Official Report: Monday 07 September 2015
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to today's business, I welcome Members back after the recess. I ask Members to bear with me as I have a number of items to deal with before we proceed to today's Order Paper.
Mr Speaker: I inform the House that four Bills have received Royal Assent. The Ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints (Amendment) Act became law on 20 July 2015. Three Bills — the Budget (No. 2) Bill, the Reservoirs Bill and the Justice Bill — became law on 24 July 2015.
Mr Speaker: This is an opportune time to inform the House that I wrote on behalf of the Assembly last week to congratulate the Queen ahead of the milestone achievement of becoming the longest-serving monarch.
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that I have received a letter of resignation from Mr Danny Kennedy as Minister for Regional Development. His resignation took effect from midnight on Wednesday 2 September 2015.
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that I have received a letter of resignation from Mr Michael Copeland as a Member for the East Belfast constituency. His resignation took effect from 31 August 2015. I advise the House that I received a letter of resignation from Mr Sammy Wilson informing me of his intention to resign as a Member for the East Antrim constituency. That took effect on Wednesday 29 July 2015. For both resignations, 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 Gordon Lyons has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the East Antrim constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from Mr Sammy Wilson's resignation. Mr Lyons signed the Roll of Membership on 19 August 2015 in the presence of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Clerk to the Assembly and entered his designation. The Member has now taken his seat, and I welcome him to the Assembly.
Mr Speaker: Order. I wish to advise the House that the nominating officer of the Ulster Unionist Party has informed me that Mrs Jo-Anne Dobson has replaced Mr Roy Beggs as Chairperson of the Audit Committee, with effect from 1 September 2015. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met.
Mr Speaker: Finally, before we progress to the business listed on the Order Paper, in the light of the political climate in which we find ourselves, and as we have several new Members, it would be timely to remind the House of the standards of debate that I expect in the Chamber. Members will recall that our last session ended with a particularly heated debate, with some Members making remarks that were not in keeping with a mature debating Chamber. During the summer recess, I wrote to Mr Wilson to impose a sanction on him for his remarks and particularly for resorting to personal insults about Mrs Kelly. This is moot now that the Member has resigned, but I remind all Members that I will not tolerate personal abuse in the Chamber.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Speaker: That does not mean that Members cannot challenge each other in lively debate, which, as you know, I positively encourage. I know that we are in difficult times and, from the Chair, I will defend the ability of all Members to address issues robustly, but they must focus on the issues and not on personal abuse and insults. Members not showing respect will be asked to sit down and may not be called to speak again for some time.
Let us move on.
Mr Speaker: Mr Jim Allister has been given leave to make a statement on the Queen becoming the longest-serving British monarch, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their places and continue to do so. All Members called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item has been finished.
Mr Allister: On Wednesday of this week, this United Kingdom and the Commonwealth will celebrate a very considerable landmark in regard to the monarchy, in that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will become the longest-serving British monarch in history. The scale of that achievement is perhaps illustrated by the fact that relatively few Members of the House were even born when Her Majesty succeeded to the throne in February 1952. She was already the longest-living monarch in our nation's history and now she will become the longest-serving, surpassing the record of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.
It is typical of the work ethic of Her Majesty that she will treat Wednesday as just another working day. That betokens the commitment that has hallmarked her entire life of incredible public service to the nation and the Commonwealth. Therefore, I think it is right and appropriate that this devolved Assembly in this United Kingdom should mark that occasion, salute the achievement of Her Majesty and record our deep appreciation for her long and successful reign. It would be remiss not to mention also the great support that she has had in that role from her consort, her husband of some 68 years, the Duke of Edinburgh, who has been by her side throughout the entirety of this long reign. We are grateful for that.
May Her Majesty be spared yet to continue to long rule over us. 'God Save the Queen'.
— Mr Speaker. Events in the Great Hall, as may soon become apparent, delayed my appearance.
I associate myself and my party with the comments that I trust were made by Mr Allister. In that respect and context, I think that I would have no difficulty whatsoever in agreeing with him. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has conducted herself impeccably in her reign, which, on Wednesday, will mean that she is the longest-reigning monarch in our history. This society has been privileged to have such a personage as Her Majesty as Queen in this realm for such a period of time.
We have much to be grateful for in the way in which she has sustained the monarchy in good times and difficult times. She has presided over the Commonwealth. I understand that you, Mr Speaker, are aware of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and how it has functioned. She has ensured that that has gelled together and brought many benefits to Northern Ireland as well as to the United Kingdom as a whole. For those and many other reasons, we join, across the nation state, in paying tribute to her glorious majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and we say in that glorious refrain: long may she continue to reign over us.
Mr A Maginness: I suppose, as a member of the SDLP and an Irish nationalist, some might think that it would be a bit uncomfortable for me to speak on this issue today. However, it is an indication of the maturation of our politics that I can, with comfort, speak and endorse the remarks that have previously been made about the Queen. It is a signal public service achievement that all of us can rightly acknowledge and respect.
If one examines what the Queen has done in relation to our politics here in Ireland, North and South, particularly her visit to Dublin a few years ago, during which she expressed the firm conviction that there would be reconciliation in Ireland, North and South, and by her very presence in Dublin and her acknowledgement of those who died not just in the Great War and those who served in the British forces but during the struggle for Irish independence, that was a very great contribution to the politics of reconciliation and peace here. On behalf of the SDLP, I am, therefore, very pleased to support the matter of the day today and the congratulations that affectionately go from the House to the Queen.
Mr Nesbitt: Mr Speaker, if you will indulge me for two moments, I want to pay tribute to Michael Copeland, who has left us. We will miss him, but we will remember the compassionate focus that he put on government. It is ironic that that very compassion has exhausted his ability to continue in the job. We wish him well.
I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to Her Majesty's 63 years in the job. Let us remember that it is a job. Can anybody imagine putting in a 63-year shift in any job, never mind one of public service with such an incredibly high profile, where not a single word goes unexamined, as her husband knows so very well? The Queen has demonstrated fantastic leadership, not least on that three-day visit to the Republic of Ireland, when she challenged us all to focus on things that could have been done differently or not at all. To that, I add the things that should have been done but were not.
As well as leadership, she has phenomenal energy. As it happens, the Queen is the same age as my mother. That first day in Dublin would have exhausted her, but the Queen was able to go on for a further two in the Republic of Ireland. My mother and the Queen share not only the same age but, I firmly believe, the same values. How timely it is that we mark the Queen's achievement this week, when the values of these devolved institutions come under scrutiny and, hopefully, review for the better. She provides leadership, energy, values and the ability to see the bigger picture, and she has the discipline to understand that, sometimes, least said, soonest mended.
The Queen is an outstanding leader. The Ulster Unionist Party congratulates her on bringing a new definition to the words of our national anthem, "Long to reign over us".
Mr Dickson: I join those who have spoken in congratulating Her Majesty The Queen on this incredible milestone in her service to the United Kingdom.
We will, hopefully, all reflect on Wednesday and take the opportunity to celebrate the remarkable achievements of Her Majesty The Queen as our sovereign. Perhaps we should also be celebrating the achievements of a remarkable woman. At 89 years of age, as others have said, she is indomitable in her spirit and has time for everyone whom she speaks to. I had the great privilege of meeting Her Majesty at a reception in Buckingham Palace earlier this year, and it was incredible to watch how she met people and the amount of time that she gave individuals to listen to what they were saying to her, and to note that, at a very late hour, she was still ably engaged in conversation.
Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Alliance Party, it gives me the greatest of pleasure to congratulate Her Majesty The Queen and join you, in the correspondence that you sent to Buckingham Palace, and others in that sentiment.
Mr Agnew: I associate myself and the Green Party in Northern Ireland with the comments made by those who have spoken. I personally congratulate Her Majesty The Queen on this remarkable achievement and wish her many more years of good health and continuation in her role.
Mr B McCrea: First, I congratulate Her Majesty. It is really good, Mr Speaker, that you have written to her on behalf of the Assembly — the complete Assembly. I realise that there are some political dimensions to this, but Her Majesty's role in overcoming some of the more difficult issues cannot be ignored.
In addition to congratulating her and looking back over her great contribution, we have to realise that there are significant changes happening in our society that Her Majesty's longevity illustrates. We are in a society where many, many people live a long and prosperous life. We have challenges in the House about how we care for them in terms of medicine, housing and the provision of care.
There are some other issues that Her Majesty's long reign has brought to the fore, namely, how you deal with younger generations. Her eldest son, Prince Charles, has been an admirable son and delivered a great role. When he was younger, he might have expected to ascend to the throne before now.
All in all, this brings to us issues of how we manage an ageing population and look after our young people, and I am sure that Her Majesty will not be short in giving advice where advice is needed.
Mr McCallister: I, too, associate myself with the comments from right around the Chamber in wishing Her Majesty well, reflecting on the length of her reign.
This is a phenomenal woman who, in the 1940s, served her country during the Second World War and vowed at that time to continue to serve, whether her life be long or short. Thankfully, she has been blessed with a very long and healthy life to bring her and our nation to this remarkable milestone of over 63 and a half years on the throne.
As Mr Allister said in opening this matter of the day, most Members of the House were born during the current reign. In fact, of the 12 Prime Ministers who have served during the reign, two, including the current one, were born after the Queen succeeded to the throne. That is a remarkable length of time. In the change in our society and the change in our world throughout that time — the continuing shift that started from Empire to Commonwealth — the Queen's enduring steadfastness in carrying out her role and her duties in those 63 and a half years has been remarkable. That is rightly highlighted today in the Assembly, with all of the difficulties that the Assembly and our Executive face.
Mr Maginness made the point about the remarkable visit to Dublin, and I had occasion to attend one of the events down there. The symbolism of the change in the dynamic in the relationships between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland was truly cemented with that visit. I think that that has been remarkable, and, indeed, the entire royal family has made a contribution to looking at issues of the past and how we might deal with and move through those issues. I think that they have been a tremendous example to us all, and perhaps if we had taken more of the Queen's advice, of Prince Charles's advice and maybe even the advice of the Queen's grandfather, George V, we might be in a much better place. That is something that I want to associate myself with, and I wish the Queen every success. God save the Queen.
Ms Sugden: I am happy to join others today in congratulating Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As Mr Allister said, the Queen had a good 34 years as monarch on me before I was even a twinkle in my mother and father's eyes. That is why I think that she is such a remarkable role model for all, particularly for me as a young woman, as someone to look up to and admire. Her grace and humility in her reluctance to mark this occasion demonstrates her admirable character. I have been very fortunate to have been in her presence on two occasions in this past year, and I was taken by how much she captivated her audience. She is a leader because she brings so many with her, including those who do not necessarily support what she represents. Whilst Her Majesty is reluctant to celebrate her achievement, I am heartened that the House has seen fit to do so. Long may she reign over us. God save the Queen.
Mr Speaker: Ms Caitríona Ruane has been given leave to make a statement on the Syrian refugee crisis, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I again remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business is finished.
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. We are living through one of the worst humanitarian crises that we have seen. I am not going to dwell on the pictures that we have all seen but, for each of us as a mother or father or grandmother or grandfather or brother or sister, it tears our hearts to see young children lying in water, dead.
People in Syria and other parts of the world are being indiscriminately bombed. They are leaving with the clothes on their backs, with children in their arms. European Governments have an enormous responsibility for triggering many of these conflicts. They supported in some cases, and they remained silent in other cases. They did very little when there was indiscriminate bombing, torture and other dreadful human rights abuses.
Over the last number of weeks we have seen a failure of leadership by many of those in power who should know better. We have seen the British Prime Minister use language to describe people that he should never have used, but, thankfully, people are way ahead of Governments. It is heartening to see the response of people all over Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, and right throughout Europe. People want to open up their homes. There is a wonderful four-city initiative on this island, and the Irish people are saying, "You are welcome here. Tá fáilte romhaibh anseo." We know what it is like to suffer. We know what it is like to have to flee. We know the coffin ships that crossed the Atlantic, and many people died on those dreadful journeys. We know that people were very happy to reach a land where they felt safe and could rear their children.
Governments need to match the response of people. It is not enough to say that it should be left to NGOs or civic society. They need to provide services, and the British Government, as a major protagonist in this, need to provide funding. We should not be arguing over how many we take in or how many we do not take in. We need policies. The time for talk is over and the time for action is now.
I worked with Salvadorean and Guatemalan refugees in the eighties, and there was some unfortunate language used then by some political leaders who should have known better. I visited and worked in those refugee camps. Again, people in the United States and other countries were way ahead of their Governments, and they formed the Sanctuary movement. They were even willing to go to jail rather than support migration policy at the time. I was also present at a refugee camp when they went back to their country. They were delighted to go back once the war was over. Some chose to stay; the vast majority chose to go back, because people do not want to leave their homes. They want to be in their homes, in their country.
Ms Ruane: Let us act now. Let us show the world that Ireland is a place of welcome for refugees.
on a global scale, with a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions. There is no doubt in connection with that. For many of us, obviously, the recent photographs have, on a very personal basis, brought that home. The question is in how many cases there have been deaths where the camera was not there. How many things have a blind eye been turned to, in many ways, because they were not in visual focus?
Let us be clear in relation to this. This is where I slightly depart from the Member who previously spoke. It is very much a human catastrophe. It is a man-made human catastrophe, and we need to ensure that we put the blame where it squarely lies. While there is work to be done by Western Governments, it has not been through the Western Governments. It has been through the evil and extremism of terrorism. It has been the so-called Islamic State that has terrorised those in Syria and Iraq, beheaded people, treated women in particular appallingly, and wreaked havoc on Christian communities and non-Christian communities, which has meant that human families have been fleeing for their lives. That is the heart of the tragedy. It is a terrorist- and extremist-related tragedy, but, at the end of it, the victims of that are the ordinary people in Syria, Iraq and other places. That is where the focus has to be.
There are many things that need to be done. A response is required from European Governments in particular, and that has to be coordinated between those Governments. There are actions that ultimately need to be taken within the Middle East to try to solve those issues and prevent this from happening in the future. I think the Prime Minister will outline a response from the United Kingdom later today. Northern Ireland has always had a generosity of spirit. I am sure that, whatever response there is from the United Kingdom as a whole, Northern Ireland will play its part.
One of the great human reactions that has been mentioned is a sense of helplessness for ordinary people at times, but there is a message that people can make a direct contribution. They can contribute to the various aid charities and those who are helping to deliver on a front-line basis.
I know that a number of Members here have made their offices available for food and clothes. That is the real contribution that can be made. Let us, as a people, channel that and play our role in helping to alleviate a great human tragedy.
Mr Eastwood: One of the founding values of the European Union was to respect human dignity. As Europeans, we are all failing to respect the human dignity of the refugees. It is a catastrophe and a disgrace that hundreds of thousands of people are searching for sanctuary and, in many cases, they are not able to find it. I think that we are all responsible in that regard.
It is very unfortunate that it took the image of young Aylan Kurdi to shock us into action when so many people have drowned or, thankfully, been rescued in the Mediterranean Sea over the last number of years. It has, though, shaken us into action. Ordinary people, ordinary communities, Churches and all types of organisations want to act and help, but they cannot help without our Governments putting their shoulders to the wheel and doing what is right. As one of the richest countries in the world, we need to be there to help people who are suffering some of the most brutal conditions imaginable.
We are also responsible because we have sent bombers and troops to some of those countries, and we have destroyed those countries. We have left people with no option but to flee, whether from the evil of ISIS, Assad or Saddam Hussein or the stupidity of Western powers in trying to interfere where they do not understand. A couple of years ago, had the British Prime Minister had his way, we would have intervened in Syria as well, and the beneficiaries of that intervention would, of course, have been ISIS. So, until we understand these issues, Western powers need to be very careful about how they act and respond. We now have an opportunity to respond in a humanitarian way, and I do not think that the British Prime Minister is meeting his obligations in that regard at all.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
I know that the First Minister has just told us that there will be no Executive meetings unless there are exceptional circumstances, but I count this as an exceptional circumstance. We saw the First Minister of Scotland out last week willing to do her bit. I ask that the First Minister convene a meeting of the Executive as a matter of urgency to find out how this Executive and this part of the world can play a role in helping some of these people survive the most brutal of conditions. I hope that the First Minister will hear that call.
Mr Swann: The image of Aylan Kurdi lying on that beach has brought this catastrophe into every home across the United Kingdom and Europe. Until then, the crisis in Syria had been seen as a faceless humanitarian disaster, as numbers who were far removed from us in Northern Ireland and the UK and across Ireland. But that small three-year-old boy gave those people a human face and a soul and made us recognise that it could have been any one of our families if things had been different.
What really brought it home to me was that, as a father of a young boy who will soon be three, I pictured that it could have been my son. If things had been different and I had been born in another place, how would I have been feeling? How could I have coped? What would I have wanted to do? It is that image and that message that has to come out. It is common humanity for people to want to help.
We have to commit to a plan to help. We have heard three Members speak — I am the fourth — and it is with great sadness in this Chamber that we have already heard the politics coming out in this crisis. It is not what we can do as an Assembly but as a people united together. I have heard the potshots at the British and Irish Governments about Assad and ISIS.
This matter of the day should have been about what we can do and what we can do now. As an elected representative, a father and a human being, I think that that is what we should be taking out of this matter of the day. It is not about pointing the finger at who was and was not to blame, nor is it about looking at what numbers we are going to or cannot take. It is about how we can help. If that is the coordinated response, through the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and through Europe, which is their responsibility and which we, as a devolved region, are part of, let us play our part and let them play their part. Let this be a solution to the global crisis that many have spoken about, but let this not be another political football for us to kick round the Chamber.
Mr Dickson: Northern Ireland has a very long and very proud history of helping those in need in similar situations in the past, and today is certainly no different. No one could fail to have been horrified when they looked at the newsprint and pictures emerging from this crisis; a crisis that has been there but that has been brought sharply into focus by those photographs of the pain and suffering of people wishing to escape the unfathomable horrors of war.
As others said, perhaps more could have been done and, indeed, should be done. We all need to take responsibility, and we will all have to answer for what we did in this particular crisis situation, as we will have to do for many other things that we have had to step up to the mark for. However, I have been heartened over the weekend by those ordinary citizens right across Northern Ireland who want to do something because we all know that it is the right thing to do. Whether it is to make financial donations to organisations like Red Cross, Save the Children or Christian Aid, or to get involved in spontaneous community collections of clothing and supplies for families, no matter where they are, if they are in need and if we can help alleviate their problems, we should do that.
It has also been saddening over the weekend to look at some of the negative comment that has been made about those of us who wish to help and who do not want to make political points but to genuinely get involved in providing for those who are suffering.
It is just amazing to watch the response of ordinary people in Northern Ireland as they rise above all that negativity and as we do what we all can to help to alleviate this horrendous humanitarian problem. Even if we can help only one small child or family, we should all be getting out there and doing that. I encourage the Assembly to do what it can to help alleviate these problems, working together with our Government and Governments internationally.
Mr Allister: Of course, one would be lacking in any spark of humanity if one was not touched by some of the images that we have seen. It is right that there must be an appropriate response. I am sure that each one of us, privately and individually — in showing the genuineness of our concern, perhaps the more privately the better — will wish to respond to the humanitarian appeals. Of course, there has to be a national response, but, this being a reserved matter, the responsibility for it lies exclusively with the United Kingdom Government. If and when they announce the number of genuine refugees that are to be received into the United Kingdom, our responsibility, in this part of the United Kingdom, moves to taking our proportionate share of those refugees. In that, I am sure, we will not be found wanting.
I think that the scheme of taking refugees has to be informed by a determination not to reward the merchants of death who have been engaged in people transportation across the Mediterranean — the people smugglers. We cannot reward, encourage and grow their evil business in the response that we make.
Therefore it is right that the Government should focus on the source of the refugees being in the camps in Syria. I think that the Government have also to be careful and very vigilant in ensuring that, in the bringing in of refugees, we do not threaten the security of the United Kingdom. By that I mean that the Government have to be vigilant in ensuring that, under the cover of the refugee crisis, there is not an influx of ISIS jihadists into the United Kingdom.
It is, of course, a huge humanitarian problem. It has to be tackled with sensitivity, but with common sense, and some of the common sense informs us of the fact that we should not be rewarding those who organise the transport, in deadly conditions, for profit, of refugees, and we should be carefully regarding our own borders for the future.
Mr Agnew: You cannot fail to be moved by the images that have been shared across the world of the current refugee crisis, but it is hard not to reflect on how disappointing and embarrassing the UK Government's response had been prior to the picture of Aylan Kurdi being circulated. To that point, the UK had taken in only 216 Syrian refugees. When compared with many of our European neighbours, we certainly could not have been deemed to have stepped up, and whilst I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has committed to taking thousands more, I regret that it took that image and a public outcry to force him and the Government to step up to the plate.
There has been a lack of leadership. Unfortunately, it is a humanitarian issue, but it is also a political issue, because political decisions have to be made to ensure that the UK acts as a refuge for those who seek sanctuary. The Prime Minister recently rejected the EU Commission's call for the UK to take in 18,000 refugees as part of a coordinated European response.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: May I interrupt the Member? A Member's phone or electronic device is close to the microphones. I ask them to remove it. Thank you.
Mr Agnew: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. We need a Europe-wide coordinated response. No country can solve this problem on its own, but the UK should be playing its part to help others who are less fortunate, as it is still a wealthy nation. Our people have made it clear that that is what they want to see this country do, and I think that the Prime Minister should heed the words and calls of the constituents of the UK.
Northern Ireland, for its part, must ensure that it heeds the words of the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS), which has said that, as an organisation, it would struggle to provide support. We must ensure that we play our part. Whilst we cannot decide the numbers that are taken in, we can decide how we allocate support if and when refugees arrive on our shores. We must make sure that they find a better life here than that life from which they have fled.
Mr B McCrea: Of course, when you look at the pictures, you cannot be anything other than distraught. I think that I join with all people here when I say that, when you looked at the photographs, it was appalling. The question then arises as to what we do about it. I have to say that I struggle to know what I, personally, can do. There are a number of questions here. There are those who say, "Let's not bring politics into this". That is wrong. This is about politics; everything is about politics. There are some hard questions to be asked. I am not saying that I have an answer, but, when we talk about the military intervention in Syria, the question arises: would we be supportive of setting up safe havens in Syria or Turkey and providing military support to do that? Surely, it is better to keep people where they are.
I also have to say that, unlike Scotland and Wales, we do not have a refugee integration strategy in Northern Ireland — maybe we ought to work on that — or a race equality strategy. I say that because it is important. This is but one case of refugees, but thousands of people are streaming in from Africa, fleeing drought and deprivation there. We need some solution and not just a gnashing of teeth and a rending of clothes. We need to find out what it is that we will do.
I have to say to you that this is a political issue that requires a political response, and we should debate it. We really need to find a way to tackle humanitarian concerns that affect us all, but that needs to be done in a planned and long-term manner. I hope that the House will address the necessary strategies and the missing policies.
Ms Sugden: Ms Ruane began her contribution by saying that we should not dwell on the horrific pictures that we have seen, but I think that we should. People dead and washed ashore, and a boy cold not from the chill of the water but through death, which came far sooner than it should have, but death was the risk that his family took for his survival. I said last week that I would not wish for his family's circumstances, and I am really sure that they would not have wished for them either.
I am very fortunate in the life that I lead. In fact, every single one of us in the House is very fortunate in the life that we lead. What all this does, other than hopefully ensuring that those people now get the help and support that they need, is to put things into perspective. Is it not ironic that the House is united when it comes down to real human tragedy? I hope that, in the days and months ahead, we can look to our own advice for our own circumstances, but I do think that we need to help these people.
Whilst I agree with Mr Swann when he said that energy from some quarters had gone into blaming, I think that that energy should be refocused on helping, because those people need help and support right now. Equally, I agree with Mr McCrea: political circumstances brought these events about on a long arm, and the only way that we will fix this politically is to look back and see how we can help them. Bickering about those circumstances today will not bring that little boy back, but help may stop others from finding themselves in the same circumstances.
Mr McCallister: Like others have said, not only in this country but around the world, that photo certainly seems to have shocked the world into action. I have a three-year-old son who is the same age as that wee boy. The difference in their circumstances, as Mr Swann highlighted, depends on where they happened to be born and are living. One lives in a modern, wealthy, affluent nation where a three-year-old goes to nursery school. The other fled and tragically drowned trying to get to a better life. That has rightly shocked our nation and the world into action. There is a longing out there in that everyone wants to do something, whether that is in a very personal, quiet way by providing either financial or practical support that they can send out in aid, which brings out the good in everyone across our country. There is a yearning to do something and to respond to this.
The wider issues will not be solved today. We have a huge humanitarian crisis on Europe's doorstep, and it is about how Europe and the world respond to that. How much aid? How many refugees can they take in, and how much need can be met?
What dangers will be faced by those who are left behind? How do we respond to that? How does the world deal with that in a part of the world that has had so many problems for so many years? People have talked about intervention and its difficulties, but Syria is one place that the UK Parliament voted not to intervene in. Looking at where the bulk of these people are moving from is something for another day and a longer-term strategy. It is about how we deal with the here and now, and that will bring out the very best in each and every citizen in our country as we all try to respond and do something to provide support at a practical level.
Mr Rogers: It is shameful that it has taken the death of one little boy to shock the western world into action. One of the major focuses of our deliberations has been on global migration, including the growing refugee crisis resulting from the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East and north Africa. The particular plight of Syrian refugees is such that one in every four refugees is Syrian.
As legislators, we are united in our opposition to the politics of fear and in honouring rights and the common good so that migration can be legal and of choice rather than of necessity. In the light of there being over 60 million currently displaced persons worldwide, we believe it imperative that we provide humanitarian refuge. Even more importantly, it is imperative to effectively address the causes that force people to flee their homes and to offer durable solutions for those whose lives continue to be uprooted. These solutions include effective international protection and concrete support for persecuted minorities who wish to remain in their home countries; the restoration of political stability and security to allow for voluntary and safe return; socio-economic development and the rule of law, including anti-corruption measures to ensure that people can enjoy the fruits of their own lands; long-term planning and training standards and the bilateral organisation of legal migration flows to effectively match the needs of the receiving countries with the labour talents of the sending countries; and effective and peaceful integration into host countries, offering communities between them of diverse peoples based on values of love, justice, equality and freedom.
We trust that the Westminster and Dublin Governments will follow the lead, albeit a bit late, of Germany and Austria and welcome migrants to this island. It is not so long since our ancestors left this island on coffin ships to seek a better future. Now is the time to show that we really care about our fellow man. Words are just a start; we need action.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As with similar motions, the motions on Statutory Committee membership will be treated as business motions. Therefore, there will be no debate.
That Mr Gordon Lyons be appointed as a member of the Committee for Social Development. — [Mr Weir.]
That Ms Claire Hanna replace Mr Seán Rogers as a member of the Public Accounts Committee; and that Ms Claire Hanna replace Mr Joe Byrne as a member of the Committee for Regional Development. — [Mr Ramsey.]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to introduce the Bill on behalf of the Minister for Social Development.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended until 25 November 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Water and Sewerage Services Bill [NIA 51/11-16].
The Water and Sewerage Services Bill will amend and confer power to amend the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, and for connected purposes. The Bill was introduced on Tuesday 16 June 2015, with its Second Stage taking place on Monday 29 June 2015, following which the Bill moved on to Committee Stage. The Committee agreed at its meeting on 1 July 2015 to seek the permission of the House to extend the Committee Stage to 25 November 2015 to allow for a full consultation and consideration of a number of important aspects of the Bill.
The Committee has undertaken pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and worked very closely with the Department in ensuring that this tight deadline can be kept to, including consulting on the Bill, with Committee officials meeting the departmental briefing team during summer recess. The Committee agreed during a recent strategic planning exercise that the Bill was a priority and confirmed its commitment to continuing to work with the Department to ensure its passage through the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended until 25 November 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Water and Sewerage Services Bill [NIA 51/11-16].
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 18 December 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill [NIA 50/11-16].
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. As Members will be aware, the Bill arises from the policy recommendations made by the legal services review group chaired by Professor Sir George Bain in 2006. As I outlined at Second Stage, the Committee has been endeavouring to proactively gather evidence on the policy aims of the Bill and commissioned research into the approaches being taken in other applicable jurisdictions for the regulation of the legal profession and the handling of complaints. Given the significance of the Bill, it will be important that the detailed provisions are carefully scrutinised at Committee Stage, since the new regulations will impact solicitors and barristers in how complaints are handled, with the introduction of a Legal Services Oversight Commissioner.
Moreover, the proposed new arrangements will have a direct bearing on the consumer. During its preliminary scrutiny, the Committee noted that a power relationship can exist between lawyer and client. That is something we need to be careful to factor in when identifying and assessing the evidence.
I reiterate my previous comments that we must ensure that a balance is struck and that the new arrangements are proportionate, but also that they command the confidence of the public. As part of its scrutiny, the Committee will need to ensure that it has the full picture of the level and scale of complaints on the ground. The Committee is therefore seeking this extension to provide sufficient time and space to consider whether the Bill strikes the necessary balance in meeting the needs of the legal profession and consumers, whilst providing efficient and effective arrangements into the future. I ask Members to support the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 18 December 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill [NIA 50/11-16].
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
That this Assembly approves the 'Opportunities for Excellence' report of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment on its inquiry into growing the economy and creating jobs with lower corporation tax; and calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, in conjunction with his Executive colleagues, to implement the recommendations contained in the report.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom toiseacht anseo agus mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach aon duine a thug eolas dúinn i rith an fhiosrúcháin. I would like to start by thanking all those who gave evidence to the Committee during this inquiry: those who provided written submissions, those who corresponded with the Committee and those who attended the Committee to give oral evidence. I would also like to thank officials from the Department and Invest NI who provided written submissions and attended the Committee. I would particularly like to thank the Committee staff for their support, and indeed members for their input and scrutiny throughout the inquiry.
The inquiry has been very comprehensive. The Committee has looked at every relevant aspect of Government and at how the decisions made at the Executive table can influence the economy here. We have heard repeatedly that the devolution of corporation tax is not the silver bullet that will solve all our economic problems at one stroke. It was with this in mind that the Committee undertook the inquiry. The Committee sought to achieve three aims through the inquiry: first, to identify the main factors that will influence economic development in the future; secondly, to assess the adequacy of current provision in relation to those factors; and, thirdly, to make recommendations where improvements are needed.
The inquiry was undertaken on the assumption that corporation tax would be devolved and that the rate would be reduced significantly from 2017. It is important, however, to highlight the fact that the recommendations in this inquiry remain relevant regardless of whether or not corporation tax is devolved and regardless of the rate at which corporation tax will be set in the future. Personally speaking, I hope and trust that we will see progress on that.
This is about getting our economic house in order to make Northern Ireland attractive to investors as a good place to do business. I would like to start off by commending the positive and constructive work that is being undertaken by some of our Departments, arm's-length bodies and district councils to support business growth and job creation. There are a number of examples highlighted in the report where policies focus on business needs and demonstrate a joined-up approach between various parts of government. The fundamental problem is that there is just not enough of this sort of thing happening and that what is being done is not always being done at a high enough level.
Key business representative organisations have demonstrated that there is no overall long-term, strategic, integrated approach to economic development. Long-term policies within Executive Departments often seem to be developed in isolation and with little consideration of the wider needs of other areas of government. Many policies are not sufficiently strategic. They are not aligned to a strategic vision. They fail to see beyond the four- or five-year Programme for Government cycle. There is no evidence of a strategic, joined-up approach, horizontally between Executive Departments or vertically between regional and local government. Worryingly, there is no recognition that a problem exists. There was no evidence that there is any agreed approach at Executive level to look at how policies can be better integrated in future.
If we are to create an attractive environment for business investment, we must make sure that we have a workforce with the skills that businesses will need into the future. We must make sure that we have the right infrastructure in place for key services such as transport, energy, telecoms and water, and we must make sure that those are adequately developed across the North, not just in pockets here and there. There is no point in trying to attract a large financial services company to north Down if we cannot provide that company with an appropriately skilled workforce. There is no point in trying to attract a data centre to south Antrim if we do not have the required level of connectivity. There is no point in trying to attract a manufacturing company to mid-Ulster if it cannot get the electricity supply that it requires. What is needed is a fully integrated approach — a joined-up approach between Departments that involves all district councils with input from the business, employee and community sectors.
The key recommendation from the inquiry is for a rolling 20-year shared vision and strategy for economic development. It is difficult to see where we will be in 20 years' time. The Programme for Government provides a firm five-year plan, but it should do so with a view to what is expected to transpire in the five years beyond that and how that is likely to impact in the longer-term future. We need to be bold, forward-thinking and visionary.
We are told that a reduced level of corporation tax could potentially bring up to 40,000 jobs by 2030. That is only 15 years away. How was that figure determined? Where will those jobs be located? Will we have an additional 40,000 cars travelling into Belfast, or will the jobs be located across the region? Will we have adequate housing to accommodate the people whom those jobs will bring, or will it create a property boom that we cannot sustain in the long term? We have already had some of that. Will our transport infrastructure be able to cope? What sectors will those jobs be in? Will we have the skilled people to fill those vacancies? Although such questions cannot be answered with any level of accuracy, we need to be aware of them and start to plan, manage and develop answers and begin to plan strategically for where we want to be by 2030 and beyond.
We need to be in a position where we have influence and control over the answers to those questions by providing the right conditions for investment. That is why we need a rolling 20-year vision. The key elements of the vision should be: that it is articulated so that all parties understand it and can buy into it; that it is rolling in that it keeps being updated and refreshed as important external factors change; that it is shared across government at all levels and across the private and public sectors; and that it is a vision not only for what the economy will look like but for how all parties work together to develop the economy.
The vision for the economy must be driven by an overarching strategy for economic development. The Committee acknowledges that an economic strategy exists, but government must start to work in partnership across the business sector, the employee sector and the education, skills and community sectors. The Committee has therefore recommended the establishment of a steering group that includes representatives from all levels of government, the education and skills sectors, and business, employee and community representative organisations to develop and implement the vision and strategy.
The Committee has seen how a long-term vision can work in Stuttgart with partnership working between various interests. I would like to take this opportunity to record the Committee's gratitude to the representatives of the Stuttgart region who took the time to provide members with a detailed understanding of how government supports businesses in that part of Germany. The Committee understands the difficulties that the development of partnership working can potentially involve, especially in the early stages of development, but if we accept that everybody involved has an interest in growing the economy and creating long-term, sustainable, skilled employment across the North, we can, with the right attitude and leadership, overcome those difficulties and develop a vision and strategy that says, "We’re all in this together to create a prosperous and successful region for everyone".
I venture that the beginning of this week and the talks process no less emphasise that very point.
Included in the overarching strategy must be strategies for education and skills, economy and employment, and infrastructure. Those are the key areas that we have to get right to provide the right conditions for economic growth. Importantly, we must also include our responsibilities for society and communities. We may work in an economy, but we must not lose sight of the fact that we live in a society.
An adage that is often attributed to Lord Kelvin is this: "what gets measured gets managed". However, measuring is not something that Departments here are particularly good at. There is often a tendency to provide measures for the level of actions rather than to measure outcomes and benefits. There is also a tendency to confuse activity with achievement. If the Executive are to succeed in achieving a vision for the economy, it is important that progress towards the achievement of that vision is effectively monitored and measured. For that reason, the Committee has recommended the establishment of appropriate working groups to develop strategies and to monitor their implementation.
The development of a vision and strategy must include a review of strategically important structures, policies and processes, and we must ensure that we have strategies in place to achieve horizontal, vertical and geographical integration of high-priority policies and strategies. We must ensure that people can reap the benefits of economic growth and job creation right across the region.
In the report, a number of issues have been highlighted on creating an economy and employment strategy. DETI and DFP must have confidence that the available economic data on which decisions are based is robust, accurate, complete, timely and appropriate. That has not been the case in the past. The export plan and other strategic and local economic development plans must fully consider the relationship with our closest trading partners in the South to maximise cross-border opportunities. The advice and support provided to businesses at local level must also be reviewed, and plans should be put in place to improve and integrate the provision of advice and support in line with business needs.
Firm commitments must be made to subregional economic growth and job creation. The Departments should work in liaison with councils, which should be encouraged to work with Invest NI to develop local propositions and set targets at those local levels. Mechanisms should also be put in place at the earliest opportunity for the evaluation of the planned enterprise zone in Coleraine to consider whether and how the concept can be rolled out across the region. Similar mechanisms should be established to evaluate the planned agrifood competence centre, and consideration should be given to how that model can be adopted as a pilot to assess the viability of future competence centres in other priority sectors.
The banking sector should be encouraged to become involved as a partner in economic development to achieve a step change in the relationship between banks and business and in access to finance for those businesses. We must also look at how we can reduce the burden of unnecessary bureaucracy on businesses. In the first instance, we must draw on the experiences of other EU member states to review the way in which EU legislation is interpreted. We need to provide legislation here that removes all unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on businesses. Other EU member states seem to have developed mechanisms and ways of interpreting those rules and regulations, which facilitate and help their local economies to grow.
In creating an infrastructure strategy, DETI must revisit the recommendations in the Committee’s reviews on electricity pricing and grid connections. The Committee's electricity reviews have been commended in the business sector for providing a sound and comprehensive overview of the electricity market. It made key recommendations on pricing and grid connections that were based on the evidence that was gathered by the Committee. However, since those reviews, there has been very little activity by the Department to demonstrate how the Committee’s recommendations will be implemented. In fact, it is still unclear which of the Committee’s recommendations the Department has accepted. For example, where recommendations on pricing had implications for the single electricity market, the Department often referred to the ongoing work on electricity market reform, which it wished to see completed before further considering recommendations. That was last year. In the meantime, large energy users continue to pay, as they say, the highest electricity prices in Europe.
In relation to a recommendation on the contestability of grid connections, which could significantly decrease the costs to businesses for connections, the Department informed the Committee that it remains supportive of measures to implement contestability. What does that mean? What has the Department done to support businesses to achieve grid connections at less cost?
In response to a recommendation calling on the Department, as the lead body for electricity policy, to clearly state and communicate a long-term vision for electricity, the Department referred to its strategic energy framework. The strategic energy framework runs out in just five years' time.
More urgency needs to be given to the critical matter of electricity policy and how it impacts on businesses. Recent and ongoing events relating to electricity policy have demonstrated the need for a fundamental review of how electricity policy is developed and managed. It is essential that the potential for future economic development is not curtailed because of a failure to consider important economic factors in the development of electricity policy.
Mr McGlone: OK. Maybe at that point, as there is a fair bit more to go, I will conclude.
Mr Dunne: I must say that I was not expecting that call. I thought that I was further down.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion on the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee's inquiry. I think that the Chairman has covered most of the issues. The title is 'Opportunities for Excellence', and I think that we all recognise that, with the reduction of corporation tax, we would have great opportunities for excellence in business development.
There is no doubt that this has been a very extensive inquiry. I thank all those who have been involved in the development of the report. Obviously, the Committee Clerk and Committee staff have put in a tremendous amount of work, along with the various members who contributed. We need to have a real focus on our economy and on creating jobs and developing the potential for lower corporation tax.
The Committee engaged in a considerable amount of work, gathering evidence on how any reduction in corporation tax would bring maximum benefits to the Northern Ireland economy, both in relation to inward investment and the sustainable growth of indigenous businesses. I appreciate the Chairman's remark earlier about trying to encourage businesses right across Northern Ireland, and I welcome the fact that he mentioned north Down.
Throughout the presentations that the Committee received, the message continuously presented was the need for political stability. It is somewhat ironic this week that this debate comes to the Chamber when the talks are about to begin. I think that we all emphasise the need for progress in the talks and for the establishment of political stability, because political stability will help this place to grow. Without it, business will not increase because of the lack of confidence in our community. Selling the message across the world that this is a positive place — a place where we have skills and where we have people waiting to work — is something that we must support.
Mr Swann: How does that political stability tie in with the Executive not meeting?
Mr Dunne: Thank you. I am sure that they will not take any lectures from the Ulster Unionist Party and its recent stunt to pull out of business in the Executive.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. Of course, that point was raised by the Ulster Unionist Party, which is a party that is slow to do everything. In fact, you have to ask why it did not move out of the Executive two years ago. The only thing that it did in recent history quickly was to release prisoners.
Mr Dunne: It is imperative that we are able to demonstrate that Northern Ireland is politically stable and is an economically ambitious place to do business. Throughout the inquiry, it was important for the Committee to keep the focus on the key drivers of economic development that have the greatest potential for economic growth and job creation. These are telecommunications, ICT, life and health sciences, agrifood, advanced materials and advanced engineering. Northern Ireland has an excellent skills base across those sectors and combines its rich heritage in heavy industry and manufacturing with the skills and research to excel in many of these fields.
We need to bridge the skills gap — that was emphasised on many occasions by contributors to Committee evidence sessions — and prioritise STEM subjects at our universities and colleges. The South Eastern Regional College (SERC) in my constituency of North Down customises courses to meet the needs of local businesses and the service sector. It has also built relationships across the world in Japan and developed exchange programmes. I appreciate the work to develop valuable apprenticeships, and we should put on record our thanks to DEL and my North Down colleague, the Minister, for pushing apprenticeships. We very much appreciate the work that has been done. We see the public advertising and the need to increase awareness and develop apprenticeships as a way into work for so many people.
There is also a clear need for a more strategic alignment of government support and a greater need at Executive level to integrate the policies of Departments that impact on key areas of economic development. That message came out clearly from the Institute of Directors, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the CBI and many others. There was also discussion of regional balance in economic development across Northern Ireland and the importance of treating Northern Ireland as one region. Invest NI, which has done an excellent job over recent years, believes that setting subregional targets may be a negative decision. It would take the focus away from Northern Ireland as a whole and, in many cases, stimulate a situation in which opportunities for this country would be missed.
Mr Dunne: Energy costs remain a real challenge for the development of our business sector. It is important that, come 2017, when the opportunity arises, the Executive moves forward with a lower rate of corporation tax to make Northern Ireland a very attractive place to do business.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member's time is up.
As this is the first debate in which the Assembly will hear from Mr Adrian Cochrane-Watson, I remind the House of the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption. That, of course, is predicated on the basis that the Member does not express extreme views in any way.
Mr Cochrane-Watson: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I speak on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party on the recommendations in the ETI Committee report, 'Opportunity for Excellence'. I know that my predecessor, Mr Danny Kinahan MP, was keen for the Committee to explore the economic implications of the devolution of corporation tax for Northern Ireland. I start by paying tribute to Danny. He brought a very optimistic, positive political view to the Chamber. He will continue that to the greater good of my constituency, South Antrim, and, indeed, of all in Northern Ireland as he continues the hard work at Westminster. I am honoured to represent South Antrim in this Chamber.
Although I was not on the Committee, I pay tribute to its hard work in conducting the inquiry and bringing together the report. I have no hesitation in supporting the 15 recommendations. I would, however, like to comment on a few of the issues raised.
First, I note that the inquiry discovered a consensus of opinion across the business world of Northern Ireland that there is no overall, long-term, strategic and integrated approach to economic development. That surprises me, particularly given the existence of our economic strategy, investment strategy, regional development strategy, apprenticeship strategy and Programme for Government. However, all the key stakeholders, such as the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the CBI and Manufacturing NI, agree that there is no joined-up plan to grow the Northern Ireland economy. Let us face it: we have enough strategic plans and documents to paper the Great Hall — they are simply not joined up and not delivering. That is an indictment of the Sinn Féin/DUP-led Executive from 2007.
The Committee inquiry was undertaken on the assumption that corporation tax would be devolved and tax-varying powers might come into existence as early as April 2017. That now seems a very forlorn assumption, to say the least. On Monday 23 February, all five main political party leaders agreed with proposals from Invest NI that tax-varying powers should be introduced, with the aim of having a rate of 12·5% as early as 1 April 2017. Of course, the very next month, our deputy First Minister was overpowered by the southern command and reneged on that commitment. A certain Mr Declan Kearney, who, I note, is not elected by anyone, gave the judgement that Sinn Féin would not support the position of adopting a cut to corporation tax. Sinn Féin bleats about others playing politics, but it is totally about political appeasement. It tries to portray itself as a party of austerity in the Republic of Ireland.
In responding to the debate, will the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment give us some clarity on corporation tax? Will he confirm that, as far back as February, all major parties in the Assembly had committed themselves to the lowest rate possible and the earliest implementation date, namely 12·5% and 1 April 2017? Will he confirm that, because of the decision that polarises the Executive, the chance of making that rate on that date and, indeed, of introducing lower corporation tax has been lost?
Mr Cochrane-Watson: Will he further confirm that potential overseas investors will not wait for ever and that the dysfunctional Executive have proven themselves entirely unable to make decisions and stick by them? Is there a plan B if corporation tax is not devolved?
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I wanted to make life relatively easy for the Minister and the Committee Chair by sticking to recommendation 1, but it is important to say to Adrian that a rate and date have not been agreed. That has not been agreed by the DUP or Sinn Féin, never mind by all five parties. Although the previous Minister said that she was minded to have a 12·5% rate of corporation tax, that has not been fully confirmed by the DUP either. We all wait for a rate and date, and we travel in the hope that we can get this right.
As to the inquiry report, I thank the staff who put hours and hours of hard work into making sure that we were able to come out with a cogent and strong report with clear recommendations. I also thank all who came forward as witnesses.
There is a variety of recommendations; we managed to limit ourselves to 15, which I am sure will cheer the Minister. Among those is a recommendation that mentions horizontal, vertical and geographical integration, but I will not focus on that at the minute. I want instead to talk about recommendation 1a, which is about the need for investment.
I think that we all can unite behind that.
The scale of investment needed — not only an investment strategy and fund — is very clear from the demands and requests of those who came to give evidence. In particular, we need better transport infrastructure. It remains a source of distress and concern not only to business but the community that we do not have a proper dual carriageway from here to the city of Derry. I congratulate the Minister on recent announcements. OneSource of Texas and Metaverse of California both committed to putting new investments into the north-west, but we can double down on those investments if we can improve our road infrastructure. The Dublin-Belfast economic corridor calls out for a rail link commensurate with its potential. In fact, a one-hour Belfast-Dublin express train would be a real boon to business in the time ahead.
I appeal to the Minister, as he works through the recommendations, not to skip quickly past recommendation 1a. Investment will show the business community and the entire community, especially those seeking work, how we understand that a correct infrastructure can be a boon to business and can help to facilitate business in the time ahead. I believe that we have here, certainly among those who gave evidence to the Committee, businesspeople of great ambition of confidence. I think that, if we can get our act together here, they are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel in the time ahead.
I want to finish by referencing two small businesses — of course, every large business started off small — that give me great hope in terms of the entrepreneurial flair and vision of our young people. One is Venuebooker, which is a small company that I had the pleasure of accompanying to the west coast of the USA in 2013 on an investment mission and is now up and running in Belfast. It is trying to be the Expedia for hotel meeting rooms, which is a very ambitious global vision, but we wish it well. The other is Brewbot, who are the people who invented a way to brew beer in your office. Needless to say, that managed to attract lots of interest and equity financing. If we can match the confidence, vision and ambition of those start-ups, I believe that we can build the sort of economy that our people deserve and demand in the time ahead.
Ms Lo (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment): I welcome the opportunity to speak in today's debate as Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment. In its inquiry report, the ETI Committee found that there is a perception locally and outside the region that planning in Northern Ireland is too slow and bureaucratic in its decision-making. Planning has recently undergone a huge transformation following the transfer of the majority of our planning functions to local councils in April 2015. This presents a great opportunity to deliver a planning system that will further sustainable development and improve well-being, but also support economic development and job creation.
As the new planning arrangements bed in, the Committee will wish to monitor the effectiveness of those arrangements. The Committee is aware that DOE is awaiting Executive approval before publishing its single planning policy statement (SPPS) in final form. The draft SPPS outlines its intention to provide a set of overarching core principles that planning authorities should observe in the formation of local planning policy and the preparation of development plans. It will provide a shorter strategic expression of the Department's planning policy. The ETI Committee is of the view that the draft SPPS does not contain enough of an economic "golden thread" to set Northern Ireland apart from its competitors and suggests that an early task of any Minister with responsibility for planning powers in the next mandate should be to review the statement with the aim of achieving an economic golden thread throughout.
While the Committee for the Environment appreciates that a review of the SPPS will be required, we are six months into the new planning arrangements, and it has still not even been published. While the Committee is aware of the reasons for that, it creates great uncertainty amongst local councils and those who either are submitting applications or are affected by them. It is essential that the SPPS is published as soon as possible so that councils can make planning decisions based on a clear policy direction, making the process more transparent and accountable. Also, any planning policy framework must ensure that our local environment and all its inhabitants are protected.
The other area that I would like to provide comment on is better regulation. The ETI Committee has found that a stable and business-friendly legal and regulatory environment is a key selling point to a new investor. The European Commission has begun its regulatory fitness and performance review. Closer to home, DOE has also initiated regulatory reform, which includes the Environmental Better Regulation Bill and prosperity agreements. The Committee recognises that reform is necessary and that there is a need to streamline aspects of the regulatory system to reduce the burden on business and provide a clearer, simplified regulatory system whilst maintaining environmental standards.
Prosperity agreements are an innovative approach adopted by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to work in partnership with its customers who comply or go beyond compliance with their environmental obligations. Prosperity agreements aim to improve customer and outcome focus, reduce red tape and unlock opportunities. They allow NIEA to provide additional regulatory capacity where it is needed and to support companies with a stable environmental performance to self-regulate.
Ms Lo: That is a voluntary management arrangement and can help improve a company's environmental and economic outcomes. That concludes my comments.
Mr Frew: I support this piece of work and the Committee inquiry, which we undertook several months ago. Of course, we had to read up on it to make sure that we were refreshed with its content, because it was an extensive piece of work around a very, very important issue, namely the economy and creation of jobs in this country. The most important things that the people of this Province worry about, which I hear when I knock on the doors of my constituency, are prosperity and a future for their children. In this House, we are tasked with making sure that the future is real, tangible and profitable for our people, and that is the job that we should set ourselves to.
There is absolutely no doubt about it: corporation tax will be a massive tool in the toolbox of government if we can get tax-varying powers. However, with every single tax-varying power that any Administration or Government have, there comes a massive responsibility. Why would any sovereign Government give this Assembly tax-varying powers of that nature when we cannot even make the hard decisions that have to be made in this House? I work with parties across the way on the Committees every day to produce reports like this, but until they start doing what they say and practising what they preach, these Committee reports will mean nothing. Until we can make the hard decisions around welfare reform and close that bulging hole in our Budget, we will not be able to do anything for our people.
It is down to the intransigence of parties across the way. What are you scared of? Why will you not make the hard decisions? They affect your people, they affect my people and they affect your families and my family. They affect all our people, yet you sit on your hands and do nothing. It is about time that parties across the way grew up and decided to make hard decisions around welfare reform and mend the gap in our Budget. If we cannot mend the gap in the Budget, we can do nothing. We will be paralysed. We will not to be able to help families and we will not be able to help businesses. We will be no help to anyone.
Mr McCallister: How will the Executive not meeting help to deal with the very issues that he mentions?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for that because he is coming on to the very next subject that I was going to speak on.
It is also very clear that, when politicians in this House cannot make a decision around the hard decisions to be made, it is also true to say that murders on our streets, committed by people who are connected to people in parties in a Government, will undermine and sap away all of the confidence that the business community has. We cannot sit idly by and allow that to happen. We will take —
Mr Frew: OK, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will return to the motion by saying that, unless the business community has confidence in this place and the parties that take part in this place, we are in a very bad place. Things have to be addressed around the confidence issues in this country and by some of the parties involved.
There is no doubt that this piece of work is of great merit, and, having spoken to the Minister, I know that he is taking a lot of this on board, and he will speak to it very shortly. It is important to look at some of the things that need to be done. We need to make sure that the skills are there for companies to come into Northern Ireland. If we want to promote Northern Ireland to global companies, we need to make sure that the skills are at hand to be employed. We need to ensure that schools produce students who are employable. It is not good enough to have students coming out of school with exam results or grades; they need to be employable, and that employability has to be attached to the education system, with business having a greater say in schools. I think that government must be agile yet not react with a knee-jerk. I think that they must be responsive to business but not restrictive. We need to be the runway for business to take off. We should not be in the cockpit; that is business's job. We need to lay the runway for business to take off.
Some things are hampering the take off. There is no doubt that energy is a massive issue, and, until we tackle the core pressure of everything to do with energy — that being the cost of it — everything else will be problematic. The grid strengthening will be problematic. Connection to the grid will be a problem until we get the cost of energy down, and getting the cost of energy down is the most important aspect. Not everybody wants to connect to the grid. Not everybody wants to put up a turbine.
Mr Frew: It is the pressure and the burden of the costs of energy that make people want to connect to the grid, and that has a ripple effect and a snowballing effect on the costs. These are very important issues, and I commend this report to the House.
Mr Humphrey: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, can I start by asking the Minister whether he will join with me, when he comes to the Dispatch Box, in wishing Michael O'Neill, Steven Davis and the Northern Ireland team all the very best for tonight's international qualifier at Windsor Park, which could see us going to France next year?
I want to start off by congratulating the Committee Clerk and the staff of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment for all the work that has been done in compiling this report. As colleagues have said, this report has been a long time in the making, but I think that it is a valuable piece of work. Investment is key to the Northern Ireland economy and how we get that economy to grow. My party has worked very hard to try to have that economy rebalanced, and I will perhaps return to that if time allows.
Many of the issues that Members have spoken about have been addressed in the Stormont House Agreement. Had that been agreed, as it was by many of those parties that are now complaining about issues, and had it been implemented, perhaps we would be in a different place. People talk about the date and rate. We cannot get the date and rate if people are not prepared to recommend it to the executive of their party or are told by people in another country that their policy has to change, as happened with Sinn Féin. We also cannot have these things passed on and implemented to the devolved Assembly by the national Government if we do not have stability. Of course, the actions of the IRA over the summer, in the murder of Mr McGuigan, as well as the other murders that happened on the streets of this city, which have to be condemned by all right-thinking people, all indicate that that stability is not there. Work needs to be done in Northern Ireland to provide that surety to government and to deal with the issue — the cancer that is paramilitary activity and terrorism.
Rebuilding the economy, introducing corporation tax and welfare reform are hugely important. Parties need to demonstrate in the Executive and Assembly and to the national Government that they are fiscally and financially literate. We have seen some parties that have failed lamentably to do that in theory, never mind in practice. Paying fines to the national Government instead of having investment in education, roads, health, training and so on is an absolute crime. It is a shame. That is a false economy. That opportunity cost and that investment issue are things that Northern Ireland is suffering from. We need a more joined-up approach in the governance of this place, in the Assembly here at Stormont and in local government, as well as to work with the private sector, universities and colleges to try to ensure that that which is needed out there to provide skills for young people to get long-term and meaningful employment is exactly what we provide. I think we have been failing lamentably in the process of trying to do that.
The fastest growing part of the Northern Ireland economy is tourism. I congratulate all those who have been working hard to deal with the issues of perception and reputation. Northern Ireland has suffered because of the Troubles and because of terrorism, which is why we need to have those issues resolved once and for all. It has suffered internationally in its reputation and in perceptions, with people not wanting to come here on holiday and not wanting to come here to invest. Those are issues that we thought we had put behind us. Sadly, as the summer unfolded, that was not the case. We need to address those issues and to have that investment. We need to work and support Invest NI, Tourism NI, Visit Belfast, the Northern Ireland Executive writ large and Tourism Ireland in selling Northern Ireland nationally and internationally.
This city is the travel and transportation hub for Northern Ireland. It has a huge and growing number of hotels. That is important as we continue to sell Northern Ireland as a tourist destination. I welcome the investments that were announced over the summer by local hoteliers in the private sector to further invest in more hotels, and I give credit to the government agencies that have been working hard to do that. Rebalancing the economy and addressing those issues is absolutely vital. There have been events such as the Giro d'Italia, the World Police and Fire Games, the Tall Ships, the City of Culture and a wide number of other sporting events, and there has been, indeed, sporting excellence. I congratulate yet another of our rowers on becoming a world champion in the latter part of last week. Sporting excellence such as that in the Northern Ireland football team is very important.
Mr Humphrey: I ask Members, when considering the report, to remember what their party stands for and is committed to and to get on with doing it so that we get the investment that we need in Northern Ireland to provide the infrastructure, rebalance the economy and provide jobs, certainty and financial security for our people.
Mr McKinney: I rise as a member of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment and on behalf of the SDLP to support the recommendations put forward in the report. Over the last year, corporation tax has divided opinion among economists, academics and businesses etc, but we have consistently heard that it will bring 40,000 jobs and have also been told that, on its own, it will not be a silver bullet. The report today serves as an illustration of that point.
It is a comprehensive and wide-ranging report that took a holistic approach in analysing how Executive decisions directly influence the economy and how we can best facilitate long-term infrastructural development, economic growth and, most importantly, job creation.
I would like to take this opportunity to commend all those involved in bringing forward this report, including the Committee Chair and members, Clerks, departmental officials and the many stakeholders who gave evidence. It has been an arduous task, by any measure.
Today's report is a timely reminder of the major economic problems that we face. It is clear, as has been reflected here, that our economy is not performing as well as it could be, and we only have to point at the key indicators that compare us with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland to emphasise the point.
I am glad that we now have the ability to debate the report and its key recommendation of implementing a 20-year rolling plan for Northern Ireland. That is what it is calling for, but I repeat what it says we do not have — a view shared by those at the heart of business here — we do not have a long-term economic plan for the North. There is no overall strategic integrated approach to economic development and there is no recognition that a problem exists. Is anybody embarrassed? They should be. Departments developing policy in isolation is not dependent on welfare reform. They are not aligned to a long-term strategic vision; that is not dependent on welfare reform. There is no evidence of a joined-up approach between Departments, local councils, business and the community in developing new policies; that is not dependent on welfare reform. Joined-up government should be a fundamental principle of any economic policy, as there is little value in one Department attempting to attract FDI to areas where there are skills deficits.
Mr F McCann: I noted that the previous Member spoke about the need for tourism, which we all agree with, but do you not find it strange that a person who stands at Twaddell Avenue and is blasted all over the world is talking about tourism, and that, in itself, goes against people coming to this place?
Mr McKinney: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I thank the Member for his intervention; he makes the point very well. As I was saying, there is little point in one Department attempting to attract FDI to areas where there are skills deficits in the workforce, where there is limited connectivity, transport links and electricity supply. The Chair of the Committee made that point very well indeed. That should have been the job of government. It should be a top priority during the end of this mandate and throughout the next. We cannot continue to have a shared-out government — one for me and one for you — but genuine, joined-up and delivering. In what way is it joined up, and in what other Government, would it be acceptable for one Minister to instigate a judicial review against another? What we need is a fully integrated and collaborative approach to economic policy that is truly joined-up and which transverses all levels of government, and, even as the report reflects, transverses mandates and fully involves business and the community.
May I add one point that the Chair did not have the opportunity to make? It reflects a point in the report that further work will need to be undertaken to further consider the requirements for a society and community strategy.
Ministers will big up their own strategies, for example, the joint 'Enabling Success' for 2030 and its focus on economic inactivity, and that is welcome. However, in the meantime, STEM subjects are being cut, most recently, maths and English language courses at the University of Ulster. Where is the economic focus there? We are cutting higher education while other parts of the UK and the Republic are investing more in it. Here is the irony: we want corporation tax to attract companies to bring in students and graduates, and, in the meantime, we are cutting the training for those very graduates.
We need to make a very clear point. We do not need to restructure the institutions of the Assembly to get joined-up government. Ministers must realise, first and foremost, that their brief entails a major economic component and that working in silos must no longer be an option.
Today's report also makes recommendations for key economic interventions across government, business and the community. It highlights the need for more robust and accurate economic data; encourages better cross-border cooperation; calls for a more detailed analysis of the impact of a potential EU exit; and calls for the establishment of economic zones to target regional imbalance.
I am conscious that time has beaten me, but I recommend the report to the Assembly.
Mr Cree: I support the Committee's report into growing the economy and creating jobs with lower corporation tax. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into the Committee's inquiry. I note its key recommendation:
"the Executive must articulate and implement a rolling 20-year shared Vision & Strategy for Economic Development."
This has been debated over the years, but the prevailing view was that a short Programme for Government was the right thing to do.
No business can work successfully without a strategic plan, which has to cover the short- and medium-term. The plan must also be reviewed and updated through each Programme for Government, and the strategy must be fully integrated. It is essential that the Executive change their current, comparably passive approach to one that is proactive and has a can-do attitude to developing Northern Ireland's economy and infrastructure. That will be a new and more challenging issue for the Executive, but it must happen. For too long, the Executive have been slow to react and shown little original thinking or innovation.
I also support the vision of a strategy that is driven by a regional economic development framework, with integrated strategies for the economy and employment — Members referred to that — education and skills, infrastructure, society and community. I believe that that is the way to go.
The Ulster Unionist Party was first to push for the devolution of corporation tax. In my time on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which started in 2007 — I was very young then — we were very aware of the Republic of Ireland's success in attracting business because of a low rate of corporation tax. Even during the bailout, following the Irish Government's financial crash, they were determined to hold on to a low tax regime at all costs. That illustrates how important the tax was to foreign direct investors and, indeed, to indigenous businesses. We recognised that fact as important then and have been pushing for the power to administer corporation tax in Northern Ireland since then.
At Stormont House last year, we had agreement to have the tax devolved. Sinn Féin agreed to it and supported the principle completely. Unfortunately, following pressure from its colleagues in the Republic of Ireland, it reneged on the whole deal on welfare reform and on the devolution of corporation tax. That is myopic and is a lost opportunity, especially as the Westminster Government, in honouring their part of the agreement, have arranged for the necessary legislation to be put in place. We need to correct this matter urgently if we are serious about developing our economy and creating a future for our young people.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
I recognise the uncertainty about the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union and its potential for the economy. If we get the right deal, fine, if not, we must be competitive in the changed circumstances. Either way, we need the power to decide corporation tax. The Executive have to address the issue and consider the impact on the Northern Ireland economy, should the United Kingdom exit the European Union. The report highlights this issue, and the work has to start without further delay. There will, of course, be a cost to the block grant, but that can be phased in after a date has been set. Companies wishing to expand their businesses will base decisions on the planned future tax rates. There is always a planning period ahead of investments by local or foreign companies.
The current fiasco of the Stormont House Agreement sends the wrong message to investors and undermines business confidence in Northern Ireland. It was intended that the legislation would be implemented by April 2017. Sinn Féin's stalling on the agreement has the potential to destroy years of hard work and will damage our economy.
Access to finance has been a problem for businesses in Northern Ireland. Banking is not a devolved matter, and bank lending has been a major difficulty for businesses here. I am aware that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has created some financial facilities to assist SMEs over the years. That is to be commended, but more needs to be done. The report recognises this and has undertaken significant surveys and taken much evidence on the subject.
I commend the report. It is a great pity that it was not undertaken before now. The Executive need to up their game to ensure that Northern Ireland is prepared to succeed in a difficult global economy and to operate in a very changing world.
The debate stood suspended.
Ms J McCann (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 1 and 10 together. The Executive's draft 10-year strategy for affordable, integrated childcare is out for consultation until mid-November. It fulfils a Programme for Government commitment and puts child development at the heart of the Executive's vision for childcare. A central aim of the draft strategy is to give all of our children the best start in life, preparing them for lifelong well-being and achievement, thereby creating the basis for a better and more prosperous future.
The draft strategy sets out the Executive's vision for childcare, which is one based on shared aims and objectives. It proposes 22 areas of development where action is needed to give effect to that vision and proposes the creation of a significant number of new childcare places to meet need. We recognise that that will lead to an increased demand for skilled childcare workers, and we fully expect the current workforce to expand. Workforce development is a key element of the draft strategy, building on the key first actions launched in 2013. There are a number of specific proposals for training to enhance skills and create pathways into working in childcare. We are working closely with the Department for Employment and Learning on the detail of estimating the extent of demand for new training places and the cost of meeting that demand. We are also undertaking a skills audit in each of the childcare partnerships' respective areas. Delivering the childcare strategy and achieving its aims and objectives will require coordinated action from a range of Departments and services.
Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for her answer. Given that children born at the start of this mandate started school last week, does the Minister think that it is acceptable that the parents of those children have been disadvantaged for four years and will continue to be disadvantaged due to the failure of OFMDFM to deliver real, tangible action on affordable childcare, even when money was allocated for it?
Ms J McCann: I assume that the Member is talking about Bright Start and the 15 actions. The money has been allocated. Several millions have already been spent in those childcare programmes. I have been involved in situations in which a number of service providers came and got money for different elements of Bright Start and those first actions. We were concentrating on school-age childcare because that is where the need was identified in the beginning. I think that that is getting rolled out. This will complement the childcare strategy, as I said. This is a 10-year strategy. Money and resources have been put into this strategy, and, hopefully, it will be rolled out in the same way as the first actions were. Obviously, we always hope to do more in childcare — you can never have enough childcare — but we hope that this will provide a quality service, an affordable service, which is very important for people, particularly families on a low income. We certainly hope to make those childcare places available.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí. I thank the Minister for her answers. How will disadvantaged children be catered for in any childcare strategy?
Ms J McCann: As I said, it is important that disadvantaged children and disadvantaged families are included in the strategy. As I said in my response to the substantive question, a central aim is to give all our children the best start in life. Early care and education initiatives, including childcare, should, first and foremost, be focused on the developmental needs of the child.
Investment in the strategy must also address the needs of disadvantaged children to ensure better life chances for them and help to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. It cannot simply be about servicing a labour market. That is what this particular strategy looks at: it is about the developmental programmes that are there to develop a child and meet the needs of that child.
We also know that investment in the early years leads to greater economic, social and emotional benefits later in life at an individual and societal level, and it can counter the effects of that disadvantage and deprivation. That includes children in workless households as well as working households. We need to make childcare more affordable. That is essential because 70% of children in poverty are in families where at least one parent is working. It is very clear that we need to ensure that those low-income families are provided for as well.
Just last week, we had child poverty figures published in DSD's 'Households Below Average Income' report. Again, there has been a three-point rise in relative child poverty. We cannot separate child poverty from poverty and families. That is very clear. They cannot be separated; they have to be seen in a holistic way.
Mrs Overend: I would like to ask OFMDFM why it has failed to spend the £12 million that was set aside in the Programme for Government for accessible affordable childcare. What is its assessment of the number of people stuck on benefits who would rather be in work but cannot be because of this OFMDFM failure?
Ms J McCann: To answer your last question first, I do not think that it is a failure of OFMDFM. We are going to see from the Westminster Government not just welfare reform but cuts to tax credits, which will hit families and actually put people out of work. More people will be out of work because of the decrease in tax credits, which will very much come to the fore.
In terms of funding — [Interruption.]
Ms J McCann: To answer your first question about funding, between 2011 and 2015, a budget of £12 million was to be ring-fenced in support of the childcare strategy and £4·7 million has already been allocated and, to date, £3·4 million has been spent. Money has been spent. OK, not all of it has been spent but, at the same time, this is all going to be part of the strategy.
I also remind Members — this is very important — that this is an Executive childcare strategy, so all Departments have responsibility for it.
Mr Agnew: While I welcome the long-awaited publication of the consultation on the childcare strategy, to some extent the strategy will only be as good as the resources that follow it. I ask the junior Minister what work has been done to cost the proposals in the childcare strategy. Are those costs likely to be met?
Ms J McCann: The development of the strategy was a co-designed process, as the Member will know. We have been out talking directly to stakeholder organisations that provide childcare. More importantly, we have been talking to parents who need that childcare. All that has been costed within those proposals. As the individual actions are rolled out and delivered, we will have to look at an economic case for that. Certainly, there have already been costings, and the resources needed will be very easily identifiable within those.
Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, Mr Speaker, junior Minister McCann will answer this question.
Ms J McCann: The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry was initiated by the 2009 Assembly debate about historical institutional abuse of children. Its terms of reference refer to children under 18 years. It was on that basis that the inquiry was designed and its chairperson and panel members appointed.
We are sensitive to the views of those who have suffered abuse who fall outside the scope of the current inquiry and we are mindful of the equally destructive impact that it has had on many people. To consider amending the scope of the terms of reference at this stage would undermine the work that has already gone into reaching this critical juncture of the inquiry. Officials have completed a scoping exercise in relation to mother and baby homes, the Magdalene laundries and clerical abuse, which we are presently giving careful consideration to.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for her reply, but it really does not meet the full gravity of the situation where you have a discrete number of cases outside the terms of reference. It really is not sufficient for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to simply say, "It's outside the terms. Therefore, we can't do anything."
Something has to be done, and I urge the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to go back and look at this to see whether, even at this late stage, something can be decisively done in order to remedy this anomalous situation.
Ms J McCann: The Member has made a very valid point. The deputy First Minister's office has made its views very clear on the options it would like to see, such as those around the mother-and-baby homes and the Magdalene-type laundries. We believe that there should be a separate inquiry into that. It is essential, particularly for the women who were over 18 and were in those institutions. We feel that there should also be an inquiry into wider clerical abuse. Even in the options around redress, we have already had a number of meetings with the Churches and different religious organisations about that and, more importantly, with the people who were directly impacted. All those issues are being discussed. As I said, we have had discussions with the First Minister's side on this, so we will be looking to pursue that and make progress on it to see where it goes.
Mr Moutray: Given that last week the murder of Bernard Teggart was described as:
"the most horrific incident of child abuse to come before the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry",
and given that the junior Minister has just said that she is sensitive to those who have suffered abuse, what would her comments be to the family of Bernard Teggart, given that she was also a member of the IRA in the past?
Ms J McCann: I have spoken to that young fellow's family. Really we have to say that killing — I am talking about historical institutional abuse here. For any child to suffer such abuse, no matter what institution they were in, was horrendous. The death of any child, no matter what the circumstances are, is very tragic.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. What work has been done on the issue of redress for victims and survivors of institutional abuse?
Ms J McCann: As I said in my earlier answer, we have had a number of meetings, over a long period, with different individuals, the four main Churches and religious orders to discuss the issue of redress. We have also had meetings with Professor Kathleen Daly, who came from Australia to talk particularly about redress and to try to develop a redress model. That work is ongoing and, while we cannot pre-empt the recommendations that will come out of the inquiry, we are hopeful that a parallel process, in which work gets done, will carry on alongside that when those recommendations are made.
Mr M McGuinness: The functions transferring from our Department to the new Department for Communities were agreed by the Executive and outlined by the First Minister in a statement to the Assembly on 2 March. The new Department will assume a range of OFMDFM functions in relation to the social investment fund, racial equality, united communities and good relations, disability and poverty, gender and sexual orientation and north-west sites and strategy. It will also assume sponsorship responsibilities for the Community Relations Council and Ilex, which are currently arm's-length bodies of OFMDFM.
Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the deputy First Minister for that response. Can he give us a sense of the other functions that are being transferred to other Departments under the departmental restructuring?
Mr M McGuinness: In addition to the functions that are transferring to the new Department for Communities, we are transferring functions across many of the other future Departments. For example, policy responsibility for the childcare strategy and for children and young people will transfer to the Department of Education. The Department of Finance will take over the functions of the government advertising unit and the NI Direct central editorial team. The Department for Infrastructure will take over responsibility for Crumlin Road Gaol and some former military sites. The Planning Appeals Commission and Water Appeals Commission will transfer from OFMDFM to the Department of Justice.
We believe that those arrangements will ensure better and more-joined-up government.
Mr Campbell: Among the functions that the deputy First Minister mentioned was the uniting communities function. What contribution does the deputy First Minister believe that uniting the communities would deliver if he were to admit to all of the extent of activity that he engaged in when he was a Provisional IRA second-in-command in Londonderry?
Mr Speaker: It is a matter for the deputy First Minister whether he wishes to answer that.
Mr Speaker: OK. I call Mr Mike Gibson. I beg your pardon, I did write down Mike Gibson for some reason, but I call Mike Nesbitt.
Mr Nesbitt: Mike Gibson? Same school, wrong person.
The deputy First Minister is no doubt aware that the policy on coastal management and erosion is a scribbled note from a civil servant called Bateman in the 1960s that effectively says that it is not an issue. But it is an issue when roads outside Ballywalter collapse because of coastal mismanagement that impacts on an everyday basis on the people of the Ards peninsula. Will the deputy First Minister commit to looking at that in the restructuring of functions and promise the people that there will be a lead Department for coastal management matters?
Mr M McGuinness: The Programme for Government 2011-15 set a challenging agenda for the Executive. Since its publication, despite difficult economic conditions, our record on delivery has been strong. Overall, 81% of Programme for Government commitments have been achieved, improving on the 70% achieved in the last Programme for Government.
OFMDFM led on 14 of the commitments, finding innovative approaches to tackling deep-seated, cross-cutting issues. Through Delivering Social Change, notable successes have been achieved in supporting numeracy and literacy as well as providing more help for families and young people. We have committed £55·4 million to the social investment fund projects, 67% of the total fund. Over £80 million of competitive funds have been drawn down from Europe, demonstrating our increasing success in engaging with Europe. Seven major good relations programmes have been put in place under Together: Building a United Community. This is the largest investment in constructive community relations in our history.
When we published this Programme for Government, we made sure that we set the delivery bar high for Departments. It was meant to be ambitious and to aim for transformative change. The achievements of the Executive in this period show the benefits of that approach.
Mr Cochrane-Watson: Does the deputy First Minister not agree that failure to deliver on the Programme for Government — the failed regeneration of the Maze/Long Kesh site, the £80 million in the social investment fund not spent and the failure to deliver the construction of the police, fire and prison services college — is indicative that the Executive are dysfunctional and failing to deliver to the people of Northern Ireland?
Mr M McGuinness: I welcome the Member from South Antrim as a new boy to these institutions. The question shows how new he is because the Member will be aware that the attempt to implement the Maze/Long Kesh project, create thousands of jobs and develop one of the most prime sites in western Europe was opposed by his party — but not by just the Ulster Unionist Party; it was opposed by others.
I think that it was a big mistake, but the track record of the Ulster Unionist Party over the last four or five years is there for everybody to see. I know that the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party tries to portray himself in the media as someone who is up for agreement and for forging agreements. He criticises the DUP and Sinn Féin when, in fact, the Ulster Unionist Party was at the forefront of opposing the development of Maze/Long Kesh site. The Ulster Unionist Party is also at the forefront of opposing the move of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development from Belfast to west of the Bann. That sends a very negative message to people west of the Bann about where they are coming from on the whole issue of equality. Of course, it also opposed the determinations made by the Parades Commission and found itself lined up alongside loyalist paramilitaries in a unionist/loyalist pact that was formed some time ago.
So, I will not take any lessons from the Ulster Unionist Party about forging agreements. I think that, in the course of the delivery of the Programme for Government, being able to deliver 81% is some achievement.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. Will the Minister provide an update specifically on the Programme for Government commitment to the One Plan for Derry?
Mr M McGuinness: The One Plan, as many people know, is embedded as the keystone of regeneration in the city of Derry. A number of the buildings in Ebrington are shortly to be completed, and a future phase of market testing is also planned for four buildings. ILEX is tasked with the development and regeneration of the Ebrington site, helping to make it one of the key shared spaces within the city. To date, £16·5 million has been spent on capital works in Ebrington. A further £2·8 million has been made available to ILEX for 2015-16. There has been significant development on the Ebrington site, which will increase confidence in the city and help to bring businesses to Ebrington. The recent success of the North West Regional Science Park and capital developments at Ebrington, which will come on stream in 2015-16, will provide opportunities for job creation in Derry and the north-west.
Mr Lyttle: The deputy First Minister mentioned the key Programme for Government commitment on building a united community. One of the key commitments in the Together: Building a United Community strategy is tackling all manifestations of paramilitarism in our society. What more does the deputy First Minister think the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister can do to ensure that that is achieved?
Mr M McGuinness: I think that, as always, there is a duty and responsibility on all the political parties and on every single politician in the Assembly to be seen to stand together against all forms of paramilitarism, armed groups or those who are involved in criminal activity. I think that my track record in the last eight years as deputy First Minister is second to that of no other Member in the House to such an extent that I have been very up front in my condemnation of those who would resort to violence of any kind. My life has been threatened as a result of it. That has not put me off. I will continue to oppose those who would attempt to drag us back to the past. I do not care what labels they put on themselves or others put on them. It is the duty of everyone in the Assembly to stand against criminality and violence. I have stood with unionist ministers. I have stood with the Chief Constable of the PSNI. Sadly, when it comes to confronting the activities of extreme loyalists who are attacking and injuring police officers on the street, I have yet to have any unionist leader stand with me.
Mr Speaker: I am not going to issue any further warning. If people continue to barrack from a sedentary position, they will not be called to participate in the remainder of this plenary session.
Mr M McGuinness: With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I will ask junior Minister McCann to answer this question.
Ms J McCann: On 1 July 2015, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, announced that he will bring forward legislation to amend the Child Poverty Act 2010. Mr Duncan Smith and the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, wrote to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister following that announcement to outline the potential proposed amendments.
On 9 July, the Westminster Government announced a Welfare Reform and Work Bill in Parliament, which aims to put the new proposed approach into law. The Bill includes clauses to remove the duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to meet the four current statutory targets and to enact a new approach to tackling child poverty in England. The Government have indicated that each devolved Administration can decide whether or not to propose amendments to the provisions in relation to their duties and statutory obligations.
In line with Scotland and Wales, we have agreed the proposals of the Department for Work and Pensions. We are considering the potential impact of the positive work carried out to date locally to address the circumstances that cause more of our children here in the North to face poverty and the impact of poverty on their lives. The Executive's approach to child poverty will not be determined by the Bill that is currently before Parliament.
Mr Agnew: I thank the junior Minister for her answer. One of the proposals from the Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith is to move away from the measure of poverty at 60% of the average income. There has been plenty of documented evidence of how inequality impinges upon the prosperity of the poorest in society. Will the junior Minister give a commitment that Northern Ireland will not move away from that important measure of inequality and poverty?
Ms J McCann: As I said in earlier answers, you cannot divorce child poverty from poverty in families. It is very important that, when we are looking at measures of poverty, we look at low income but also at deprivation. Those measurements, in my opinion, are probably the two most important when looking at child poverty. There are other measurements, such as educational underachievement, health inequalities and everything else, but I think that, when we are looking at child poverty, we need to look at family income and particularly deprivation among children in those families. It is clear that a child not having enough to eat because the family does not have enough money to feed it, a child living in a damp house or in inadequate housing or not having a computer to do homework, that all those things will all have an impact on the life chances of that child in later life. So, it is very important that those measurements of income and deprivation are there.
Mr M McGuinness: The Programme for Government 2011-15 sets five priorities for achievement by the Executive. Each priority has a set of identified outcomes for achievement. In managing the implementation of the Programme for Government, our role is to support Departments to deliver their commitments and to ensure that the commitments deliver on the outcomes that we have identified. For example, Programme for Government priority 2, which is about creating opportunities, tackling disadvantage and improving health and well-being, identifies outcomes, including fewer deprived communities, reduced health inequalities and greater equality of opportunity in economic participation. One of the advantages of having a Programme for Government managed centrally from OFMDFM is that it enables that strategic focus on the achievement of outcomes.
Mr Lynch: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. Is any work ongoing regarding the next Programme for Government for 2016-2021?
Mr M McGuinness: Notwithstanding the current political difficulties and acknowledging that a Programme for Government for the period 2016-2021 will be a matter for an incoming Executive following the next Assembly election, work is ongoing to look at potential high-level objectives and to identify possible delivery models and governance and accountability structures. In particular, we are exploring the potential benefits of an even greater focus on outcomes through the development of an outcomes framework for the public sector.
It is helpful that the development of the new structures in government and preparation for a new Programme for Government are progressing together. That should ensure that the future delivery of outcomes will benefit from better collaboration and decision-making across Departments, leading to improved accountability.
Mr Speaker: That brings us to the end of the period for listed questions. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.
T1. Mrs McKevitt asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what representations they have made to the Prime Minister and European representatives about the Syrian refugee situation. (AQT 2761/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: I had the opportunity to speak to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, just a few days ago. Obviously, the conversation centred on the present difficulties that we are experiencing at the Assembly and exploring how we can take those forward, and I welcome the fact that we will go into vital talks over the next short while to try to resolve those difficulties. During that conversation, I took the opportunity to raise the plight of the refugees and to stress what I believe to be the case, which is that, in Scotland, Wales and the North, we are willing to play our part and do more but he needs to do more. Of course, he is making a statement today in the House of Commons about the numbers.
It represents a huge challenge for all of us. It is a horrendous situation in which people have been displaced from their homes as a result of war and conflict in their country. Of course, we look at the journeys that these people have undertaken and the way that they have risked their lives and those of their families to escape from war-torn situations, and we have to look at all those people with incredible admiration for their willingness to walk some 170 kilometres from one country to another to find safety. There is an argument about whether they should be called migrants or refugees: they are clearly refugees, but they are also people who are willing to take enormous risks to save their lives and those of their families. They do not strike me as people who want to end up in the North of Ireland, Scotland, Wales or Germany — I applaud the Germans for the way in which they have welcomed the refugees and the fact that they have offered to take some 800,000 of them — and sit on their backside when they get there.
Mrs McKevitt: Has a plan been thought out about what role Northern Ireland can play to help the Syrian refugees? What example will you, as a leader, set the people in our society regarding the Syrian refugee crisis?
Mr M McGuinness: From the comments that have been made by all the political parties who have spoken on the issue, it is obvious that we all want to do more and to do something. I know that OFMDFM officials, under the tutelage of the two junior Ministers, have been involved in discussions in recent times about how we can contribute to alleviating the plight of those people. That work continues. I hope to have a conversation shortly with the First Minister, because urgency is required in taking the matter forward. Work is already under way. Officials and junior Ministers are involved in that work, and there is no doubt whatsoever that the First Minister and I want to contribute and play our part in alleviating the plight of those poor people.
T2. Ms Sugden asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to state whether the 2011-15 Programme for Government targets that the Northern Ireland Executive fail to meet will default to a 2015-16 Programme for Government or have the Executive forgotten about government policy until an election. (AQT 2762/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: No. When you consider that we have delivered 81% against the backdrop of a 70% return for the previous Programme for Government, you see that it represents a huge success for our Executive. On a consistent basis, we deal with commentators and some news reporters — not all — who continually try to portray the Executive as a place in which no decisions are taken. The fact is that many decisions have been taken. Eighty-one per cent of the Programme for Government has been delivered. There is outstanding work to do on the other 19%. As we go forward with the future Programme for Government, whether it is for the rest of this term or into the next term, there is no doubt that serious consideration will be given to how we can continue to up our performance.
Ms Sugden: I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. I still do not think that it is good enough, so will he now provide me with the names of the civil servants to approach in order to get things done for the people whom I represent, now that the Government have proved themselves finally defunct?
Mr M McGuinness: I do not agree with that analysis. It sounds like a wee bit of political point-scoring and ignores the fact that I was able to present to the Assembly today the reality that 81% of the Programme for Government has been delivered. That, against the backdrop of a previous 70% return, represents a considerable improvement. I know that, as we approach the election, there are people — they are not all members of political parties — who are also fighting their own election, and that includes the Member for East Derry or, as she would call it, East Londonderry. I understand all of that; I am very philosophical about it. The reality is that an awful lot of good work has been done, not least in job creation and attracting foreign direct investment, which has put thousands and thousands of people into new jobs.
T3. Mr Cree asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they continue to support the Stormont House Agreement. (AQT 2763/11-16)
Mr Cree: That being so, I wonder why they object to the Ulster Unionist Party going into opposition.
Mr M McGuinness: I do not object to the Ulster Unionist Party going into opposition; I do not know where the Member got that notion from. Should the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, Sinn Féin or the DUP want to go into opposition, we have made provision for that in the Stormont House Agreement. It is interesting that the question comes from a member of a party that does not support the Stormont House Agreement. My understanding is that the Ulster Unionist executive has never met to endorse the Stormont House Agreement. Correct me if I am wrong.
Mr Speaker: I do not want you to take up that invitation. We will move on.
Mr Patsy McGlone is not in his place, so I call Mr Neil Somerville.
Mr Speaker: You are listed for a topical question, Mr Somerville. Present your question, please.
We will have to move on.
T5. Mr Somerville asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the deputy First Minister is aware of the serious concerns with the prospect of Enniskillen courthouse closing and the impact that that will have on accessing justice, with the subsequent delays across Fermanagh and South Tyrone. (AQT 2765/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: I applaud the Member's ability to come up with a question and whoever gave him the question in the last few minutes. The Justice Minister is following me in answering questions; no doubt, he might have something to say about Enniskillen courthouse.
Mr Speaker: Mr Somerville, are you ready with a supplementary?
T6. Mr McKay asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they welcome the statements from Church leaders, particularly the Pope and the bishops, encouraging the public to care for Syrian refugees and, indeed, bring them into their own homes. (AQT 2766/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: I am very encouraged by what I hear from every section of society, not least the Church leaders. I think that the terrible events of the last couple of months have brought it home to everybody, even though it is very sad that we had to see the dead body of an infant lying on a beach in Turkey for it to be brought home to everybody.
There has been a very strong response in our society to what is an incredibly sad humanitarian crisis.
I welcome the change of position by the British Government on this issue. As I said earlier, I spoke to David Cameron last Thursday, and we await his announcement on how many refugees will be assisted and what the British Government intend to put in place. We will certainly play our part in that.
It is a tragic situation and OFMDFM has been discussing how we might respond for some time. Months ago, our officials met Belfast City Council, Derry and Strabane Council, the Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers and the North West Migrants Forum on this issue, and in the coming days we will look very seriously at what needs to be put in place. The public reaction is heart-warming, and it is great to see that Germany and other countries are prepared to play their part. We, too, have to play ours.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I see that the Dublin Government have announced that the Twenty-six Counties aim to take 5,000 refugees. Will the deputy First Minister be in contact with the Dublin Government and the Taoiseach to ensure that whatever can be done on a cross-border basis in regard to the refugee crisis will be done?
Mr M McGuinness: This is something that transcends politics in terms of the human misery that people are going through at the moment. We certainly will have discussions with the Irish Government about how we can all contribute on the island of Ireland.
People are exercised by the numbers. During an interview at the weekend, I talked about my willingness to take 2,000 people. At that time, the talk was that, in the South, they would take 1,800. This is something that we have to agree among ourselves, and no doubt in our discussions the First Minister and I will deal with this as a matter of considerable urgency. I do not think there will be any difficulty in coming to an agreement, and we are prepared to work with the British, Scottish and Welsh Governments, and the Government in Dublin, to help people through what has been a horrendous ordeal.
T7. Mrs Cochrane asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the deputy First Minister believes that it was a mistake not to progress welfare reform as per the Stormont House Agreement, which he supports, with Northern Ireland concessions in place, rather than risk the full Tory version being imposed. (AQT 2767/11-16)
Mr M McGuinness: The Member knows as well as I do that the announcement that talks are to take place provides an opportunity for all the parties to try to resolve the outstanding difficulties in relation to the Stormont House Agreement, particularly around the issue of welfare. I do not think it was helpful of Theresa Villiers to say what she said over the weekend; it effectively undermines devolution. I note that Charlie Flanagan, the Foreign Minister, made a critical comment on those remarks. What we all need to do over the next couple of weeks is knuckle down, get the agreement and, hopefully, put in the past the arguments about how to protect the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and disabled people in our society, whilst ensuring that we have the ability to deliver first-class public services.
Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for his answer. I wonder if he has learnt any lessons from the climbdown of the Greek Government in July, and will he therefore bring some fresh thinking to the table?
Mr M McGuinness: My track record over 20 years is of bringing new thinking to the table and resolving some of the most intractable problems, some of which people thought would never be resolved. All those decisions have resulted in the Member sitting in this House today. Yes, as we face into talks over the next couple of weeks, we all have to recognise that there are huge challenges and that the entire community out there supports all of us in different ways and expects strong leadership. The difficulty is the austerity agenda being imposed by the British Government, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or here. That provides an opportunity for us to do something different. Devolution is about making a difference, and that means a difference from what they do in England. That is what I am trying to achieve.
Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): The consultation on the rationalisation of the court estate closed on 18 May. The responses to the consultation have been analysed, and advice will be submitted to me later this month. I will wish to carefully consider the responses and recommendations before reaching any conclusions.
Mr Somerville: I am sure that the Minister already knows what my supplementary question will be. Is he aware of the serious concerns about the prospective closure of Enniskillen courthouse and the impact that that will have on access to justice, including delays across Fermanagh and South Tyrone?
Mr Ford: I am aware of the concerns of a small number of people about a number of courthouses across Northern Ireland. The reality is that access to justice is not about having a courthouse in every town: it is about ensuring that we have proper, fit-for-purpose courthouses with modern facilities.
In the context of the financial circumstances that we live in, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, like other agencies, has to deliver significant savings in the coming years. That cannot be done by maintaining 20 courthouses for a population of 1·8 million; rationalisation is required. The important thing is to ensure that courthouses meet the needs of people when they get there, rather than having inadequate facilities in every town and village.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat. Does the Minister agree that his views on the closures are not shared by the Lord Chief Justice? Does he agree that the current proposals will undermine access to and quality of justice?
Mr Ford: To take the second point first: no, I certainly do not agree that the proposals will undermine access to justice. Justice may be slightly further away, but if it is in a better building with better facilities — for example, in order to segregate vulnerable victims and witnesses from the alleged perpetrators of crimes — then I believe that that will be a bonus for access to justice.
I have just heard the Lord Chief Justice give his annual speech for the start of the legal year, and, while he expressed his concerns, I note his acknowledgement that there are significant issues around finances that need to be addressed. For example, I note the good work that has been done by the presiding district judge, which is already resulting in a reduction in the number of court sitting days required. That is all the more reason why we should be concentrating those court sittings in modern, fit-for-purpose courthouses.
Mr D Bradley: Gabhaimse buíochas leis an Aire inniu as a chuid freagraí. I thank the Minister for his answers. I do not know where he gets the idea that only a small number of people are concerned about this issue. I attended the public meeting in Armagh courthouse, and all of the political parties on the then council were against its closure. Does the Minister agree with me that the closure of Armagh courthouse will downgrade Armagh's status as a city and deny people access to justice locally? The legal profession believes that it will lead to the backlogging of cases in Craigavon and Newry courthouses.
Mr Ford: Again, the evidence from the proposals that were put forward was that adequate court sittings could be provided, in those courthouses proposed to be retained, to meet the needs of court sittings in those proposed for closure. I do not believe that that will impinge on access to justice.
I am well aware how local councillors tend to view facilities in their towns or cities, but that is not the basis on which we can take a rational decision on how to fund the operations of the Courts and Tribunals Service in the years ahead. It is not the function of the Department of Justice to maintain historic buildings, as some have suggested; it is the function of the Department of Justice to provide a fit-for-purpose and modern justice system for the people of Northern Ireland. That is what we are seeking to do, within the financial constraints that we have been put under.
Mr Speaker: Before we move on, I inform Members that question 9 has been withdrawn within the appropriate time frame.
Mr Ford: Disclosure requires a balance to be struck between the rights of the individual and the need to protect vulnerable people. Access NI is required by statute to disclose information in relation to informed warnings, cautions and diversionary youth conferences in standard and enhanced checks. Those non-court disposals are considered to form part of an individual's criminal record. To ensure a proportionate approach before disclosure, such disposals may be filtered — that is, removed — from the certificate if they are considered to be old or are for offences that are considered minor. Informed warnings are filtered after one year; youth cautions and diversionary youth conferences are filtered after two years; and adult cautions are filtered after six years. Disposals are not filtered for violent, sexual or drug offences.
The Justice Act 2015 makes provision for anyone who considers that a non-court disposal should be removed from their certificate to appeal to an independent person. That independent person can require the Department to remove such non-court disposals from a certificate if he considers that they are not relevant or ought not to have been disclosed. I propose to commence the provisions early next year.
Mr Dallat: I welcome the response from the Minister so far. Does he agree with me that, given the serious problems that this has caused not just for new applicants but for people in existing jobs, will he undertake to monitor and review that situation on an ongoing basis? People who got warnings about very minor infringements of the law find themselves not just in a very embarrassing position but sometimes in a position where their job may be lost.
Mr Ford: I am certainly happy to give the assurance to Mr Dallat that this is an issue that, like many other issues across justice, is kept under review. There are certainly issues as to how we define minor convictions. I know that concerns have been expressed where somebody has two or three minor convictions that have a cumulative effect, which would not be the case if there were a single one, but there is a real issue about how we balance the rights of the individual to live a life as normally as possible in the future and ensuring that we protect vulnerable members of the public. I am happy to keep it under review, but it will not be easy to take the decision one way or the other in every case.
Mr Ford: I am discussing with the Lord Chief Justice a number of measures to improve the performance of the Coroners Service, including the appointment of investigating officers and the Lord Chief Justice assuming the presidency of the Coroners' Court. As the Member will recognise, progress in dealing with the past, including the legacy inquest process, can be made only in the context of the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and the provision of the associated funding.
Mr Maskey: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that the recent comments from the coroner, John Leckey, point out that the current system is having a very negative impact on public confidence and that remedial action is required to restore that confidence?
Mr Ford: It is not just a matter of remedial action being required; remedial action is being taken, including, for example, the appointment of an additional County Court judge to enable judges to take over some of the more complex issues of coronial investigation, particularly the legacy inquests. That work is being done. As we look to the retirement of the current senior coroner, the assumption of the presidency by the Lord Chief Justice will provide leadership for the Coroners Service, and that will help us to move forward. Clearly, a number of issues, including the illness of coroners, have created difficulties in the past.
Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Imagine for a second that the Stormont House Agreement is implemented and the funds are available: is he confident that we can fill the gaps in personnel and recruitment to ensure that we meet all the needs of the legacy issues?
Mr Ford: Of course, Mr Eastwood raises, quite rightly, the issue of appropriate personnel. The question was originally around investigating officers. There are then issues around the coroners or judges acting as coroners. There are significant resource implications that require the provision of the finance to do it. There are, of course, other roles that are provided for under the Stormont House Agreement that may require people with similar skill sets working in the historical investigations unit (HIU), for example. I cannot give any guarantee, but I can guarantee that the DOJ will do all it can to ensure that we get the process under way. There are issues of the very significant number of legacy inquests currently listed and the work that needs to be done by the judiciary to ensure that those are put into order and proceeded with as fast as possible.
Mr McGimpsey: In view of the fact that this matter is a key part of the Stormont House Agreement — I welcome the Minister's comments about the full implementation of the agreement — will he confirm that he is not currently considering a partial implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and is in fact working towards its full implementation?
Mr Ford: I appreciate Mr McGimpsey's question. I am not sure that the Minister of Justice can say that he is working towards a full implementation, and it is not the role of the Alliance Party leader to argue at this rostrum that he is arguing for the full implementation. The Minister of Justice is seeking to ensure that the DOJ fulfils its responsibilities, principally around the HIU and legacy interests, and that we play our part in getting a joined-up system so that the Stormont House Agreement can be put into place as fast as possible.
Mr Speaker: Ms Megan Fearon is not in her place, so I call Mr Robin Swann.
Mr Ford: Any assault in prison, whether it is on a prison officer or a prisoner, is unacceptable. There have a total of 282 assaults on prison officers on duty in prison establishments in the four financial years beginning in 2011. From an operational perspective, the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) has taken forward detailed analysis of assaults on staff and has found that the greatest contributing factor is crowding. A significant number of prisoners were moved from crowded residential areas in 2014 to address that issue. The use of accommodation is kept under regular review, and the prison population is dynamically managed in that respect.
Additionally, the Prison Service has recently commissioned a pilot to evaluate the effectiveness of body-worn cameras for prison staff to prevent violence and assist in the management of disruptive prisoners. Initial results at Maghaberry suggest a significant deterrent effect. NIPS has improved its mechanisms for recording assaults and analysing the factors involved and maintains a high level of vigilance in respect of prison violence. It also engages constructively with the Prison Officers' Association on a regular basis to discuss staff safety.
Mr Swann: To be honest with you, Minister, I am shocked at those figures, because, over that four-year period, that is an average of one prison officer per week being injured while on duty. If the core issue is crowding, what is the Minister doing to ensure that manning levels are sufficient to ensure the safety of officers? What is he doing to address the low staff morale in the Prison Service at this minute?
Mr Ford: Mr Swann talks about low staff morale. There is no doubt that particular issues have resulted in, for example, significant sickness levels in Maghaberry in particular but much less so in Hydebank and Magilligan. That may be attributed to low morale. That is why, at leadership level in Maghaberry, work is being done to deal with issues like sickness levels and to ensure that there are better staff ratios. However, as I said in my principal answer, the key issue is crowding. That appeared to be the principal reason. The opening of an additional block and the movement of people out of some of the crowded old square houses has produced a better atmosphere and less difficulty, but the Prison Service will have to continue to manage within the limited budget that it has to ensure that staffing ratios are at the best possible level consistent with living within that budget.
Ms Boyle: Go raibh maith agat. Minister, are you satisfied that there are sufficient resources and that prisoners are out of their cells engaging in meaningful activity during the day, rather than there being a regime of lockdown resulting in tensions?
Mr Ford: I would never be satisfied that we have all the resources that could be profitably used in the Prison Service, no. Am I satisfied that we have seen significant progress in good work being done by the Prison Service? Yes. Some Members had the opportunity to visit Hydebank Wood recently and will have seen the very significant progress in the regime being offered to both the young men and the women in Hydebank Wood. Good work is also being done in Magilligan. Progress has been slower in Maghaberry. That is the reality, but all that is predicated on living within the budget, living within the staffing numbers that we have and seeking the best form of management.
When I became Minister, there was, for example, no free movement of even the lowest-category prisoners in Maghaberry. That sort of change has freed things up, created a better atmosphere and produced better use of staff. Progress has been made, but there is undoubtedly still a lot to do, particularly at Maghaberry.
Mr Rogers: I am concerned at the level of assaults. Has the redefinition of recording assaults been a factor in the fading number of recorded assaults, Minister?
Mr Ford: I think that Mr Rogers raises an entirely valid point. It may not be so much a matter of redefinition as slightly more accurate recording. We should be aware that, whilst, in every case, assaults are serious if there is an intent behind them, some of them are not described as "serious assaults". Therefore, we should not suggest that there is a very significant number of major incidents, but, undoubtedly, there has been a small number of serious incidents and a rather larger number of minor incidents. The important issue is to ensure that we provide the necessary support to staff, that we deal with issues like crowding to address some of those problems with frustration that have led to assaults and that we get an overall picture where we make improvements in the current situation. That is why I have emphasised that there have been significant improvements in some cases but sadly not everywhere.
Mr Ford: Let me first recognise that the family of Kevin McGuigan is suffering a grievous loss, as is the family of Gerard Davison. The way in which these men were brutally murdered has shocked the entire community. These were cowardly and despicable acts, and those who committed them or assisted should face justice. There can never be any justification for murder. I was, of course, briefed by the Chief Constable in general terms. We need to keep in mind that there is a live investigation ongoing, and the detail of the investigation is an operational matter for the Chief Constable. My officials and I are also in regular contact with the Secretary of State and her officials.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I share with him condemnation of the murder and the feeling of regard for both Mr Davison and Mr McGuigan's families. There was an assessment made by the Chief Constable that was made public, which was that the Provisional IRA existed and that members of Action Against Drugs and members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the carrying out of this murder. What weight and what authority do you place on that assessment?
Mr Ford: I think that Mr Maginness has put his finger on exactly the issue. We have all seen the comments made by the Chief Constable and the assessment that he has made. It is clear from what he is saying that he does not believe that there was a sanctioned murder of Mr McGuigan, but it is also clear from the statement that he made that he believed that members of the Provisional IRA and other criminals, including dissident republicans, were involved in that murder. That is something that I believe requires the attention of all of us to ensure that we provide a political solution that moves away from these kinds of troubles leading to death and destruction and loss on our streets. I also believe that we need to ensure that we create the atmosphere in which an organisation that is said to not be active but clearly still has members who have engaged in criminality should fade away entirely in line with what we wish to see, particularly those of us who supported the Good Friday Agreement and its concept of moving to a different society.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Is the Minister satisfied that the PSNI has the necessary resources to carry out a thorough and proper investigation into the murder of Kevin McGuigan?
Mr Ford: The issue is for the Chief Constable to deploy the resources that he has. Members are well aware of the fact that the Police Service has reduced resources this year compared with last year, but how those resources are used against the different demands on the Police Service are operational issues for the Chief Constable. He has not suggested to me that that particular murder requires him to have any more resources than were already planned for. Clearly, that is the kind of issue that can be kept under review.
Mr Nesbitt: Given the remarks of the Justice Minister, can he assure the House that he is not going to recommend that the Provisional IRA is removed from the list of proscribed organisations and that he holds evidence to justify it remaining on the proscribed list of illegal organisations?
Mr Ford: Sorry, Mr Speaker; Mr Nesbitt does not seem to understand the difference between the roles of the Secretary of State for national security matters and the Minister of Justice in the devolved arena.
Mr Ford: Under the Stormont House Agreement, my Department is responsible for the establishment of a new historical investigations unit (HIU) and improving the legacy inquest function. The HIU will be an independent body to take forward investigations into outstanding Troubles-related deaths. My officials have been engaging with stakeholders and victims' groups throughout this process. In order to advise a wider group of stakeholders on the DOJ proposals, the legacy unit held three engagement workshops in early August to set out the policy position of the DOJ in relation to these initiatives and to allow stakeholders to raise any queries. Whilst the DOJ will not hold any further workshops, the legacy unit continues to engage with stakeholders on an ongoing, bilateral basis as the legislation to introduce these elements of the Stormont House Agreement is finalised.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. Is he satisfied that the Department's stakeholder list is comprehensive? Is there provision for bona fide groups to be added to that list?
Mr Ford: My understanding, in terms of those who were invited to meetings, is that there was an invitation to those who represented victims to involve other victims' groups in attending those. I attended to welcome members to one of the three workshops, which was held in the DOJ. There was very substantial attendance at that. But it was not intended to be a full-scale consultation process, because the five parties meeting in the Stormont House implementation group had not agreed to a document being issued for consultation. That is why engagement has been largely on a bilateral basis as well as those three workshops. That continues, and if there are groups that have not yet had the opportunity to engage with my officials, I invite them to write in and arrange such consultation.
Mr Attwood: Mindful that the Secretary of State announced over the weekend that the British Government would unilaterally legislate on welfare, and having regard to the reported comments of one of your officials in the 'Belfast Telegraph' over the summer, has London given any indication to you that the London Government might be minded to unilaterally legislate in respect of the legacy mechanisms, including the HIU, in the event that political progress is not made?
Mr Ford: I appreciate the point that Mr Attwood is making. No indication has been given to me of a unilateral intention to legislate, but, of course, the proposals in the Stormont House Agreement require legislation this autumn in Westminster. The important thing, I believe, is to see the five parties engaging together to ensure that we put a collective view to the Westminster Government as to how that legislation should be carried. Unfortunately, the decisions that have been taken so far in the implementation group have not yet resulted in a firm, agreed proposal going to the Westminster Government. That is why I believe that it is important that we continue to engage in that format to ensure that agreed proposals are put forward.
Mr Ford: I am already on record as saying that I was aware of the Independent Monitoring Commission's (IMC) final report in 2011, which stated that the Provisional IRA was committed to peaceful means and had moved away from paramilitarism, but that some members and former members were active in non-terrorist types of crime.
Mr Allister: The Minister purports to be the Minister of Justice. In that role, he doubtless receives briefings. Is he suggesting to the House that he had no knowledge that the IRA was still likely to be involved in killing, such as in the McGuigan case, or was he just turning a deaf ear to that? Can he tell us if there are any members of the Provisional IRA on the Executive in which he sits?
Mr Ford: I am afraid that Mr Allister is falling into the same trap that Mr Nesbitt fell into a few minutes ago. The Minister of Justice does not have responsibility for national security matters. Of course the Minister of Justice receives general briefing from the Police Service, not all of which is given on a basis other than in ministerial confidence, but the Minister of Justice does not have access to the national security information on which the Secretary of State might have responsibilities to make judgements in the future. That is an entirely different issue, and I am really surprised that neither of the gentlemen understands the current legal position.
Mr Ford: My assessment as Justice Minister is, naturally, based on the views of the Chief Constable. He is on record as saying that the police do not see the Provisional IRA as being involved in terrorism and that:
"They are not involved in paramilitary activity in the sense that they were during the period of the conflict".
The Chief Constable has also indicated that he does not have information at the moment to suggest that the murder of Kevin McGuigan was sanctioned or directed at a senior level.
I believe that we need to be guided by the Chief Constable’s view, based on the evidence and intelligence available to him. That, of course, does not make what happened in any way acceptable. Murder is not acceptable in any circumstances.
Mr Nesbitt: Given that the Minister is the Minister for Justice, given that he has a relationship with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, given that the Police Service of Northern Ireland spends a significant budget and devotes significant resource to patrolling terrorism, can the Minister explain why he keeps ducking the question?
Mr Ford: Mr Speaker, I could understand it if some Members of this House and, dare I say it, Members with a nationalist background who do not approve of Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, were to raise the kind of question that has just been raised by Mr Nesbitt and Mr Allister, but it really is slightly bizarre that unionists do not understand the concept of the national security of the United Kingdom being the responsibility, funnily enough, of the Government of the United Kingdom. They do not understand the basis on which justice was devolved in 2010, they do not understand the role of the Minister not interfering in operational issues, and they do not understand the entire way in which the system functions.
If Mr Nesbitt is going to start talking about people ducking their responsibilities, he really ought to look at his actions and those of Danny Kennedy. [Interruption.]
Mr Allister: The Minister repeated to us the assertion of the Chief Constable. Can I ask him to explain to the House how a member of a proscribed organisation can be involved in murder and that not be an act of terrorism? Will he explain that conundrum please?
Mr Ford: Just as I said that I do not deal in operational matters, which are the responsibility of the Chief Constable, neither is it my role to explain what the Chief Constable means when he makes statements. However, it seems to me that he made a fairly clear distinction when he said that the Provisional IRA is not involved in paramilitary activity in the sense that it was during the period of the conflict. That does not make murder acceptable. That does not make what has been happening in Belfast — the murders of two men in recent months — acceptable in any way.
I condemn those murders utterly, and I have no hesitation, in the case of any criminal activity, in asking anyone who has information to assist the police in catching the perpetrators so that the justice system can play its proper role. However, to suggest that it is my role to explain the words of the Chief Constable and his responsibility is just the same as expecting me to explain the role of the Secretary of State. Those who want to know what the Secretary of State or the Chief Constable should be doing in current circumstances really ought to contact the Secretary of State or the Chief Constable and not ask somebody who has a very specific role in the devolved sphere, not in connection with national security and not in connection with operational matters, but who has the job of doing policy and legislation work in the Assembly of providing the finances and leaving other people to carry out their responsibilities just as I do not expect them to carry out mine.
Mr Speaker: Thank you. We have exhausted the list of questions, so we will move straight on to topical questions.
T1. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Justice whether he is aware that Loyalist paramilitaries in north Antrim and east Derry have been doing their very best to run parallel systems of justice, given that the existence of paramilitaries is very topical in the House today; whether he has been screaming from the rooftops about that; whether he has raised the issue at meetings of the Executive; and whether he accepts that the Assembly cannot tolerate paramilitaries of any kind and that the continuing existence of some over the last 15 years is an absolute disgrace. (AQT 2771/11-16)
Mr Ford: I sympathise entirely with Mr Dallat's point. I have not been screaming from the rooftops about unionist paramilitaries. I have not raised the issue at the Executive. However, I certainly have regular and frequent discussions with the Chief Constable, the Secretary of State and others who have particular responsibilities, whether dealing with organised crime or issues that, frankly, cross over between criminal activities and national security activities. That includes those who claim to be unionists and those who claim to be republicans. I certainly discuss those matters frequently.
On the resources issue, I have responsibility for the police, and I am determined that adequate resources be given to the police and to other aspects of the justice system. However, Mr Dallat is absolutely right: more than one paramilitary group has created difficulties in Northern Ireland generally over the years. There certainly appears to be a level of activity by those who would claim to be unionist in some shape or form, whose activities are just as much criminal and terrorist as some of those who claim republican motivations.
Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer, which I regard as positive and very timely at this moment of crisis in the Assembly. Whatever outcomes there are from the talks, does the Minister agree with me that, for the first time, this Assembly must be allowed to move forward as one people, completely free of any paramilitary influence of any kind? Indeed, is it opportune now for some people in the unionist parties to reflect on their continuing association with the so-called political advisers of loyalist paramilitaries?
Mr Ford: It is not only the Assembly that needs to be able to move forward but this society needs to be able to move forward from those who would seek to subvert the rule of law, those who claim political motivation to run drug empires and those who continue to behave in a way that is utterly unacceptable. I agree with the Member's final point about the association between some who are democratically elected politicians in this place and their association with some of those who maintain links to criminal and paramilitary groups, particularly over issues like the so-called Twaddell camp. It really is time that those who point the finger about the behaviour of paramilitaries on one side look at the people with whom they at times consort.
T2. Mr G Kelly asked the Minister of Justice, given that he will be aware that the coroner, John Leckey, is retiring, while two others in that office are sick, to outline the plan and time frame to replace the coroner and to state whether the other members of staff will be replaced on either a temporary or permanent basis. (AQT 2772/11-16)
Mr Ford: As Mr Kelly said, the senior coroner is due to retire shortly. I have been discussing with the Lord Chief Justice the issue that we provided for in the last Justice Act of his assuming presidency of the Coroners' Courts. I hope that that will happen shortly. As I have said previously, he has also appointed an additional County Court judge to lead on some of the more complex inquests, particularly legacy inquests. He also has the power, which I recently raised with him, to appoint temporary coroners who would be able to carry out some of the additional work, given that, as Mr Kelly highlighted, there is an illness issue among some of the coroners as well as the pending retirement.
Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. The Minister will also be aware that many families are waiting for inquests to come through, so this is a matter of urgency. If he talked about a time frame, I was not quite sure of his answer. This is an urgent issue for all of us and is certainly so for those families. Will he give some idea of the time frame involved?
Mr Ford: I understand that the senior coroner is due to retire at the end of October. The expectation was that the Lord Chief Justice would assume presidency from the beginning of November. The Member rightly raises the issue of concerns among a number of families about the delays in holding inquests. It is unfortunate that, in a number of cases, inquests have been listed without resources being provided either for the investigative function before the hearing or for the precise time for the Coroners' Court to be held.
That is the sort of management issue that I hope will be addressed shortly by the Lord Chief Justice. I trust that we will also see a positive outcome to the discussions over the next few weeks, meaning additional resources to fund the legacy inquests properly, alongside the work of the HIU, because that will be essential to providing comfort to individuals and families who have been waiting many years for results.
T3. Mr F McCann asked the Minister of Justice for an update on the withdrawal of funding to NIACRO for the transportation of prisoners’ families to and from prison. (AQT 2773/11-16)
Mr Ford: I am allowed a slight smile, Mr Speaker, as I had a suspicion about what Mr McCann might ask about. He referred to the withdrawal of funding. To be fair, it is not a withdrawal of funding; it is a reduction in funding. Over the summer, detailed work was done on looking at the usage of NIACRO buses travelling to the prisons, the level of need and what an appropriate charge was. At this stage, it is likely that we will be able to continue to maintain grant aid to support NIACRO running buses on the longer runs — from Belfast to Magilligan and from the Derry area to Maghaberry — but, frankly, some of the shorter runs, given the use made of them, are not viable. Issues are being looked at to ensure that the Prison Service funds the meeting of public transport services to take people to the prisons, rather than running the complete distance, and I hope that a modest increase in the charges levied will mean that it is possible to maintain the services and leave them relatively unaffected, though not on as many days.
Mr F McCann: I thank the Minister for his response. Recently, I have been speaking to relatives of prisoners in the greater Belfast area who are concerned that the reduction in funding, as the Minister said, will have an impact on their ability to visit and maintain relationships with their loved ones in prison, and that it will have an impact on prisoners' relationships with their children. My understanding is that there has been a considerable cut in the number of hours that this service will be available to those families.
Mr Ford: I am not sure that "considerable" is fair, although I accept that it will have an effect on those who have been using it on particular days. We are looking at the Derry to Maghaberry service, for example. It still runs on two days a week, rather than three. That may mean that some people will need to vary the times at which they go, but, faced with all the other cuts that are happening, I think that it is not unreasonable to accept that still providing that service on two days a week is a reasonable effort. As I highlighted, I certainly think that we also need to look at making better use of public transport: at meeting public transport rather than a NIACRO bus running the whole way. There were cases in which bus occupancy was below 40%, and, in those circumstances, it seems not unreasonable to reduce the number of days per week on which they travel and have the buses fuller when they are running.
T4. Mr Rogers asked the Minister of Justice for an update on any discussions that have taken place between his Department and the legal profession about the provision of legal aid. (AQT 2774/11-16)
Mr Ford: Mr Speaker, if I went over the two minutes on that, you would probably tell me off. Over the summer, there have been very significant discussions on legal aid rates. Those discussions continue, and significant work is being done. It is absolutely clear that we have to live within the budget that we have and that it is not credible that the current expenditure on legal aid can be maintained into the future. Following a period in which there was reluctance on the part of the Law Society and the Bar to engage, there have been detailed, positive and useful discussions, and recommendations are being made. Of course, Members will be aware that there is a judicial review pending against the Department, jointly by the Law Society and the Bar Council. I hope that it will be possible to avert that on the basis of proposals being put forward. I believe that the Justice Committee is likely to see some of those proposals this week.
Mr Rogers: I welcome that from the Minister. I know that everybody has to live within their budget. Concerns have been expressed by many, including the president of the Law Society, that a reduction in legal aid funds is an attack on access to justice for the most vulnerable. How does the Minister hope to further address that?
Mr Ford: In a sense, there are two elements: the first is the immediate issue of how we live with the current arrangements and the second is the wider issue, and I will shortly see the report of the second stage of the access to justice review, which will enable us to look at issues of scope and whether there are different ways of meeting needs. I certainly believe that there are some areas where it is possible to have decisions taken at lower tier courts, which would therefore reduce the cost but still provide a service. There may be some issues for which mediation is suitable, rather than going into an adversarial court system, which would provide benefits. I think that we also need to look at issues like insurance.
All those issues are being considered, but the key issue at this point is to find a way of living within the budget whilst doing the best that we can to maintain as much as possible within scope. That will not be the case if there are viable alternatives that are suitable for the future.
T5. Mr Ó hOisín asked the Minister of Justice, following a recent visit to the new waste water treatment plant at Point Road in Magilligan, a facility that many of us fought long and hard for and which now treats much of the waste from the prison, whether he is confident that the treatment capacity exists, particularly in high season when the population swells by many thousands. (AQT 2775/11-16)
Mr Ford: Mr Speaker, I am aware that we do not have a Minister for Regional Development at the moment, but I am really not sure that I am in a position to answer a question about the capacity of a waste water treatment work. Mr Ó hOisín outlined specific concerns. I am quite happy to say that, if I can find a Minister for Regional Development to engage with in the coming weeks, I will so engage with him.
Mr Ó hOisín: I will get a supplementary question out of that. Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. The prison has been in operation for some 40-odd years with its own internal system. Given that it is in a sensitive environmental area with a number of designations, I wonder whether the Minister is aware of any environmental damage caused during the period when the prison did its own waste water treatment.
Mr Ford: The answer to that is that I am not aware of any damage that has been done. Indeed, the Prison Service has an interesting environmental record in providing for ground-nesting birds around Maghaberry, for which we can claim some degree of credit. I certainly take his point. I will investigate it and come back to him.
T6. Mr McKay asked the Minister of Justice for an assessment of the number of sectarian hate crimes that were reported and acted on at bonfires over the summer. (AQT 2776/11-16)
Mr Ford: The simple answer is this: not at the present time. I certainly share the concern, which I suspect Mr McKay is about to express, about the way in which hate crimes were carried out. If he wants me to put it very personally, putting a Sinn Féin election poster on a loyalist bonfire is no more acceptable than putting an Alliance Party poster on a bonfire. There are real issues with what is claimed to be cultural expression, and it is not just done by those who burn bonfires on 11 July. There are real issues where cultural expression tips over into sectarian hatred. I certainly believe that there is a real need to address hatred, whatever kind it is, whatever day of the year it occurs and wherever it happens.
Mr McKay: I thank the Minister for his answer. Those displays are totally unacceptable, no matter what the bonfire is, what its location is or what its background is. Will he ensure that steps are taken to ensure that there is a significant reduction in such displays next year? Given the restrictions that he operates under, will he ensure that a strong message goes to the police that they need to take a tougher line on those bonfires?
Mr Ford: Again, Mr McKay has almost the same problem as Mr Allister and Mr Nesbitt in inviting me to interfere too much operationally. It is, however, reasonable to say that I have expressed a view to the police of my concerns about the management of those bonfires, but not in the sense of giving a direction, which is what he was almost hinting at there.
There are fundamental issues about the way in which this society functions, the need to be rather more respectful on some issues and the need to ensure that cultural expression by those who wish to engage in certain activities is positive and not a negative sign of hatred. Sadly, we have seen too much of that.
One of the pleasant things about the last few days has been the fact that people are concerned about the issue of refugees arriving in the European Union and have been talking about what Northern Ireland could do to help them. I hope that, if that is the case and a number come, we do not see the kind of hate crime that we saw in parts of Belfast on racial grounds, just as I wish to see an end to hate crime on sectarian grounds, homophobic grounds and against people with disabilities.
All of those are issues that are unacceptable, and they all need the support of society generally to fight as well as requiring the police to carry out their duties under the law.
Mr Speaker: Time is up. Thank you, Minister. You ended up taking a few extra minutes and questions on a number of other briefs. I ask the House to take its ease while we make changes at the Table.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly approves the 'Opportunities for Excellence' report of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment on its inquiry into growing the economy and creating jobs with lower corporation tax; and calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, in conjunction with his Executive colleagues, to implement the recommendations contained in the report. — [Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment).]
Mr Lunn: I welcome the report, although it is fair to say that, not being a member of the Committee and not having been able to access a copy of it until this morning, I am taking it for granted that it is a good report.
I want to talk mainly about corporation tax. I know that the report is much wider-ranging than that, but let me put it this way: were I an investor looking at Northern Ireland as a prospect for a new venture at the moment, what would I be looking for? I would be looking at the infrastructure, the telecommunications, the energy costs, the planning regime, perhaps, and the transport links. I would also be looking for evidence of stable government, an agreed Budget and a Programme for Government. I would certainly be looking at the availability of skilled labour. Of course, I would be looking at currency issues and, last but not least, the tax regime.
On the basis of all that I might well conclude that it is not for me and go to Hungary instead. Despite those problems, however, businesses come here as they have always done, right through periods when our corporation tax rate, for instance, was up at 28% along with the rest of the UK. We still managed to attract foreign direct investment, and we have been particularly successful in certain areas such as IT, computer skills, legal services and call centres. That is largely due to the efforts of various Ministers, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and, of course, Invest NI, which has in my opinion punched above its weight over the last 10 years. All that is despite a corporation tax rate that had been 28% but is now 20% and is about to come down gradually to 19% and 18%.
Where do we go with our proposed cut? We should soon have the decision in our own hands whether to reduce in order to match the Republic of Ireland's rate but it comes, obviously, at some risk and cost. Alliance supports the transfer of the power to set our own rate, but it must not be achieved at the cost of further Budget cuts, particularly in Departments, mainly the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education, that provide the skills that need to be available when companies come here or if they decide to expand existing operations. We already have companies complaining that they cannot obtain the skilled employees that they need to look after their present operations, so we need to be careful.
In the present climate, it should at least not be so expensive to cut the corporation tax rate in 2018, which appears to be the earliest point that we can achieve it. Cutting it from 19% to 12·5%, however, is not as big a challenge as it was when it was sitting at percentages in the mid-20s. Unless we stop leaking finance and wasting money on some old chestnuts such as the cost of division, welfare reform, the failure to agree our Budget and our Programme for Government, the rationalisation of our school estate and school system and even teacher training, we will continue to waste money on these things. Teacher training could almost be called a successful export matter: we are exporting so many teachers, having trained too many who cannot get a job here.
It will be all the more difficult, and we risk achieving a low rate not having solved the problems that would make investors nervous. We should be increasing skills investment in preparation for a corporation tax cut, not cutting FE and HE places and maths, languages and STEM subjects. Our current approach and priorities have made that unavoidable. The DEL budget has been slashed, and the Minister has had little option but to cut the cloth to suit what he has available.
I hope that we can move forward looking at all this in the round. Corporation tax is only part of the equation. The report at least points the way forward in a lot of areas, but, unless we achieve the resolution of our basic problems, corporation tax will never, in isolation, be enough. I welcome the report.
Mr Allister: The one aspect that I wish to comment on is the Europhile tone of the report, which surprises me in its clear lack of objectivity. It also surprises me that it seems to have been approved of by all the members of the Committee, some of whom from time to time like to present their Eurosceptic credentials. I also note that, not for the first time, I am left to make these remarks without the assistance of the UKIP Member in the House, who does not seem to have anything to say on these matters.
The report is a brazen attempt at promoting the EU propaganda that Northern Ireland would wither and die if the United Kingdom dared to reassert control over its own affairs and dared to leave the EU, whereas the very opposite is the truth. By liberating ourselves from the EU, we would do the very thing that Northern Ireland needs: open up with far greater freedom the right to trade uninhibited by Brussels across the world. One of the binding chains of the EU is that no member state can make even a trade agreement with any other country. Only the EU can make trade agreements, hence the fact that for decades we did not even have a trade agreement with the UK's biggest trading partner: the US. When you analyse the figures, you discover that, since we entered the EU, because it is itself a withering economic institution and its own GDP is falling drastically, the majority of our trade as a nation is outside the EU. We trade more outside the EU than within it, so how a report could reach the conclusion that leaving the EU would be disastrous for Northern Ireland — that seems to be the tenor — is, frankly, beyond me, other than to recognise the propaganda that lies behind it.
Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for giving way. As a member of the Committee, I can say that we heard representations from business groups, including, I think I am right in saying, the CBI, which stated why it saw our position as being better within the EU than without it. Does he believe that those organisations are not best placed to make such a judgement?
Mr Allister: Did the Member ask the CBI how many hundreds of thousands of pounds a year it gets from the EU Commission? The CBI is a paid mouthpiece for the Commission. It benefits to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum from Brussels, so of course it is not going to bite the hand that feeds it in its vested interest.
I am talking about realities, and the reality is that we trade more outside the EU than within it. We also have the reality that our trade deficit with the rest of the EU has never been wider.
There is a huge trade deficit now, which debunks the foolish and childish contention that, if you leave the EU, the rest of the EU will not trade with you. The deficit is such that, believe you me, the Germans will still be very anxious to sell us their BMWs. They sell us far more than we sell them. So, the notion that we would handicap Northern Ireland on the world global trading stage by leaving the EU is a total fallacy, and it is one that I want to nail. It would, in fact, liberate trade.
The second key factor in the liberation that it would bring to the economy of Northern Ireland is that it would lift the dead hand of regulation. It has been well documented that the dead hand of regulation from Brussels imposes something of the order of £600 billion a year on the economy. That is something that it would be well worth being liberated from.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Member for giving way. What would happen to our agrifood sector, given that in Northern Ireland we have to export 85% of our total agricultural produce? Where would that produce be traded? How does he think our farming community would be able to adapt to what he is suggesting?
Mr Allister: With a very simple economic reality, which is this: we would liberate the money that we are pouring into the black hole that is called Brussels. The net contribution from the UK is more than £1 million an hour. That is money that would stay in our own coffers and that would enable us to help our own farmers and businesses —
Mr Allister: — rather than paying in that huge amount of money, which is a net loss. That is why there would not be the dire circumstances that the Member suggested.
Mr Agnew: Whilst I welcome the report and, as a member of the Committee, know the work that has gone into it, I oppose its basic assumption, which is that we should reduce the level of corporation tax in Northern Ireland either to the rate in the Republic of Ireland or, as some would suggest, lower.
It angers me to hear some in the House say that we absolutely must get on with cutting the incomes of the poorest in our society by implementing welfare cuts so that we can get on with providing this proposed subsidy to some of the largest businesses and most profitable organisations in Northern Ireland. To me, the moral absurdity of that is striking, and such calls have been made from a number of sources, not least the leader of the Alliance Party, Mr David Ford. He attacked me in his conference speech last year, saying that we could not afford the costs of protecting those on benefits and that we must progress to reducing corporation tax, despite the cost of protecting those on welfare being a fraction of the cost of the corporate subsidy.
The moral basis for that is certainly unsound. It would be unfair to impose further cuts on our society when we have had so many cuts forced upon us by the Conservative Government. The economics do not even make sense. The unanimity among the now four Executive parties, supported by the Ulster Unionists, that we must make the move needs to be challenged. The whole assumption has been that we must compete with the Republic of Ireland, but it is worth noting that the Republic of Ireland reduced its corporation tax rate in 1958. The Celtic Tiger, which was the key argument for reducing corporation tax, did not happen until 1980, showing that corporation tax is not a key driver in producing a turnaround in an economy. In its report, 'Corporation Tax — Game Changer or Game Over', PwC stated that it could not find:
"any clear evidence of a simple correlation between low Corporation Tax per se and high levels of FDI."
Indeed, for the same report, there was a survey of companies looking to invest in the UK. They listed the priority factors for them investing in the UK, and corporate taxation was 17th on the list, behind a number of very interesting other factors, including political stability. Instead of the unanimity that we have on the corporate tax break, we need to get unanimity of purpose on governance in Northern Ireland, our structures and on the stability of politics. That will do much more to make Northern Ireland attractive for investment than cutting corporation tax will.
Furthermore, the need for skills is oft repeated. A week after the announcement of significant cuts to our universities, it is ludicrous to propose that we take what could be up to £300 million extra per year out of our public services and say that we can still maintain the skills level that companies demand when they are looking at investing in Northern Ireland. Last week, the languages department of the Ulster University was cut to the point where, in Northern Ireland, you will not be able to study German at degree level. This will mean that, when looking at making international trade, we will not even be able to communicate with some of the business partners that we propose to have in the future. Indeed, transportation infrastructure is another area that is ranked higher than corporate taxation on the PwC list. Northern Ireland is still undoubtedly behind much of Europe in its public transport infrastructure and provision.
Mr Agnew: We cannot maximise the so-called benefits of this proposal if we do not change those things, and we cannot change them if we cut public investment by £300 million.
Mr B McCrea: I only got the chance to look at this report today, and I am a little surprised at some of the things it talks about and some of the things it ignores. I am also very surprised by the comments from some people around the Chamber and what they have ignored.
Mr Agnew talked about the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, but I will talk about a former Member of the Assembly Esmond Birnie who is the chief economist in PricewaterhouseCoopers. He says that Northern Ireland will remain the lowest growth region of the United Kingdom and that it will be bad this year and worse next year. Where is the attack? Where is the, "Let's do something about this and try to work out what is wrong"?
There are another couple of things that are not mentioned that I find really surprising. Nobody is talking about the increase in the minimum wage and what impact that will have on our SMEs and our businesses. There is no discussion about how it will affect our nursing homes, how it will affect nurses coming from overseas and how we will look after our hospitals. Those are key parts of our economy that you are ignoring.
The next thing that you are not talking about, which again I find frankly incredible, is that Osborne —
Mr B McCrea: I will give way in just a moment. Osborne has announced that he wants to make £20 billion more in cuts over the top of the welfare cuts that you are all getting so excited about. He will make cuts totalling £20 billion in DFT, BIS, DEFRA and all those areas. Do you know what they are talking about doing away with? The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Maybe we should do away with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department for Employment and Learning. I will give way.
Mr Flanagan: I thank the Member for giving way. He is raising a number of issues that the Committee did not focus on during the inquiry. Perhaps if he and his party had responded to the call for submissions earlier in the year, we would have considered some of those issues.
Mr B McCrea: There is one thing that I find really disappointing, and I will put this on the record now for the Speaker's office to look at. This is a two-hour debate, which means that, quite unusually, people on this Bench get to make a contribution. Perhaps if the people in the Assembly listened more to the people in this corner, they might do a better job.
This corner is absolutely committed to making a contribution; this corner has things to say; and this corner will not make the mistake of not taking on people when they talk gobbledygook. That is what I see in all of this — platitudes and people going on that somebody should do something and that something should be done. Listen: the economy is tanked, and you are not doing anything about it. Do you want to know what will really make our economy take off? I agree with Mr Agnew; it is not corporation tax. I will tell you what it is. It is three things: skills, infrastructure and political stability. Let us face it; you are not doing a great job with political stability. That is the key thing that drives this.
Earlier, Mr Frew laudably tried to inject a little bit of energy into the debate and talked about the thing that he had come across on the doorsteps. Correct me if I am wrong, Mr Frew, but you said that people wanted to know about jobs and the economy — those issues. That is the simple thing that we have to tackle, and we are not tackling it.
I look at this statement. I think that it was SDLP Members who mentioned that the thing that is really missing in all of this is an overarching strategy that will take us forward. We keep patting ourselves on the head and saying that Invest NI and the Department have done great. That is rubbish. Our productivity is still not being tackled; we still do not have a plan; and we do not have any integration in the way that we approach things. If we go into direct rule, I really want to see what Osborne will do to this place, with DETI, DEL and all the other bloated Departments that are not cutting it. If we want to take action, we need to get together and go forward. If you want to talk about the EU and our contribution to that, look at where our industries actually participate. Aerospace is an international, worldwide business. We should look at how we might compete in the world.
I want to see a strong, confident and prosperous Northern Ireland, where we have the skills to compete — not some sort of begging bowl, where we go out and say, "Give us some sort of handouts on this." Do you know what? If you do not try to come up with a plan, other people will impose their plan on you. The plan for Northern Ireland is not the same as the plan for Dublin, London or any other part of the world. We need our own plan; we need people working together; and we need absolute consistency and drive on the way forward.
I will finish on this point. There is nothing more important than getting an economy that can sustain our old and elderly people, but the fact that we have the travesty of having the highest rate of youth unemployment, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, is something that we really ought to strive to deal with. I do not think that we are doing enough.
Mr Bell (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): I am pleased to be here this afternoon for what has been an interesting debate. I accept William Humphrey's invitation to congratulate Michael O'Neill on the potential position that he has brought the team to tonight. I think that we will all be behind them on this historic occasion and wish them well.
I welcome the publication of the report by the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment following the completion of its inquiry into growing the economy and creating jobs with lower corporation tax. I thank the Committee Chair, Committee members and staff for the effort that they have put into producing the report. I also thank the stakeholders who provided evidence.
Our economic recovery is now well established and that is evidenced by improvements in our labour market. July witnessed a further fall of 400 in the number of people who are claiming unemployment benefits, which is now more than 21,000 lower than its previous peak. The economy has also added almost 28,000 jobs since March 2012.
There is also positive news coming from all our main sectors. The construction sector — our most impacted sector during the downturn — posted its highest growth in output in three years. The services sector has grown in both output and jobs. Service sector job levels are now above their previous peak from 2008. The manufacturing sector has been posting growth in output and jobs, with the latest quarterly job figures at their highest since December 2008. I welcome those improvements, but I recognise that challenges remain and that new ones will emerge. Across the Executive, we have to do all that we can to continue the momentum that has been built over the past few years.
Members will be aware that the Executive’s ability to respond to economic challenges is hampered by the impasse over welfare reform, which has prevented the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and has slowed progress towards implementing a lower rate of corporation tax. That is set against continued fiscal austerity and departmental budget reductions and at a time when the Executive are considering the restructuring of Departments.
Today’s debate on the report of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee is about growing the economy and creating jobs with lower corporation tax. There is a significant body of evidence to suggest that a reduced rate of corporation tax would significantly add to the attractiveness of Northern Ireland as a prime investment location. I view corporation tax as a key economic lever that can help to achieve our long-term economic goals, and I remain hopeful that those powers will be devolved, helping to secure greater economic growth and jobs for our people.
In the Northern Ireland economic strategy, we acknowledge that corporation tax is important but that, by itself, it is insufficient to transform the Northern Ireland economy. We must, therefore, continue with efforts to improve other areas in our economy in order to grow Northern Ireland’s private sector and ensure greater export-led economic growth. In that context, I welcome the insight that the Committee’s report provides into what we can do to help Northern Ireland to realise its long-term economic potential. That work is timely as we make preparations to take forward the important work of implementing a lower rate of corporation tax.
I was surprised by the contribution from the Ulster Unionist Member for South Antrim, who criticised the role of his own, now former, Minister in respect of Danny Kennedy's work on the Executive sub-committee on the economy, particularly when Danny is no longer in a position to defend his record. I was also surprised by the contribution of Mr McKinney, so let me give him some facts. We do, indeed — wake up — have a long-term economic plan; it is called the economic strategy. That plan is absolutely joined up. It is not a DETI plan; it is an Executive plan, with your Minister involved. It was developed by a cross-departmental group of officials; it was developed alongside our Programme for Government and our investment strategy. In addition, it was developed under the Executive's sub-committee on the economy, including the Ministers from the five other Departments. It was widely consulted on, including with key industry stakeholders, and was unanimously agreed by your party and Mr Kennedy — by the Executive — and endorsed by the Assembly.
Moving on to the inquiry report itself, I am pleased that there are clear synergies between the Committee’s recommendation for a 20-year strategy for economic development and the vision for the Northern Ireland economy for 2030 as set out in the Executive’s economic strategy and endorsed by the House in March 2012. I remind the House that the Executive’s vision for the economy is:
"An economy characterised by a sustainable and growing private sector, where a greater number of firms compete in global markets and there is growing employment and prosperity for all."
You will recall that the economic strategy set out five key rebalancing themes to drive growth in the Northern Ireland economy and work towards achieving that vision. Those are to stimulate innovation, R&D and creativity; improve skills and employability; compete effectively in the global economy; encourage business growth; and develop a modern and sustainable infrastructure.
It is important for Members to note that the Executive’s economic strategy is a living document. It was developed in advance of a decision on the devolution of corporation tax.
Once the Assembly has agreed a way forward for corporation tax, the Executive subcommittee on the economy will oversee the development of a refocused and realigned economic strategy. During the process, the subcommittee will assess the degree to which we can strengthen the ambition of our overarching economic goals. This will be important work. I recognise that the refocused economic strategy will need to reach more widely than the Executive and public sector. We will, therefore, work closely with the private sector and the voluntary and community sector, which remain key drivers of our economic growth.
I agree with the Committee that it is vital that all parts of government, central and local, work together to achieve better outcomes. We will work closely with the new super-councils, given their extended economic development responsibilities, to create a link between the Assembly and local government during the development of the new Programme for Government and refocused economic strategy.
I also agree with the Committee that it is important for an economic strategy to align with the Programme for Government. My Department is working closely with OFMDFM throughout this process to ensure the refocused economic strategy aligns with the economic and social outcomes of the new Programme for Government 2016-2020.
The report suggests that the development and implementation of an economic development strategy should be supported by a steering group with representatives from all levels of government, education and skills, business, employee and community representative organisations and that working groups comprising key stakeholders will be required to develop and monitor the implementation of strategies.
The Assembly will be aware that our economic strategy is an Executive-wide strategy that is monitored by the Executive subcommittee on the economy. Through this, Ministers with key responsibilities for the economy ensure that the implementation of the economic strategy is robustly monitored and reported on. The development of the refocused economic strategy will also be overseen by the economy subcommittee.
My Department is also advised by an economic advisory group (EAG) and MATRIX, the Northern Ireland science industry panel. I would suggest that there is already sufficient economic support and advice available to the Executive and would not accept that there is a need for a further steering group.
Mr Bell: Let me make some progress. I will see what time I have at the end.
I will, however, consider the Committee’s recommendation on membership of the EAG in the context of a restructured Department for the Economy.
The Committee’s report highlights a number of areas that respondents suggest are vital for driving economic growth. I am pleased to note that we have been progressing these areas under the economic strategy’s five rebalancing themes. I will now address a number of those key issues.
As the Committee highlights in its report, innovation and research and development are increasingly important in supporting businesses and attracting inward investment. The Committee proposes that this should be a key priority in a future strategy for the economy. I would point out that the Executive already recognise innovation and R&D, alongside skills, as the key drivers for the economy as outlined in the economic strategy and Programme for Government. Significantly, increasing the levels of innovation across the public sector is critical to future growth, and the Executive have a role to play in this.
Work remains to be done to increase the number of our companies that are innovation active. Currently, only 40% of our local companies are engaged in innovation, compared with a UK average of 45%. I am committed to creating the conditions in which entrepreneurship and innovation can flourish so that local businesses can keep ahead of their competitors and compete on the global stage. The aim of the innovation strategy, published last September, is for Northern Ireland to be one of the top four UK regions by 2025. This will be very challenging.
Horizon 2020 offers a great opportunity to bring additional funding into Northern Ireland and can also provide access to potential new markets and customers. To increase Northern Ireland’s success, it is important that more of our local companies participate in Horizon 2020. We have secured €15·5 million from the first 18 months of Horizon 2020, and we are confident that this will continue to rise.
On skills and employability, the economic strategy recognises that the most important asset to the economy is our people. We are developing our understanding of the future demand for skills to ensure that our skills system meets the needs of investors, particularly if a lower rate of corporation tax is implemented. In that regard, my Department, in conjunction with the Department for Employment and Learning and Invest NI, is taking forward a research project that will help to identify the skills needs of companies attracted by a cut in corporation tax. This will help to inform future skills planning and forecasting work, and it will feed into the development of the refocused economic strategy.
The Committee suggests that, in order to develop education and skills at a school level, we need to consider how best to integrate education with business needs, including the increased provision of skills in STEM subjects. I particularly welcome the recent performance of our students at A level and GCSE. It is encouraging to see the rise in economically important subjects chosen at A level and, in particular, the increase in the uptake of STEM subjects and the improved uptake of STEM courses by female candidates.
The report identifies that any initiatives taken in schools will need to be complemented by the further and higher education sectors. Invest Northern Ireland works with those sectors through a number of initiatives, including, alongside DEL, the Assured Skills programme and Success through Skills strategy. I recognise that is it also vital to raise standards at a school level and ensure that all our young people have access to courses that meet their needs and aspirations and lead to clear progression routes in educational attainment.
One important area of work that my colleague in the Department for Employment and Learning is leading is the implementation of ‘Securing our Success: the Northern Ireland Strategy on Apprenticeships’. The Committee rightly outlines the importance of apprenticeships in growing the economy and creating jobs. The Securing our Success strategy will be central to transforming the skills landscape. It will help us to ensure that employers obtain the skills that they require and that there is a critical mass of people with strong technical and employability skills in the high-demand sectors.
The Committee report identifies a number of key issues for businesses, including access to finance, business regulation and supporting SME growth. Those issues are explored under the economic strategy’s business growth theme. Having a local banking sector that meets the needs of consumers and businesses, and provides bank lending on a competitive basis to local SMEs, is vital to sustaining economic recovery.
Much progress has been made in recent years on improving the availability and affordability of finance for businesses in Northern Ireland. However, I agree with the Committee that access to finance remains a key issue for our businesses. While it is encouraging to see that access to the finance landscape is improving, it is important that we also continue to explore options to ensure that local companies have access to appropriate and affordable finance to support investment and assist in continuing growth.
On the competing globally theme, our economic strategy identified that the route to economic success would come from a renewed focus on export-led economic growth, and that still holds true today. The promotion of external sales and exports will remain a key priority for the Programme for Government and the refocused economic strategy. I am pleased that the Committee welcomed my Department’s work in developing 'Export Matters', the export action plan for Northern Ireland. I hope to publish that later this year.
I reassure Members that, as suggested in recommendation 5, we have fully considered the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in supporting economic development and job creation. Continuing with the competing globally theme, I think that Northern Ireland has a very strong track record in attracting foreign direct investment, outperforming many larger regions.
In 2014-15, we had the highest number of new-to-Northern Ireland projects ever — 25 — including the world's number one law firm. A lower rate of corporation tax will enable us to build on that and extend our position as the best performing region in the United Kingdom for job creation.
Firms have been attracted by skills availability, our competitive cost base, the ease of doing business and government and Invest Northern Ireland support, and it is essential that we continue to use those to our advantage. A reduced level of corporation tax would further strengthen our position and help to promote Northern Ireland as a good location for potential new investors and undoubtedly bring benefits to our business base. It also gives Northern Ireland the opportunity to specifically target strategic business functions that are regional or global profit centres and additional high-technology functions. That will involve a new and additional area of work for Invest NI and other key stakeholders in developing sales propositions, targeting investors and putting in place appropriate support packages.
Infrastructure and accessibility are often identified as key factors in determining an investment location. Investment in communications infrastructure will remain a priority. External accessibility to markets and suppliers and ease of travel are all important drivers to increase investment across the whole of Northern Ireland. The Committee report identified energy as a key driver. The report suggests that energy costs continue to be an important issue for existing businesses and in terms of attracting new inward investment. There have been recent falls in energy prices that have benefited all customers. I would welcome further falls, but I note that the CBI's evidence to the Committee suggests that, for many companies, energy is not the biggest issue.
I will now turn to some of the issues that were raised. Mr Agnew seemed to want to promote welfare. I inform him that I do not want to promote welfare; I want to promote jobs so that people do not rely on welfare. Cutting corporation tax will promote investment and jobs and will provide employment. He should note that the Irish Government concluded that the number one factor in their success on foreign direct investment was their corporation tax rate. The UK has seen a boom in foreign direct investment since it lowered corporation tax from 2011, so the fact is that corporation tax is important for FDI. The Member seems to be ignoring all the evidence that shows that to be true.
For those who have said that it is all about jobs, that is what the people are interested in. I will outline the record: we asked Invest NI, in four of our Programme for Government targets, to promote 25,000 new jobs. It achieved over 37,000 —
Mr Bell: — new jobs. We asked it for an investment of £1 billion to our local economy, and £2·6 billion was achieved. That is a record that I am happy to stand over.
Mr Flanagan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to support the Committee motion today. In particular, I thank all those who provided written and oral evidence to the Committee; it really helped us in formulating this plan, which is a great improvement on anything that is out there at the minute. I thank the officials in the Department for their support and continued information throughout the course of the inquiry, and I thank all the Members who participated in the debate today. A particular word of thanks must go to the staff of the Committee, particularly to our Clerk and the bursary student, Peadar, who have done tremendous work in supporting us to get this far in the inquiry. It was a work in progress. I suppose that some members would agree that the last few meetings, as we tried to formulate the words and get this tied down, were cumbersome and challenging. I pay tribute to the Chair for his diplomatic ability and trying to keep us all together.
In terms of the inquiry, the main aspect was growing the economy and creating jobs. It was very wide ranging. The focus was on how we can grow and develop a vibrant sustainable economy across this region in the long term. One of the most important outcomes of the inquiry has been that, in order to create a vibrant economy, we have to look beyond the activities involved in providing direct incentives to attract business. It has to be about much more than that.
Selective financial assistance certainly has its place, and we need to be attracting businesses, through Invest NI's efforts, through foreign direct investment. However, it seems that the FDI boom is over, and maybe the Minister's predecessor got out at just the right time because, under the new rules, things have changed. Under the current selective financial assistance rules, 83% of the jobs that were promoted with Invest NI support in 2013-14 would not be eligible . Of the record number of jobs promoted between April and June of last year, 99% would not be eligible under the current rules. Things have had to change within Invest NI on how it attracts jobs. Unfortunately, we are not going to see the record levels of job promotion and job creation again for some time.
We need to get beyond simply handing out grants to businesses to get them to come here or to expand their existing offering. We need to focus on other factors that are just as important in attracting, retaining and growing businesses and in contributing to the vibrant and sustainable economy that we all want to see. That is the main purpose of the inquiry.
What other factors need to be looked at in how we create, grow and sustain employment here? Many of those factors have been touched on this afternoon by Members from all parties. Leaving out some of the party political contributions, every Member that spoke had a valuable contribution to make on the positive aspects of the inquiry and on what needs to be done to help maximise the potential for economic growth and job creation. The key factors that were focused on were skills, education and issues around energy and telecoms, as well as those related to transport infrastructure and communities. Those are all essential, but if they are considered in isolation, without consideration for their interrelationships, there is a danger that those efforts will be wasted.
The inquiry makes it clear that there seems to be a lack of recognition that a problem even exists. We hear mention being made by some Ministers about Government Departments operating in isolation, and that was one of the clear points that we got back from every single business, organisation and membership organisation that engaged with the Committee. They want to see a much more integrated approach from the Executive, and they want the Executive to be much more strategic.
The Committee has decided that we need to be much more visionary in the future and to make sure that we provide opportunities for business and employment across the North. That has to be balanced across all of our areas, because there is a feeling out there that not all areas are benefiting equally from the recovery that the Minister highlighted.
Gordon Dunne highlighted the need for political stability to increase confidence in order to support economic growth. That call was echoed by his party colleagues Paul Frew and William Humphrey. In fact, that is one of the key issues that was addressed by groups that presented to the Committee during the inquiry's evidence-gathering sessions. There was a recognition that political instability harms business confidence and is detrimental to investment. Businesses certainly do not like all the decisions that we make in here, but they want to know what decisions we are going to make so that they can plan for the future. That is something that we are all agreed on: we need to provide businesses with clarity as to where we are going in the future with decisions.
Some ongoing uncertainty on key issues is providing serious uncertainty to businesses with regard to future investment decisions. One of those issues is ongoing uncertainty relating to EU membership, which largely went unmentioned in the debate until the Member for North Antrim who is no longer in his seat brought it up. That has the potential to bring considerable harm to the economy.
During the inquiry, the Committee recognised that the North benefits considerably from EU membership. The Committee also agreed that any future debate on EU membership must take into account the impact of the result of a referendum here. So the Committee was quite clear with regard to Europe and where we stand. There were some questions about what future funding streams would be provided by the British Government if we left Europe to make up for the loss of CAP funding and things like that, which our agrifood sector heavily relies on. Some Members reflected that, and collectively we must recognise that we have a duty and responsibility to work together towards the goal of political certainty at all levels. From my point of view and that of my party, decisions by parties to walk out of the Executive or block meetings of the Executive from taking place is not the way to build stability, and we all know it.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for giving way. I regret that the Minister found himself unable to give way. I wonder if the Member agrees with me: am I the only person listening to the Minister who thought he was listening to some sort of Yellow Pack audio version of Voltaire's 'Candide', the premise of which, of course, is that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, despite the evidence to the contrary? I would have asked the Minister whether he would tell us how many potential foreign direct investors have already withdrawn because of our failure to set a rate and a date for reduced corporation tax or whether he was going to pretend that the answer was "None". Perhaps the Member knows the answer to that. Perhaps the Member also knows why we have the worst rate of start-up failures in the whole of the United Kingdom.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I remind Members that interventions should be short and succinct and should relate to what has been said.
Mr Flanagan: On the individual that the Member quotes, I do not necessarily agree with everything that the Member says, but I defend to the death his right to say it.
When he was closing, the Member highlighted the fact that start-ups here were the least successful of those anywhere in Britain or the North, but I put it to him that, if you look at the proportion of start-ups here that grow beyond a £1 million turnover within three years, you can see that this is actually the most successful part of Europe for that.
Mr Flanagan: No, Europe. In the west and the south, more than 10·7% of start-up businesses grow to over £1 million turnover within three years. Start-ups are hugely successful, but that does not cover the political problems that we have. It is clearly an electioneering strategy, and it is both irresponsible and a selfish approach to doing politics, particularly when we are trying to deal with something that is as fundamental to our future as the growth of the economy.
The inquiry calls for the Executive to articulate a shared, rolling 20-year vision for the economy. I do not think anyone could have a problem with that. Some people seem to think that it exists, and some people seem to think that it does not exist. Whether it exists or not, there seems to be consensus that we need one. The economic strategy that the Minister referred to talks about a vision for an economy characterised by a sustainable and growing private sector, where a greater number of firms compete in global markets and there is growing employment and prosperity for all. It states that that is a vision for 2030.
The Government in any economy would be concerned if they were not growing the private sector, increasing exports and growing employment in most years between now and 2030, but we need to be much more visionary than that. It is important to remember that the Minister took the opportunity to highlight the good work that he believes is being done, rather than addressing the important concerns expressed to the Committee by businesses. One of those is that, despite the fact that he referenced exports a considerable number of times, he failed to accept the fact that export targets are not being met, which is a serious problem for many of our businesses. I suppose we can now put those challenges down to a weak euro and things like that, but it is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
If we are going to achieve that vision, which is a radical, rolling 20-year vision, we need to have the right leadership, including input from the business, skills and community sectors, but it really needs to be driven at a political level if we are going to get there. That means having the right structures in place to ensure that we can deliver a vibrant economy right across the North. We also need to recognise the contribution that business representatives can make to developing a vision and a strategy. We have businesspeople of great ability and confidence, and the contribution that they can make can be immense, as Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said. We have to involve them more in the decision-making process. In the end, as William Humphrey said, it is about providing job security and financial certainty for our people.
In relation to economic development and employment, the Committee has called for robust, accurate, complete, timely and appropriate economic data. Hopefully there will not be as many adjectives in any future report on economic data, but that is what the Committee wants, and that is hopefully what the Committee will get. It has called for plans and strategies relating to the economy to consider the relationship with the rest of Ireland. It has called for full evaluation of the enterprise concept, with a view to rolling enterprise zones out across the North. We also want to see an evaluation of the competence centre concept to see how those can be rolled out to other sectors. The Committee wants to see improvements in linkages between Invest NI, Enterprise NI, local councils and local business communities in order to streamline services to support and advise businesses and to develop firm commitments to subregional economic growth and job creation.
That was another minor point of contention that the Committee had. Some of us want to see the Executive and Invest NI set subregional targets to encourage and incentivise Invest NI to do much more to bring investment into areas west of the Bann, along the border corridor and into parts of north and west Belfast that have not seen the same uplift. Other Members want to see the council set those targets, which would not be binding, but, in the end, I think we found a form of words that nobody really understands and can agree or disagree with.
There was consistent evidence from the business community on what is considered unnecessary bureaucracy. That was especially the case on the transposition of EU legislation, where many members of the business community feel that it is imposed here differently from other member states across Europe. I suppose that one of the things that the business community wants is not so much a relaxation of the regulation; it is consistency across Europe so that it will know that it is being treated fairly with regard to its competitors in the rest of Europe.
Consideration was given to infrastructure and the need for appropriate infrastructure to be in place, as well as the requirements for growing and sustaining an economy. That is true for roads, public transport, telecoms, broadband and utilities such as water, gas and electricity. The Committee listened to the business community during the last two sessions and produced three reports on electricity pricing, security of supply and grid connections. During the inquiry, the business community came back and said that things are just as bad. Many large businesses continue to pay the highest prices in Europe. They keep telling the Committee that the prices are unsustainable, yet it appears that nothing is being done by the Department to look at how the burden on business can be eased.
Paul Frew informed the House that energy was central to all issues for business. He said that the cost of energy needed to be reduced to realise benefits for business. I do not think that any of us could argue with that. Anna Lo, speaking as Chair of the Environment Committee, highlighted the need for improved business regulation to streamline the regulatory system. She outlined the slow nature of decision-making in government and gave the example of how the strategic planning policy had been much slower than anticipated and was not as transparent or accountable as she would wish.
Transport infrastructure is a vital element of the economy across the region, as Mr Humphrey mentioned. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir commented on the need for new investments in road infrastructure in and to the north-west and for improved rail links between Dublin and Belfast, highlighting that the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor is important if we are to achieve a step change in business performance across this island. That was very much to the fore about 20 years ago, and it needs to be put back on the political agenda. William Humphrey also highlighted the importance of tourism to the economy. Transport infrastructure is important to maximise the potential of our many world-renowned visitor attractions.
With regard to education and skills, the Committee welcomed the new employer-led apprenticeship strategy and called for future apprenticeships to focus on skills that lead to sustainable employment. The strategy will have to be promoted and driven to raise awareness. The Committee also wants to see a structured mechanism put in place for collaboration at a strategic level between the higher and further education sectors and Invest NI to ensure the best alignment between skills and current and future investment.
Gordon Dunne commented on the excellent skills base across various sectors but acknowledged that there was a considerable skills gap that needed to be addressed, especially in STEM subjects. That was also mentioned by Fearghal McKinney, who said that the Ulster University was cutting back on STEM subjects and language provision. Paul Frew touched on schools and the need for education at that level to be in touch with the needs of employers and for businesses to have greater involvement with local schools.
Finally, the Committee's report calls for something that is by no means easy. It is highly complex and will be difficult to achieve.
Mr Flanagan: As Leslie Cree stated, it will be highly challenging for the Executive, but the first step to achieving the economy that we would like to see is to recognise and accept that we are not going to achieve it if we just keep doing what we have been doing. Go raibh maith agat.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the 'Opportunities for Excellence' report of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment on its inquiry into growing the economy and creating jobs with lower corporation tax; and calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, in conjunction with his Executive colleagues, to implement the recommendations contained in the report.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
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 wish to speak will have five minutes.
Before we commence the debate, I remind Members that, although I am satisfied that there is no question of the motion being sub judice, there have been arrests in relation to the subject matter and I urge Members to take care with their words. If I feel that Members are contravening Standing Order 73, I will ask them to resume their seat.
Mr Allister: On a point of order. Surely, in relation to criminal matters, sub judice arises only when someone is charged.
Mr Speaker: I am aware of that, and I did draw attention to that matter. There have been arrests. There may well be charges. I ask Members to be very prudent in their language and not to assume that their remarks would not be regarded as prejudicial to any legal or judicial processes that may ensue. A common-sense approach is all that is required. I am in no way at all trying to constrain Members from fully participating in the debate, but let us have a certain amount of judgement and common sense as we approach this matter.
That this Assembly condemns the murder of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan; extends its condolences to their families; and calls on anyone with information to bring it forward to assist the ongoing PSNI investigation so those responsible can face due process.
Before the Assembly gets into the process of disagreement, let me start the debate on what I believe is absolutely agreed by all, and that is the entirety of the motion. At the centre of the debate today, there are two grieving families who will be listening carefully and hoping that the Assembly will assist them in seeking justice and bring them to a path of some closure.
While those who carried out these brutal killings are the only ones to blame for the huge grief and suffering brought to the families, it was politicians cherry-picking phrases from the PSNI press conference who first triggered the political crisis, or pseudo-crisis, which all of us now face in this institution. Sinn Féin does not agree with the Chief Constable's assessment that the IRA exists, even in the benign way that he states. The IRA left the stage in 2005 and it is not coming back. Other political parties and agencies agree with the PSNI claim, and that is their prerogative.
However, it is worth examining what the Chief Constable actually said in his press conference and later repeated to the Policing Board on Thursday last. He said that the PSNI was:
"currently not in possession of information that indicates that Provisional IRA involvement was sanctioned or directed at a senior or organisational level within the Provisional IRA or the broader Republican movement".
He went on to state that, while he believes that the IRA exists, the PSNI:
"assess that in the organisational sense the Provisional IRA does not exist for paramilitary purposes ... Our assessment indicates that a primary focus of the Provisional IRA is now promoting a peaceful, political Republican agenda. It is our assessment that the Provisional IRA is committed to following a political path and is no longer engaged in terrorism ... We have no information to suggest that violence, as seen in the murder of Kevin McGuigan, was sanctioned or directed at a senior level in the Republican movement ... we assess that the continuing existence and cohesion of the Provisional IRA hierarchy has enabled the leadership to move the organisation forward within the peace process".
He went on to further describe Action Against Drugs as:
"an independent group that is not part of, or a cover name for the Provisional IRA".
ACC Will Kerr reinforced the Chief Constable's position by telling the Policing Board that the IRA's active service units do not now exist.
So, what is the difference in the assessments of the PSNI and Sinn Féin? Essentially, one says that the IRA has gone and is therefore not active and the other states that it still exists but is not active in any negative way. It is important to point out this difference of opinion because any non-partisan observer must surely wonder where there can be a crisis between these two positions.
We are told that one line of enquiry of the PSNI investigation is that members or ex-members of the IRA may have been involved in the murders. Let me deal directly with that. Whoever was involved in these killings, whatever connection they may claim to Irish republicanism, they are criminals who have been involved in murder, and everyone and anyone with information must bring it to the police so that the perpetrators will be brought to justice through the courts.
It is my contention that this so-called crisis is, in fact, a crisis manufactured by political unionism. At its core, is party political electioneering. It was not until they saw the political opportunity presented by the press conference that they pursued this issue with any energy at all. Mike Nesbitt, in particular, has been living on sound bites from at least as far back as the Haass talks, when unionism refused to close the deal. Last year, when all the parties were, again, around the table trying to come to agreement, unionism walked out, over a single short section of an Orange Order parade, to stand shoulder to shoulder with representatives of loyalist paramilitaries, who are involved in continuous criminality, including murder.
In the Stormont House Agreement, the UUP has had one foot in and one foot out of the talks. At some of the regular implementation meetings, they have declared that they are there only to observe or to ask questions. While the victims and survivors' community wait hopefully for the legacy architecture to be legislated for, the UUP commit themselves to nothing but stroke politics. Even in one of his latest utterances, Mike Nesbitt has said that he will join the talks process only if he is satisfied with those who are involved. Who appointed him as an arbiter?
Sinn Féin and republicans, including the IRA, have taken a series of historic initiatives to create the opportunity for peace, to sustain the process in difficult times and to overcome obstacles. The Sinn Féin leadership has worked hard to find imaginative and innovative ways to resolve problems, but this problem is not of our making. Sinn Féin has no responsibility whatsoever for those who killed Kevin McGuigan or Gerard 'Jock' Davison. The response of the other political parties to those killings has been self-serving and short-sighted. There is no basis for the charges made against Sinn Féin by our political opponents. Sinn Féin will not allow ourselves or, more importantly, our electorate to be demonised or marginalised over matters that have nothing to do with us.
Last year, the people of Ireland, in free votes in the European and local government elections, gave Sinn Féin the largest vote of any party on the island. They voted for Sinn Féin because we provide a real alternative to the politics of austerity now being forced on the people of this island by the present British and Irish Governments.
I think that that is what really worries the political parties, North and South, who rush to attack Sinn Féin. The political institutions here are already in considerable difficulty. Important elements of the Stormont House Agreement have not been implemented. There are major budgetary difficulties and an ongoing effort by London to impose austerity policies on the Assembly. There are also the ongoing and unanswered questions about the sell-off of NAMA's loan book in the North and the allegation that some politicians and associates have benefited from that. Despite that building scandal, there is no speculation of the kind that is now in full flow around Sinn Féin's worthiness as a political party.
Over the last few weeks, there has been huge hypocrisy from some sitting on the Benches. They should avoid lecturing republicans, especially when they share platforms with the leaders of loyalist paramilitary groups, despite the shooting of east Belfast woman Jemma McGrath, the murder of Bobby Moffett, the killing of Brian McIlhagga earlier this year, and the nailing of a man's hands to a table in the Shankill area last month.
Sinn Féin will enter these talks on our electoral mandate and our commitment to democracy and peace, which is clearly demonstrated by our record in the House and outside. We want to achieve the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and on the issues of welfare protections, and to address the legacy of all parties to the conflict, including state forces. We have also been clear that the biggest threat to the stability of the political institutions remains the ongoing Tory austerity cuts to the Executive's Budget, which is impacting on our ability to deliver front-line public services. What is required now from everyone involved in these talks, including the British and Irish Governments, is leadership and a commitment to come to an agreement, as a matter of urgency. I commend the motion to the Assembly.
Lord Morrow: I suspect that there are some who, until now, naively believed that the days for debating IRA atrocities were in the past, but I suspect that it is only a naive person who would have believed that. However, we have come to a crucial moment and, I believe, a watershed in the history of Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is a time when the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its workings are in doubt. Some might say that they will not survive.
Let us deal with the motion before us today. We have the Chief Constable telling us that the IRA has not gone away. Indeed, Gerry Adams, in a moment of truth, said something similar. He assured us all:
"They haven't gone away, you know."
We never take Gerry Adams's word for very much, but we now have the Chief Constable telling us that, in fact, Adams was telling the truth on this occasion: that it had not gone away. Therefore, it reminds us all of the starkness and the seriousness of the situation that confronts us from this day forth.
No one inside or, indeed, outside the House needs any reminding of the ruthlessness of the Provisional IRA. It was the most ruthless killing machine in the whole of the Western World, and, of course, it made great brag about that. It turned its guns and ruthlessness on one section of the community, and it was not beyond turning on its own community either. When it is expedient to do that, it will do it, and, of course, it has done so.
This is not the first murder but one of four in recent times, excluding those who have gone before that. We had the killing of Robert McCartney and Paul Quinn, and now we have Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan. I do not think that anyone, except perhaps those opposite me today, is in any doubt that the Provisional IRA was involved in all four killings. Only those who do not want to face up to reality believe that the Provisional IRA was not involved.
It should be noted that while it is relatively early days in the investigations into the most recent killings — that is Davison and McGuigan — it should be noted that for the two previous killings — namely Robert McCartney and Paul Quinn — no one has, as yet, been brought before the courts and made answerable for those heinous crimes. One of the reasons why that is the case, dare I say it, is that it is only in recent times that the SDLP has found the courage to support the NCA. I say to it and to the House today that had it found its courage earlier and come to a position where it could and would support the NCA, it might just be possible that Mr Davison and Mr McGuigan would still be alive. That may be a real possibility. However, we are where we are, and we now find ourselves in a very desperate situation indeed.
We get repeated denials from Sinn Féin that the IRA was involved. We got the same denial from Gerry Adams that the IRA was not involved in the Northern Bank robbery when the small sum of £26 million was taken. Not one individual in that big world out there — not one — believed that. Of course, we know that to be a downright lie. It was involved.
Now it tells us that it was not involved in the murder of Mr McGuigan. Well, we know the truth in that matter. The Chief Constable has said quite unequivocally that it was involved. We did not need the Chief Constable to tell us, but we applaud him for doing so and for exposing those who are engaged in such activities. It has also been confirmed that Mr Davison and Mr McGuigan were members of the IRA.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?
Lord Morrow: So the question that the public are asking today is this: since they were aware that those two men were in the IRA, why were they at loose? Why were they not rounded up?
Lord Morrow: We look forward to that happening in cases where they are aware of other members of the IRA who are still at loose.
Mr A Maginness: Before I get into the substance of my address, I wish to say on behalf of the SDLP and, indeed, everyone here that we should think of the families of those who have been so cruelly put to death. They still have a terrible grief and sorrow to carry, and they will carry that for the rest of their lives.
I listened very carefully to what Mr Kelly said about the situation. In summary, he said that this is a pseudo crisis that has been manufactured by political unionism and that, by the way, the IRA left the stage in 2005. Maybe I should sit down and simply accept that, but there are a number of uncomfortable material facts that Mr Kelly did not deal with. Those material facts, as established by the Chief Constable, are that the Provisional IRA is still extant and that members of Action Against Drugs and members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the murder of Mr McGuigan. Those are facts established by the head of the PSNI. You cannot simply just ignore those facts as presented to the public by the Chief Constable. In addition to that, he said — it might be by way of some sort of amelioration of the situation — that the PSNI cannot yet establish whether those members of the Provisional IRA were ordered to carry out that murder by the IRA at large as an organisation.
There has to be more than simple denial by Sinn Féin on this issue. The mere existence of the IRA as a "withering husk", which was the term used by Michael McDowell, does not pose a threat, but what does pose a threat to these political institutions is the murder of a man by the Provisional IRA membership. That fact has to be addressed. It is all very well for Sinn Féin simply to deny and deny and deny, but it cannot continue to do that. I refer Members to the Taoiseach's speech in Cambridge at the weekend. He said, as Minister Flanagan also said:
"Statements to the effect that the IRA have gone away or have left the stage are simply not credible. Let me be clear. It is the responsibility of Sinn Féin, and in particular its leadership, to address these issues and to help restore the trust that has been lost. We have become used to incredible statements, be they about past activity, current activity, murder, robbery, child abuse. There may have been a time when living with constructive ambiguity helped the peace process. But that time is now past."
"Paramilitarism and all its vestiges must be removed. They are incompatible with democracy and the hopes and demands of democrats ... We need clear lines, not blurred lines, between constitutional politics and criminality ... No shared platforms or strategies. No shady grey areas between right and wrong. The peace we have now was built by the people of these islands, through their commitment to non-violence and reconciliation."
I appeal to Sinn Féin to review its position. It can deny all it wants, but nobody outside its own ranks and maybe some within them believes what it is saying about that. There needs to be frankness, which would be helpful in resolving the problems that we have at the moment and in strengthening this institution and the other institutions under the Good Friday Agreement. I believe that that is Sinn Féin's political duty.
Mr Nesbitt: Be in no doubt: I am sure that society wants us to get to the day when we can all unequivocally accept, approve and work with the words of this motion, but we are not there yet. Why not? It is because Sinn Féin's credibility in these matters has been undermined by its previous stance and statement on these matters.
This time, they cherry-pick the Chief Constable's words. They deny that the IRA exists, that it has a command structure and that it operates at a senior level. Instead, they trot out the same tired old single transferable speech of denial. It is threadbare: it has worn a hole in the fabric of the agreement, and it needs mended.
Mr Kelly accuses me of political expediency. I do not know whether, over the past 30 years, he has had a moment to study the musings of his party leader in, 'The Politics of Irish Freedom', printed by Brandon Press in 1986. Thirty years ago, Gerry Adams accused the British of cynically exploiting IRA mistakes — and, for the avoidance of doubt, a "mistake" is a murder. Thirty years on, they have not changed their tune.
The speech of denial goes back even further. Jean McConville, mother of nine, was abducted by the IRA, tortured by the IRA, murdered by the IRA, and, in the ultimate obscenity, her body was hidden and disappeared, denying the family the Christian rite of mourning and burial, and yet — denied. The murder of Frank Kerr in Newry — denied. Paul Quinn — denied. Robert McCartney — denied, and on and on and on it goes.
There is a further problem for Sinn Féin, and it is its stance on terrorist violence. For us, it is an absolute, as in absolutely wrong. Once you move off that ground, you open a Pandora's box that cannot be closed again.
In the past, members of Sinn Féin always justified the IRA campaign by saying that the conditions justified it. The problem is that that is not objective. That is subjective. That is your view. Now, we come to a position where your view is that the conditions no longer justify, but your erstwhile friends in the republican movement disagree. They say that the conditions still justify, and, therefore, they continue their terrorism. Sinn Féin must take some responsibility for that position.
I understand that Gerry Kelly will say, "Terrorism? I wasn't a terrorist. I did not commit an act of terrorism." That, of course, is why they were able to say that the so-called peace-building and conflict resolution centre at the Maze would not be a terrorist shrine: because they were not terrorists. Some people were duped into supporting it, but wiser unionist voices prevailed at the end of the day.
The bottom line is this: Sinn Féin and the Police Service of Northern Ireland need to be on the same page about the condition of the IRA in 2015. Otherwise, there is no confidence, there is no trust, there is no credibility.
Mr Kelly admonishes me for the people with whom I have shared a platform. Does he forget the Hume/Adams dialogue? Does he not understand that he would not be here today if democrats had not decided to talk to Gerry Adams, even though the IRA campaign was in full flow? Does he not remember that his leader here in the House, Mr McGuinness, decries dissident republicans for not talking to him? We have to resolve this, and I believe that we will begin tomorrow, when we will see you at Stormont House.
I wish to be clear: the Ulster Unionist Party condemns both murders. However, this debate and this motion are a political ploy, and we will not vote.
Mr Lunn: My first observation is that the motion could have come from any party in the Assembly. It is a condemnation of murder, condolences to bereaved relatives and a call for anyone to contact the PSNI if they have information that could lead to a conviction.
Mr McGuigan has left behind nine children. They were not involved; they are innocent victims, just as Jock Davison, Bobby Moffett, Paul Quinn, Robert McCartney, Jim Gray, Denis Donaldson, Kevin McDaid and many more have left behind grieving relatives since 2005. Murder can never be justified —
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Member for giving way. He mentioned the murder of Bobby Moffett, who was publicly executed on the Shankill Road. That public execution is not far removed from the methodology used in the murder of Kevin McGuigan.
Mr Lunn: I thank Mr Maginness for his intervention. It is not actually removed at all; it is exactly the same methodology and the same summary justice. It is just being done by a different illegal organisation, apparently.
I do not know as much about Mr Davison as Kevin McGuigan. I wonder why. I will tell you why: it is because there was not as much of a furore about Mr Davison's killing as Mr McGuigan's. It did not threaten to bring down Stormont. Paul Quinn's dreadful death prompted much outrage at the time and since but, again, there was no threat to the institutions, no resignations, no withdrawal from the Executive, no adjournments, no exclusion motions and no threat of suspension. So, what it is difference? The PSNI statistics record 94 shootings and assaults in 2014-15. That is only the tip of the iceberg, but it is the official figure. There were 70 in 2013-14, and 127, for example, in 2009-2010. Those were by paramilitaries of all shades. So, why, suddenly, do we see the reaction from my left when another murder occurs, evidently as probably some sort of internal feud or drugs dispute? Clearly, it hinges on the comments of the Chief Constable.
I have a lot of faith in the Chief Constable and I think he has played this with a straight bat. He has given his assessment that members of the Provisional IRA were probably involved, with others, in this murder. He does not believe that the murder was ordered by a central command or that anything beyond a skeleton structure still exists. His assessment is that the IRA is now involved in "peaceful and democratic means." Those are his words. Sorry; they are the words of the Assistant Chief Constable at the Policing Board just last Thursday. He said that there is no terrorist threat or threat to national security. He also confirmed that the PSNI will bring the perpetrators to justice if possible, and we are content to await the outcome before considering any action consequent upon that outcome.
I have every confidence in the ability of the Chief Constable to act with his usual honesty and integrity, and to tell it as he sees it, without political bias. If there is a link to a political party, which is what this is really about, he will say so. In the meantime, it is regrettable that some of our colleagues here have taken precipitate actions in advance of the facts emerging. We do not advance the image and status of this country by boycott. Just the opposite.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for giving way. Has he ever heard of a political tipping point and, if so, does the Alliance Party have one or is it, "Hold on to your Ministries at any cost."?
Mr Lunn: Obviously, there can be a tipping point, but that would be provided by a conviction, firm evidence or a firm conclusion of the Chief Constable. We are content to wait for that. You were not content to wait.
Dr Farry: Does the Member concur with the remarks of the current MP for South Antrim, who suggested that this was still very much a case of waiting to see how things develop?
Mr Lunn: My party colleague is pointing up the difference of opinion within one of the parties to my left, which does not surprise me in the least. I hope that the unionist parties will think again about this, and not take this any further at least until the facts are more clear. Ideally, that would be when there is a conviction and the Chief Constable can point with confidence to what actually happened. If there is a link, the Chief Constable will say so.
Mr Speaker: Members, as this is the first debate in which Mr Gordon Lyons will speak, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption. I welcome you very much, Mr Lyons, to the Assembly, and I call you to make your contribution.
Mr Lyons: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate and to make my maiden speech. I consider it a great honour and, indeed, a privilege to be able to represent East Antrim in this place.
Before I move on to speak to the subject on the Order Paper, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr Sammy Wilson. He had served in this place since 1998, and I was able to see at first hand his commitment and dedication towards the people whom he represented. In the constituency, he worked very hard on the issues that matter to people there. In ministerial office, he served all the people of Northern Ireland. In this Chamber, he robustly represented the views of his constituents in his trademark way, which was forthright and not short on humour or passion. On these Benches, we very much want to thank him for his service and for all that he has done in this place, and to wish him well as he continues to serve the people of East Antrim at Westminster.
It gives me no pleasure to speak on this matter today. I wish that we did not have to. I wish that murders like these were a thing of the past. I was born in 1986. I have very few memories of the bombs, the violence and the bloodshed that was all too common here for those who were born in the decades before me. Thankfully, that which was commonplace is now much rarer. However, the murders of these two men demonstrate that it has not been eradicated.
I have read with interest the motion that Sinn Féin Members have tabled. I believe that they think that, in tabling the motion, they are displaying leadership, but in fact I think that the motion highlights their failure to demonstrate leadership on these issues. Let us look at the three aspects of the motion. The first is:
"That this Assembly condemns the murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan".
That should go without saying. I am willing to stand here and condemn all murders, whether they happened in the 1970s, the 1990s or 2015. It does not matter; they were wrong and are still wrong. Here is where we see a failure in the leadership of Sinn Féin, because it fails to condemn the IRA. The IRA did not discriminate when it came to murder. Adult or child: that did not matter. Protestant or Catholic: that did not matter either. Civilian or a member of the security forces: none of those things mattered. Where is the condemnation of those murders? Yes, we have the condemnation now, but where is the condemnation of those murders and the condemnation of the IRA? If that were to take place, that would show real leadership.
What does the motion say next? That Sin Féin wants to extend its condolences to the families. That would seem like a compassionate thing to do if it were not for the fact that they have continued to compound grief and sorrow by failing to tell the truth about what has happened in the past.
Finally, the motion calls on people to go to the police. Again, that only highlights Sinn Féin's failure to provide information to the police. Where is Sinn Féin's willingness to provide information on what its members have done and on the atrocities that they carried out during the Troubles? Where there is the justice that they seem to be so interested in in this motion?
I hope that, in the future, the House will not need to meet to condemn murder by paramilitary organisations. I hope that they will all be consigned to the past and that justice will be done. That will allow us to move forward and create the type of society that we want to live in —
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Éirím chun tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún seo. I rise to support the motion.
Ba mhaith liom comhbhrón a dhéanamh le teaghlaigh Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan. I begin, in the first instance and in the tone of the motion, by condemning the murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan. I extend my sympathy and solidarity to their families, ever mindful that they continue to carry their loss even as we speak. I put on the record the need for people with any information relating to both murders to come forward and assist the PSNI in its investigation. Those who carried out the murders have no regard for the grief that they have visited upon those families.
Some have tried to suggest that those who carried out the murders were somehow motivated by republican ideals or could be called republicans. Nothing could be further from the truth. The murders were carried out for narrow self-interest. They were wanton violence and, therefore, criminal acts that were carried out by criminals. As someone who, along with many others, has fought any attempt to criminalise republicans, let there be no doubt as to the strength and the import of this condemnation.
In proposing the motion, Gerry Kelly outlined in great detail how the murders have been used by some for party political interest and who have seized on the comments of George Hamilton. I fundamentally disagree with George Hamilton's assertion that the IRA exists. The IRA made its intentions known in 2005. It has left the stage. Sin é, as they say. It is finished, gone and not coming back.
There is no doubt that political parties have used the killings for political advantage. With the prospect of an election, perhaps in May 2016, unionism is scrapping for advantage with a couple of seats up for grabs. When it suits their interests, as it did in relation to the Chief Constable's statement, one would think that he made single-sentence statements. The rest is never referred to and, indeed, is ignored. Why? Simply because it suits, and, after all, there are a few seats up for grabs and perhaps a few seats to secure. Alban Maginness mentioned Enda Kenny. Let me remind him that there is an election coming in that state too and that politicians are not beyond electioneering.
Let me again state on behalf of Sinn Féin in clear and unambiguous terms that we are totally committed to the peace process and to peaceful and democratic means of achieving all political goals and objectives. That is the platform that we stand on and that is the mandate that we are given by those whose vote we seek and attain. No one, be it an individual, a party or a Government will be permitted to undermine or undervalue that.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, Martin McGuinness has demonstrated that commitment time out of number, both by word and deed. He was not found wanting when he shared platforms with Chief Constables and other political leaders to condemn the actions of so-named dissident republicans. So, it is very difficult to take lectures from those who, to this very day, share platforms and issue joint declarations with the negative and destructive forces within unionism. Be it by the threat of graduated responses or a third force, they are all designed to serve and promote narrow political views and, very often, self-interest.
Mr McCartney: No. Over many years and, indeed, many instances, that, of course, was business as usual.
In conclusion, I want to reaffirm Sinn Féin's total commitment to the political and peace processes and all that comes with them. There are no ifs and no buts. It is a total and absolute commitment. With the motion very much in mind, it was very noticeable that a number of those who spoke today made no reference to the Davison or McGuigan families. We pledge our continuing support to them as they seek justice and to the PSNI in its ongoing investigation. Sin é.
Mr McKinney: It is highly regrettable that we find ourselves here to debate an issue that has caused an immense deal of suffering and that, as a consequence, has injected further political instability.
From the outset, I express my sympathy and that of the SDLP to the families and friends of Kevin McGuigan and Gerard Davison.
In many ways, the political developments and fallout may have lost sight of that point. Regardless of those men's past, their cold-blooded murder was absolutely barbaric, and the perpetrators of such must be brought to justice.
The SDLP remains committed to peace and is unequivocally opposed to all forms of violence. Among other things, the Good Friday Agreement did two things. It rejected our violent past and envisaged a better future for us all — Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan included. That paramilitary groups, loyalist and republican, have been allowed to operate and threaten our peace and stability is because we have not pursued the agreement's ambition sufficiently to starve them of oxygen and control. If there ever was any currency in creative ambiguity, there is none now. We need certainty, not ambiguity, and that is the responsibility of us all.
We believe that the PSNI must be allowed to follow all evidential leads in the McGuigan murder and that Sinn Féin should be forthright and frank about all the details that its members may know in relation to both murders. We also believe that an Garda Síochána, along with the PSNI, should be allowed to carry out a full assessment of the operations and capacity of the Provisional IRA and that the NCA should similarly be allowed to look at not just its activities but its assets.
The extreme response of some and the deniability of others have made a difficult situation worse. That is why we call today on Sinn Féin to divulge whatever information it may have on those recent killings. We are all very aware that, by denying knowledge, Sinn Féin raises questions about itself and its commitment to pursue justice. Deniability is the order of the day, and we have heard it repeated here: deniability around Paul Quinn; denial around the murder of Robert McCartney; and denial in the case of Mairia Cahill and many others. There is denial while, in the background, the name of anyone who may cause embarrassment or has been a victim in those circumstances is blackened.
There are now calls for the re-establishment of the Independent Monitoring Commission. I think that it is important that we look back at some of its words from 2008. It said:
"PIRA's commitment to following the political path has been further reinforced in the period under review with a number of people making the transition to positions in Sinn Féin and thereby engagement in democratic politics."
That would be OK had the IRA been shut down, but we know that that is not the case. Mr Speaker, people here are not stupid. They know that someone in Sinn Féin knows who is responsible, and those responsible must be brought to justice and a clear message put forward that such acts have no place in our society. There is a shadow, and it darkens the sky. If you stand back far enough, you can see the shadow, literally, of a gunman, and it hangs round the neck of the talks. Mr Kelly referred to NAMA; can I refer to assets?
In stark contrast to the underplayed reaction of Sinn Féin, we have the UUP on the opposite Benches moving prematurely in a blatant electioneering attempt, removing its Minister from office and threatening the very existence of the institutions. That only plays into the hands of those who thrive in a vacuum. We cannot continue on a path of letting the past govern our future or even become our future again. We must recognise that all this is now our responsibility. By virtue of our mandate, it is our responsibility to keep the political system together, to keep our institutions intact and to best deliver for our people.
I said a few moments ago that we should have delivered a better future, even for those with a past. The only way that we can fill the vacuum is with a renewed focus on our economic future. We had a debate earlier that focused on that — jobs with a focus on tackling, once and for all, the deprivation and long-term unemployment that holds so many communities back and allows malevolent forces to prevail. The debate that we concluded earlier underscores that. It says that we do not have an economic vision or strategy and, worse, that we do not recognise that the problem exists. It does exist, and it needs a resolution. The price that we are paying for doing nothing is already too high.
Mr Hussey: I, too, begin by passing my condolences to the Davison and McGuigan families. Reference has been made to the murder of Mr McGuigan, and we all know that it was not a murder; it was a cold act of execution carried out by a terrorist. I stand by the assessment that it was a terrorist, because whoever did it certainly terrorised that community.
Mr Kelly referred to a "pseudo crisis" created by unionism. I am sure, Mr Kelly, you will agree that it was not an Ulster Unionist who shot Mr McGuigan. It was somebody from his own community. But let us see how much faith I put in you and your colleagues and the deniability of members of the IRA, because when is a Provo not a Provo? When it suits Sinn Féin. Following the death of Robert McCartney in 2005 Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, urged witnesses to come forward to:
"the family, a solicitor, or any other authoritative or reputable person or body".
"I want to make it absolutely clear that no one involved acted as a republican or on behalf of republicans."
He then suspended 12 members of Sinn Féin.
On 16 February 2005, the IRA issued a statement denying all involvement in the murder and called on the perpetrators to take responsibility. On 8 March 2005, the IRA issued an unprecedented statement saying that four people were directly involved in the murder, that the IRA knew their identities, that two were IRA volunteers and that the IRA had offered to the McCartney family to shoot the people directly involved. Of course, Sinn Féin does not believe that republicans could actually kill people.
We heard recently on radio from the family of Brian Stack, a prison officer in the Republic of Ireland murdered in cold blood by the IRA. "Oh no, he wasn't, because Sinn Féin says he wasn't." Then, the IRA admits that it carried out the murder, and who takes the Stack family to meet the IRA but Gerry Adams, the man whose every word uttered is believed by every Member of this House.
We then look at the Mairia Cahill affair. "She is lying. She didn't tell him this; she didn't tell him that." The rotten core of Sinn Féin and the IRA unravels. "Let's distance ourselves from it. It wasn't us: it must have been someone else. Mr Adams is whiter than white."
Mr Adams tells us that Sinn Féin and the IRA are not associated; they have left the stage. That is absolute nonsense. Tell that to the Quinn family. Paul Quinn was murdered by the Provisional IRA in October 2007. Why? Because he had a run-in with members of PIRA. PIRA does not exist, and yet its members can take that young man out and kill him in the most horrific way. That is no way to deal with a falling-out; but if you are a member of the Provisional IRA, you can do as you will, because those who serve with you in that disreputable organisation will deny liability.
In 2007 following the murder of Paul Quinn, the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission stated that:
"We do believe that those involved... included people who are members or former members, or have associations with members or former members, of the Provisional IRA."
They haven't gone away, you know.
The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in this murder. Whether they are acting as the Provisional IRA, they are members of the Provisional IRA. There is a command structure within the Provisional IRA, believed to be up to brigade level.
You sit over there and totally deny it. You do not seem to understand what you have created for us. We do not trust a word you say. Why? Because you have lied in the past, you will lie in the future, and you are lying now. There is a direct link between the IRA and this murder, but you cannot be seen to agree with that, because it will bring your whole rotten house down on top of you. The IRA was involved in this murder, but if it is proved that they are IRA men, they are no longer IRA men. Back to the question: "When is an IRA man not an IRA man?" The answer is this: when he is caught.
I am proud to be a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. We were right to withdraw from the Executive, because Sinn Féin cannot be trusted.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?
Mr Hussey: My final comment relates to the Stormont House Agreement. The agreement was made by yourselves and the DUP. You walked out. You reneged. The whole thing falls on your head.
Dr Farry: We are content to support the motion. Obviously, it is important that we condemn the murders and call for support for the investigation, but of course they are only part of a much wider political crisis that is facing us.
A lot that could and perhaps should be said lies outside the immediate context and content of the motion. It is important to stress that we are still in the context of a live police investigation. What we have is an assessment from the police of the state of that investigation. That is a useful set of comments, but it opens up a whole layer of other questions that, quite rightly, MLAs and the wider public want to see resolved as soon as possible. However, we need to be very cautious about drawing firm conclusions. I am afraid that Mr Hussey fell into that trap in the previous speech. The assessment — it is important that we read it very carefully — talking about members of the IRA potentially being involved in that murder —
Mr Hussey: You will have to excuse me for not standing up, because, unfortunately, I cannot. I am sure you agree that the Chief Constable, the most senior officer in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, believes that members of the IRA were involved. Are you going to join Sinn Féin and decide that these people are no longer members of the IRA because it suits for them not to be?
Dr Farry: Let me be very clear. Had the Member listened to what I said, he would have heard that the Chief Constable said that, in his assessment, members of the IRA were involved in that murder. That is on the public record from the police. Mr Hussey went on to talk about a brigade-level structure existing in the IRA. That may or may not be true, but one thing that I can say with certainty is that Mr Hussey has not been briefed by anyone in a position of authority who has conclusively said that to him. That is speculation, and that is why I am warning that we should be extremely cautious in what we say at this stage.
Let me be very clear. If there is clear, compelling evidence that there is an organisational structure, or that there is a link between the political party and any structure involved in the murder, the Alliance Party will not be wanting in doing its duty under its responsibilities under the Northern Ireland Act and in ensuring that we have integrity in these institutions. We have history in this because we brought allegations and charges against various parties during the multi-party talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement.
Dr Farry: Indeed, we saw Sinn Féin and the UDP temporarily suspended from those talks.
I will give way to the Member.
Mr Nesbitt: Can the Member explain why his party leader said on 'Good Morning Ulster' that they had two ministries in the Northern Ireland Executive because of the votes of the people of Northern Ireland, when the fact is that they are entitled to only one seat? If they are the party of integrity, why did they take two seats? Why not sit on your hands after you got Justice and d'Hondt was run, because you were only entitled to one?
Dr Farry: I am rather surprised that Mr Nesbitt is worried about who is in the Executive at all, given that he has just walked out of it. Leaving that aside — obviously, one Minister was determined through the d'Hondt system and the other was determined through the votes of this House on a cross-community basis. Everyone in this House is here due to a mandate from the public. So there you go; that is the answer to that question.
Dr Farry: The party leader was correct — I have just explained it.
Secondly, we should remind Mr Nesbitt that we also took charges against the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP around some of their antics in relation to associations with the Drumcree protests in 1997 and how that undermined the integrity of the talks as well. I am rather afraid that it is not just allegations against parties connected to paramilitaries: there are others who have been in breach of their duties around the Mitchell principles and the subsequent principles that we are guided by.
We need to reflect much further on the basis of what has occurred over the summer months. Clearly, we have one particular case that may or may not lead to action in due course, based on the investigation. Leaving that aside, this has exposed some wider problems around the rule of law and the continued activity of paramilitary organisations within our society. That has to be addressed in one way or another.
There are probably three or four things that we need to turn our minds to. First, we have a range of different definitions as to what is the accepted bar in terms of an end to paramilitary activity, full adherence to peaceful and democratic means and support for the rule of law. We have the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which says one thing, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which says a different thing. We have the Pledge of Office, which applies to Ministers but does not relate them to the activities of any associated organisations. We need to standardise that and tidy it up to the highest possible standards. We also have the situation where, under any potential exclusion, a party can veto its exclusion, even where there is compelling objective evidence and everyone says that it points to a major breach of principles. Again, that is not tenable. We need safeguards to protect any party from arbitrary dismissal due to political whims, but that has to be tightened up.
We also need to consider some alternative to the IMC of before. Something similar to that needs to be considered for our current circumstances. Finally, we need a strategy to challenge the legacy of paramilitarism and the control that paramilitaries have in communities across Northern Ireland, loyalist and republican, and ensure that we finally eradicate that and that we see the proper disbandment of paramilitaries —
Dr Farry: — 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Kennedy: Mr Speaker, thank you for calling me in this important debate. At the outset, with your indulgence, because this is the first occasion since my resignation as Minister for Regional Development, I simply want to pay tribute and put on record my appreciation to all the officials who helped and assisted me during my period as Regional Development Minister. There is linkage; it was the recent murders of Mr Davison and Mr McGuigan that ultimately led the Ulster Unionist Party to the correct decision to leave the Executive. I believe that to be a correct course of action. I also believe that it has now given, at long last, a proper focus on the problems of the Executive and the Assembly. That, hopefully, will serve well as we seek to resolve all those issues.
The resignation came on foot of the very cruel and dastardly murders. I condemn those murders. It is worth reminding ourselves of the assessment of the Chief Constable and his senior command: the IRA still exists, it is still a structured organisation, and it is clearly linked to the murder of Mr McGuigan. The truth is that, after all these years and after all the denials from the republican movement, the IRA is still casting a long dark shadow over the political process. The denials that the IRA still exists and the claims of Sinn Féin that the IRA was not involved are words that, yet again, ring hollow; they continue to justify and, in some way, allow the IRA to contaminate the entire political process. Surely it is not just the Ulster Unionist Party, as a party in the Assembly entitled to seats in the Executive, that cannot tolerate this situation. Surely the law-abiding population might have expected others to follow our lead. It is astonishing that there has been no response in respect of this from the DUP, the SDLP or the Alliance Party. Of course, the hope is that, even at this late stage, they will provide leadership and show some appropriate political courage.
The same, of course, can be said for the Secretary of State and Her Majesty's Government, who seem unwilling and unable to face up to their responsibilities. Perhaps they are afraid of the consequences for the peace and political processes. It stinks, and everybody knows that it stinks. What is more, the vast majority of the population knows that it stinks. This is the first day back after summer recess. Look at how many people are interested in events here at Stormont. Very few are in the Public Gallery showing any interest; the people are completely sickened and disaffected.
We do not need Saatchi and Saatchi to tell us that Stormont is not working. Stormont is not only damaged but broken. Trust is broken, and it needs major surgery to fix it. It needs the republican movement to prove by its words and, most importantly, its actions that it is on the same page not only as the Chief Constable but as the rest of us and that the IRA has finally left not only the political stage but the military and community stages.
Mr Allister: These were undoubtedly gruesome murders. Like all terrorist murders, it is hard to describe them otherwise. I do not intend to waste much time on the weasel words of Sinn Féin, which come from consciences that have been seared by excusing Provo violence for years. I do not believe a word from them. I did not believe them — some did — when they told us that the IRA had gone away; I did not believe them — some did — when they said they had decommissioned; I did not believe them when they told us that the criminal empires in south Armagh were totally dissociated from the IRA, although some did; and I do not believe them today. It is quite clear from what the Chief Constable said that among the murderers of Mr McGuigan are members currently of the Provisional IRA.
This morning on 'The Stephen Nolan Show', Arlene Foster, the Finance Minister, made a strategically very important statement. She said that Sinn Féin and the IRA — that is the IRA that killed Mr McGuigan — are inextricably linked. If that is right, we have to face the fact that the political wing of a republican movement that has killed again is at the top and heart of government. The people who particularly have to face that fact are those who sustain and keep them there. I direct my remarks particularly to the DUP on this occasion.
There is no point in throwing up your hands in dismay at another killing by the IRA and then deciding that the answer is to stay inextricably linked yourself, and be the only unionists to be inextricably linked, to the political wing of the republican movement, which the Chief Constable says carried out that murder. That is how stark it is. To do that is to continue to turn a blind eye to murder. In fact, it licenses the IRA to kill again because, if it gets away with it this time, as it did with Paul Quinn — action should have been taken then, but it was not — it is another green light to kill again.
Little wonder that Mr Kelly thinks that it is a pseudo crisis. He does not believe that the DUP will ever do anything about it. That is why it is pseudo as a crisis. He believes that this can happen again because there will be huff and puff, and that will be it. Today we were to see a huge revelation of earth-shattering proportions from the DUP reaction to this IRA murder. What did we get? The Executive, which do not deliver anything for anyone anyhow, are not going to meet for a month. So what? They once did not meet for six or nine months, and nobody noticed.
I say this to the DUP: you have a solemn choice to make. You know the truth of what Arlene Foster said about the inextricable link. If you believe what the Chief Constable said, it is indeed time that you come out from among those who are inextricably linked to that killing. It is bigger than not wanting to be humiliated by being outmanoeuvred by the Ulster Unionists.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?
Mr Allister: It is a much bigger issue than that, and you need to be big enough to face it, rather than simply sending four Members onto a battlefield to lurk on the Back Benches with nothing to say about the matter.
Mr Agnew: I condemn the murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan and extend my condolences to their families. Whatever their past, they are victims of terrible murders. It is regrettable that such murders still take place in Northern Ireland. They are not acceptable today, and they never were acceptable. Indeed, it is regrettable that that type of violence persists. It is true that it is not just in republican communities. In my constituency, loyalism still holds a grip of terror on communities. That is deeply regrettable, and we must continue to strive to address and change it.
Of course, there are political ramifications of that murder because of the statement that members of the IRA were involved in it. I am consistently asked three questions, which I need answers to in order to make my assessment of what this means for our politics and our peace process. Does the IRA still exist? If so, are they engaged in criminality and/or terrorism? If so, are they still inextricably linked to Sinn Féin?
The first question is whether they still exist. The Police Service of Northern Ireland says that they still exist, the Garda Síochána says that they still exist and the Secretary of State says that the IRA still exists. Sinn Féin denies it, but other sources seem to be unanimous in that assessment. What does that mean? Are they engaged in criminality? Are they engaged in killing? It has certainly been strongly stated by the Chief Constable that members of the IRA were involved in this murder, but there are questions about whether the organisation itself was. We have had mixed signals: the Chief Constable said that he believes that the IRA is on a purely peaceful path; the Garda Síochána has suggested that the IRA is still engaged in criminality. Those are questions that we need answers to, and we need evidence and definite conclusions.
For many, it is taken as read that, if the IRA exists, it is still inextricably linked to Sinn Féin. We also need an independent assessment of that because, if Sinn Féin says that the IRA does not exist, it cannot say whether it is linked to that organisation. I believe that we need an independent evaluation, whether it is the re-establishment of the IMC or another body. We need something that the community can have confidence in and that can bring together the evidence of the PSNI and an Garda Síochána and, indeed, any information available to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, because it is only on facts and evidence that we can make an assessment of what state our political process is in and whether the institutions can continue as they currently exist.
As I said, if the answer to the three questions is yes — if the IRA still exists, if it is engaged in criminality and/or terrorism and if it is inextricably linked to Sinn Féin — we have to question the role of that party in our government.
I will meet the Chief Constable later this week. I have sought to meet the Secretary of State and I will seek answers to those questions, but it is clear that we need evidence. We need calm heads, but we also need — reference was made to it — a tipping point. We need to say what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in our society. It is clear that the gun must be out of Northern Ireland politics. We cannot continue on any other basis.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is regrettable that this debate is an example whereby some politicians have ignored the bits that did not fit with their narrative and have jumped on George Hamilton's claims that the IRA still exists and, indeed, ratcheted up a political crisis.
I want to deal with the facts, even though some here do not. The fact is that the IRA has gone and it is not coming back. Republicans have taken a series of historic initiatives to create opportunities for peace. They have also taken initiatives to sustain the process —
Ms Ní Chuilín: I will not.
— in very difficult times to overcome obstacles. The Sinn Féin leadership has worked hard to find imaginative ways to resolve problems, but let me be clear that this problem is not of our making. Sinn Féin has no responsibility whatsoever for those who killed Kevin McGuigan or Gerard Davison. The response from some of the other political parties here today to these killings, frankly, has been self-serving, short-sighted and deeply cynical. So, again, let me be clear: anyone, regardless of who they are, who breaks the law should be held accountable by the justice and policing agencies.
There is no basis for the charges made by some here today against Sinn Féin. Indeed, if what Lord Morrow has foretold comes to light and it descends into a full-blown political crisis, in my opinion it will be as a direct result of a lack of political leadership and total political opportunism. Indeed, given the manner in which the debate has descended into personalised attacks against some Members from my party, it is hard to know how any of the parties, particularly Mike Nesbitt's — he is pointing there — hope to sort the crisis out.
In relation to our credibility, Sinn Féin will not allow ourselves and, more importantly, our electorate to be demonised or marginalised over matters that have nothing to do with us. I firmly believe, and I agree with the words of my party president, that there is nothing more that we can do.
I think that there is a lack of leadership by some parties in this Assembly. Look at what Martin McGuinness has done in the past. I will tell you now. Martin McGuinness, unlike your party, stood shoulder to shoulder with people, condemning all attacks and actions of the past, and faced down threats from within his own community.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I will not.
He has challenged criminality and threats to the peace process, no matter what quarter they have originated from, and he will continue to do so. Others need to show the same leadership to oppose all efforts to undermine the peace process. That is what needs to prevail. Sinn Féin wants to achieve the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and deal with the issues in all our constituencies, particularly around legacies of the past, welfare protections, the impact of the conflict, including the impact on families who have been bereaved through state forces as well. We all must ensure that that happens.
Very few parties here actually mean what they say when they talk about opposing ongoing Tory austerity. I believe that what is required from everybody here is to get involved in initiatives that bring us all back to the place where we need to be in terms of resolution. How can you be involved in resolution when your instincts are to walk away? As Gerry Kelly said in his opening remarks, Mike Nesbitt was nearly there during Haass but decided to go. He was in and out of the Stormont House Agreement, but decided to go because of an Orange parade in north Belfast. Again, when talking about dealing with the legacy of the past, particularly in relation to the Stormont House Agreement and, indeed, the narrative around victims and survivors and mental health services, what did Mike Nesbitt do? He sent someone in to observe. To me, that is not about leadership; it is just stroke politics.
I will not go through all the bits and pieces that people said today. I want to finish where Gerry Kelly started, not like people who mentioned Kevin McGuigan and Gerard Davison to get it over with and then said what they had to say. There was a lot of that in the House today. I want to finish off where Gerry Kelly started: there are two grieving families at the centre of this. I have no doubt that those families will have been listening very carefully in the hope that the Assembly would assist them. As Trevor Lunn pointed out, this motion should have united everybody. These families want assistance in bringing people to justice. They need and deserve that. While those who carried out these brutal killings are to blame for the grief and suffering brought to the families and to the communities to which the two men belonged, I believe that the populism shown around this is nothing short of cowardice.
I call on everybody here to support the motion. It is something that we all need to do. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly condemns the murder of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan; extends its condolences to their families; and calls on anyone with information to bring it forward to assist the ongoing PSNI investigation so those responsible can face due process.