such as, "It's well known who they are", and, of course, in the Derry area, it is well known who they are, but the difficulty is that the police — who have been on the record as apologising to the McCauley family, and rightly so — need to be assisted in the renewed murder investigation so that the people who were responsible for the horrendous injuries to Paul, and, ultimately, for his death, can be arrested and brought before the courts.

T4. Mr Frew asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given the fact that, only last week, the House passed an amendment to the Justice Bill to introduce child protection disclosures for sex offenders, whether they agree that we should do everything in our power to encourage the many victims out there who are yet to come forward to do just that. (AQT 2604/11-15)

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

Ms J McCann: The Member is quite right: we should do everything in our power. The deputy First Minister asked, through the North/South Ministerial Council, that we put in place a mechanism whereby people could come forward in a safe atmosphere because the most important thing is that people feel supported and that they can come forward. There are lots of those people out there. It is said, for instance, that, right across the island of Ireland, one in every four people suffers some form of sexual abuse in their lives. It is very important that we support them and have those support mechanisms in place. If we could work that through the North/South Ministerial Council, it would be a way forward for people to have that support mechanism.

Mr Frew: Will the junior Minister encourage everyone in the House, even members of her own party, to come forward with all information that they know on sex offenders and offences against children?

Ms J McCann: I certainly will. I encourage anyone who has any information to come forward. It is also important to send that very clear message out to people because we need to ensure that victims of any form of abuse know that they will be supported through that and that the support mechanisms that they need will be there when they decide that they want to come forward. It is also important that we help them when they access justice because they are entitled to justice.

T5. Mr B McCrea asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what importance they attach to a sustainable development strategy. (AQT 2605/11-15)

Mr M McGuinness: It is very important that we recognise the need for a sustainable development strategy that works in the interests of all the people whom we represent, particularly given the very limited resources that we are all expected to work with and that will be further pressurised by the intention of the British Government to impose further draconian cuts not just on us but on other Administrations across these islands. Sustainable development is critical. We have sustainable development strategies in place. Our ability to fund those strategies is being threatened by the declaration of intent by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer that he will dramatically cut our budgets further in the time ahead.

Mr B McCrea: Will the deputy First Minister support Minister Mark H Durkan's desire to bring forward a climate change Bill? If so, how will he convince his Executive colleagues to support it?

Mr M McGuinness: I see that the Minister has entered the Chamber just at the right time. There has to be some coordination between that question and the appearance of the Minister.

Whatever the Minister brings forward on a climate change Bill will be considered very seriously by the Executive.

T6. Mrs Dobson asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to explain how the Victims and Survivors Service ensures that outreach officers assigned to assist its clients are appropriate to their needs, particularly in confidentiality and quality. (AQT 2606/11-15)

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

Ms J McCann: As the Member will be aware, the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) is undergoing a review. Several reports have made a number of recommendations. What we heard very clearly from all parties, particularly in the Chamber, is that many victims and survivors of the conflict came forward a while back and said that they felt that going through the assessment process, for instance, was quite traumatic for them and that some of the support mechanisms that were in place could have been better. We will continue to monitor the ongoing review and recommendations, a number of which have already been put in place. We need to ensure that the service is fit for purpose and that people feel that they are getting help and support from it.

Mr Speaker: Sorry, there is no time for the supplementary. That ends this session.


2.45 pm

Environment

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): I have been advised that NIEA staff conduct daily patrols along the Roe Valley Country Park path network, during which litter collections are also undertaken. During those patrols, staff also monitor and record any site defects or damage. If a defect such as a fallen tree partially blocking a pathway or damage such as a broken fence is found, that is reported to park management to ensure that it can be addressed as soon as possible, to the extent that budgets allow.

The daily inspection process ensures that the site is continually monitored to ensure that high standards are maintained, as budgets allow. I have also been advised by officials that, as part of the ongoing site management, duties such as leaf blowing and grass cutting are undertaken as required in accordance with seasonal requirements.

I assure you that the local staff who manage Roe Valley Country Park staff take great pride in its management and will continue to manage it to the best of their abilities. That has been demonstrated through the three-star Tourism NI visitor attraction grade that the park achieved this year and the award of a TripAdvisor certificate of excellence.

Mr G Robinson: Will the Minister accept that usage of Roe Valley Country Park, a popular tourist attraction in Limavady, may decline if the level of upkeep is not maintained, including keeping paths open after trees fall, especially on the Limavady side of the park? I appreciate what the Minister said, but I have had complaints recently, particularly about paths never being cleared of fallen trees. People are trying to access the paths on which trees have fallen.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Robinson for the question. It is imperative that we as a Department and the agency with responsibility for the park do everything within our power to maximise the number of people who can access it. Many want to access what is, undoubtedly, a very good tourist attraction that does a lot to bring tourists to the Member's constituency. It also provides a great area for recreation for people who live there.

As I said, staff are committed to carrying out daily site inspections, after or during which defects such as those mentioned by the Member are pointed out to site management. Where budgets allow, defects are addressed as quickly as possible. Fallen trees are obviously — well, hopefully — beyond the control of individuals. However, littering, to which the Member's original question referred, is very much the responsibility of individuals visiting the park. The more people we have visiting the park, the more litter is dropped, and the more litter is dropped, the fewer people we are likely to attract to the park. So, it is imperative that the team on the ground there keeps on top of the litter situation, and I believe that they do their best to do that.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Minister, there are long-running and ongoing issues with path maintenance, particularly on the western bank, and damage has been done to the disabled angling stand at the centre in the park. Given the estimated 350,000 visitors to the park per annum, will the Minister assure us that those issues will be rectified in the very near future?

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for the question. I had been aware of issues around the paths and of ongoing work on the paths around the country park. In my answer to Mr Robinson's supplementary question, I mentioned the importance of maximising accessibility to the park, and that is why I take the issue of the disabled angling stand very seriously. I want to ensure that it is repaired as a matter of urgency. That was the first time that I had been made aware of that, but I will make sure that the team gets on it right away.

Mr Dallat: Does the Minister agree that those who set up the Roe Valley Country Park in the first place and brought it to its present state have created something that is beautiful beyond belief? Will he tell those who drop their litter in the Roe Valley Country Park that they are to blame for anything that is wrong there?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. I join him in praising the vision of those who established the country park and those who maintain it. Litter is very much a matter of personal responsibility, and while the vast majority of visitors to Roe Valley Country Park or any of the NIEA-managed properties are responsible with their litter, either binning it or taking it home to recycle it, there are, unfortunately, some who are less responsible and who are happy enough to drop their litter wherever they may be. In turn, that demands that litter patrols have to be carried out by staff on a daily basis.

I urge all visitors to NIEA sites, or wherever they may be, to be responsible with their waste and not to drop it as litter during their visit. Previously in the Chamber, we have discussed the cost to the councils of street cleaning, back-lane cleaning and so forth as a direct consequence of people dropping litter. This is money that could be much better spent by councils on positive things such as play facilities and items that our communities are crying out for.

Mr Durkan: While they are determined on a case-by-case basis, the majority of planning applications for wind farm developments will be accompanied by an environmental statement (ES). The environmental statement is provided by the planning applicant and is required to include information on the main effects that a development is likely to have on the environment and any measures that are required to avoid, reduce and, if possible, remedy significant adverse effects that the development may have on the environment.

In assessing an ES, my Department will consult a range of environmental bodies and the public. Given the detailed nature of an environmental statement, the consultation period can take a number of months and the consultation process can give rise to the need for further environmental information to be requested. Once received, this will also be subject to further consultation with environmental bodies and the public.

The ES remains a valid consideration until a final decision is made on a planning application. There may be instances during the processing of an application that will require information in the ES to be updated. However, it is extremely unlikely to be necessary to update an entire environmental statement. The information in an ES, the views of environmental bodies and the views of the public all constitute environmental information that my Department must take into account in reaching a final decision on a planning application.

Mrs Hale: I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. Will he assure the House that where the Planning Service determines that an environmental impact assessment is needed, all the findings of the required surveys, during and on completion of the scoping process, are open to the public?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. As I said in my original answer, not only does this go out to consultation prior to the submission of the environmental statement but, subsequent to the Department's deliberations on the environmental statement, it goes back out to consultation to environmental bodies and the general public.

It is often information from the public — information that has sometimes been missed by environmental bodies — that has caused the Department to look more closely and scrutinise even more some of the information submitted by developers with regard to applications.

The details of the application are advertised through a notice in the local newspapers circulating in the area to which the site relates. The notice will give information on how the public can purchase an environmental statement and how my Department has made it available for the public to view. Third parties generally are told that they have 28 days in which to respond to the consultation. However, any correspondence, problems or issues raised with the ES will be taken right up to the date of or even the minute before the determination of a planning application.

Ms Lo: The Minister indicated to the Committee that, following the publication of the finalised strategic planning policy statement (SPPS), he would undertake a review of the planning policies for renewable energy, including, obviously, wind turbines. Will he set out for us the timescale of the review, given the fact that councils are now developing their development plans?

Mr Durkan: I thank Ms Lo, the Chair of the Environment Committee, for that question. I assure the Member and the House that the final draft of the SPPS was completed in March, as I had aimed for it to be. I had hoped for it to be published in April, however; so that is a target that we missed. It was circulated in March to Executive colleagues. Since then, I have made every effort to bring it forward for Executive consideration. However, I am disappointed and concerned that that extremely important document has, thus far, failed to be tabled at an Executive meeting.

The publication of the SPPS will allow us to move on to the full strategic comprehensive review of PPS 18 and PPS 21, which some Members are keen to see reviewed as a matter of urgency. It will also provide councils with a useful tool in the development of their new local development plans and provide some certainty to users of the planning system — not just planning professionals but, extremely importantly, investors who are considering making investment here and across the 11 council areas. Therefore, it is my desire — it is certainly my hope — that the SPPS will emerge from the Executive relatively unscathed and will be published before the end of this term.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. Does the Minister believe that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process is robust enough and stands the test of time? When the applicant is asked to apply that test, is it as independent as possible?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. The environmental impact statement (EIS) system is robust enough. I am, however, aware of many instances where objectors to an application or to an approval post a decision being made on an application will contend that an EIS process has not been robust enough. On occasion, those objectors will be right. However, in the vast majority of instances, I contend that the system is robust. I also point to the fact that many if not most developers, not just of wind energy but other development, will protest that the system is possibly too robust. That, to me, is usually a good indicator that we are doing something right.

Mr Rogers: Minister, you expressed your concern about the delay in the single planning policy coming from the Executive: what are the reasons for that delay?


3.00 pm

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. It is one that I have regularly asked myself and of myself. I am not entirely sure of the reasons for delay. However, I am aware of the impact of the delay. The SPPS is an essential component of the effective delivery of the reformed two-tier planning system that came into effect with the transfer of the planning function to councils on 1 April. Its provisions apply to the whole of Northern Ireland. They must be taken into account by councils in their development of local development plans, and they are material to all decisions on individual planning applications and appeals. It is, therefore, important that the SPPS, as I said, is published as soon as possible to provide clarity and certainty to councils and everyone impacted on by planning decisions.

Mr Durkan: In July 2012, my Department initiated a review of the Local Government Staff Commission. Following consultation, I concluded that, although the commission had performed well in a necessary and challenging role for 40 years, other developments meant that a statutory body of that type was no longer required.

The staff commission's original role in ensuring and advising on fair employment has been overtaken by the development of other statutory provisions. Since other bodies carry out comprehensive scrutiny and monitoring, the commission's role in this area is no longer required. I am also conscious that, as we have moved from 26 to 11 councils, expertise and capacity will be consolidated in a smaller number of stronger organisations. There is, therefore, a real danger of the duplication of work by the commission and the councils' HR departments.

One of the central objectives of the reform process is to strengthen local government and to allow local authorities to assume more powers, taking responsibility for the well-being and development of their district. Therefore, it seems counterintuitive not to expect the new councils to take full responsibility for the recruitment and management of their own workforce. I am confident that the other functions that the staff commission provides can be carried out on a non-statutory basis. This would have the advantage of each council being able to decide which activity they wished to continue to have carried out and by whom at their own initiative.

I still believe that the staff commission will be required for a number of years to help reform to bed in. There is precedent in other jurisdictions for using such a body to assist and advise councils during a period of reorganisation. That is why I propose to dissolve the staff commission on 31 March 2017, two years after the councils it was created to support were superseded. In 2014, my Executive colleagues agreed that the commission should be wound up in March 2017.

Mr Speaker: I remind the Minister about the two-minute rule.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for that response. Can the Minister advise the House of the cost implications of the retention of the staff commission until 2017 and who will bear that cost?

Mr Durkan: There are cost implications. Fortunately, I suppose, there are no cost implications for my Department. In this financial year, the staff commission will receive funding of approximately £710,000 from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the 11 councils. As I said, my Department does not provide any funding for the staff commission. Additionally, the commission administers funding of around £300,000 for the Local Government Training Group. That funding is used to provide sector-wide development programmes and courses from external providers. My Department does not provide any funding for the Local Government Training Group either. While there will be no significant financial implications, therefore, for the Department, council and Housing Executive contributions to the staff commission of around £1 million will no longer be required post 31 March 2017.

Mr Durkan: At the publication of the Criminal Justice Inspection report, I publicly welcomed it and thanked the CJI for its work. As I pointed out when the CJI review was published, it has recommended that the NIEA enhance its enforcement and regulation activity and develop a more rigorous approach to dealing with environmental crime offenders.

As I said previously, its recommendations mirror my approach. It supports and underpins my and NIEA’s aims and strategy, and I welcome its suggestions.

To ensure that those recommendations are established as smoothly and as quickly as possible, I have approved the recent appointment of a new temporary head of the environmental crime unit — one who has extensive experience in the criminal justice sector. Given the importance with which I view the need to tackle environmental crime, I am committed to ensuring that that vital role is filled permanently as soon as possible.

In considering what the report advised in order to enhance the professional development of those tasked with tackling environmental crime, I publicly stated that CJI had put forward some excellent recommendations. In particular, I underline its recommendation that guidelines be developed for levels of enforcement and the rationale for the prioritisation of investigations. That will allow NIEA’s finite resources to be directed towards tackling the most serious environmental offending.

In addition, my officials are examining how best to ensure that the recommended single environmental incident reporting mechanism can be advanced. I have supported, and will continue to champion, the need for a more straightforward system of public reporting. Put simply, the easier it is to let us know, the more likely it will be that people will tell us about environmental offending and allow us to take action.

It is clear that the impact of environmental crime on daily life here should not be underestimated. As I have said here before, it is not a victimless crime.

Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for that response. During questions for oral answer on 21 January last year, I asked about a report into the dumping of illegal waste at the Mobuoy site in Londonderry. Your reply, on that occasion, was a promise to ensure a more joined-up approach between your Department and other agencies, including the NIEA. Is the Criminal Justice Inspection report an indication of failure? Or, could it be viewed as failure on your part?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I am not sure that I view it as such; I am not sure how anyone, if they had read the report in detail, and read any statements from me, subsequent to 21 January 2014, could view it as such. We have radically changed and, I would like to think, radically improved the way in which NIEA responds to environmental crime and the way in which we deal with environmental crime and persistent offenders. I do not think that it is job done, by any means; there are further improvements to make. As outlined in my previous answer, I think that we could do more about the prioritisation of incidents, cases and offenders. In my opinion, a bit of time is wasted going after small fry when there are much bigger fish out there. I would like to see more focus on them. That is something that I have made known to my officials.

Our cooperation and collaboration with other agencies have certainly improved. What happened at Mobuoy demonstrated, very clearly, that there were huge failings there. They were highlighted in the Mills report into what had happened at Mobuoy. At that time, I said that an incident of that scale can never happen again, and I am confident that an incident of that scale will never happen again because we cannot afford for an incident of that scale to happen again.

Mrs Overend: Does the Minister fully agree with the review's finding that the ECU has delivered considerable gains with evidence of capability and capacity, given the apparent impunity with which fuel smugglers and polluters can operate along the border?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. Indeed, fuel smuggling and fuel laundering are a source of some very serious environmental crime. It is a crime that, in particular, requires collaboration between the NIEA, the ECU and other agencies on both sides of the border. Up here, you have the HMRC, which is responsible for enforcement, in collaboration with the PSNI, the National Crime Agency and, indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency, the revenue commissioners and the Garda Síochána in the South. The seriousness of the issue is such that it was actually raised as an agenda item on the NSMC plenary meeting on Friday in Dublin. There is agreement on both sides of the border that there needs to be an escalation or intensification of how the issue is dealt with. It has huge consequences for the economy and the Exchequer, and I am equally concerned about the consequences it has for our environment.

Mr Allister: With the catastrophic failure at Mobuoy, significant inaction, it seems, on fuel laundering and just two convictions in 2013, does the Minister not think that the agency was let off very lightly by the criminal inspection unit?

Mr Durkan: We certainly could do better, and I would love to stand here and say that we certainly will. We have done better in 2014-15 than we did in 2013-14, having secured 23 convictions for waste offending in the last financial year. In the same period, under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, ECU's financial investigations secured four confiscation orders to the value of over £500,000. This shows that the Proceeds of Crime Act clearly remains an effective tool and one that I would like to see the ECU and the agency use much more. That is how you hurt those criminals: you hit them in the pocket.

I have spoken to the Justice Minister, and we agree that there is a need for the judiciary to review the sentences available for waste criminals. In my opinion, the punishment does not fit the crime. Until it does, there are opportunist criminals out there who will continue to exploit weaknesses in the system. There are still some weaknesses — I do not deny that — and criminals will continue to exploit them for their own profit and gain.

Mr Durkan: Burning tyres generates toxic fumes and by-products that can be extremely dangerous to humans and animals. I am content that lead responsibility for bonfire management rests with local councils. However, I am committed to working with and supporting the councils to reduce and ultimately eliminate the burning of tyres on bonfires.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency will, of course, use its enforcement powers in support of councils where it can. Whilst the legal position in relation to bonfires is complex and the relevant powers are exercised by a number of public bodies, including NIEA and local councils, I want to ensure that the environment is protected. In this case, at Craigy Hill estate in Larne, NIEA is aware of the issue. It is assessing opportunities to determine the source of the tyres and will take action where possible.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer. According to the 'All Island Used Tyre Survey', published in 2013, 30% of all waste tyres in the North are being disposed of to unknown destinations. Will the Minister consider using the findings of that report as a starting point for investigating how tyres are being disposed of and how existing regulations can be improved?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. I would say that 30% is possibly a conservative estimate for the number of tyres that end up we know not where. I am certainly happy to take the findings of that report into account in determining a way forward on the issue. It is one that just keeps going round and round.

My officials are working closely with their counterparts in the South. We are looking closely at the South's development of a producer responsibility scheme. NIEA officials sit on the working group that is drawing up that scheme, and I am very interested to see how it rolls out and what we can learn from it. Should it prove successful, and I have no reason to doubt that it will, it is something that I would be very keen to see established in the North, perhaps even on a UK-wide basis.

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


3.15 pm

T1. Mr Wilson asked the Minister of the Environment whether the paperless driving licences that have been introduced today will apply also to Northern Ireland; if so, what action his Department has taken to ensure that motorists know that, because of the advent of paperless driving licences, when they go to hire a car, they will require a code, which will change every 72 hours; and whether he has informed drivers of how they can obtain such a code. (AQT 2611/11-15)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. You could not get much more topical than that: it was just on the news at lunchtime.

I can assure the Member, the House and, indeed, the public that the new scheme in Britain will not apply here. I have asked officials to ascertain the rationale behind the introduction of the scheme in Britain, and the doing away with the paper part of the licence, to see whether it is worth pursuing here. With regards to making the public aware that it is not happening here, I issued a press release just before coming into the Chamber today to ensure that there is no confusion and that people do not dispose of their paper counterparts inadvertently or prematurely.

Mr Wilson: I thank the Minister for his reply. Another part of the driving licence policy that does not apply to Northern Ireland is the inclusion of the Union flag on driving licences. The Transport Minister in England has made it quite clear that, if the Minister here asks for arrangements to be put in place, people who wish to have the flag on their licence can have it included. In light of the decision by the Minister in England, what action has he taken to ensure that those who wish to have that choice can have it?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question, although I think he is, perhaps, misconstruing this. Yes, it could be extended to the North that everyone here could have the Union Jack included on their licence, but choice would not come into it. To set up a system whereby people could have a choice as to whether or not they had the flag on their licence would cost somewhere between £15 million and £17 million. The British Government will not be prepared to pay that, and we are certainly not able to pay for it. That is to introduce choice in Britain. They are not going to afford us the luxury of choice when the choice does not exist for the citizens of England, Scotland and Wales; much to the dissatisfaction of many people, particularly in Scotland and Wales.

T2. Ms Fearon asked the Minister of the Environment whether he is satisfied that the workforce model that was transferred for the delivery of planning services is fit for purpose. (AQT 2612/11-15)

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for that question. I have answered questions in the Chamber in the not-so-distant past about the very same subject. I am content that the model that was transferred is fit for purpose; however, it attracted some media attention, after I gave the answer, when I said that it could not be denied that some teething problems have been experienced — in some councils more than others, I might add.

I also have to say that, with the transfer of the planning function, I also transferred a budget, which I ring-fenced from cuts to my budget and subsequent reviews and budgets agreed by the Executive. Therefore, it is the one function that transferred to local government on a truly cost-neutral basis. I have no doubt about the ability or commitment of the staff who moved over to councils. As I said, there have been some teething problems, but I believe that they are now bedding in well and working well.

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Is he aware that there is a huge backlog in planning decisions in some areas that is having a negative impact, particularly in places like Newry and Armagh? How does the Minister plan to tackle that?

Mr Durkan: I understand and appreciate that there is a backlog in many areas. I would love to stand here and blame the new councils for all that, but I know that they inherited a lot of that backlog. Often, applications that take long to process do so because they are pretty complex, with requirements for input from a number of consultees. Generally, the more complex an application, the longer it takes. I know that, in the Member's constituency, for example, or in her new council area, there are an awful lot of PPS 21 applications, which are sometimes quite difficult to determine. If the planners had their way, they would not be that difficult to determine, but I know of many cases in her constituency where I have been trying to work with elected representatives from that area and with applicants to achieve positive outcomes for those applicants. However, that is a timely process as well.

Clearing the backlog will be up to the new councils and the planning staff therein. I will have no further role in the vast majority of planning applications.

Mr Speaker: The next questioner is Karen McKevitt. I remind you, Karen, that, as the Minister's Assembly Private Secretary, your question must relate specifically to a constituency issue in which you are directly involved.

T3. Mrs McKevitt asked the Minister of the Environment whether he is aware of any reports of a significant decline in the hedgehog population in the south Down area. (AQT 2613/11-15)

Mr Wilson: That is a prickly one for you.

Mr Durkan: You have stolen my thunder. I was going to take that one, too. I was going to say that you can probably see as few hedgehogs today as Down supporters. [Interruption.]

I am not aware of specifics for the south Down area. However, I am aware of reports of a huge decline in the hedgehog population across these islands. I saw it reported on television recently that, over the past 50 years, there has been a 97% decline in the population of hedgehogs, and genuine fears exist that, should positive action not be taken now, the species could face extinction by as soon as 2025. That is very alarming.

Hedgehogs are not something that we see every day. Unfortunately, the ones that we do see are often on the roads. As Minister for road safety, I do not know whether my remit extends as far as making roads safer for hedgehogs, albeit that I know that that is an initiative that has been looked at in some jurisdictions. Generally, if we see a hedgehog during the day, it is an indication that there is something wrong with it. I would be keen, as Minister of the Environment, to undertake a scheme of sorts or a campaign to educate people about the very real threat to hedgehogs and their potential extinction.

Mr Speaker: I am sure that the supplementary will help us to understand how you are directly involved in this issue.

Mrs McKevitt: I met the USPCA about it. It has raised the issue, which probably goes right across our region, and I am delighted to bring it to the Floor today. The Minister touched on his Department's plans to help to address the matter. Perhaps he could enlighten us a wee bit more on those plans.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. They are not so much plans of the Department as plans of mine, although I hope that they will very much be plans of the Department before long.

I am keen to embark on a campaign. I know that a similar campaign has been embarked on in England to educate people on the risk to hedgehogs and on what they can do to ensure the survival of hedgehogs and, indeed, to boost their numbers. It could be simple measures such as leaving out a shallow tray of food. They particularly like cat food; I suppose they prefer that to being cat food. People could also cut holes in fences. Simple measures like that do a lot to help hedgehogs, particularly given the loss of habitat that they have suffered in recent years.

I would be keen to use the vehicle of Eco-Schools, which has been tremendously successful. We now have every school in the North signed up to the Eco-Schools programme. We could use it to get the campaign out there to educate children, who are great at going home and educating their parents on such matters.

T4. Ms Maeve McLaughlin asked the Minister of the Environment to outline a time frame for the legal advice that he received in relation to the single strategic planning policy statement. (AQT 2614/11-15)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for her question. I am not entirely sure what legal advice on the SPPS the Member is referring to. I cannot give a time frame for how long it will take the Executive to make their deliberations on the document. However, I can give the Member a commitment that, as soon as they do, I will publish it. It is vital for the reasons outlined earlier that that be done as soon as possible. Perhaps, in her supplementary question, the Member will expand on the particular legal issues to which she referred, and I will do my best to answer.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for that. I ask specifically about advice that maybe relates to the policy on non-farming dwellings in particular. If there is specific advice, even from within his Department, maybe the Minister could refer to it.

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for that clarification, which is helpful. I know that the issue of PPS 21, particularly on dwellings for non-farming rural dwellers, is one that her party has been extremely vociferous on for a couple of years and would very much like to see accommodated in the final SPPS. I have met a deputation from the Member's party to listen to their views and to hear how they would like to see the issue accommodated.

First, I have to emphasise that the SPPS was viewed very much as an opportunity to consolidate existing planning policy statements, as opposed to altering them drastically, regardless of how drastically or in what direction you might want them altered. Therefore, the legal advice that my Department has received is that it would be going too far to include the wishes or aspirations of Sinn Féin for PPS 21 in the SPPS. However, I have given a commitment — we touched on it earlier with PPS 18, which relates to the renewable energy policy — to review fully and comprehensively PPS 18 along with PPS 21 post the publication of the SPPS. It will be through that vehicle that more dramatic changes could be made to each of the policies. I know that they are changes that a lot of people think are required.

T5. Mr Rogers asked the Minister of the Environment for an update on plans to increase tractor speed limits. (AQT 2615/11-15)

Mr Durkan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for the question. Just recently, I put out for consultation a document in which I was seeking to increase the maximum speed limit of tractors from what is currently 20 mph to 25 mph or, to be precise, 24·8 mph, which is 40 km/h. I know that Mr Wilson does not particularly like speed limits given in kilometres per hour —

Mr Wilson: Or miles per hour.

Mr Durkan: He just does not like speed limits. [Laughter.]

That document is out to consultation. The closing date for the consultation is 7 July, and I anticipate quite a number of responses. Indeed, I encourage responses from parties in the Chamber as well.

Mr Speaker: I call for a quick supplementary question within the speed limit.

Mr Rogers: Do you have any plans to address the maximum combination weight of tractors and trailers? As tractors get bigger and heavier, the situation could arise in which you could have small tractors towing big trailers? How do you plan to address that?


3.30 pm

Mr Durkan: Such issues are also addressed in the consultation. Again, I encourage people to have a look at that and respond to it.

With regard to increasing the speed limit, it was remiss of me not to point out that the vast majority of collisions in which tractors were involved and in which speed was a factor were brought about because the tractor was travelling too slowly.

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly notes the cultural, artistic and community importance of bands in Northern Ireland; recognises the importance of the musical instruments for bands funding programme; expresses its disappointment at the failure of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to fund the programme this year; and calls on the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to restore the funding for the programme. — [Mr McCausland.]

Ms Lo: The Arts Council has three funding programmes that are relevant to marching bands, the main one being the musical instruments for bands programme, which aims to improve the quality of the music and replace worn-out instruments in deprived areas. That scheme is currently on hold; it has not been removed. I understand that the Arts Council funding for its instrument programme is very thorough. To be eligible, an applicant has to reach a high standard, and monitoring continues for five years after an instrument has been received. Many bands work hard to get to that level, and it is important to maintain that incentive. Over £0·5 million has been awarded under the scheme in the past three years. The annual budget for that funding was set in 2006 at £150,000, with a maximum individual grant of £5,000. It is my understanding that bands in receipt of the previous round of funding are not eligible to apply.

I know that, when Nelson McCausland was Minister, he commissioned a report on marching bands in Northern Ireland, which I think he referred to earlier. That report gives a good overview of the importance of marching bands to sections of our community. Involvement requires commitment, skill and discipline. Bands have also reached out to traditionally difficult demographics — for example, male teenagers — and allowed them to engage in cultural and musical practice. It is not just the individual who benefits: through those social events, families and their communities are brought together. Of course, there are sectarian elements that need to be addressed, and the report goes into some detail on that. There is still a perception of disorderly behaviour and paramilitary connection attached to bands of both unionist and nationalist persuasions. While that could well be just public perception, there is obviously a need to promote a more positive image.

It is worth noting that there is already alternative funding for instruments that can be found in the Arts Council's small grants programme and its equipment programme. Bands can also apply for funds via the Community Relations Council's cultural diversity grant, Comic Relief, the Ulster-Scots Agency for some bands, local councils and the Heritage Lottery Fund. That is a better position than that of many other voluntary and community organisations and groups, which, when funding is cut, have nowhere else to turn to. A rationalisation of band instrument funding would be worthwhile, given that there appear to be seven sources of funding, although I appreciate that Comic Relief and the Heritage Lottery Fund are out of the scope of Assembly control. My view is that the Arts Council would be best placed to do that. Such an approach would also make it easier to apply conditions relating to community relations issues.

I ask the Minister to review how other funds can be incorporated in that. In such a difficult financial climate, we cannot continue to reject every money-saving idea that we are presented with. However, as the fund has not been scrapped and as the Minister is on record as saying that she would submit a bid in June, the Alliance Party will support the motion.

Of course, as we currently have no Budget, that support is only in principle.

Mr Hilditch: In supporting the motion, I declare an interest as the vice president of the Carrick, Whitehouse and Agnes Street brass band and a patron of Sir Henry Ingleby's Fife and Drum Corps.

Back in January this year, the Confederation of Ulster Bands presented to the Committee, and I found it very interesting, as did other members, that, week in, week out, almost 30,000 people now perform music to a very high standard in our communities. We have Irish champions, Ulster champions, British champions and world champions, all of whom are generally unrecognised by the wider community in Northern Ireland.

Every constituency represented in the Assembly probably has a role model. I would like to make you aware of one such young man, Jonathan Wilson, from Larne, who has been a member of the Killyglen Accordion Orchestra and the East Antrim Accordion School since he was nine years old, neither of which have received any funding. He has won a Northern Ireland title every year since he started playing. He also won the intermediate all-Ireland championship in 2014; the all-Ireland duet in 2014; and the United Kingdom championship in 2013 and 2014. He was runner-up in this year's competition as well being the duet champion. He is now 17 years of age and has travelled widely throughout the United Kingdom to compete. Jonathan Wilson is only one example of the young musical talent in Northern Ireland, and I congratulate all such young people on their tremendous achievements. What a start for a CV, and what a confidence booster for life?

The Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure is scrutinising the monitoring round with departmental officials. It is a bit disappointing that, even with the success of the arts infrastructure and the funding for bands scheme, it did not rank as important enough to make it into the inescapable pressures section, though I appreciate that it remains a high priority commitment for the Minister.

When we consider the success of the many well-established competitions, outdoor and indoor, the concerts and the tattoos, it is clear that these festivals are about much more than just music and parading. They bring economic benefit to many communities and attract visitors to Northern Ireland as well as domestic tourists.

The Belfast Tattoo, which is in its third year, has shown its huge potential. Its roots lie in the tradition of Ulster Scots, yet it has also been able to reach out in its formative years by showcasing many other talents relating to music and dance that Ulster-Scots people have come into contact with as they travelled around the world. Over 200 tickets for this year's event, in September, have already been sold to a southern Irish tour operator. The net has been spread far and wide to bring many bands and artists to perform each year in the various sections of the show. Each year, bandsmen and bandswomen from across the world bring new, innovative and exciting ideas to their performances.

We have already established the contribution that marching bands make to the arts community in Northern Ireland, but let us also be mindful of the social benefits and the fact that they are proving to have a large effect on the mental health of their participants. For spectators, loneliness is reduced and community cohesion is improved even by just attending a parade or event. For the elderly, attending a band parade or event during the week is sometimes their only communication with other people: they live on their own, so it is a chance to get out and about and meet other people.

There are other benefits to consider, such as when people decide that they no longer want to be in a marching band. They can still be involved in the community and can get involved in organising committees and marshalling groups to assist active bands. We also have a great deal of evidence that bands can re-engage young people who have become disaffected and disengaged from school. They experience a high level of enjoyment in a band, increase their interpersonal skills, improve their relationship development and increase their awareness of their cultural and moral responsibilities. Consequently, there is a reduction in the pull towards antisocial behaviour among the young people involved.

William Bradshaw from the Confederation of Ulster Bands confirmed at the CAL Committee meeting in January that approximately 50% to 60% of marching band participants are under 20 and male. Obviously, the majority are Protestant, which is the single hardest demographic for statutory bodies to engage with. For that community, musical instruments, such as accordions and pipes, can cost up to £2,500 each. You buy two instruments every seven years, which, from a band's perspective, does not suffice. To encourage and engage participants in the working-class community, more equipment needs to be purchased and needs to be available, because most working-class people just cannot afford that sort of money to pay for the instruments that they rely heavily on.

Finally, we look at the evidence that was provided to the Committee and consider that the band movement in Northern Ireland addresses many of the key government commitments in relation to accessibility of the arts to working-class communities.

Mr Speaker: Time is up, I am afraid.

Mr Hilditch: Thank you. In closing, I appeal for the Minister to have a look at the decision, and I look forward to her response.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo inniu agus beidh mé ag labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. I welcome the debate, and I have no issue with recognising the importance of music and the provision of instruments for this purpose. The Minister has confirmed that she is committed to bidding for additional funds for what she described as "this valuable scheme". It is a scheme that has delivered over half a million pounds in the past three years for marching bands alone, and over £700,000 over a longer time period. However, this motion is wider than that. It covers bands, a definition that will require further examination and expansion if we are to be more inclusive in the funding streams required in the wider sector.

The additional value that many of these musicians and bands bring to the wider economy is patently obvious to many of us who enjoy music in a social and non-threatening environment, but there is a flip side to this. In March, I commissioned a research paper on the funding made available for marching bands across the North, which revealed a degree of disproportionality across the various interest groups in the sector. The Arts Council to date has distributed almost £5 million to bands and related organisations, some 31% of which was for instruments and 50% was for other equipment. Mr Hilditch referred to the Confederation of Ulster Bands representation to the CAL Committee in January, and I think that it was unfortunate on that occasion that we did not fully get to ask questions of that grouping. The £5 million represents a significant per capita investment of somewhere in the region of £160 per person over nearly 30,000 participants. This, however, does not compare favourably with the £436,000 received by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, an organisation responsible for, among many things, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in 2013. That brought in some £43 million to the local economy alone in the north-west during the City of Culture year in Derry.

I believe that, while recognising that disparities exist in different communities, there should be a more equitable distribution of funding to all involved in music, regardless of the genre, type or definition. I also believe that there should be a caveat on which bands are funded and that a code of conduct and breaches thereof should be used as a disincentive for bad and threatening behaviour. Perhaps a wider examination of some of the culture or subculture that surrounds some of the band scene should be looked at when determining funding provision. Many people feel that many of our problems emanate from bands, whether it is through timing, nature, location, demeanour or behaviour. This is a perception and a reality that the provision of funding might address.

I recognise what is good in the band sector; who cannot recognise the efforts of the Field Marshal Montgomery band in reaching out, and the efforts of the bands forum in Derry? I support the motion, and I hope that we will see a more equitable division of funding and that the Minister can secure the same.

Mr Middleton: I thank my colleagues for tabling this motion, and I join with them in expressing my disappointment that the musical instruments for bands funding programme has not been funded this year. The band sector in Northern Ireland has made and continues to make a huge contribution to our society, culturally, economically and, indeed, through education.

Many of the events that bands hold throughout Northern Ireland are underfunded and under-promoted. I believe that it is time that the Minister and the Department, along with the Arts Council NI, recognise the significant contribution that this grouping of just over 25,000 musicians makes in our country. I believe that the marching bands sector has been adversely affected by the decision to stop this funding.

In comparison with other areas funded by the Arts Council NI in 2015-16, I have figures showing that circus skills received over £275,000; classical music and opera received almost £2·5 million; the Irish language received over £185,000; and the marching bands sector received zero. While I am not questioning the value of the work undertaken by the groups that were funded, I feel that a 100% cut to the marching bands sector is completely unjustified.


3.45 pm

In my constituency in Londonderry, good and significant work has been undertaken with schools to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes. The development of the Maiden City Accord was a valuable piece of work that brought together various groups in order to provide a structure that allows parades to take place. Of course, that could not have happened without funding. That is why funding for musical instruments is necessary to ensure that these bands can grow and expand, allowing them to continue this valuable outreach work.

Bands offer access to structured tuition, instruments and performance opportunities in many areas where there is no other engagement with arts activities. There is much more to it, of course, than just parading. Mention has been made of the value of the input that marching bands have made to the tourism sector. In my constituency, the Walled City Tattoo, which the Minister herself attended, has been a huge success. That event comprises many young musicians from the marching bands community and is an example of where communities can work together to showcase what is best for our cities.

Mr Humphrey: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He makes some very salient points. Citing Londonderry as an example of how things should work across Northern Ireland is something that I have no disagreement with, but will the Member agree that, in order to get that agreement, those taking part in parades and those who would protest have to want to reach a solution?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Middleton: I completely agree. Both sides have to recognise that they have to work together to try to get the best outcome. Londonderry is an example of where that has happened, although there is a lot of work still to do. However, it is worth noting that it has been a success. We hope that the Walled City Tattoo will also continue for years to come.

It is worth mentioning that these events are attended by diverse audiences from far and wide. These musicians are fantastic ambassadors for our country. Many of them have travelled throughout the world, taking part in various events and showcasing our rich cultural diversity. I will not mention specific bands from my constituency because there are far too many to mention, but some of them are the best in the world in their field.

This talent must be supported and encouraged. I fully support the motion and call on the Minister to ensure that this matter is addressed as a priority within her Department.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Band culture is one of the features of our society. Whether they are brass bands, silver bands, accordion bands or pipe bands, all of them add to our culture and communities. Band membership varies in number from 12 to bigger bands that I have seen of 20, 30 or even 40. There is a wide age group within those bands, but, given what I heard this morning, I hope that there is nobody over 70.

All these bands need money to keep them going, but the problem facing them now is that that funding has been put on hold. That is because of the savage cuts made by the Tory Government. The Arts Council is unable to open the funding scheme in April as it usually does. This may not be the answer that people want to hear, but circumstances dictate how the Budget can be spent.

Today's motion states that the Assembly:

"expresses its disappointment at the failure of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to fund the programme this year; and calls on the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to restore the funding for the programme."

The Minister made it very clear in April this year what she can do. There will be a bid in the June monitoring round, so we have to wait until then. In the past three years, over half a million pounds has been awarded to bands under the scheme, and the Minister is on record as stating that she is committed to supporting the musical instruments for bands scheme. It may be that there is an opportunity to look at how we grant aid bands of all types, not just marching bands.

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

I listened to Members talking about bands in their areas and the high level that they get to as Irish champions, Ulster champions and even world champions. It is the same for members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, who travel widely in Canada and America on very little funding. It is wonderful what we have in common in how we try to get young people to learn music. We should be talking about it and working on it. We must look at funding because the majority of funding so far has gone to marching bands. I heard quite a lot of talk today —

Mr McCausland: Will the Member give way?

Mr McMullan: In a wee minute. I heard very little talk about other bands. Go ahead; I will let you in now.

Mr McCausland: Does the Member agree that the funding is for bands? The word "marching" is not in the title of the scheme. Secondly, even considering marching bands, there are bands from different traditions that have received funding through the scheme. For example, in north Belfast, quite a number of bands from what would be seen as a unionist background have received funding, but so has the O'Neill and Allsopp Memorial Flute Band from the New Lodge.

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

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for his intervention, but I never said that any one place got 100% of the funding. Other people have to get funding. It is about what those bands do when they get the funding. There are rules that bands have to adhere to if they apply for funding. We know that one band was struck off the list and does not get funding because of its behaviour. Threatening behaviour must come into this, because you can no longer push a band through an area that is totally outside of its remit. I will give you an example. In my area of east Antrim, they insist on pushing a band through Carnlough on the return home from the parades. There is no need to put that band through Carnlough. They have a local band, but they insist on sticking a band from Larne through Carnlough. This has been going on for years, and the same band was reported to police and the Parades Commission for playing threatening music outside the chapel in Larne during Mass. I am sure you will agree that there is no need for that.

These things have to stop. We have to sit down and talk. Unless we talk, we cannot get on. The Member from Derry mentioned what is going on there, and I think Mr Humphrey agreed with him. What happened in Derry came out of talks. We must sit down and talk because if we are going to fund bands —

Mr Humphrey: Will the Member give way?

Mr McMullan: No, I have already given way.

If we are going to fund bands, we must do it in the knowledge that we can work together, not in isolation. The days when bands came in and threatened communities are gone. If you have influence in your area, I ask you to use it to ask bands to sit down and talk to local representatives so that an accommodation can be found in the way that it was in Derry. I congratulate them on that.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil áthas orm páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo faoi bhuíonta ceoil máirseála. I am happy to participate in this debate on the funding of bands.

Bands bring benefits to their communities. They provide musical education, entertainment and productive participation for their members and learners. They also instil community pride and give the community focus. Indeed, my father was a member of the Irish National Foresters band in Camlough for many years.

He was an enthusiastic cornet player, as we were very much aware at home while he was practising. In my area, I have enjoyed the music of the Crimson Arrow Pipe Band, St Catherine's Band in Newry, St Brigid's Accordion Band from Jonesborough, the Hunter Moore Flute Band and Altnaveigh Pipe Band. There is indeed a rich tradition of bands where I come from. I hope that every Member has had a positive experience of their local band, as indeed I have.

You could say that band music is culture at grass-roots level. Bands from across the community have benefited from the musical instruments for bands scheme. It is a good scheme and one that I would like to see restored. I take the point that Mr Ó hOisín made that there is an imbalance in funding. For example, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann, more popularly known as "the Comhaltas", received £460,000 in funding, whereas £5 million went towards the bands scheme. I am very aware of the good work that Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann does in teaching people traditional music and, indeed, in helping to provide festivals and fleadhanna throughout the country as a showcase for the skills of the young learners and the more competent musicians. The Pipers Club in Armagh is another group that comes to mind. It provides an excellent service to many young people throughout County Armagh and, indeed, parts of County Tyrone, teaching them how to play the fiddle, the uilleann pipes, the harp, the tin whistle and many more instruments. There is much good work going on, and that should all be recognised and reflected in an equitable form of funding.

Unfortunately, not all bands have behaved with dignity in public. A small number have used their music in a negative rather than a positive way. We heard reference to that here today. Mr McMullan mentioned it. Whether that behaviour is outside St Patrick's Church in north Belfast or St Anne's Cathedral, it is totally unacceptable, and no band that indulges in such behaviour should benefit from this programme of funding or, indeed, from any other. If the Minister is to restore the funding, she should take the opportunity to ensure that the criteria exclude bands that indulge in such behaviour from funding from her Department or any of its arm's-length bodies.

As I said, there is much good work being carried out at grass-roots level in promoting music through bands, traditional Irish music groups and many others. I hope that, if funding becomes available, the Minister will revisit the scheme and, indeed, try to broaden it to include others who may not have had a similar benefit in the past.

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

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh céad maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank all the Members who have spoken in the debate thus far. I support the main essence behind the motion. To be generous about it, I think that most people, if not all, spoke about the role and the merits that musical instruments for bands has brought and can bring in the future. That is why I support it.

The Chair of the CAL Committee, although he spoke as a member of the DUP, not as Chair, moved the motion and spoke about the role of the band sector. He also spoke about the different reviews of marching bands and what they bring to the economy. I think that all Members have spoken about the benefits of the role that marching bands, in particular, and musical instruments for bands have had to play in their communities.

I want to make one clarification of what Nelson McCausland said. Surely, having been Culture Minister and Social Development Minister, he should really know the difference between "inescapable", "desirable" and "high-priority" when it comes to the budget. "Inescapable" relates to the things that I am contractually obliged to do. This does not fit that criterion.


4.00 pm

Mr McCausland: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I will give way in a minute. This does not come under or meet the criterion. I have given it high priority, as two of my officials said last week when they went in front of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Mr McCausland: The point about it being inescapable was actually raised with officials. In fact, we were told that "inescapable" went beyond contractual commitments. Obviously, that includes health and safety issues, but we were told that it also included ministerial priorities, so it was beyond that.

Ms Ní Chuilín: It does not include ministerial priorities if they are not contractually committed to. I will look at the Hansard report of that Committee meeting and will take it up with my officials. Had that been the case, there would have been different bids submitted in previous monitoring rounds. To be fair, if these are the criteria that I have been working to, they are clear and transparent.

This has received high priority. Recently, when I was up for questions, I said that I would support a bid. I did; I have put that bid forward. Indeed, as recently as last month, I met the Londonderry Bands Forum, not just about this scheme but about other work that needs to be done in the future. They are an exemplar, unlike others — they and Comhaltas are exemplars — and they show how, if you look at a few Departments and work across them, you can show what can be done if you do it the right way.

Rosie McCorley and others mentioned the need, where there have been isolated incidents — I do not think that anybody is in any denial about those incidents — of behaviour on Facebook, social media or the streets that could be described as sectarian, antisocial, abusive, threatening or intimidating, that nobody should be seen to support it. I am not hearing it being defended at all. I have told the Arts Council, the Ulster-Scots Agency and indeed any other funder within my remit that, where that behaviour has been proven — not suspected, but proven — funding eligibility will be different to what it was before the incident took place. I think that people can fully understand that. It applies across the board. It is not just for people who have behaved in a sectarian way outside St Patrick's chapel or indeed, allegedly, outside St Anne's. It is the first that I have heard of that incident, I have to say. I am not saying that it did not happen, but that it is the first I have heard of it. Wherever that behaviour occurs, it needs to stop. It needs to stop.

I would also like to point out that everybody has spoken about the merits of musical instruments. Some have actually spoken about the need to have a robust code of conduct and indeed to amend it to be inclusive of opportunities for other types of bands and people purchasing musical instruments for uses other than to be involved in marching bands. That is something that we need to review. I have met young musicians who are not part of a marching band culture but are maybe in a small traditional group or jazz group. They want opportunities. They have had opportunities, even under the Arts Council's small grants lottery scheme, to purchase instruments, but it is important that they are reflected in this as well.

There is a big difference in the funding that has been spent on musical instruments for some of the marching bands and indeed Comhaltas thus far, but it should not be just about purchasing equipment; it is also about where we take these opportunities in the future. David Hilditch spoke about his experience in his constituency and indeed pointed out the whole notion of social inclusion and ending isolation. That affects many people, particularly but not exclusively in rural communities. I have spoken to young Protestant men in working-class areas who do not want to be associated with some of the displays of sectarianism but value the role that marching bands have played for them.

I accept at face value what they say.

There is a need to see this as an opportunity. The Londonderry Bands Forum gave me good examples, as did Comhaltas, of what this fund has allowed young people to attain musically. The intergenerational aspect was also mentioned, with people learning different instruments being involved not just with a band but with a structure that passes skills from one generation to another. That is very important.

When we are having debates, regardless of what they are about, I wish that people would not bring in the Irish language when there is no need. The only person to do that was Nelson McCausland. You end up just looking petty. I have never been petty or political about this scheme and never will. I try to give full expression and respect where they are due.

I have given recognition to the bands forums and individuals I met representing them. To be honest, at some meetings I had within the past month or so, people did not want to be involved in point-scoring or for their names to be associated with some of the debates in this Chamber, which they do not think are helpful. However, they do want investment and to be respected. They want that investment to come primarily from my Department but to be across other Departments, and I am willing to do that. It is much easier for us all collectively to do that when we just keep party politics out of it as much as possible.

In an intervention, William Humphrey raised a challenge about parades and protests. All of us, particularly people in north Belfast, have a lot to learn from the city of Derry. I hope that William and other representatives from north Belfast will use their influence to ensure that dialogue is not only initiated but sustained. That is something that we need to do.

Mr Humphrey: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Absolutely.

Mr Humphrey: The Minister will be well aware, since we share a constituency, as does Mr McCausland, that there has been dialogue, for example, around the impasse on parading on the Crumlin Road at Ardoyne for over 10 years. The point that I made in the intervention to my colleague from Londonderry was that an accommodation can be reached when people want to reach an accommodation. You will know that, in certain sectors of the nationalist community in north Belfast, the Twaddell initiative, for example, was dismissed out of hand.

Ms Ní Chuilín: You did not mention any geographical area; I thought you were talking in general. Now that you have mentioned an area, you need to use your influence to get people talking regardless. Do not set preconditions for those discussions because that dooms them to failure. I note that the Member did not mention St Patrick's or Carrick Hill, which are also in our constituency and need to be resolved. The best that we can do, and should definitely do, is ensure that where there are opportunities, we take them, and where there are not, we create them. That is our job as political leaders in a constituency that has a small number of parades and protests still to be resolved.

I raise that only because the Member raised it and it is something that we can do. Many of the bands involved in parades across the North, throughout this island and, indeed, as some Members mentioned, have participated in competitions that have world titles do not want to be associated at all with what goes on in our constituency. In fact, it is quite clear when you talk to members of the bands forums — certainly the Confederation of Ulster Bands — that there are differences of opinion between urban and rural, and even within urban and urban. There are lots of challenges, but if there is the political will and people are prepared to take risks and to give leadership and support, we can sort it out. However, we need to set our faces to sorting it out.

I guarantee that I will make a bid in June, and, hopefully, it will be successful. If it is not successful, I will look to other sources of funding within the DCAL family and give my best possible attention to getting funding for musical instruments, because I value the work of bands and people involved in music.

When we look at the next CSR, I am minded, after the summer, to look at having a review of this scheme. I am saying that up front: I am looking at having a review of what I think we need to do. While this is about the purchasing of instruments, which is very important, we also need to look at the added value that bands, regardless of their complexion, bring to community cohesion, economic regeneration and social inclusion. I do not think that that has happened properly. The reason why it has not happened properly is because people automatically assume an association with parades. I think that we have an opportunity to be inclusive, involving Comhaltas, for example, or even kids who just come together to form bands and who are not necessarily involved in marching bands culture. They need to have the opportunity to do that and to get that social inclusion.

That needs to be sustained from one generation to another, particularly in areas where young people face challenges to try to find their way. For many of those young people, music is how they make sense of things, and I think that that needs to be supported. However, if it gets reviewed, and I am arguing that it should, people should not be jumping up and down saying, "This is an erosion of our culture". It is not. It is about being more inclusive. We should always try to be more inclusive, particularly when we are looking at getting this bedded down further in any new funding opportunities. We also need to bring in other Departments, particularly to look at aspects of social inclusion and economic and community regeneration, as well as education and rural development.

There are huge opportunities here, but I think that there is and has been a pattern here where a small group of people has been very successful in availing itself of the funding streams, while others have looked on, not quite knowing how to go about availing themselves of them or maybe just not having the wherewithal. In the review, we need to look at how we can make it easier for people to get access. I have said throughout that access equals participation: if you cannot have those two fundamental elements, people will feel that they are and have been excluded because they cannot get involved.

I think that this has been a good-tempered and very useful debate, despite some differences, caveats and, indeed, warnings. I will read Hansard to see what we can do along with officials, the Arts Council and others. I am committed to trying to get some funding for this for the here and now, but I want to look long term. It will need a consultation to find out exactly what is needed, but, let me tell you, I have been in the Department for just four years, and I know that this is not just about the marching bands culture alone. While that is important, there are many others out there who have learned their craft and their skill through marching bands and who want to get involved in other music genres, and I think that they need to be included in some way. I welcome the debate.

Mr Humphrey: On 1 April 2015, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure announced that, sadly, the musical instruments for bands scheme, administered by the Arts Council, would not be opening. That was a very retrograde step and was something that was hugely divisive for the community that has benefited so much from the award scheme and the funding that has come from the Department and one of its arm's-length bodies, the Ulster-Scots Agency.

As a member of the Orange and Black institutions — I have been an Orangeman for 30 years this year — I have walked behind bands that have been exemplary in their playing, deportment, discipline and decorum. I pay tribute to those bands. That has been my experience as a North Belfast representative in recent times and as an Orangeman sitting in West Belfast Orange Hall for all those years, as my father, grandfather and great-grandfather did before me.

I praise the role of the bands in the community. Other Members touched on that. I pay tribute to the Ulster Scots Community Network for the role that it has played in working with the bands to improve them, secure funding for them, develop them and be a voice for them alongside the Confederation of Ulster Bands. I will return to that organisation in a moment.


4.15 pm

As others said, 25,000 people across Northern Ireland are involved in bands, and there are 660 bands in total. There has been, as I said, significant investment from the Arts Council and the Ulster-Scots Agency, but we have to put that in context. If you look at the cost of instruments, a concert flute, for example, can cost up to £15,000. A set of bagpipes can cost £750. An accordion — my colleague for North Belfast Mr McCausland is probably the most accomplished accordion player in the Chamber — can cost £1,500. For silver and brass bands, the cost of instruments goes up. Therefore, although £500,000 is no small amount of money in anyone's terms, 660 bands with 25,000 members puts it in some sort of context.

The Department for Social Development commissioned a study in 2013 that identified a number of things. The bands are varied geographically, and the communities they come from and their playing is diverse. They are also different in how they address issues. Many of them address social exclusion, isolation and poverty, as was touched on by Mr Hilditch. Bands contribute something like £19·3 million worth of charitable donations and social capital to community life in Northern Ireland. That is a huge amount of money being put back by the bands sector. The sector spends something like £8·2 million a year in the local economy on instruments, uniforms and transportation costs. Bands offer a structure for tuition, instruments and performance opportunities in many areas where there is no other engagement in the arts. We as a Committee have been touching on the detachment from the arts of working-class communities across this city and Northern Ireland. Bands absolutely fill a void in that area.

Bands are also intergenerational: they include siblings, parents, grandparents and so on. I attended the Festival of Marching Bands that was sponsored by my colleague Diane Dodds in the summer of last year, at which there was a perfect example of that, with a grandchild, father and grandfather in a band. That is an example, as the Orange family ripples out, of the involvement that there is in bands.

Ulster bands have played huge and significant ambassadorial roles in bands in the United States, Canada, Norway, France, Gibraltar and Belgium, and, of course, at the Lord Mayor's show in London. Just last year, I noticed some friends of mine taking part in the parade. They were walking with Baillies Mills Accordion Band. Skeogh Flute Band from outside Dromore and Hamilton Flute Band from Londonderry have also participated there. There are a considerable number of bands from Northern Ireland involved. The Pride of Ballinran Flute Band from Kilkeel will take part next year.

We must keep in context the positive role that bands play. Similarly, for the younger section of the community, they are the glue that holds it together. I pay tribute to the Confederation of Ulster Bands, which I mentioned earlier. The Committee heard earlier in the year from William Bradshaw, Valerie Quinn and Codie Murray about the role that they play. They are great, articulate and intelligent spokespersons for the band fraternity, and I pay tribute to them.

I was speaking earlier to my party colleague Nigel Kells, who is a councillor in Antrim and involved in Gortagilly Coronation Flute Band. That band has communitised to the extent that it has officers in charge of education and careers tuition in the band for young people for the 11-plus, Key Stage 3, GCSEs, AS levels and A levels. It also has members who advise the band and the wider community in the area about job application forms. That is an example of a band that is not just an organisation that people join and play instruments in; rather, it has absolutely communitised and is giving leadership, building capacity and giving confidence to that community in the south Antrim and southern part of Londonderry areas.

Mr McCausland: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCausland: Some years ago, BBC Northern Ireland did a series of programmes on Silverbridge GAA club that presented the club in a very positive light and helped people outside that sector to understand better the work of the GAA club in a rural community. Does the Member agree that a band such as the one that he just mentioned would be an excellent subject for a similar series of BBC Northern Ireland programmes?

Mr Humphrey: The Member will not be surprised to hear that I agree with him entirely. I watched those programmes. At meetings with the BBC that he attended with me, we pushed for equality in output from Broadcasting House in Belfast. Sadly, a band from County Tyrone that took part in a programme that I think was called 'Nolan and Hector Break for the Border' came out of that in a very negative way and had a very bad experience. I wrote to the controller of BBC Northern Ireland about it and subsequently met him. A local Church of Ireland clergyman had contacted me about the band issue. As a Presbyterian, I pay tribute to the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland, through the Zacchaeus project led by Sister Valerie Thom of the Church Army, has been doing tremendous work on Orange, Black, Apprentice Boys and band parades across Northern Ireland.

Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?

Mr D Bradley: Since the Member mentioned the Church of Ireland, is he aware of the work done by Church of Ireland minister the Reverend Gary Hastings in researching the similarities between traditional Irish music and the music played by the type of bands that the Member refers to, in which he found out that there is a common inheritance of music that is shared across the two traditions?

Mr Humphrey: I am aware of that. Of course, the most popular tune that will be played by bands from all sections of the community is 'Star of the County Down'. As the Member knows, that will be played at nationalist parades and on 12 July.

I will turn to the debate. Nelson McCausland said that bands are one of the largest sections and sectors of our community with, as I also said, 25,000 members, and he urged the Minister to look at the proposal again. Rosaleen McCorley supported the general thrust of the motion and praised the bands forum in Londonderry. Karen McKevitt said that she hoped that a funding stream can be found and that her party wishes that parading will pass off peacefully this year. She also mentioned the work that she has been doing with the Commons Silver Band in Newry. Leslie Cree talked about the role of bands in local communities across Northern Ireland. Anna Lo said that the Alliance Party will support the motion and that over £500,000 had been awarded to reaching into the community. She said that that is important because many young people, especially unemployed males, have been reached by bands. David Hilditch referred to the confederation's presentation —

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

Mr Humphrey: I am sorry that I did not get to include all the Members who spoke. I will just say in conclusion that the bands fraternity is important to Northern Ireland. It is important for building confidence. I absolutely have to say that the vast majority of bands in Northern Ireland are responsible, decent and honourable people who are about playing music in a way that is respectful —

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

Mr Humphrey: — and shows dignity and decorum. I pay tribute to them. I urge the House to back the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the cultural, artistic and community importance of bands in Northern Ireland; recognises the importance of the musical instruments for bands funding programme; expresses its disappointment at the failure of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to fund the programme this year; and calls on the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to restore the funding for the programme.

Adjourned at 4.23 pm.

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