Official Report: Tuesday 08 September 2015
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Members, I understand that there are a quite a few members of the public here today, so I will give them a few moments to populate the Gallery.
Mr Speaker: Mr Jim Allister has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes to speak.
Mr Allister: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Seldom does the mere announcement of the presentation of a petition provoke a welcome ministerial response before the petition is even presented, but that is the happy situation today. So, the focus now of the petition is very much to secure the timely and full implementation of the commitments made to fill the deficit that exists in relation to emergency medical service in Northern Ireland, we being the only part of the United Kingdom without a fully equipped air ambulance service.
Of course, presenting this petition in support of that call — a petition that has the backing in written form of 16,000 signatures and 65,000 online indications of support, a total of 81,000 — is tinged with sadness because the great champion of this cause, Dr John Hinds, sadly is no longer with us. It was Dr John's vision and passion for the need to deliver a proper air ambulance service to Northern Ireland that started this campaign, invigorated it and which inspires those who have taken the trouble of gathering the petition to ensure that his legacy is secured in the provision of that for which he long campaigned.
You could not meet Dr John without yourself being enthused with his passion and his tremendous knowledge on this subject. I know that, when I took him to see the Minister back in June, the Minister was well impressed with the infectious enthusiasm that he had for the subject. Of course, he was a man who, through his skill and expertise as a trauma specialist of great, considerable note, has saved the lives of many people.
It is, I know, the lasting ambition of his family and loved ones that the cause that was so dear to his heart and which he espoused so strongly might reach fruition with the full provision of an air ambulance service. I have to say to the Minister that he has made the right start, but there needs to be fuller commitment than a mere £200,000 a year. The Department should show its bona fides by capital funding the acquisition and equipping of the helicopter. That would show an example to charitable organisations, which are more than willing to help in the continual running of the service. So, I trust that the Department will rise to the challenge and that this petition will encourage them to do that in a timely and expeditious manner.
Mr Allister moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.
Mr Speaker: Thank you. I will forward the petition to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and send a copy to the Committee.
Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of Justice to move the Second Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill and open the debate on the Bill.
That the Second Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill [NIA Bill 57/11-16] be agreed.
As I have said on previous occasions, my intention is to reform our justice process into a better system for all concerned. The Bill before the Assembly today is another step forward in that reform programme, which is being delivered with pace and commitment by my Department and partners across the justice system. I introduced the Bill on 30 June, just one day after the Final Stage of my previous Bill, which you announced yesterday is now the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. Finishing one piece of legislation and immediately following it with another is a demonstration of that commitment to improve the effectiveness of our justice system.
As we approach the end of the first full Assembly mandate for the Department of Justice, it is worth recalling that much has been achieved in the field of criminal justice legislation. As an Assembly in this mandate, we have already enacted four major pieces of legislation. The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 improved sex offender monitoring and notification arrangements and created a new fingerprint and DNA retention framework. The Legal Aid and Coroners’ Courts Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 opened a new chapter in the management of legal aid through the creation of the Legal Services Agency. The Justice Act 2015 improved services for victims and witnesses of crime and introduced a number of measures to speed up the justice system and to make it more efficient and effective. Of course, Members will recall that my Department also worked extremely closely with Lord Morrow on the development and progression of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.
The devolution of justice powers and the ability of a devolved Justice Minister to deliver local solutions to local problems has been a major achievement of the Assembly, with Minister, Department, arm’s-length bodies, NGOs and the Committee all working together. We have a much improved criminal justice system today as a result of devolution.
The principles behind the Justice (No. 2) Bill are a much improved fine collection process for all concerned; the freeing up of valuable police and prison time and resources; better options for courts and, indeed, offenders; and better inspection and accountability mechanisms. As a consequence, the Bill will deliver a more effective and efficient justice system, which will be a fairer and better justice system for all.
As I have already indicated, the Bill is about transforming our justice system, particularly in one key area: how we collect and enforce financial penalties set by the courts. The current law on fine collection and enforcement has been in existence, unreformed, for many years, largely since 1981 but in some instances as far back as the 1940s. There is a long-standing problem with significant levels of non-payment leading to increasing levels of default and a historical problem of people ending up in prison for short periods, when providing other ways in which to avoid default would be much better for them, their families and the justice system.
I have said on numerous occasions in the House and elsewhere that the current system represents a dreadful misuse of police time and a waste of costly prison resources, which brings the credibility of the fine — a mainstay of court sentencing — into disrepute. Reform has been, and will continue to be, a major task for us. It is important that we get it right, and I believe that the Bill delivers a better and fairer system for all concerned.
Part 1 of the Bill creates a completely new approach to the collection and enforcement of financial penalties. It reforms the collection process, increases options for offenders to manage and pay their fines, and increases the opportunities for service in the community instead of imprisonment when people do not pay their fine. The provisions, of course, will apply to more than fines. Financial penalties coming within the scope of the scheme will include compensation orders, the offender levy, costs and unpaid fixed penalties that are registered in court. The Bill also increases the payment options available to those being fined as well as the collection options available to the court and the collection officer to secure payment.
An important feature of the new collection scheme will be the prioritisation that must be followed when the court, or the collection officer, is considering its options. If needed, voluntary arrangements will be adopted first by the granting of additional time to pay or by payment by instalments. Following that, a deductions order arrangement can be made, voluntarily in the first instance. If those are unsuccessful, the supervised activity order can be used by the court to require community-based work instead.
The Bill therefore provides considerable assistance to those who are sometimes described as the "can't-pays", but there are also more stringent options built in for the "won't-pays". For the more wilful defaulter, who has the ability to pay but does not, the collection officer will refer the case back to the court, where other options will be available. The court can consider direct access to a bank account and in certain circumstances can even order the seizure of a vehicle. The last resort of the court should be committal to custody. However, the package as proposed will see those numbers reduce to only a residual level. A much wider range of options will be available at first instance and at the default hearing if an offender is referred back to the court for non-payment. The benefits of that system will be seen in the freeing-up of police and prison resources, in the focus on collecting money rather than immediate punishment for non-payment and in helping offenders themselves deal with their fines and avoid imprisonment.
A small but key feature of the Bill will see an important change to the law for children and the payment of fines. I do not think that this has ever happened, but, in law, it is still technically possible for a child to go into custody purely for not paying a fine. Even that legal possibility is unacceptable, and the Bill will remove that option from the law. In future, only non-custodial options will be available, including additional time to pay, payment by instalments and the use of the attendance centre order as a community option.
Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill make two key improvements to our prison services. They create in statute a Prison Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and provide a scheme whereby certain prisoners liable for deportation at the end of their sentence can opt for early removal from the United Kingdom, before the end of their sentence. Placing the Prison Ombudsman on a statutory footing has been a goal of mine for a number of years, and I am pleased to give it effect in the Bill. The Bill sets out in law the main functions of the ombudsman, which are to deal with complaints, death in custody investigations and those investigations requested by my Department. Some of those functions are currently carried out on a non-statutory basis, but the Bill now enshrines those in statute and removes any grounds for misconception about the Prison Ombudsman's independence from the Prison Service. There will be a duty on parties to an investigation to cooperate with the ombudsman's investigation, which must also produce a report after an investigation. The ombudsman will have a right of entry to prison premises and the juvenile justice centre, as well as powers of access to documents needed for his investigations.
I view the placing of the office on a statutory footing as an important public signal in reinforcing the independent nature of the post.
The Bill provides for a voluntary scheme to allow foreign national prisoners who are already subject to compulsory removal from the UK to have their sentence reduced to facilitate that removal. Schemes that allow for the early removal of foreign national prisoners have been established in Scotland since 2011 and in England and Wales since 2004. They reflect national government policy to remove a financial burden on the taxpayer by returning foreign criminals to their home country earlier than would otherwise be the case. That generates savings in custody costs and frees up valuable cell and bed space.
I must emphasise that this scheme, as set out in clauses 43 and 44, will not introduce deportation or removal. It will simply allow that process to be accelerated by providing for the early removal of foreign nationals whom the sentencing court has already determined should be removed on completion of their sentence or whom the Home Office's immigration service has decided have breached the conditions of their leave to remain in the UK.
The scheme relates to determinate-sentenced prisoners only. A prisoner must be serving a sentence of at least six months and have served at least one half of the requisite custodial period before removal can take place. The maximum time a prisoner may be removed early is 135 days, although removal can take place at any time between then and the end of the sentence.
Crucially, and this is a change to the scheme as originally envisaged, removal can take place only with the agreement of the prisoner, and this mirrors the position in Scotland. A prisoner so released who returns to Northern Ireland before his original sentence expiry date will be detained for a period equal in length to the outstanding custodial period or until his sentence expiry date, whichever is sooner. Those returning after the original sentence expiry date will be the responsibility of the Home Office's immigration service.
Part 3 expands the scope of lay visitor inspections of police stations. Currently, only stations designated by the Chief Constable are so inspected in law, designated stations being those that have custody suites. A number of stations have custody cells that may be used occasionally, and even though they are already inspected by lay visitors, they are not designated in law. The Bill will place that in statute, and all will be visited on the same basis.
Part 3 also enhances current legislation aimed at tackling sexual offending by extending the scope of the current offence of possessing extreme pornographic material. Under the proposed provision, those possessing an image that depicts rape or other non-consensual sexual acts will be committing an offence. The change will strengthen the law in this area, thereby providing better public protection, and it will put our law on the same footing as that in the rest of the United Kingdom, where similar provision has already been made to deal with this category of extreme pornographic image.
Part 4 provides for ancillary matters, regulations and orders and commencement arrangements. It is probably worth my saying a few words about two particular provisions in this Part: clause 45, "Ancillary provision", and clause 46, "Regulations and orders". Members, particularly those who are members of the Justice Committee, will remember the debate on the supplementary, incidental, consequential and transitional provisions in the previous Justice Bill and, in particular, the order-making powers of what was clause 86, which the Committee thought were too broadly drafted. Clauses 45 and 46 in this Bill raise similar issues.
Recognising the Committee's concerns, I intend to put forward an amendment at Consideration Stage to reflect the agreed way forward that was secured for the previous Bill. Unfortunately, the timings of the two Bills meant that it was not possible to reflect that revised wording in this Bill before approval to introduce. However, the Committee need not have concerns, as we will engage with it and discuss that issue from the beginning.
For completeness, I should flag other amendments and further provisions that, with Executive approval, I intend to put forward in due course. Currently, the fine default hearing process, under which offenders can be returned to court to have their default reviewed, can be frustrated by defaulters simply not turning up for the hearing. If the court is not satisfied that notice has been served, the case must sit in abeyance. As drafted, the Bill will strengthen this process by moving from a notice to attend procedure to a summons procedure.
To further strengthen attendance at fine default hearings, I propose that courts have a power to issue an arrest warrant for police to use in certain circumstances of non-attendance. Where police then encounter a person who is in default, they will be able to arrest them and release them on court bail for a future default hearing appearance. Coming at the end of the new collection process, which will already have seen a series of collection options considered, the number of non-attenders at fine default hearings should be low, but I feel that an additional power of arrest should be available to police to maintain the integrity of the fine collection and default hearing process as a deterrent to those who might seek to ignore the call back to the court.
I am also looking at the need for provision on information sharing in support of the provisions in the Bill that require offenders to provide the necessary earnings and income information to collection officers so that the correct collection option can be chosen. If an offender does not provide the information to the collection officer, he commits an offence that can result in further prosecution. To avoid the situation whereby a collection officer can be frustrated by non-compliance in his attempts to secure income details, I propose to enhance the Bill's approach to information access and sharing in that area. I intend to bring forward an amendment to allow collection officers to better identify and pursue those who simply do not comply. By way of my proposed amendment, collection officers will have access to employment, earnings or benefits information where an offender refuses to cooperate with the process.
Members will remember that, as part of the previous Justice Bill, I also gave commitments to bring forward amendments to firearms legislation in this Bill. The detail of those changes is still being finalised, but I intend to introduce a system to enable firearms dealers to exchange a firearm for a licence holder within a band. There will be bands or groups of firearms, such as air rifles, small quarry rimfire rifles, fox calibre centrefire rifles and larger centrefire calibre deer rifles, and a holder will be able to trade in a rifle in a band for another in that band as long as certain conditions are met. I also intend to introduce a provision on the age at which a young person can use a shotgun. The amendment will permit a person of 12 years of age or older to be in possession of a shotgun in a police-approved clay target range while under the supervision of a person who has held a shotgun on certificate for at least five years. Further to that, I intend to permit a person, from the age of 16, to engage in all shotgun activities — sporting and vermin uses — under existing supervision requirements. Finally, in respect of firearms, I will bring forward an amendment to deal with a small number of fee types in the Bill, and a larger body of work on reforming current fees will be taken forward by secondary legislation.
I believe that my Department and the Committee for Justice have a good record of working in partnership. I would like to thank Committee members for their interest and support for the Bill. With less than a full session remaining, their support to date and ongoing commitment to deliver this important legislation has been greatly appreciated. There will, I am sure, be a need for additional amendments to be taken forward in light of the Committee's scrutiny of the Bill, and my officials and I look forward to working with the Committee to further improve the Bill as it progresses through the Assembly.
In conclusion, let me remind the House of what I said at the beginning. This is a Bill that will provide a much improved fine collection process for all concerned; the freeing up of valuable police and prison time and resources; better options for courts and, indeed, offenders; and better inspection and accountability mechanisms. As a piece, it will have strategic significance and operational importance for the justice system in Northern Ireland. The Bill is designed to deliver a justice system that is more effective and efficient and is fairer and better. It will be another important step forward in my programme of criminal justice reform. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I am pleased, as Chairman of the Committee, to speak briefly on behalf of the Committee during the Second Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill. As the Minister said, it comes hot on the heels of passing the Justice (No. 1) Bill. The Minister may be accused of many things, but coming up with catchy titles for his legislation cannot be one of them.
As the Minister outlined, the Bill is designed to address a range of key areas, including fine default and the system of collecting financial penalties. Whilst much of the attention may be further down the hill, this is important legislation that the Committee has been calling for for some time. It can have a real impact in the community and be reforming legislation as well.
The Justice Committee is well aware of the problems associated with the current fine default and collection scheme.
In its report, published in January, on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service trust statement for the year ended 31 March 2013, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) highlighted that the value of unpaid financial penalties was significant and the Comptroller and Auditor General had raised concerns about the fine collection and enforcement measures and the system for dealing with fine defaulters. The PAC found that, despite the significant levels of outstanding debt, the Department of Justice had failed to coordinate a joined-up approach to fine collection and that, as a result, governance arrangements were unacceptable. That has contributed to a number of failings including 6,682 paper warrants with a value of £1·1 million going missing and suspected fraud. The Committee has also requested and considered regular updates on developments following the judgement delivered by the Divisional Court in five judicial reviews relating to the arrangements for imposing and enforcing fines and other monetary penalties.
Figures provided by the Department to the Committee earlier this year indicated that the total outstanding debt at 31 March 2014 was £22·684 million, of which, it estimated, £7·335 million was impaired and unlikely to be collected. In these times of financial constraint, those are wasted funds that could be put to very good use, and that is totally unacceptable. The Committee meets many groups from across different communities in Northern Ireland and hears of their struggles to get funding and of funding being cut. We have heard pleas from NIACRO about the Drug Arrest Referral and Harm Reduction Service and from the Probation Board, the Youth Justice Agency and the Safety Centre Alliance's Risk Avoidance and Danger Awareness Resource (RADAR). All those areas need funding and have been unable to get it. That £7·335 million of outstanding money, whilst it would not cover all those issues, could at least help out some of those projects.
The costs associated with enforcing the current system are also significant. It takes up substantial police time and results in a large number of very short terms of imprisonment with the associated costs to the prison system. That is an issue that I have raised in recent weeks.
As I have illustrated, it is clear that urgent reform of the fine enforcement and collection mechanisms is required and, indeed, is long overdue. Having received written and oral briefings on proposals to change the system as far back as 2011, the Committee welcomes the Bill. We will, however, wish to scrutinise the provisions in detail, particularly those in relation to fine collection and enforcement. Areas that the Committee explored in this regard with departmental officials during a briefing on the principles of the Bill included the estimated cost savings of the proposed new system; the estimated cost of the civilian-based collection service; the potential difficulties for fine collection officers in accessing relevant information and how that could be addressed; how the proposed system of deductions from benefits would work in practice; and the standard of proof required in determining whether a person is wilfully or deliberately defaulting on a fine. I have no doubt that we will wish to return to those issues and discuss them with key stakeholders during Committee Stage.
The Committee has considered a research paper on the fine enforcement mechanisms in other common law jurisdictions to assist its scrutiny of that part of the Bill, and we are interested in exploring further the possibility of providing some offenders with the opportunity of satisfying a fine by undertaking appropriate treatment, such as mental health, drug or alcohol treatment, as an alternative to community service or unpaid work. Indeed, the whole area of problem-solving courts is something that I have mentioned in recent weeks, and I know that the Committee will explore that in our justice innovation seminars in the coming months.
I turn briefly to some of the other provisions. The Committee has received written and oral briefings and has had the opportunity to consider the key policy content of those provisions. Putting the Prisoner Ombudsman on a statutory footing is something that the Minister mentioned in his opening speech. The practical outworkings of that may not be significant, but I think that it will assist him in fulfilling his key functions. The Committee will also welcome the provision to extend the offence of possession of extreme pornography to include depictions of rape. As the Minister said, the proposed change will provide the same protection in law in Northern Ireland as is the case in England and Wales and Scotland.
I do, however, want to express some concern regarding the open nature of the Bill and the fact that it covers a mix and match of policy areas. My view, which is shared by other members of the Committee, is that, if the Minister wanted to avoid the often unhelpful situation in which MLAs can table amendments on a range of issues that are not particularly related to the content of the Bill, due to its wide scope, he should perhaps have considered tabling two separate Bills rather than including everything in what is effectively a miscellaneous provisions Bill. I accept that it perhaps provides an opportunity to mop up some other areas towards the end of a mandate. Indeed, in the last Bill, the Minister brought forward provisions regarding human trafficking legislation, and if he intends to bring forward some amendments on firearms issues in this Bill, Members will welcome that. However, I think that, towards the end of a mandate, a Bill such as this attracts Members from all parties, including my own, who table amendments that he may consider unhelpful.
Given the pressing need to improve the system of fine enforcement and collection and the limited time available until the end of the mandate, the Committee has agreed to make the scrutiny of the Bill and the completion of Committee Stage, assuming it passes Second Stage today, a priority in our forward work programme. We will, however, wish to take the necessary time to ensure that the legislative proposals for a new fines collection system fully address the deficiencies that have been identified.
In conclusion, I also welcome the fact that the Minister has given a commitment this morning to propose an amendment on what has commonly been referred to as the clause 86 issue. The Committee can take some heart from the fact that the Department has clearly received the message that it was given by the Committee that we want to ensure that we have maximum scrutiny of legislation and that such clauses are unhelpful in that scrutiny process. I welcome the fact that the Minister has committed to do that.
On behalf of the Committee, I support the principles of the Bill and look forward to getting into the detail of it at Committee Stage.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the fact that we have now reached the Second Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill. We look forward to it passing through to Committee Stage, where much of the scrutiny and detail will come to the fore.
I have a number of brief observations. We broadly support the principles relating to fine default in Part 1. We have seen over a long number of years, particularly in Committee, how that issue seems not to go away and has posed particular problems for those who are left to collect fines. It has never really been properly tackled. In principle, we welcome the idea of the way in which the Department seeks to do this. There are some issues, and we flagged those up with the officials when they were at the Committee. In particular, they are about how deductions will come from benefits, and we need to see the detail of that and the freezing of assets. If someone is deemed to have to pay a fine, whatever benefits are deducted — if they have to be deducted, and we have reservations about that that we will come to in time — other family members should not be punished unnecessarily for the misdemeanour of someone else. We like the idea that those in default of paying a fine would, where possible, be "punished" by community-based projects rather than the collection process. We will certainly explore that. I welcome the fact that the Minister has proposed that no child will end up going to prison as a result of not paying a fine. When the Prison Service has been before the Committee, it has flagged up, for a long number of years, the large number of people who find themselves in prison for not paying fines, the cost to the system, how it fragments the system and all the other valuable work on rehabilitation that is sometimes curtailed as a result of that. The idea of ensuring that no one is in prison as a result of fine default is very welcome.
With Part 2, the Minister is aware that we have supported the idea of ensuring that the Prison Ombudsman is placed on a statutory footing. It is laid out very clearly how we will progress that through the Bill. There may be some issues, but the detail of that will come out. When there is a criminal investigation or a health and safety aspect, we want the protocols for the circumstances in which the ombudsman would defer and how he could reinitiate an investigation on how a family or the prison administration would be made aware of that.
There are other aspects that I will not go into today because we broadly support the Bill in principle. The Chair outlined the concerns on what is now called "clause 86" and the steps that the Minister is taking to protect himself from that in the future. I will allay the Minister's fears, in case he thinks that that happens only with his Bills: there has already been a discussion at the Ad Hoc Committee about the joint Bill, which has similar provisions. I am sure that, as we take that Bill forward, there will be some discussion on that.
Again, I echo the comments of the Chair on the open nature of the Bill. The Minister will be well aware that we have been critical of Members using, legitimately, the openness of justice Bills to bring in amendments that were not part of the general outline of the Bill, and, in many ways, took the focus away from the original intention. Where possible, we should try and avoid that.
The Chair said that sometimes there is a mop-up at the end of a mandate. That is understandable in these circumstances. As we go forward, we are certainly hoping, and ready, for the scrutiny required at Committee Stage.
Mr A Maginness: I rise to support, in the main, the principles of the Bill. I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this piece of legislation dealing with a number of issues, in particular the vexed issue of fine defaulters, which has concentrated the minds of not just the Minister and the Department but the Committee for quite a number of years. It has also concentrated the minds of those who are trying to manage the Prison Service, because the unwelcome, though brief, incarceration of fine defaulters has tended to undermine the effective and efficient administration of the Prison Service, causing difficulties in terms of management and unnecessary expenditure that might usefully be saved and invested into other prison services. This is a vexed, and not a minor, issue. It is an issue that has troubled many for quite some time, not just in this jurisdiction. Hundreds, if not thousands, going to prison each year for fine defaulting tends to clog up the system. Therefore, there needs to be a comprehensive and effective way of dealing with fine defaulters.
I believe that, contained in this Bill, there is the hope and promise of remedying this problem by putting in place an effective and modern system for dealing with fine defaulters. The Minister has brought forward proposals that, as far as I can see, deal as comprehensively as possible with the issue of fine defaulting. He has struck a balance between creating voluntary arrangements with fine defaulters and dealing much more directly with those who refuse to cooperate with the system. The balance that the Minister has established in the clauses he has presented before us is a good one. We in the Committee will analyse and scrutinise the clauses in detail in due course.
We have to be mindful of those who, because of their financial and social circumstances, find it difficult to pay fines. We must be humane, considerate and understand the plight of people in such circumstances. Our approach has to be balanced, whether that be through an attachment of earnings or through deductions from social security or other benefits. We have to consider very carefully the circumstances that people find themselves in. My colleague Mr McGlone and I will approach the issue very carefully. We do not want to exacerbate the plight of people who find themselves having serious difficulty in managing their lives. We have to consider that people are like that, and we have to be compassionate. At the same time, it is right and proper that powers are given to the state to deal effectively with fine defaulting.
Of course, it is not simply about defaulting on fines. It is also about compensation orders and so forth. It is unfair that victims of crime who receive compensation orders are deprived of the benefit of those orders by people defaulting. It is, therefore, right and proper that we make arrangements in relation to that as well.
The Minister's division between "can't pay" and "won't pay" is a useful one and will be a useful guide and benchmark for the Committee in considering the clauses before us. I do not believe that any child has been incarcerated as a result of fine defaulting, but the very fact that that could technically be done, according to the statute book, is offensive, and that power ought to be removed.
I will move on to the Prisoner Ombudsman, and I say that deliberately, because we presently have a Prisoner Ombudsman; not a Prison Ombudsman. That may be a fine point of detail, and it may be irritating to nitpick about the title, but I am not entirely convinced that it would be correct to change the title from Prisoner Ombudsman to Prison Ombudsman. The purpose of the ombudsman's office, as I understand it — I might be wrong on this — is to deal with maladministration in relation to prisoners and not in relation to the prison. Maybe I am wrong; maybe I have a narrower view of the purpose of the ombudsman's office, but I think that we should carefully consider the title. It may, in practice, be a meaningless distinction to make, but I would prefer the term "Prisoner Ombudsman" at this time. However, I am subject to persuasion. Can the Minister explain why he prefers "Prison Ombudsman"? Unless there is a considerable change in the substance of the remit of the Prisoner Ombudsman, I would have to be convinced that the change in title is appropriate.
I welcome what the Minister is doing in relation to the Prisoner Ombudsman, because a number of ombudsmen have sought to have that office exist on a statutory basis.
It gives greater independence to that office, and that is something that we should congratulate the Minister on doing. I look forward to looking at the detail of that.
I was a little concerned about clause 38, "Guidance to Ombudsman in relation to matters connected with national security". When I see "national security", alarm bells go off in my ears, and I begin to think, "What is happening here?". I was listening this morning to the report on the radio about the fishermen who encountered a British submarine and were dragged back by it. In fact, their boat nearly capsized, which, of course, would have imperilled the lives of the fishermen and crew. The circumstances were such that there was a denial by the British navy that there was any involvement of a British naval vessel. That went on for at least three months, until, eventually, they owned up and said, "Yes, we were involved. We're very sorry, and we want to compensate you for that". There was a wall of silence from the naval authorities — effectively, the state. It was not just a wall of silence but silence about their responsibility and at least one denial, if not more, of involvement. Happily, that incident has been resolved, in so far as the naval authorities have admitted involvement and so forth.
It could be that, in such circumstances, the state and the Ministry of Defence could say, "Well, it's a national security matter. Therefore, we don't reveal anything". That was a minor incident in some respects but a major incident for the people who were involved. When we talk about national security in relation to the ombudsman's work, particularly deaths in custody, which the ombudsman will investigate under the Bill — he already has powers to do that — we should be extremely careful. There should be maximum transparency. Yes, there may be a need for some residual protection, but we have to look at the guidance, as it is called, very carefully to ensure that we are not in some way tying the hands of the Prisoner Ombudsman. I raise that issue, and we will come to it and consider it. I know that the issues are politically very sensitive, but we have a history and an experience here that has been rather tragic and regrettable and we should not simply give a blank cheque for issues involving national security.
There are provisions concerning the transfer of foreign prisoners. That is a right and proper thing to do in the circumstances. My understanding, if the Minister will confirm it, is that that is a voluntary procedure on foot of what the —
Mr Ford: I am happy to confirm that it is a voluntary procedure, as is the case in Scotland at present.
Mr A Maginness: I was going to make a further point, although it is probably academic, given that it is an entirely voluntary procedure. I was wondering whether EU citizens came under this provision. I was not sure from reading the Bill whether that was the case. Is a distinction made in the Bill between foreign prisoners and EU prisoners? Certainly, transfer is a right and proper way of proceeding, and I have no problems in principle with that.
I was not aware that lay visitors could not visit all police premises. The Bill fills that gap, which is welcome. I welcome the provision in relation to sexual offences; it is a right and proper protection. The possession of pornographic images of rape and assault by penetration is, quite properly, covered, which everybody in the House and indeed outside it would welcome.
The Bill is to be welcomed. We look forward to the Committee's work in scrutinising it. I am sure that issues that we have not yet detected in these proceedings will occur during the Committee's scrutiny. The Committee takes its work extremely seriously. We are blessed with good leadership from the Chairperson and, indeed, the Deputy Chairperson, if I might say so, and people take their work seriously. The work will be conducted on a very serious basis. I will finish by saying that the Minister's approach to reforming the system of justice is a proper one and one that is now bearing fruit.
Mr Speaker: As this is the first debate in which the Assembly will hear from Mr Neil Somerville, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption. Mr Somerville, you were present yesterday during another maiden speech, so you are aware that there is a health warning attached.
Mr Somerville: Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a great honour and privilege to participate in the debate on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. This is my maiden speech, and, as is customary, I pay tribute to my predecessor, Tom Elliott MP, and the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I know all too well that Tom was a tireless worker for the people of the constituency. From Dungannon to Belleek, he was held in high esteem because of the work he put in and the results he delivered on behalf of all sides of the community. Tom received his reward in May when the voters returned him to Westminster as their Member of Parliament. I place on record how much I look forward to working with Tom and my council colleagues on behalf of all the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
I was born and bred in Aughnacloy. I was educated there and have spent most of my working life between Fermanagh and south Tyrone. I will continue to work for and represent that constituency, the most westerly in the United Kingdom. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, we have some of the finest scenery in the British Isles: we have the lakes of Fermanagh and the rolling hills of the Clogher valley. It is a rural constituency where agriculture and the agrifood industry play key roles in the local economy. In Dungannon, the ancient capital of Ulster, and Enniskillen we have two of the finest county towns in Northern Ireland. I promise to be a firm advocate for the constituency and all its people.
Having read through the Bill and listened to other speakers' comments, I am pleased to say that I can see that there is much here that is common sense that, if implemented, would improve the administration of justice in Northern Ireland. The Bill affects four areas. First, it aims to improve current arrangements for the collection and enforcement of financial penalties. Secondly, it aims to improve the provision of prison services in Northern Ireland. Thirdly, it aims to improve upon current statutory provisions in relation to sex offending. Fourthly, it aims to improve lay-visiting arrangements in police stations.
I am a firm believer that punishments must fit the crime, and I am certainly not a supporter of soft options in sentencing. For me, punishment and deterrence are key aspects of the sentencing policy. That having been said, it is clear that our justice system has had to deal with a significant number of people who have failed to pay fines, and it is not cost-effective to see them jailed for short periods. I understand that, over the three-year period from 2010 to 2012, over 6,000 people went to prison for the non-payment of fines. Most of those were what is termed relatively minor offences, for example, motoring convictions, and the average time spent in prison was four days. In addition, the police were tasked with executing up to 30,000 warrants a year. Quite clearly, there is a case to be made that that is not a good use of police time or prison capacity. I am content that the consultation process has resulted in provisions in the Bill relating to an expanding use of community supervision and a civilian-based system for collection of fines, largely removing the police from their current enforcement role. However, I seek assurances that non-custodial sentences are not seen as a soft option and that meaningful punishment is the order of the day. That is important to maintain deterrence.
I am broadly content with the proposal to create a statutory office of prison ombudsman. I am acutely aware of the difficult job that we have asked our prison officers to do. Ordinary rank-and-file officers have great concerns about staff morale, manning levels and staff safety. I appeal to the Minister that the ombudsman does not become an instrument for prisoners and ex-prisoners to conduct witch-hunts or petty grievance cases against a brave body of men and women who are charged with doing a difficult job that few of us wish to do ourselves.
With regard to early removal of prisoners who are foreign nationals, I am content that Northern Ireland should adhere as closely as possible to the arrangements and operations in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is, however, important that sentences should be seen as appropriate punishments and of sufficient severity to deter others. People who have committed offences should have their liberty removed and their lives disrupted. Northern Ireland should not be seen as a soft prison regime. The provision for lay visiting is non-contentious, having already been agreed with the Policing Board. Therefore, I have no desire to reopen that debate.
I wholeheartedly agree with the provisions regarding the possession of extreme pornographic material. It will extend the existing offence of possession of extreme pornographic images to include the possession of extreme images of rape or other non-consensual acts. It is an offence that exists in England and Wales and that the Justice Committee has asked to be brought forward to Northern Ireland. I imagine that the entire House will be happy to support that proposal.
I look forward to playing my part on the Justice Committee, and I am content to support the Justice (No. 2) Bill.
Mr Dickson: I welcome the introduction of the Bill and the detail that we have gained about it today, which I believe is very useful.
It might be useful to suggest that history will perhaps judge the Assembly rather harshly for its work rate, but I do not think that it will judge the Minister harshly, because he has an immense work rate when it comes to delivering justice and legislation on justice for all the citizens of Northern Ireland, looking to the previous Bill and at the way in which he worked with Lord Morrow on crafting the legislation on the Human Trafficking Bill.
The Bill, if we get the time and space to progress it, will tackle important issues in the delivery of a fair and efficient justice system. It will be another step forward in the delivery of criminal justice reform that I genuinely believe the Minister and the Assembly can be proud of. It may indeed be one of the few lasting legacies of the Assembly, if and when it is enacted.
Many of the provisions have already been gone through in detail, and I do not think it is necessary for me to rehearse them again. I see sighs of relief around the Chamber. Obviously, I will support the Minister on the Bill, but it is equally important that the Committee has an opportunity to scrutinise the provisions as and when appropriate changes, ideas and suggestions come forward. Working with the Department is an important aspect of what the Committee does. I genuinely do not think that you will get a better example of a Committee working with a Department than the Justice Department and Justice Committee.
Members have referred to the reform of fine collection. Having said that I do not want to go through each item in the Bill, I genuinely believe that that is one of the key areas in respect of it and it is important that we look at that. The Minister's description of the "can't-pays" versus the "won't-pays" is an important area for us. When it comes to the Committee's scrutiny of the legislation, I predict that that will be the one area that many outside bodies will want to come and speak to the Committee about, as well as about the mechanisms involved in dealing with that.
In previous legislation the Committee has had a number of innovative ways of dealing with issues that perhaps attract a lot of attention. We have done that on the basis of bringing a number of people together to listen to what they say. That has also improved both the Committee's scrutiny and the timetabling of its work.
All of the elements of the Bill are important to us. I wish the Minister and the Department well, and I know that the Committee, under its Chair, Mr Ross, will do its job in delivering its critique of the Bill and working with the Department to deliver that for everyone. Those positive relationships that exist between the Department and the Committee will take the Bill through.
I share some of the caution in respect of how we deal with amendments to a Bill that comes to us not only at the end of a mandate but of a mandate that is coming to an end in very difficult circumstances. However, I believe that, given a fair wind and the level of cooperation that has been clearly demonstrated by the Minister and the Committee in the past, we can have a successful Justice (No. 2) Bill.
Mr Douglas: I am pleased to welcome the Second Stage of the Bill. We will be looking at a range of issues, but, first of all, I welcome and wish the very best to the new Member, Neil Somerville. I thought that he gave an excellent speech. He mentioned all of the good, wonderful and noble things about Fermanagh, but he forgot to mention two major assets in Fermanagh. One is Minister Arlene Foster and the other one — probably more importantly to me today — is Kyle Lafferty, who scored a wonderful goal last night at Windsor Park. Excuse me; my voice is a wee bit hoarse this morning. When he scored that goal, he ran up to the stand in front of me, and I just wish that I had been able to reach out and hug him. What a night for Northern Ireland.
I certainly agree with the Minister that much has been achieved in this mandate. There has been a very good relationship between the Minister, the Department and the Committee. I echo the sentiments of other Members on our Chair and Deputy Chair. I think they have provided excellent leadership in the Justice Committee. For me, it shows what can be done when we work together. We have our own opinions and difficulties, but we can put the good of justice in Northern Ireland right to the forefront and work together.
I believe that we are on the right road to transforming justice. Reform is needed, and the Minister outlined that. One thing that we have been involved in — we have mentioned it before — is that our Chair, Alastair Ross, has introduced innovation seminars to look at new ways to do justice better and more humanely in many ways and to look at reducing costs, which affect all of us right across not just Northern Ireland but the United Kingdom and Europe.
I will briefly mention Part 1, which relates to fine collection and enforcement. There is a television programme that I am sure most of us have watched, 'Can't Cook, Won't Cook'; I fit into both those categories. The Minister talked about "can't-pays" and "won't-pays", which is a very good description. I agree with Alban Maginness that, with this aspect, we really need to remember where many of the people who cannot pay are coming from. In my office, I very often see people who are struggling with life itself and paying bills. Let us have a real sense of openness, awareness and grace when we look at those people who definitely cannot pay. The last thing that we want is for people to end up incarcerated. We all know what prison can do to people. Often, people go into prison and get involved in a range of activities and associations, and they come out worse than they went in.
As the Minister said, there are schemes that benefit the community. In my constituency of East Belfast, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland has introduced excellent schemes in which people are participating. We often think that those people are young or middle-aged, but I have met elderly people who have been on those schemes, which have helped them.
At the moment, there are cuts right across Northern Ireland, including in the community and voluntary sector, and there is an opportunity to try to support those groups with their long-term sustainability because many of them have had funding withdrawn. We all know about Peace money and that many of those groups struggle with other aspects of funding. I look forward to consultation with many of those groups and stakeholders, who have been very helpful to us.
I agree with the Minister that the Bill addresses issues of concern. The costs associated with people who fail to pay and do not want to pay have been raised a number of times. We all know the financial pressures that our prisons are under and that they are under-resourced. I was in Maghaberry prison earlier this week, and the staff there are doing a wonderful job, but they are struggling with sickness and pressures. The principles will definitely free up prisoners, staff and resources.
I support the principles of the Bill and look forward to working with the Committee, the stakeholders, the Minister and his officials.
Mr B McCrea: There has been some discussion about the miscellaneous nature of the Bill. A number of commentators have spoken about it, and I intend to address the issue.
Some may be wondering why somebody who is not on the Justice Committee is sitting and taking an interest in these proceedings, given that it is not exactly a packed House. I think, as some Members mentioned, that other activity may be taking place elsewhere. Nevertheless, I wish to raise a number of points at this stage and give notice that I intend to follow the proceedings of the Committee in some detail. This comes, of course, of my having had four years' service on the Northern Ireland Policing Board and some time on the Justice Committee itself. So, I am still particularly interested in this.
I will deal first with the issue of community service. I am, in principle, interested in finding different ways of seeing justice delivered, particularly in a more humane process. It is not right that you send people to prison for what are relatively minor offences; there must be some better way of dealing with these issues. I am not saying that I have a solution for it just now, but we need to examine how we convince the public that this is not a soft issue or a soft solution — a point that Mr Somerville made in his maiden speech, which I congratulate him on. We have to persuade the public that we are not going soft on issues and are trying to find the best way forward.
The Chair would like to intervene.
Mr Ross: I thank the Member for giving way. It is not an attack in any way on him personally, but perhaps one of the issues in justice, and I have said this before in my justice innovation seminars, is that perhaps we always frame justice issues on whether we are seen as being soft or tough on crime. How we should actually frame these discussions is on what works and does not work.
Particularly in this area of alternatives to short prison sentences, look at the example in the United States, particularly around New York, where they have introduced problem-solving courts. We can see quite clearly that this benefits the community because it reduces reoffending and makes a positive difference. That is particularly so in areas around those who cannot pay, which some Members have mentioned. Others may spend their money on feeding other habits. Unless we also address the cause of where they are spending their money or the cause of the crime as well as punishment, they will inevitably reoffend. So, I take his point, but it is important that we frame discussions about justice on what works and does not work, have evidence-based proposals and very much focus on the delivery of positive outcomes.
Mr B McCrea: I am grateful to Mr Ross for the explanation. In his contribution, Mr Maginness was very generous in praising the exemplary leadership provided by you and the Deputy Chair.
Since we are in a spirit of togetherness on this, I will say that I am sympathetic to, and understanding of, the point that the Chair has raised. I think that it is a debate, though, that we should not be afraid to have. We should be able to explain it to people. At the risk of raising a thorny issue, it is something that we will have to look at. There are issues about community service and about whether, to use a tabloid headline, we have "name-and-shame" type provisions or whether this is something that is best done in a more anonymous manner. We need to address these matters. One of the issues that victims of crime have with the justice system is that it seems to take a very long time for anything to happen, and then nobody really remembers that there was any form of punishment. So, there is a balance about the right way forward that needs to be considered properly by the Committee. I am not prejudging it; I am saying only that there is an issue about community service that I think we will want to deal with.
The more substantive bit that I want to mention in this contribution is the miscellaneous nature of the Bill, which has been raised a number of times by a number of people. The Chair, the Deputy Chair and even the Alliance Party have said, "Listen, we need to be careful about making this a little wider". The reason why I am here talking at this stage in the Bill is that there is an issue that I think we need to address. It is an issue of public concern. It is an issue that many people have talked about.
In fact, they talk about it incessantly, and I think that we should take the opportunity to deal with it. It is the absence of any replacement for the 1954 legislation on flags and emblems. As you will know, this legislation was repealed in, I think, 1986.
One of the things that I find really distressing is when I see flags flying from lamp posts like tattered rags. You see them all around the place. Now, if we are going to deal with certain other provisions in this Bill, I think that this is also something that we should deal with. You asked the question of whether it is a necessary piece of legislation. Well, I can quote the PSNI's Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw, who said that clearer legislation on flags is needed. He went on:
"Our job is to keep is to keep people safe and we will do that, but what I am also making clear is that the legislation around this is ... not specific. In fact, we have to draw on a range of pieces of legislation which are not particularly designed to deal with the issues of flags."
So, although some Members around here have indicated that they want to try to keep this a little tighter, I am giving notice that I intend to introduce amendments on the issue of flying flags from public lamp posts and in other areas. This is an area that I think we will find some support on. I heard the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party say, when he made his great announcement in the Hall, that he would not be averse to their taking down their paramilitary flags and other flags, so we might expect some support there. I will also mention the Alliance councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown, who said that constituents in his area wanted to know why the police appeared to have reversed last year's policy and had not stopped the erection of flags that week — this is around the Belfast area. So I am quite sure that the Alliance Party will be interested in some amendments and might discuss the matter properly. I will also say to my —
Mr Speaker: You have indicated something that you are drawing to our attention. This is not the opportunity to advocate it. This is a discussion about the principles of the Bill. I can say that I am satisfied that you have made that linkage, but this is not the point at which you advocate your argument. You will have that opportunity subsequently if you decide to follow through on that action.
Mr B McCrea: I am happy to take your direction as ever, Mr Speaker, though I thought that I was talking about the general principles. In any case, I will take your direction. The point that I really want to address is that I understand the legislative constraints and that this is a miscellaneous-type Bill. It has been mentioned by the Chair, the Deputy Chair and a member of the Alliance Party —
Mr Speaker: You have already said that, and I accept that.
Mr B McCrea: — so I think that it is legitimate that I say it. I would just like to get support. I think that it is an issue that we would like to deal with, and, of course, I will make the arguments when we come to the appropriate stage.
I will just conclude on the issues that are actually in the Bill. I was aware from the Policing Board of the issue of the extension to the investigation beyond designated police stations. I think that it is right and proper that we should do that. I also think that it is appropriate that we should find an ombudsman for prisons. I am not sure whether it would be for prisoners or prisons, and I will look at the point that Mr Maginness has made. However, in general terms, I am satisfied and supportive of this Bill going through, and I hope that we have —
Mr Douglas: The Member has mentioned flags and emblems. For me, what the Minister is proposing to do is very ambitious given the time constraints. At our last Committee meeting, our Clerk told us that we have 24 weeks. Maybe the Minister could answer this question, although I do not know whether he will be able to answer it or not: where do we draw the line? I am not talking only about this. If someone else or two or three other people come in with amendments, where do we draw the line and say, "Enough is enough, we just do not have the time in this mandate"?
Mr B McCrea: I will address that issue. There is a legislative principle about whether this is a single-purpose or a multipurpose Bill. That is the point that has been raised. It has been established that this is a multiple-purpose Bill and, therefore, it is appropriate for me, as a Member, to bring such amendments as I feel fit. I hope that we will get support for this; I think that it is a matter that we can discuss sensibly and find some sort of resolution to.
Through you, Mr Speaker, I am aware that the Member who raised the point is on record as taking a very liberal, positive and progressive stance on the issue of flags, and I am sure that his record will stand up to scrutiny when we have a discussion on the matter. I hope that he will support dealing with what is a very vexatious issue for many of us. However, the Speaker has asked me not to carry on with this point and I will respect his wishes. I will say, however, that I intend to do this properly and formally. I would like to work with the Minister and his Department, in the same way that he worked with Lord Morrow in detail on his issues, to see that we get a resolution on this. In response to his Alliance Party colleague's statement about whether we are being seen to deliver, I can tell you that many of the issues in the Bill are important but will not catch the public's imagination. The amendment that I will be proposing will certainly say to the public, "We are dealing with an issue that is of concern to you."
Mr Ford: I will start, as I customarily do at Second Stage — it may be slightly different by Consideration Stage — by thanking all those who contributed, particularly for the welcome that has universally been given to the Bill around the Chamber, with a few slight gradations. In particular, I thank Members for the consistent expectations that I have of positive engagement with those who have been on the Committee for some time. I welcome Neil Somerville to his first debate in the Chamber on a Justice Bill and I look forward to working with him. I also welcome the fact that Basil McCrea was the one Member not on the Justice Committee who chose to come and involve himself in this morning's discussion.
I will respond to some of the points, although, as you have just reminded us all, Mr Speaker, the debate is on the general principles of the Bill. I suspect that there was actually very little debate on the principles of the Bill; we are merely looking at how we work things through.
On the first point, a number of contributions were made on the issues of fines and enforcement. Certainly, I think that pretty nearly every Member who spoke referred to finding a proper balance. There is a genuine and entirely reasonable issue about ensuring that families do not suffer over the enforcement of fines, but the reality is, of course, that, once fines are levied, there will potentially be an effect on the families and dependants of those who are suffering, whether through financial penalties or whether they go to prison over the issue, as they have in the past. I believe that we have the balance right. I am grateful for the fact that a number of people welcomed the general initiatives around what I shorten to the concept of the "can't-pays", but there will continue to be the issue of the "won't-pays", and that has to be addressed.
A number of Members referred to the unfortunate effects that sending people to prison has on the individual, their family and the Prison Service. If we go back a few years, before the court challenges which put a temporary end to the practice, there were anything up to 2,000 people per year involved. Mr Maginness talked about hundreds, possibly thousands, but around 2,000 people per year were committed to prison for non-payment of fines. The number in prison on any one night was, of course, a very small proportion of the prison population, but the fact that they had to be admitted, all that work had to be done and then they were discharged a few days later was not good for them or the Prison Service. It actually did nothing for their victims in cases that involved things like compensation payments.
I have to differ slightly with the Chair on one point — it is always good to have some slight point of difference to emphasise these things — when he talked, quite reasonably, about the cost of uncollected fines and what we could do with the money. I remind him that fines go into the Consolidated Fund. The Treasury get its hands on it and it does not go to the DOJ. Would that it did; we would certainly put it to better use but, unfortunately, it does not come directly to us.
I also think, as has been highlighted just recently when we look at the good work done by the Probation Service on community service orders, that we have good reason to believe that its work on supervised activity orders in the case of fine default is likely to produce positive benefits for the community, the individuals and voluntary groups that benefit from the work that is done, as well as the individual.
In that context, we are not into southern Alabama, gangs in orange suits and chain mail cleaning the streets. We are talking about giving people positive options, which increase their reparation and their sense of worth, to encourage them not to reoffend. So, we are not talking about naming and shaming; we are talking about ensuring that people get something positive to do.
I also welcome the fact that has been highlighted on the issue of court processes, which are probably at their zenith at the moment in New York city. The concept of case management by judges and more regular engagement with offenders is certainly being seen by some of our district judges at low levels. That is to be welcomed.
I believe that, overall, that package around fines is one that we can look at. I welcome the fact that even Stewart Dickson says he is going to scrutinise my proposals in detail, but the Committee will certainly have a role to play, and, as usual, the Department will engage with the Committee as we fine-tune the detail to ensure that we get what we all want out of that.
I move now to the second key issue. I certainly welcome the general welcome for putting the Prison Ombudsman on a statutory footing. I note with interest that Mr Maginness effectively said, "What's in a name?", and then said, "Maybe there is something in a name" over the question of whether it is the "Prison" or "Prisoner" Ombudsman. Given that, I think, 90% of society believes that the organisation headed by Brendan McGuigan is the criminal justice inspectorate and not the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, I sometimes wonder whether the name matters. I refer Alban Maginness to clause 34, which talks about investigations requested by the Department into "any custody-related matter". That, I think, is why we are talking about a "Prison" Ombudsman and not a "Prisoner" Ombudsman. Frankly, however, if the Committee felt otherwise, I do not think my officials or I would be dying in a ditch over those two letters.
Mr Maginness also referred to the issue of national security, which is in clause 38. We should, of course, remember that there are already in prison rules matters relating to national security, because the Secretary of State has certain roles in decisions over admissions to separated conditions in Maghaberry prison, for example. Although the Prison Service is part of the DOJ, there are powers for the Secretary of State outside that. I think that that is simply a replication of the existing arrangements, but I have no doubt that some members of the Committee — perhaps, not just Mr Maginness — may wish to probe that when we come to Committee Stage. The vice chair is smiling to prove my point.
An issue was raised about the deportation of prisoners from the EU. I stand to be corrected, and we will ensure that details are provided to the Committee, but my understanding is that deportation arrangements can apply to those convicted of certain offences who come from elsewhere in the EU. That can be looked at when the Committee is considering those proposals in detail. Similarly, a point was raised, briefly, about lay visitors to police stations. My understanding is that right of access has always been given to lay visitors to all police stations. The important issue is that this places the inspection of all police station custody facilities on a clear statutory footing. I suspect that Members will welcome that generally, as indeed they will welcome the likes of ensuring that children do not go into custody for non-payment of a fine. As I said, that has not happened, but we want to ensure it does not happen.
There was a rather interesting debate around the openness of the Bill and the possibility for amendments, and, of course, we had to resurrect clause 86, just to prove that this is a justice Bill. The Committee is going to keep me on my toes. In mitigation, I will point out that the clause 86 issue did not first arise on the last Justice Bill; it has been a feature of many Bills from many Departments, including those sponsored by Ministers from political parties whose members on the Committee have attacked me most over the issue. However, I have made it clear that we are looking to address that in the same way as we addressed the matter in the last Bill. So, we can all have a smile and agree that we will work together.
There is a wider issue about amendments to the Bill and the openness of the Bill. In fairness, the reality is that it is not just the last Bill in a mandate which tends to end up, as a Justice Bill, as something of a miscellaneous provisions Bill. That seems to have been the pattern, and it is the pattern not just in this place; it is the pattern elsewhere. Certainly, I would be very happy to send the Committee seven or eight Bills every year, each of which covered one small, discrete topic and, therefore, could not be ambushed in the Chamber to considerable difficulties, regardless of whether the issue is one on which I tend to, perhaps, agree with the proposer, such as Mr McCrea, or one where I have had difficulties with proposers.
I was slightly amused when the Chair said that those unhelpful amendments came from all parties, including his own. I think that the word, rather than "including", should have been "particularly". With due deference to the Chair, I remind you, Mr Speaker, that amendments are allowed at your discretion and that, with the exception of the issues that I highlighted as likely to come up from previous work, the Chair and the Deputy Chair seem to be encouraging you not to allow additional amendments to come forward. One might make an exception for Mr McCrea, who at least flagged it up at considerable length this morning.
Mr Ford: You got the pun.
It might be reasonable to say that having greater discretion in ensuring that amendments are slightly more consistent with what has already been raised in the Chamber would not displease the Department, although that is at your discretion entirely, Mr Speaker, and I will accept your decisions whatever they be on this Bill, as with any other.
Certainly, there is a fundamental question as to how we handle Bills. If the Committee is up to handling lots of small Bills rather than a small number of large Bills in the future, that is no problem to the Department, and, as part of our ongoing positive engagement, we might do that.
I note that we have not yet been here for an hour and a half discussing what is actually very significant legislation. I do not need to repeat the points that I made at the beginning or the points made by other Members around the Chamber. Sometimes I think that the time that we spend in the Chamber on issues is inversely proportional to their importance. On that basis, given the importance of this Bill, I commend it to the House, and I will sit down.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill [NIA Bill 57/11-16] be agreed.
Mr Speaker: The Justice (No. 2) Bill will be further debated at its subsequent stages.
I ask Members to take their ease for a moment while we change the top Table.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes in which to propose the motion and 15 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Education on its inquiry into shared and integrated education [NIA 194/11-16]; and calls on the Minister of Education to implement the recommendations contained in the report.
I was briefly worried that the Minister might be playing truant, but I see that he has arrived for the start of the debate.
The Committee began its inquiry into shared and integrated education over one year ago. That was two Chairpersons and one Deputy Chairperson ago. Unlike with the previous report, I have at least been the Chair for the latter stages of this one. It sometimes feels as though I am taking credit for another colleague's homework, but at least I had the opportunity to write a few notes in the margin for this report.
I begin by thanking my Committee colleagues, past and present, for their contribution to this important work, particularly my two predecessors as Chair, Mervyn Storey and Michelle McIlveen.
It is the case that Education Committee members always enjoy visiting schools, listening to teachers and finding out at first hand what is happening at what used to be called the chalkface but, I suppose, is more an interactive white board nowadays. This inquiry was no exception.
At the start of the debate, I would like to take time to thank sincerely the schools that hosted our meetings and the teachers and principals who took time out to attend our evidence sessions. In particular, I thank the schoolchildren who participated in our focus groups and the other informal evidence events.
The Committee values and enjoys its interactions with representative groups. These are generally very useful and provide an invaluable perspective for the Committee’s deliberations. In respect of this inquiry, I would like to thank the very large number of organisations, totalling over 80, that responded and provided their views. It is also worth mentioning that the subject of the inquiry provoked some strong feelings and terse exchanges. We are used to terse exchanges across the Chamber, but, on this occasion, it was generally between stakeholders rather than between Committee members, and, more often than not, in the press as well.
The education of our children is an important subject, and it touches on issues of identity that can be sensitive for all communities in Northern Ireland. The Committee recognised this in its evidence-taking and in its recommendations and report, and, hopefully, the rest of the House will be cognisant of this in today’s debate.
I want to deal first with shared education, but the question is this: where to begin? There are a very large number of programmes and initiatives with shared education in the title, and there are lots of sharing activities across our schools, some of which appear to date back for decades. What is missing from this picture, which is dealt with in the report, is, of course, a definition of shared education. The Committee agreed that policy clarity is always a good idea and that for this policy area it was of particular importance.
Members were impressed by the experience of the centre for shared education at Queen's University and its argument that the focus should be on educational improvement for the pupils of the participating schools. The Committee felt that important though societal or reconciliation objectives are — everyone would agree that they are very important — shared education should be primarily about improving attainment and the life chances of all our children. That said, the Committee also felt that shared education should, of course, promote attitudinal improvement and meaningful contact involving children and young people from different section 75 groups. Here, Members noted recent reviews that showed the very positive impact of the community relations, equality and diversity (CRED) policy on attitudes among children and young people.
The Committee has been asked on a number of occasions to support statutory obligations in respect of shared education. We have always demurred a little in the past, but, as a Committee, we are generally happy to do so now on the basis of the clear definitions that we have set out in the report. The Committee agreed with the Department about the importance of strong connections between schools and their communities. Members noted what might be termed a certain coyness from officials when witnesses raised concerns about cultural certainty or equality of identity. The Committee felt that addressing the concerns of communities was essential in order to support the involvement of all schools in meaningful, non-tokenistic shared education, particularly in the 25% or so of schools that are not directly involved in sharing at present.
The Committee visited Moy and heard from schools in Brookeborough that are engaged in sharing projects and are planning closer alignment between their schools. The Committee felt that, although there might be other more cost-effective solutions for these communities, the actions taken in both instances were very positive, would improve community relations and had been badly misrepresented by some stakeholders. The Committee felt that there should be more consistent support for innovative cooperation between schools in rural and other areas.
During the inquiry, there appeared to be some wrangling among stakeholders about which sector was the best, which was the most open and inclusive and which was the most inclined to respect a Christian ethos etc. The Committee was impressed by examples of an inclusive and welcoming ethos, by the respect for diversity and religious tolerance in a wide range of schools and by every teacher, principal and schoolchild whom we met. I felt that this was particularly evident in our special schools. Other members identified equally good measures in other sectors and phases, and I am sure that they will say that today and bring more detail to the debate on that front. The Committee hopes that the Department will do more to disseminate this good practice in all our schools. There is an interesting contrast between the tolerant attitudes, openness and obvious intelligence of our teachers and principals — and even of our schoolchildren — and some of the exchanges between some of the representative groups that gave evidence to the inquiry. I think that members drew from that an important conclusion about where barriers to greater cooperation in our school system may occur.
I would like to turn to the last few recommendations in the report, which deal with integrated education. As the House is aware, the Department has long-standing legal obligations in respect of integrated education. Notwithstanding that, uptake remains low. The reasons for that sparked an energetic debate among stakeholders. Quite a lot of sound, heat and newsprint was generated, but, as is sometimes the case, not a lot of light was shed on the subject.
Clearly, there is a demand for this form of education, but the extent of that demand and the reasons underpinning it are disputed by stakeholders. The extent to which the Department lives up to its legal obligations in this regard was also disputed. There is equal disagreement about how and whether integrated education might be facilitated and encouraged.
The sector itself challenged what it felt was the narrow definition of an integrated school, calling into question the validity of the measurement of the minority community representation in the school. In that regard, the Committee noted practices whereby a growing number of parents designate their children as neither Protestant nor Catholic. If true, that would seem to support at least a re-examination of the rules regarding the definition of an integrated school.
The House will not be surprised to learn that the Education Committee could not resolve all the issues relating to integrated education. Given that, members wisely agreed that more thought was needed and recommended a strategic departmental review, setting out the suggested terms of reference accordingly.
Members also noted with interest the level of what might be described as natural mixing in our schools. We can think of examples in different constituencies where children attend a school whose parents would not necessarily identify with that sector. There is in my constituency, for example, the situation of St Columbanus, where many Protestant children attend a Catholic maintained school, or Methodist College, where Catholic children attend a school with a Methodist ethos or interdenominational schools.
These are sometimes referred to as super-mixed schools, and there are relatively few examples of them in Northern Ireland. The Committee was surprised that the Department had not studied in detail the motivation behind that practice or how it might encourage more mixing.
During the inquiry, the Department produced a circular relating to jointly managed Church schools. Members initially struggled to appreciate the material differences between such a school and a controlled integrated school. The Committee agreed, however, that the Department should consider amending its home-to-school transport policy to ensure equality of access for children attending jointly managed Church schools as compared with the integrated sector.
This was a lengthy inquiry. The report includes three volumes of evidence. I understand that this will be the last occasion in the Assembly when we have a fully printed copy available to us as opposed to the more environmentally friendly email versions. If this is the swansong of the printed page in relation to inquiries, it is a substantive swansong, with three volumes of evidence.
I thank the Department for attending quite a few of the evidence sessions and, where we had queries, providing clarification on a large number of issues.
I think that the inquiry has helped the Committee –— and will, hopefully, help the House and Northern Ireland as a whole — to come to a greater appreciation of shared and integrated education and the positive, inclusive practices in many of our schools.
I believe that this report and the Minister's answers will help us all as we deal with potential legislation that is coming forward on this subject and other related policy issues. Therefore, as Chair I commend to the House the Committee's report on shared and integrated education.
In the few moments left to me, I want to make a few brief remarks as a DUP MLA. For any of us looking at the wide variety of sectors in education in Northern Ireland and the multiplicity of the schools estate, it is undoubtedly the case that if we were starting today with a completely blank page to design a system for our schools, we would not arrive at the system that we have today.
However, there is no point pretending that we have that blank page. We have constraints on what is there and, indeed, have to consider the desires of parents and the different pressures in the sectors.
However, rather than dealing with the negative, this is an opportunity for shared education to embrace the positive. We cannot change things overnight, but there are a number of positive developments that we need to embrace. First of all, with the creation of the Education Authority, the various sectors are, probably for the first time, all represented on a fair basis around the table at the same time. That gives an opportunity but also places a great responsibility on the Education Authority. Secondly, we need to see a strong commitment to shared education coming directly from the Department as well. With the legislation, there are indications that that is the case. As has been indicated, we have to celebrate the positive of the wide range of shared education opportunities such as integrated education, joint projects between the schools, sharing of various natures, jointly managed church schools potentially and the super-mixed schools. There is a wide range. It is my belief that, as we move forward with shared education, we need to embrace that flexibility. We need to ensure that we have a definition that can help ground this but one that also embraces the various alternatives rather than having a single focus on one particular aspect of that.
The legislation is likely to be quite framework in nature, but, as we move beyond that, the key point will be the implementation of that. Above all, as has been identified in the report, we need to look at where we can incentivise shared education and where we can try to remove the barriers to shared education, but we also need to see commitment from schools themselves. To that extent, the Committee's recommendation is that it should be done on a full school basis. The focus on the contribution towards the curriculum and education is vital. It is crucial, particularly if financial support is available, that schools do not approach this in a tokenistic fashion and do not do something that simply ticks the box to ensure that they can qualify for shared education. We should see this as a real and meaningful experience that enriches the lives of all our children. To that end, there are clearly two aspects of this in the community relations and societal benefits that I think everyone would accept, but we also need to embrace the educational opportunities that arise with shared education. In particular, we have to look beyond the relationships between the two communities and embrace the various section 75 groups. For example, there should be a recognition of the wide number of pupils who now either come from outside Northern Ireland or whose families do not identify with either community, and we should try to establish help and support across some of the social divides there. I think that the contribution of shared education will also go across the socio-economic barrier. That is important as well.
Mr Deputy Speaker, time is running out. I believe that, if grasped, there is a great opportunity to make real progress and give real advantage to our society and to our children's education, and I believe that shared education can play a very large part in that. As Chair, I look forward to the rest of the debate.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I speak as a member of the Education Committee. As the Chair outlined, the Committee took a lot of evidence and had a lot of discussion on this very important issue. I want to acknowledge the role that the staff and, indeed, everybody played in this work. I think that in the region of 80 organisations gave evidence to the Committee, and I commend them for sharing their wealth of experience and views.
It is very apparent that there is widespread support for shared education and increasingly a discussion around the need for a definition of what shared education is. Quite often, the conversations at Committee were, "When does integrated start? Is integrated simply the continuum of a shared education process?"
I will start by commenting that there are many solid and robust examples of sharing and cooperation across our society, in many sectors across the North and, indeed, across the island.
The Committee also felt — the Chair referred to this point, and I want to re-emphasise it — that societal objectives are important and would need to extend beyond the reconciliation of both of the largest communities to incorporate fully all section 75 groups. In short, we cannot truly impact on positive outcomes from shared education if we fail to place issues like equality at the heart of the process. We cannot share or integrate in a meaningful way if we ignore the root causes of challenges in our society like poverty, deprivation and objective need.
I want to reference that, on Friday, I participated in the Derry and Strabane community planning process. That meeting specifically looked at education and skills. The very stark fact from that conversation was that 23·8% of over-16s from the city that I come from leave school with no qualifications. I will be an optimist and say that the report provides us not only with an opportunity but with an opportunity to look at shared and integrated education in a meaningful way, but that will have little impact if it is not targeted at the areas where need most exists.
The Committee recommends that there be a:
"statutory obligation to encourage, facilitate and promote Shared Education [which] should be extended to the Department and ... its ... Arms Length Bodies."
There are 11 recommendations in total, but I want to concentrate my remarks on two. The first is recommendation 6, which states:
"the Department should give consideration to a wide range of agreed, objective impact measures ... based on educational improvement ... and societal reconciliation [which] should be published regularly by the Department."
It is important that we have robust measures in place to assess outcomes. It is critical for shared or integrated education, or, indeed, both, that we can measure and demonstrate positive outcomes. I look forward to the Minister's thoughts or comments on how that can be taken forward.
Recommendation 9 suggests that the Department should:
"undertake a strategic review of ... Integrated Education".
It is only proper that we pre-plan and future plan for integrated education. I again look forward to the views of the Minister and the Department.
Much work has been done, to which the Chair referred. There has been a clear commitment from the Education Minister —
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: — about shared education. It is important that we monitor those implementation processes and develop the opportunities that exist.
Mr Rogers: I am glad to see the report coming to the House after a year's work. I thank the Committee staff for their work in bringing the report together. I am sure that it will provide a useful insight into the state of shared and integrated education in the North and will also be useful for the Shared Education Bill.
Education provides the building blocks of individuals' lives and the society that they live in. Parents should have a wide choice of schools, but one thing that all schools should have is a commitment to high-quality education. Most recently, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that improving educational attainment was a priority in her Programme for Government. We have similar ambitions here, but they have to be linked to a strong emphasis on shared education.
We have a rich and varied educational landscape. The focus of shared education should encompass early childhood services through primary and post-primary education, further education and special education. Education is the key way in which we can promote reconciliation in our society, and it is vital that shared education is done right.
Like other Members, I have experienced many examples where it works really well. One that comes to mind was a sharing languages project organised by Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle, where the Spanish teacher delivered a weekly language programme in the primary schools to children from different backgrounds. The project even got the backing of the First Minister when he attended prize-giving. Unfortunately, like many other excellent schemes, the project ended once the initial funding ran out.
On a similar note, perhaps the Minister, in his reply, will address the apparent linking of shared education funding to Key Stage 2/Key Stage 3 statutory assessment. I suppose that I am asking this question: why do schools that are part of the Delivering Social Change shared education programme have their letter of offer rescinded because there are issues with the Key Stage 2/Key Stage 3 assessment in their school?
Shared and integrated education should not be limited to Catholics and Protestants; it should include children of non-Christian religions and no religion and children of different socio-economic backgrounds and of different races. Giving children the opportunity to interact with children beyond their immediate community benefits them and promotes harmonious relationships between communities. Children who are exposed to a diverse range of backgrounds, traditions and cultures will see difference for what it is: natural and something to be celebrated.
I welcome the direction of the Shared Education Bill, but the Bill will not suffice on its own. Shared education has to be embedded in our curriculum. Schools must be encouraged and supported to adopt shared education. Two schools coming together for an annual hockey match or a football match is not really shared education. Shared education needs embedment. The language project that I mentioned is just one example. Shared education can itself be viewed as part of a solution to other challenges faced by schools. Take, for example, the shortage of STEM provision in primary schools. That could be addressed by a post-primary science department and three or four primary schools from both sides of the community coming together to plan and deliver the primary science programme. Such an innovative programme would be a win-win for STEM, for primary and post-primary links, for teachers' continuing professional development and, above all, for embedding shared education. That is just one example. We could do the same with literacy and numeracy and so on.
Rather than becoming an additional bureaucratic burden, shared education should be seen as a natural extension of relationships between schools. It is not a threat to an individual school or school sector but an opportunity to complement it. Many of the recommendations allude to the fact that shared education can become embedded in schools only through the development of strong curricular links and a strong focus —
Mr Lunn: I thank Mr Rogers for giving way. This is a report on shared and integrated education, and you have now mentioned shared education about 35 times. When are you going to get to integrated education, or do you not intend to comment?
Mr Rogers: It is just as well that I have that extra minute. Mr Lunn must have been counting the times that I used the word "shared". Did you notice that I talked about Shimna College, a really good integrated school in my constituency? Its improving languages project really brought schools together from different communities and, to me, embedding it in the curriculum is the way that we take this forward. It is not shared for shared sake, but something that is really embedded in the curriculum. The development of those strong curricular links is key, along with keeping a strong focus on school improvement, as other Members have mentioned.
Mr Somerville: I am pleased to speak on the debate on the Education Committee's inquiry into shared and integrated education. Like many others, I have been following the debate on the subject, which should be of interest to all MLAs and the wider public. Today in Northern Ireland, progress towards a shared future seems slow and far from assured. Official figures from the school census show that almost half of our school-age children attend schools where 95% of the pupils are from the same community or religious background. That is the background to the Committee's inquiry.
During the evidence-gathering session, one could not fail to notice a rather major difference of opinion between the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the integrated education lobby. In its submission to the inquiry, CCMS called on the Department to dispense with the statutory duty to encourage and facilitate integrated education, a stance that, interestingly, has since been adopted by the DUP. That dispute gets to the heart of the shared/integrated education issue.
"Shared education" is a phrase that has come into vogue since the Bain report of 2006, in parallel with the lexicon of a shared future. The Ulster Unionist Party has been very positive towards the idea of shared education, and we have applauded efforts to progress it through the shared education programme, the shared campuses programme and other initiatives. Nevertheless, this inquiry report suggests that hard questions still have to be faced up to and answered. The question is this: what do you mean by "shared education". If it is a flexible system whereby all education sectors go on a journey to a single state system of common schools in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party will wholeheartedly sign up for it. It would be in fulfillment of the vision of Lord Londonderry, the first Education Minister for Northern Ireland, 90 years ago, and the last Ulster Unionist Education Minister, Basil McIvor, in 1974. However, as has become clear, that vision, albeit long-term, is not what everyone has in mind.
As I said, during the inquiry it was clear that there was no consensus about the direction of travel for the education system in Northern Ireland. To see that, you need only review the Hansard report of the debates on teacher training before the summer recess. For some, shared education is not a staging post to a fully integrated system; it is an end in itself, a way to deliver the entitlement curriculum with some shared classes while preserving separate parallel systems for controlled, maintained, integrated and other schools. Quite frankly, that looks to me like a thin Elastoplast over a deeply segregated school system.
There is some useful commentary in the evidence-gathering part of the report, and all 11 recommendations are fine as far as they go, but it is an inconvenient truth that there is no consensus across the political spectrum. Unless we as an Assembly come to an agreement on what precisely we mean by "shared" and what we mean by "integrated" education, we run the risk that an enormous amount of scarce public money will be poured into a vague concept called "shared education" that might not make a difference in the longer run. There is a danger that shared education may turn out to be a continuation of "shared-out education", with limited interaction between firmly separated school sectors.
The so-called Stormont House Agreement announced a £500 million capital investment in shared and integrated education. In the current climate of non-implementation of Stormont House, where will the money to support shared education come from? Option 4 in the business plan for shared education would cost £44 million annually, which, after four years, will apparently be absorbed into the mainstream school budget. Is this realistic or sustainable?
To sum up, while I welcome the Committee report, its worth is found in the evidence-gathering sessions rather than in the recommendations.
Mr Lunn: When I suggested this review, I did not expect it to go on quite so long or that it would gobble up the time of three Chairpersons. Everyone on the Committee contributed very well to the report, even those who clearly do not agree with me on certain issues. We have always managed to conduct our deliberations in a thoughtful and constructive way, and I thank the present Chair for continuing that approach.
What are the conclusions of the report? The report leans heavily in the direction of shared education. This is the current buzzword. To a lot of people, it seems to be the way forward and the answer to most of our problems in the education system.
One or two people mentioned curriculum delivery. I have no argument there; that is fine. Schools have been sharing with the intention of delivering the curriculum and making it easier to run small classes since long before this initiative ever saw the light of day. I fancy that this initiative — that is what I see it as — might be relatively long-term, but where will we be at the end of it, when the money runs out? There are massive amounts available for shared education programmes at the moment, although some of us think that even they have been set up in a most peculiar way in terms of who is eligible and who is not.
I cannot help but think that, five or 10 years down the line, we will not be any further on. In his evidence, Sir Bob Salisbury indicated that he would like to see a proper measurement, particularly of curriculum delivery, but also of societal benefit of these programmes at various stages. I think that would be interesting, because there is not much evidence, if any, that there is a measurable societal benefit from the shared education programmes that have been running so far. But time will tell.
The whole thing has been quite heavily slanted towards shared education; maybe that was inevitable. I wonder what it is about the integrated model and sector that seems to terrify people and make them think that this is not the way to go. I think that it was Maeve McLaughlin who said that integrated education is seen by some as the end point or ambition of shared education programmes. If that were the case, I would welcome it, but I do not see it. I do not see why, in the right circumstances, we should not bypass the shared programme and go straight for an integrated solution if that is the best way forward.
Inevitably, I have to mention the situation in the Moy, where two small schools were convinced of the need to come together. But what have we done? The Department's plan is to build a new school to encompass two schools. We will have two schools under one roof, with separate uniforms and separate assemblies just to make sure that they do not, what, contaminate each other? It is an absolutely unreal situation and only in Northern Ireland could we have come up with such a solution. I hope it is not too late and that it might be reconsidered. It just defies belief; it is emphasising separation.
What is it about integration that scares people? Two learned professors came to the Committee, Professor Knox and Professor Borooah, and indicated that they thought the results coming out of integrated schools were not as good as equivalent schools in other sectors. Complete nonsense. No harm to the two professors, but it is absolute nonsense. There is a variation in attainment levels, but there is a variation in attainment levels across all our sectors. There is nothing unusual about the integrated model.
The Chairman mentioned the designation of religious background. There is definitely something to be looked at there, because the reason why people do not designate a religious background is because, frankly, in this day and age, so many of them do not have one. That is the problem.
Mr Lunn: Mr Deputy Speaker, this is a two-hour debate, and I really wish that I had 20 minutes instead of five, but I can see what the clock is doing, so, unless somebody intervenes quickly —
Mr B McCrea: I would just like to give the Member an extra minute.
Mr Lunn: I do not often thank Mr McCrea.
I believe that the Minister has tacitly agreed — perhaps he can confirm it today — that he is prepared to undertake a strategic review of the integrated model and sector. That would be very welcome and is very much overdue, because there are questions to ask about how the integrated sector has been facilitated and encouraged. We cannot use the word "promoted" because the Assembly turned that down, but they applied it to shared education. I think that a proper review of his Department's actions and attitudes down the years, long before he came along, and of whether it has tried to stifle or encourage the integrated sector, might come up with some interesting answers.
Mr Newton: I welcome the report and pay tribute to Peter McCallion and his dedicated staff, who carried out their duties not only in a very professional way but in a pleasant manner, which made it extremely easy to work with them. I also welcome the new addition to his staff, Paul Stitt.
I say to Mr Somerville that the work of the Committee was carried out in a very professional manner. The interests of education, the schools, the pupils, the parents and the teaching staff were at the heart of the deliberations of the Committee at all stages. That is evidenced by the fact that we had such a major response to the evidence sessions: there were over 100 written submissions; there was a keenness to give evidence during informal sessions; and there were 24 formal evidence sessions, five school visits and a number of research papers commissioned by the Committee. That indicates the importance of this subject to the future well-being of education in Northern Ireland.
Like other parts of the world, education can be an extremely emotive area. It raises concerns; the bringing together of children for education has to be treated in a sensitive and thoughtful manner. Much effort has been put into the subject matter. It is difficult to say whether there is a subject that demands more time of the Assembly than education and the future of our children. It is so because it is the future of the children, the economy and the well-being of this whole society. As such, it should demand our time.
Mr Lunn has a passion for integrated education. That is fine, but his passion is not shared by the vast majority of parents in Northern Ireland.
Mr Lunn: I refer him to the various polls and tests of attitude that have taken place down the years from time immemorial, particularly in the 'Belfast Telegraph'. The figures are well known.
Mr Newton: I understand what he is saying, but the evidence of pupils enrolling and parents approaching and wanting to be in the schools has not stretched beyond 7%. That is the real evidence.
There are very good examples of where there is a desire to see a sharing of education. They have been referred to; I will mention only three. Two schools in Ballycastle saw it in the best interests of the pupils, the parents and the educational system to come together and work together, sharing education. The Moy was referred to. Trevor was speaking in not the glowing terms that I would have spoken about the two schools in the Moy that recognised the difficulties and addressed them as best they could, despite very intensive lobbying from one sector in particular against them taking the two schools onto one site. Methodist College is a school that I hold dear. It has, for generations, without being coaxed or cajoled or having any other form of encouragement, stood up and integrated the children together; it has shared the education. It has taken steps to make sure that children who may not come from such a privileged background as some others are able to take advantage of that. Shared education, this report and its recommendations will take us forward.
I will dwell on only one aspect. All of the 11 recommendations are important. Recommendation 5 is drafted in such a way so as to encourage educationalists and the Minister to address the teachers' concerns, the parents' concerns, the concerns of the children and, above all, perhaps, the concerns of the communities in which the schools are situated.
If we do not take the communities along with us, we will have done the report a disservice.
Mr Agnew: The reality, which this report seeks to hide, is that shared education is a meaningless concept. It has no definition yet and very little to recommend it. If we were being honest, we would admit that it is nothing but a repackaged and marketed reform of our segregated system.
A problem with falling enrolment numbers and classrooms with empty desks was identified, and there were two possible solutions. One was to take two schools in the one area that were both undersubscribed and make one school. In many areas, that would have meant one integrated school. Instead, we chose to propose, and this has been promoted in the Programme for Government and by many of the parties in the Assembly, taking the two schools and housing them in one building or on one campus, thereby saving money in capital costs but maintaining our failing system of segregation.
We hear the word "shared" being used, and it is a clever tool. Any PR firm would congratulate the Executive on using it, because it sounds like "integrated" and sounds as though we are tackling the historical divisions in Northern Ireland society. Shared education can equally mean two Catholic schools sharing a single building. What societal benefit does that have other than to save the two schools money? It saves on capital costs and running costs, but it does not achieve the societal objective of educating our children together.
Integrated education is about more than just Protestant and Catholic children coming up together. It is about children of all faiths being educated in one school and teaching them that, although they may have different religions and cultural backgrounds, those differences are not a barrier and that, in education, there is no difference between them. It is not, as some presume, a secular system, although I would challenge that and say that perhaps it should be. At the heart of integrated schools is much of the religious ethos that runs through other schools.
Integrated education is all-ability, which is often missed when people talk about the performance of integrated schools. Integrated schools take pupils of all abilities —
Mr Weir: Although I agree that it is the case that the bulk of integrated schools are probably all-ability, there are some integrated schools that are taking a streamed approach and reserving a certain number of places on the basis of academic selection. There is a concern from some of the schools in the integrated sector that, as all-ability schools, they are being measured against some schools that are ring-fencing a percentage of their pupils on the basis of ability. Therefore, it is not the case that all integrated schools are all-ability.
Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for his intervention. The point is that the integrated sector has to operate in a system in which there is selection, and different schools have made different decisions on how they approach that. The point is that the children go to the same school: there may be streams in those schools, but we do not set up different schools with different headmasters and different assemblies to deal with children from different religious backgrounds or with different academic abilities.
Integrated schools take pupils from all socio-economic backgrounds and incorporate the full breadth of society in one building and under one head teacher and ethos. I go back to the point that Mr Newton made that parents are ultimately not choosing integrated education. To say that parents in Northern Ireland do not choose integrated education is like saying that people in Northern Ireland do not choose sunshine: it is not a choice for many parents. There are now 64, I think, integrated schools of 1,200. Not every parent who sends their child to school has the option of sending their child to an integrated school, and, indeed, many of our integrated schools are oversubscribed, so even parents who are choosing integrated education where there appears to be a choice are being denied that choice. Until every parent has that option equal to each other ethos of education available, that claim cannot be made. As Mr Lunn pointed out, poll after poll has shown that parents want integrated education, and it is the politicians who are putting the barriers in place. We have to remove those barriers. Today, NICIE has called for an independent review of our education system, and I think that we need to consider that because there are political reasons that are putting barriers up to the progress of integrated education in Northern Ireland.
Mr B McCrea: I had a chance to look at the report only today, and, interestingly, not much has changed since I was last on the Education Committee. I start off with the premise that says that the future of our part of the world depends on the absolute integration of our children. If you were to ask where you want to be in 20 or 30 years' time, you would say that you want everybody to share some form of common identity. It would not be exclusive to any other identity that they might have, but we must find some way of working and living together. I start off with that premise, and I say that I am for integrated education.
I then look at some of the practical issues, which I think that we do have to address. Maeve McLaughlin was talking about areas in her part of the world. How do you deal with integrated education where you have deeply polarised communities and societies? What are you going to do? Will you bus people from one side of the city to another? I am not for bussing. Where there is a natural integration of a population, I am for saying that they should go to a common school.
One of the things that I find quite strange coming from the Department and the Minister is how, for people who are so adamant about having no selective education, they cannot turn around and say that they want integrated education. Surely, the premise should be that, if you live in a particular area, you go to a local school and that all schools should be equal and should all deliver the same level of attainment. Is that not the goal? You can argue that, and there was a bit of a discussion coming up before about whether you are for selective education or not. That is a different issue, but the principle is that, where you have common populations living together, they should go to school together. I am instructed in this by some experience in Magherafelt, and I look at the really good work that Rainey Endowed, St Mary's and other schools do in the area about how they work together. It is my opinion that —
Mr Dallat: I thank Mr McCrea for giving way, and I am glad that he made some reference to Magherafelt. Of course, there are many examples across Northern Ireland where schools work together. Will he find it important to put on record that the controlled and integrated schools in this country were not responsible for bringing this country to its knees? Indeed, on every occasion, they provided an oasis of peace for those children who found themselves beleaguered by the violence outside. Will he agree that very little effort has been made to pay tribute to the teachers, boards of governors and pupils of those schools who performed a heroic duty during the darkest days of the Troubles?
Mr B McCrea: I am grateful to the Member for his contribution. In fact, I also want to say that I was quite taken by the contribution of his colleague Mr Rogers. I thought that that was quite well argued and thought out. This is where I have a bit of a dilemma. Can you move directly to integrated education, as Mr Lunn was advocating, given that, in certain areas, you have deeply polarised communities? This is a challenge for us. I think that Mr Somerville mentioned that 50% of our pupils go to schools that are made up from 95% of one side or the other. There is a certain issue there that we have to address, but I have to say that I feel strongly that the motion of travel should be some discrete form of integration.
It is something that we should actively do. I think that the real problem in all of this is that education is a political battlefield. The reason education is different from employment and learning — I moved to the different Committee — is that it is accepted in further and higher education that people mix. We do not have a Catholic university and a Protestant university. We have a university — or maybe I should say "an". No; is it "a" university? I will just make sure that, in an education debate, I get it right. The issue is whether we can find a way forward.
Mr Agnew: I will be very quick. The Member made the point that we have integrated further and higher education. Does that not challenge his point that our society is so polarised that integration cannot happen?
Mr B McCrea: I do not think that it does challenge the point, because, if you look at a primary school, you can see that the geographical catchment area is much smaller than it is for a secondary school, and for a secondary school it is smaller than it is for a university. The point is that we are leaving it too late if the first time that you get to meet people from the opposite tradition is at third-level education. Where you have a population that would like to do integrated education, I think that it should not be prevented. What I see is that there are areas where integrated education is capped. I do not think that that is right. I think that the numbers should be released. I understand that the Minister will have difficulties in trying to manage his estate. Populations move, and, therefore, there must be some constraints in that, but, really, look at where we are going to be in 20 to 30 years' time. Are we still going to be in segregated education? Are we still going to have us and them? If we are, I think that we will not make much in the way of political progress.
Mr McCallister: I would like to welcome the Committee's report. It is always useful to have reference to an amendment that I pushed for when the Education Authority Bill was going through. That was the reason. I believe that shared education can be that vehicle, although I accept others' arguments about integrated education. The fact is that we are still at only around 6% or 7%, despite poll after poll showing that there is a need. We have to look at where our education system is now. Why are so many parents opting for a faith-ethos education? You have Mr McCrea's point that in some of our towns and cities it would actually be very difficult to have a fully integrated system. That is the case in places at the edge of my own constituency in Newry city. You would have difficulty doing that, as you might have in delivering a fully integrated model in parts of Lisburn, Newtownards or Bangor.
How do we get from where we are today to where we would like to be? I see shared education as the vehicle to do that. I see it as the vehicle because it gives parental choice. It protects faith-ethos education, which I want to see protected. It gives you the choice of having, at times, much more organic integration. Some of the figures — I accept that it is a survey from a couple of years ago — show that, in Down High, an estimated 60% of the pupils were from a Protestant background, 24% were from a Catholic background and 16% were from either other or none. Belfast Royal Academy (BRA) was 56% Protestant, 25% Catholic and 18% other or none. You have actually built into some of those schools — Mr Newton cited Methodist College — a very organic level of integration that works. How do we use those models? How do we hold the excellence that we have in schools? How do we extend that ethos base?
Mr Weir: I agree with the Member in relation to that. In some of those cases that has been simply organic. It has also sometimes been helped along the way in organic qualities. It comes back to the Education Committee looking at one of the options on the table in terms of some of the super-mix schools and how those schools have arrived at the position they have arrived at. On some occasions, it has also been because of particular, deliberate decisions.
Mention was made of a number in the maintained sector. St Columbanus' College is a Catholic maintained school; however, a majority of its pupils come from the Catholic community and a minority come from what has been identified as the Protestant community, but it has very deliberately taken action to try to ensure that it has that mix. For example — and, to be fair, I think that the Department accommodated this — when there were caps on numbers, the impact would have been to skew the figures against that sort of mixing, and I think that it successfully argued in relation to that. So, it is about being organic but trying to drill down into why those schools have reached that and what lessons can be learned from the wider education community.
Mr McCallister: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to Mr Weir for his brief intervention. I agree with the premise that we need to look at it. The report usefully talked about the evidence that was collated from that super-mix model, as it has been referred to. It will be important for the Minister to respond today on where his Bill is on shared education. Is he hoping to get it through in this mandate? He is rapidly running out of time to give it the type of scrutiny that I think it will require. The definition that he will put in will be very important.
On Mr Weir's point about how you use that super-mix model and what has worked well in those schools and what has not worked so well, we also need to extend that not just to schools but to boards of governors to look at shared ethos. I welcome the Minister's statement from a number of months ago about joint-faith schools. I think that is important. To almost tackle the elephant in the room, the biggest challenges in sectoral terms is probably to the maintained sector. Those who want to maintain a faith-ethos education have to get on board with shared education. Mr Agnew went over it very briefly and talked about moving to some sort of secular system, and I know that some people might favour that, but the challenge is for those who, like me, want to maintain a faith-based ethos in our education system. That challenge comes to the CCMS as well as to the transferors to ask how do we build on the best that is in our education system, share it, use it and make sure that we can have joint-ethos schools, joint-faith schools, with boards of governors and teachers right across the board? How do we share and maximise the benefits of shared education?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The debate will continue after the lunchtime suspension, when the next speaker will be the Minister of Education.
The debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 1.03 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Mr Speaker: Order. As I announced yesterday, the Minister for Regional Development resigned his position at midnight on Wednesday 2 September. As the position remains vacant, in accordance with Assembly convention, questions listed for oral answer will fall. I also advise Members that, until another Minister is appointed, questions for written answer will not be accepted. Unanswered questions submitted before the Minister’s resignation will be answered when the vacancy has been filled.
Questions to Social Development will commence at 2.45 pm, and allowing us to continue the debate in the meantime requires the suspension of Standing Orders.
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 8 September 2015.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 8 September 2015. — [Mr Ramsey.]
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Education on its inquiry into shared and integrated education [NIA 194/11-16]; and calls on the Minister of Education to implement the recommendations contained in the report. — [Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]
Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh thuarascáil an Choiste Oideachais ar an oideachas chomhroinnte agus imeasctha. Is léir go bhfuil tacaíocht fhorleathan pholaitíochta agus phobail ann do chóras oideachais níos cuimsithí. I welcome the Education Committee's report on shared and integrated education. It is clear that there is now widespread political and community support for a more inclusive education system. I also thank the Committee for the work that it has undertaken and the time that it has given not only to listen to many different perspectives but to visit schools and hear from pupils themselves.
Public and political attitudes have evolved. Society is changing rapidly, and we must respond to that change to best meet the needs of our children and young people. Today I want to articulate a coherent vision for a future where ever-increasing numbers of children and young people from different community backgrounds are educated together. Just as importantly, I would like to set out what we still need to agree on to achieve that vision.
Our education system mirrors the historical divisions in our society, yet there has been a long history of community relations work in schools. For over 30 years, integrated schools, controlled schools, maintained schools and many other categories of school have provided an alternative to education separated on largely religious lines. Within the past number of decades, the work of the integrated sector has complemented the work of the other sectors and, indeed, ensured that children have an opportunity for integrated education in many, many different parts of our society. Within the past decade, shared education has provided new opportunities for young people from different community backgrounds to learn together in a sustained and ongoing manner.
So where do we go from here? The vision for shared education is set out in the shared education report and a number of other reports. That is the main focus of the Committee's report. My vision is for vibrant, self-improving shared education communities, delivering educational benefits to learners, promoting good relations and encouraging the effective use of resources.
My Department's shared education policy, which I will publish in the near future, provides a coherent framework to achieve this vision. The policy builds on the research, consultation and recommendations of the ministerial advisory group. It will fund, develop and embed sharing throughout the system. I am delighted that the majority of the Committee's recommendations are mirrored in the policy and, indeed, are already being implemented through the shared education signature project, which will provide £25 million of funding over the next four years. There is a common focus on incentivising participation in shared education, bringing together young people from all section 75 groups, promoting an inclusive ethos in all our schools, providing training, disseminating good practice and measuring the impact of shared education.
Much has been done, and much progress has been made. The signature project has already received applications from over 300 schools. There is much to celebrate, and I pay tribute to those schools that have pioneered working together. There is much that we all agree on and many areas where the next steps are clear. However, having reflected on the Committee's report and from listening to today's debate, I know that there are areas where there is less agreement: first, on agreeing a definition of shared education and, secondly, on the inclusion of single schools in the shared education programme. Ar an gcéad dul síos, ag aontú sainmhíniú ar oideachas comhroinnte agus, sa dara cás, ar scoileanna aonair a chuimsiú sa chlár oideachais comhroinnte. I will turn to these for a moment as we must find agreement to achieve our vision of a more inclusive education system.
Evidence heard by the Education Committee confirms that, while there is widespread support for shared education, there is also a pressing need for a clear and common definition, which my Bill will provide. Whilst I have studied with interest the Committee's proposed definition, I note that it does not reference collaboration between providers. Consequently, it could encompass the majority of in-school activity in certain schools. I warmly welcome the Committee's emphasis on bringing together children and young people from all section 75 groups. That mirrors my detailed description of how shared education should work in practice. However, specifying in legislation a requirement for the participation of all section 75 groups would set very challenging demands on the mix of pupils that schools are required to achieve, a requirement that many rural partnerships simply could not achieve.
My Bill references the minimum requirements for shared education and education providers cooperating to bring together those of different religious belief, including reasonable numbers of Protestant and Roman Catholic young people, and those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not. This is a common-sense definition that allows flexibility to consider proposals on a case-by-case basis. It also reflects the essential nature of shared education projects to date.
I turn now to the Committee's recommendation that individual schools should be included in shared education programmes. Schools that achieve a balanced cross-community intake, whether formally integrated or not, are to be commended. They have important learning to share as we continue to embed an inclusive ethos throughout our education system. We need, however, to distinguish clearly between highly commendable cross-community engagement under one roof and the aim of shared education to facilitate school-to-school collaboration to achieve educational as well as reconciliation outcomes.
What are we funding single schools for? Shared education funding is targeted at the additional costs of sharing between schools — costs such as transporting pupils or substitute cover for joint planning. These simply do not apply to a single school. We want to encourage integrated and so-called super-mix schools to share their knowledge, experience and good practice with others. I find it difficult to understand what benefit the Committee sees in incentivising these schools to operate independently.
I ask Members to consider and reflect on these issues as we move forward.
Turning to integrated education, I reiterate my commitment to the proactive implementation of my Department's statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education. It is not a question of either/or as regards the promotion of shared education or integrated education. Both have key roles in contributing to the development of a more tolerant, diverse, pluralist and shared society here. In line with the Committee's recommendation, I have agreed to commission a review of the future planning and development of integrated education. It will examine how to support the effective growth and development of the integrated education sector into the 21st century and that review will be developing further in the weeks ahead.
To conclude, I am content to support the motion and, no doubt, given the debate, the majority of Members in the Chamber will do likewise. There is clearly much welcome agreement on the issues. By learning from international and local evidence and by helping schools to collaborate and share aspects of practice, we can give every child, from any background, the opportunity to make the most of their talents.
Mrs Overend: On behalf of the Committee, I would like to thank all those who contributed to the debate. I particularly thank the Minister for coming along and providing his response. The Committee did a lot of work and gathered a lot of evidence from a large number of contributors, and I would like to reiterate the Chairman's earlier words of appreciation to the witnesses and to the Department for its help in putting together the inquiry report. I would also like to add my thanks to the Committee Clerk and the officials of the Committee for their sterling work on this report. It is the Committee's hope that, even if the Department disagrees with some or all of the recommendations in the report, it will nonetheless study its content and find some of the information useful and enlightening.
Before highlighting the key themes in the debate, I would like to briefly remind the House about why the Committee undertook this piece of work. As the Chairperson said earlier, the way in which we educate our children in this jurisdiction rightly or wrongly in many ways defines our identity. If we seek to improve on that, it is critical that there is both clarity and clear objectives in respect of an important policy area like shared education.
At the start of this inquiry, there were a great many questions about how shared education would impact on the integrated sector. I believe that the inquiry, by endeavouring to define the former, and today’s debate have provided some answers and perhaps some surety in that regard.
I felt that there were a number of key things that Members raised during the debate. First, in respect of shared education itself, some Members — the Chairperson, Maeve McLaughlin, Robin Newton and others — mentioned the opportunity which the Department has, with the establishment of the Education Authority, to support a range of enhanced sharing activities which are curricular and whole-school and which should have a measurable impact, in reconciliation and education improvement. Those Members generally indicated that shared education should extend to all section 75 groups, not just to the two largest communities in Northern Ireland. However, while highlighting positive sharing examples involving schools from different sectors across Northern Ireland, some Members, including Seán Rogers, indicated concerns about the validity and appropriateness of some of those measures, including levels of progression. Other Members, including my colleague Neil Somerville, also referenced worries about how shared education was to be funded particularly if the support agreed in the Stormont House Agreement was not forthcoming.
The second theme in today's debate related to integrated education. Trevor Lunn and Steven Agnew set out a robust defence of integrated education, challenging the choices made in Moy, the assertions made in respect of the reported poor attainment of integrated schools, and the ability of shared education to actually tackle the real divisions in society. Mr Agnew highlighted the all-ability, all-socio-economic-background nature of integrated education and argued that parents faced a dearth of integrated provision. Those Members supported an independent review of integrated education. Members also commended natural mixing or organic integration. I think that there was general support in the Chamber, including from Basil McCrea and John McCallister, for further study of super-mixed schools, with a view to determining the factors which promote these kinds of choices.
I turn now to the contributions from the Education Minister. We look forward to the Minister bringing forward the shared education Bill and the Committee having the time to scrutinise and analyse its detail. The Minister talked about the vision for the shared education sector. He agreed with what the Committee said about it being about education and good relations and, at the same time, making use of resources that are available. He also referred to the recommendations that the Committee made in its report. He said that they were already happening within the signature projects, but I feel that more can be done, looking forward. That is the challenge that is set to the Education Minister. It is a difficult road to travel and, certainly, it might be challenging, but we must push ahead with that.
I will add a few points as an Ulster Unionist MLA and the Ulster Unionist education spokesperson. I joined the Education Committee shortly after the Committee began this inquiry. I certainly was forced to hit the ground running. Significant in my eyes is the fact that many of Northern Ireland's schools would not be so easily categorised if they did not already have a label. Many controlled schools are already integrated, some integrated schools are less about sharing but more about a particular ethos, and some in the Catholic maintained sector have students of other religions enrolled there. So I am pleased to note that there is already a good variety of sharing in schools across Northern Ireland, but we also realise that different schools share in different ways and that there are various levels of cooperation. The Ulster Unionist Party's view is that we need to encourage a process of integration whereby we support shared facilities and shared classes between schools. The goal is to have children from different community backgrounds being educated together in the same classroom as a matter of course.
We have always been supportive of the idea of shared education, but only if it is part of a road map to a more unified, less religiously segregated school system in Northern Ireland. It must be a process, not an end in itself. We do not and will not support a costly exercise in token inter-school contact, especially at a time when we learn that there is not enough money in the budget to carry out basic repairs in our schools across Northern Ireland.
In his opening remarks, the Chairman of the Committee made a coy reference to the row between CCMS and the integrated sector over the former's submission to the inquiry. That row, however, is not confined to some sort of intra-sectoral spat; it reflects the lack of consensus across the political class of where we need to go as a society. As my colleague Neil Somerville pointed out, there is a suspicion that a large element of the political class is going along with shared education as the way to copper-fasten shared-out education. The minimalist recommendations in the report reflect the reality that, at present, there is no consensus on this important issue, and that is a problem that must be faced up to. Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Education on its inquiry into shared and integrated education [NIA 194/11-16]; and calls on the Minister of Education to implement the recommendations contained in the report.
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 in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to instruct the chairperson of the Housing Executive to cease immediately the dismantling of Housing Executive structures until full political debate has been held on the future of housing.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I rise to propose the motion and to ask that the House unites in sending a message that any decision around the future structures of social housing delivery and the delivery of housing services be a political decision. The motion proposes that the Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to instruct the chairperson of the Housing Executive to cease immediately the dismantling of the Housing Executive structures until full political debate has taken place on the future of social housing.
We have seen the introduction of the social housing reform programme, which is a departmental strategy that is meant to develop debate around a number of themes, including a tenant participation strategy, a new regulatory framework, a social housing rent programme, principles for local government engagement and options for the future delivery of social housing. The vision put forward by the Department says:
"We want to create 'Housing structures that support the provision of social and affordable homes, in successful communities where people are proud to live.'"
There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, the Department has done some good work and has provided thought-provoking papers for discussion. I may not agree with everything that it has suggested, but that work will create a debate to widen people's understanding of where this is taking us.
The Department has been in front of the Social Development Committee to give briefings on numerous occasions, not least last week when it gave a briefing on the social housing reform programme. It says that the programme's aims are to create a sector that is tenant focused, provides quality homes, is sustainable, increases investment in social housing, is fit for the future and allows landlords to be creative and play a positive role in the services they provide. Most of the information is gathered in the form of putting that out for consultation. I have raised concerns in the past about how these consultations have been conducted. In fairness, the most recent consultation went some way to gather a wider opinion from citizens than had previously been the case. I have also been concerned that consultations are produced and advertised but, in the end, you get the usual suspects answering without getting the wider opinion that is essential to the final strategy.
Running through all these briefings and discussions and in questions that I have put to the Department has been that any decision on the future structures will be a political decision taken by Members of this House. I have been concerned that changes contained in the social housing reform programme are already being implemented by the chair of the Housing Executive. I have also been concerned that those changes will be that far along the road that the Housing Executive we know will no longer exist, thus removing any political input into the final structures. I believe that we need to get this right because we are dealing with the future housing of our citizens, including the most vulnerable in our society. Any changes will have to survive the pace of time over the next 30 or 40 years.
The present chair comes with a housing association agenda. In the past, he has made it quite clear that the Housing Executive was not fit for purpose. He has set about making changes that will change the Housing Executive beyond recognition. I understand that problems existed in the Housing Executive. I still try to work out where everything went wrong, and I have no doubt that much of it stemmed from the information provided for the Minister for Social Development on an overspend of £18 million to contractors. The Minister brought that to the House and made serious accusations about contractors carrying out work for the Housing Executive. Yet, a short time before that, PricewaterhouseCoopers carried out a review of the Housing Executive on the instruction of the former Minister Alex Attwood. Its report was completed on 24 June 2011. It is interesting to read what PricewaterhouseCoopers had to say about the Housing Executive.
In that report, it said:
"NIHE is one of the success stories from [the North's] recent history. Since its introduction nearly 40 years ago, it has delivered significant social benefits throughout [the North], with the quality of the housing stock having moved from one of the worst in Western Europe to what is now regarded as the best-quality stock. It is rightly regarded nationally and internationally as a leading authority on 'best practice' on both housing management and community building, with an unrivalled track record of cohesion and safety initiatives."
"Perhaps uniquely for such a large organisation that works across [the North], which has also had some direct input into some of the most disadvantaged and sensitive areas, the Housing Executive has also managed to maintain the confidence of all sides of the community."
PricewaterhouseCoopers went on to make a number of recommendations for consideration, which many believe would have formed part of the backdrop for a future strategy on housing across the North. So, where did it all go wrong? How did it become a barrel of rotten apples, as was said?
I have worked with the Housing Executive over the past 30 years on behalf of my community. Like many in the House, I have had huge arguments with it on a wide range of matters, but I have found it professional in its approach and dealings on matters of housing. It has built an understanding of its tenants and a service that is second to none, but that is changing. Change has already taken place that has huge implications for the Housing Executive's structures. The division of regional and landlord services that has taken place effectively makes them two separate organisations. Internal changes have also changed how the Housing Executive works on a daily basis, such as in the delivery of homelessness services. That is going through huge change, and the new working name is "housing solutions".
Last week, we had another briefing on the social reform programme. During that meeting, the Department's representatives re-emphasised that making any changes to structures is a political decision. However, there have been huge changes in the way that district offices are run. If you look at how maintenance is being delivered, you see huge changes there. The major changes that have been made to the senior structures in the Housing Executive have implications.
Homelessness provision, which is one of the most sensitive areas, has been removed from local offices into a more central operation. As I said earlier, its title has been changed. Local officers, who have built a lifetime's experience, will no longer have any connection with people who declare themselves homeless, many of whom have mental health problems and other difficulties.
I believe that people have laid out visions for the future of housing. There are problems that can be overcome. If we work together, we can bring that vision to fruition. However, that can only be done by political parties coming together; it cannot be done by an organisational structure that is changing.
I have had occasion, especially more recently, to speak to quite a number of people who have spent a lifetime working in the Housing Executive and who have told me that the Housing Executive is being hollowed out from within. This creates some serious difficulties. On the one hand, we are being told that it is a political decision, but on the other hand, those decisions are being removed from us. As an Assembly, we need to claw that back and put it on the record that we are not happy. We also need to ensure that we take control of the direction of social housing over the next 30 or 40 years.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise the House whether there is to be a ministerial response to this debate?
Mr Speaker: As you can see, the Order Paper, which was agreed by the Business Committee, reflects the fact that there will not be a ministerial response. That explanation was offered at the appropriate level and is reflected in the order of business today.
Mr Douglas: I will start off by outlining my view of the Housing Executive and my experience, like the Member before me, of working with the organisation for over 30 years. The Minister for Social Development, Mervyn Storey, spoke at a Housing Executive conference over the summer, and he was very well received. I spoke to some of the people who were there, who said that they were re-envisioned by his contribution and had a real sense again of what they were about. He encouraged them to keep on working in very difficult circumstances.
In 2008, in my constituency, the then Castlereagh Borough Council awarded the freedom of the borough to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I was one of those who encouraged the council to do that, because my experience of working with the Housing Executive in the Castlereagh area was excellent. It did a tremendous job. I am here to say that I am a huge supporter of the Housing Executive and understand many of the difficulties that it has gone through.
The protocol here is to welcome the Member's contribution today, but to be honest, I was involved with the Committee for Social Development and I stepped down for a while. I came here today and thought, "Is this déjà vu?" because I honestly do not know why this motion has been brought three years later. Three years ago, I think it was, when we debated this. We had consultations and talked to stakeholders. I thought that this was signed, sealed and delivered. Maybe I missed something in the intervening years. The Member talked about ceasing immediately and a need for full political debate. Am I wrong, but I think that we had that, to be quite honest?
I would be the first to say that we need reform. A few hours ago, I was on the Justice Committee where we talked about the reform of justice in Northern Ireland because the finances are not there and the prisons are struggling. I believe in reform that protects jobs and provides a reasonable service.
The Member stated that, at our Committee meeting last week, we had officials from the Department who talked about the issues that they faced, one of which was being highly dependent on the public purse. We are struggling at the moment with the public purse. What will it be like when David Cameron introduces the £12 billion of cuts right across the United Kingdom? Struggling at the moment? We ain't seen nothing yet, to be quite honest.
We all know that there are huge problems at the Housing Executive with a lack of maintenance in many areas. Part of the reason for that is a lack of finance. I heard officials talk about segregated housing on a number of occasions. The figures bandied about were something like 95% of social housing was Protestant or Catholic — totally segregated.
Those are some of the issues that we will have to deal with if we are dealing with the legacy of the problems of Northern Ireland.
I honestly think that this motion is three years out of date. Maybe the Member could address some of those issues.
Mr F McCann: This motion has been floating about for a considerable time. It was put on the agenda today because we have not effectively dealt with some of the major changes that are going on.
You rightly talk about some of the stuff that is going on in east Belfast, but, through it all, we have been told that any new structures that will be put in place will be a political decision. That has effectively been denied us because of the continuing changes that are going on. The separation of regional and landlord services is a classic example of that because they are now two separate organisations.
Mr Douglas: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Member for his intervention.
I am shocked to think that we are still talking about these issues two or three years later; I seriously thought that they had definitely been put to bed. If today's debate was about innovation, how we could do things better, improve maintenance, get better housing and deal with the homeless, I would be happy enough to get stuck in and have a debate about those issues.
I see people with homelessness difficulties in my constituency office weekly. I was talking to a colleague earlier, and that is a big issue. I am happy to deal with those issues, but this motion is out of date, and I, for one, will certainly be opposing it.
Mr Attwood: I want to recognise one point of unanimity in the Chamber on the basis of what Mr Douglas and my colleague from west Belfast said, and that is that, contrary to some voices in the DUP, there appears to be an acceptance not just of the significant role of the Housing Executive over the years but of its historic role in addressing housing need and disadvantage in all parts of Belfast and across Northern Ireland.
There are occasions, especially involving elements in the DUP, when you wonder — this is very true of the Minister for Social Development before Mr Storey — if the scale and achievement of the Housing Executive is fully recognised, so I welcome Mr Douglas's unambiguous comments in that regard and the reference to the awarding of the freedom of Castlereagh borough to the Housing Executive.
When I was Minister for Social Development — this was referred to in one of the previous contributions — it was time for a regular review of the Housing Executive, and, contrary to the advice of the officials, which is very often the measure of a Minister, I decided that there was a need for a fundamental review of the Housing Executive in order to recognise its enormous achievement and to recognise that, beyond its responsibility for 90,000 properties and its landlord function, it had developed a multitude of other functions and roles in housing policy, housing new build, community interventions and support of people, especially those in need. That is the report that was referred to and was concluded in June 2011. The problem — I think that this is behind the motion — was that that report was being used, it seems to me, by certain vested interests to beat up on the Housing Executive rather than to recognise that the Housing Executive achieved greatly and that, because of a lot of issues, some of which were public at the time, it was now time for a process of reform.
It seems to me that the suspicion that informs the content of the motion arises from the fact that, after the 2011 report, there were people who went about their business to damage the Housing Executive, including, in my view, at a ministerial level. The comments referred to in respect of Mr McCausland's statement to the House and his conduct around Red Sky and all the rest of it created a sense of worst fears rather than what was necessary, as was touched on by the proposer of the motion, which was a multilateral conversation to scope where the Housing Executive should go on the far side of the June 2011 report. What happened was that somebody began to behave unilaterally when it was necessary, not least because of the charged nature of housing in the past and at the time and not least because it required a multilateral and multiparty approach.
Mr Douglas might be right in saying that, because of the advice of the Office for National Statistics and the Department of Finance and Personnel in April 2011, there was, for budgetary and statistical purposes, a split in the Housing Executive between regional services and landlord services. That is true, but that is far different from the fears that inform the content of this motion, namely that there is a much more fundamental reform going on above the heads of the political authorities that are needed to conclude the matter.
I will listen to the debate before we decide whether to support the motion, although we understand the fears and anxieties that have formed it. What is required is a multilateral and multiparty approach. What is required is a political conversation, not an imposition by one party or one individual about the future of the Housing Executive. What is required is a full conversation with the unions and the staff, given the scale of their interest in the matter. What is required is that people do not crash on and bring housing back into a controversial political environment. If we can be judged by those standards, Mervyn Storey might do something that his predecessor singularly failed to do.
Mr Beggs: I, too, commence by paying tribute to the work of the Housing Executive over the past number of decades. It has brought about great improvements, and I have personally seen constructive work by local managers to improve communities in my constituency. That is not to say that there are no problems. Indeed, there have been many problems, particularly at the higher levels of management. Look at the failure to manage the maintenance contracts properly, including the Red Sky debacle, when quality work was not being carried out on Housing Executive stock and, indeed, payment was often over the odds. I have to say that I am bemused by the motion, which has the wording:
"to cease immediately the dismantling of Housing Executive structures".
In some ways, that sums up all that is wrong with Sinn Féin's attitude and all that is wrong with the partners in the Northern Ireland Executive and their Programme for Government, which is bringing about change.
All this change really started to get rolling with the 2011 PwC report, which highlighted the pressures on public housing. A debate started at that point, which was four years ago. It highlighted the need to refocus and adapt the current situation and to look at how the Housing Executive was organised. It also highlighted that there were insufficient funds to generate, renew and maintain Housing Executive properties over the next 30 years. There have been numerous consultations by the Department for Social Development, which has allowed a dialogue to happen.
One of the PwC recommendations was that there should be clear separation of the strategic and regulatory functions. The landlord function commenced in the restructuring from April 2014. I can see that there is a logic to that; there are clear lines of responsibility and accountability. There is now a quasi-public authority — an arm's-length body — acting as landlord.
What does Sinn Féin want to do? They want to hold everything. I wonder whether that is for four more years or for longer. The debate has been going on for four years. I would be very interested if they had come with concrete proposals in their motion, but the motion wants to hold everything to talk about it. They are not suggesting in detail what needs to be changed and how they will solve the problem. It is easier to put the handbrake on and just sit there. Let us be very straight about the situation: doing nothing creates problems; doing nothing does not solve the pressures; and doing nothing creates more problems. That has to be factored in by those who decide to do nothing.
Let us remember that the Assembly has brought about change affecting the Housing Executive. We have had the reorganisation of local government. The community planning role has now been transferred to local government, and I understand that, all being well, town centre regeneration and community development will transfer by 1 April 2016. Change is afoot. The Assembly is bringing about change, and the Housing Executive cannot sit with its previous set-up. Like every other public body, the Assembly has required that savings be made so that more money will be able to achieve more. More money should get to the coalface and should be spent on tenants, rather than on burdensome management systems. As with welfare reform, Sinn Féin wants to avoid any change and to avoid taking any decisions, even though this situation is not acceptable. We want money to be spent where it benefits tenants, not on bureaucratic structures.
There are other pressures. New social houses need to be built, and there is insufficient stock. Change has to be looked at to enable that to happen, and we need to be open to new models. I am not aware of any decisions on that, but there have to be discussions and decisions. It is disappointing that there is an insufficient number of new social housing houses being built under the Programme for Government.
That is not to say that everything is rosy and perfect, but we have opportunities to question the Minister, when he is with us. We have Question Time. We can pose questions to the Housing Executive management, and the board members of the Housing Executive can hold their chief executive —
Mr Beggs: —and officers to account.
I am concerned by the increasing numbers of level 8 and 9 staff. Level 8 staff numbers have increased from 36 to, I think, 66 over the last three years —
Mr Beggs: — with an average salary of almost £48,000. Clearly, we need to hold them to account, but to do nothing is not a proper approach.
Mr Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.45 pm — I see that the Minister has joined us — I suggest that the House takes it ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Stewart Dickson.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Minister has given notice to the Business Committee that he will be out of the country and not available for questions. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will, therefore, respond to questions on his behalf today.
Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): I advise the Member that, as at March 2014, housing associations had 3,901 bungalows in their stock.
The Department for Social Development has been carrying out analytical work to identify whether the current level of stock is sufficient to meet need. That has identified two issues. The first centres on the need to make better use of the wheelchair standard accommodation already available, and the second is to reduce the time taken to provide new wheelchair standard stock where it is needed.
Work to address both those issues is well advanced. An accessible housing register is being developed to identify the type and location of all current adapted and wheelchair accessible social housing. In addition, the Housing Executive is examining its allocation processes to ensure that best use is made of existing stock to meet need.
The Department for Social Development and the Housing Executive are reviewing the specification, standards and processes for new wheelchair standard accommodation for new homes. Work is well advanced on that, and a business case for changes to the approach is being prepared.
Mr Ramsey: I thank the Minister for his very detailed response. Clearly, the subject is getting some traction in the Department. Given the concerns, particularly in new build, from disabled people, older people and groups representing them, I think that it is time that the Department took affirmative action. Of the most recent scheme in my constituency, almost 130 houses are not yet completed, and we have just one bungalow. That does not meet the needs of the community and the constituency that I represent. In the absence of Mervyn Storey, can I ask for a meeting with those representing disabled and older people to discuss the subject matter?
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his question. I suppose that I can commit the Minister to all sorts of things in his absence. It is his own fault for not being here. I am sure that the Minister would be very interested in taking forward that invitation. Like me, he probably has a very open-door policy to those things and would be prepared to listen to anybody who brings any representations to him.
You are right in that you have identified that there is at least some work going on in the Department on this issue. While I am not responsible for the Department, I understand some of the concerns that the Member expressed. Indeed, I am sure that other Members around the Chamber would express such concerns from their own experience in their constituencies. It has been identified not so much that there is not sufficient capacity but that part of the problem is that we do not know where the capacity is. That is why, a couple of years ago, the working group recommended putting an accessible housing register in place as being a good way to identify where the specifically purpose-built bungalows might be and also the accommodation that has been adapted.
Part of the problem — I have experienced this through constituency work — is that homes that have been adapted for disabled needs are allocated to people who perhaps do not have disability needs. While that is a good house for that person, it is not an appropriate house, perhaps, and is not the best use of the investment that has been made out of the public purse in previous years. Having that register in place will assist the Housing Executive and the Department to know where appropriate stock is, which will hopefully allow it to better allocate people into appropriate housing in the future.
There is also an awareness of the slowness of the process in bringing forward accommodation to meet specific needs in communities. It is something that is very much under review by the Department and that the Department is taking very seriously.
Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Could he outline how new social housing is being built to meet the needs of wheelchair users?
Mr Hamilton: Accommodation is being built to meet the needs of wheelchair users in a couple of different ways. The Member will be aware, I am sure, from his own constituency that all new-build social housing is now built to lifetime homes standards, which involves trying to remove the barriers to accessibility that are often present in dwellings. The aim is to have a more flexible design to enable the housing to wrap around the needs of the person over time, including better access to the house and approaches to the property and better circulation and accessibility within the house.
In my response to Mr Ramsey, I touched on cases where an applicant requires a very particular wheelchair accessible home for medical reasons and where their existing home cannot be adapted or a suitable alternative housing solution through existing accommodation does not exist. In those circumstances, a bespoke home is commissioned specifically for that individual or family. Unfortunately, that can lead to a delay of sometimes months or even years in getting that person suitable permanent accommodation. I am sure that the Member and the whole House will agree that this is not a satisfactory way of doing business and is not something we want to see continue. The Department is working with the Housing Executive and others to develop improved processes to meet that need in a more speedy fashion so that people can get the permanent accommodation that they need.
Mr Hamilton: I have been advised by the Housing Executive that, as of June 2015, there were 1,330 applications on the waiting list in the West Tyrone parliamentary constituency, which, of course, includes the former Strabane and Omagh districts. Of these, 498 applicants are deemed to be in housing stress. The 2014 to 2019 housing need assessment indicated that there is no requirement for the provision of new general-need social housing in the Omagh area. However, Apex Housing has plans to develop an 8-unit, new-build scheme in Woodside Avenue for young people leaving care, which is planned to start in late 2016. There are also two social housing schemes currently on site in the Omagh area, a 16-unit Apex housing reimprovement scheme for clients with learning disabilities at Railway Court, scheduled for completion in February next year, and a single unit suitable for a physically disabled person is being delivered by Habinteg on former Housing Executive land at Lammy Crescent, which is due for completion in March of next year.
Mr McElduff: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the ageing population and the higher numbers with mobility problems, there is a greater need for single-storey dwellings from either the Housing Executive or the housing associations. Can the Minister intervene with his colleague to ensure, particularly in the Omagh area, the greater availability of single-storey dwellings, specifically for people with mobility problems and for our ageing population?
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his question. First, I know that it does not matter whether it is social development, health or finance questions — the Member will always find a way to ask a specific question about the about the Omagh area.
My answer follows on somewhat from Mr Ramsey's question about single-storey accommodation. We are always looking to find homes for people in suitable accommodation, whether to meet their disability needs or, as I said in my response to Mr Douglas, to meet lifetime homes standards, so that the house can be adapted as their needs unfold over a lifetime. The Member is right and has hit on the challenge facing us, which is an ageing population. It is very good news that we are all living longer and, generally, healthier and happier lives.
However, there are many who live longer with one or sometimes more than one chronic condition. I know that well from my current ministerial responsibilities. That impacts on a range of public services, not just health; it clearly impacts on housing as well.
Given that an increasing percentage of the population is single, which the Minister, the Housing Executive and the Department are aware of, investments need to be made over time to adapt the accommodation that we provide through the social sector to ensure that it meets all housing needs. That means family needs and couples, but also singles as well. That is a huge challenge given the profile of the housing stock, but it is a challenge that we are aware of and that we are all trying to address.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Will he state whether people in private rented accommodation are included in the assessment of social housing need? Many families in private rented accommodation have no security of tenure, which is a constant worry and problem for them. They often have to face increased rates without due consideration of their circumstances.
Mr Hamilton: I do not know how many of the people in Omagh or the wider west Tyrone area who are on the waiting lists, particularly those who are in housing stress, are in private rented accommodation. I am not even sure that the Department would be able to provide those figures. If they are accessible, I am sure that the Department will provide them to you.
I accept the point absolutely: the housing waiting list will include people who are in private rented accommodation; it will also include owner-occupiers. A range of tenancy types is contained in those numbers. I am sure that the Minister accepts that it does not matter whether people are currently in social rented accommodation, in private rented accommodation or are owner-occupiers. There is housing need across all of those sectors, and that will be reflected in the numbers before us, whether they relate to Omagh, West Tyrone as a whole or Northern Ireland.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. How is land identified for the development of social housing so that social housing is supplied where it is most in need?
Mr Hamilton: The Member will know from work in his constituency that, although it may have eased in more recent times, it has been quite difficult for housing associations to identify appropriate land in their constituencies in the past number of years. During the property bubble times around five or six years ago, housing associations had great difficulty in that they were often outbid when they went for sites. That pushed them onto sites that were much smaller and more difficult to develop, where they were not able to build as many new-build properties as that area might have needed. As I understand it, that process has not particularly changed over that time.
The Housing Executive undertakes a needs assessment on an annual basis at a district level, which is what produced the figures that I read out to Mr McElduff in respect of the West Tyrone constituency. Once that work is done and the need is identified, housing associations are encouraged to find potential sites for development on land in that district. In that sense, the process has not changed. The housing association will then register that site on the Housing Executive's social housing development programme with a group within the Housing Executive. That then goes through a process of due diligence and, subject to funding from the public sector and the availability of funds to the housing association, that land will be developed in due course.
The process has not fundamentally changed. There have probably been some tweaks and changes down through the years, but it is still there. I hope that, given that the market has somewhat eased in more recent times — it is not as bad as it was — we will start to see more housing associations develop across Northern Ireland with the greater availability of land. Of course, the public sector is getting rid of some land as well — I have seen it in my constituency — and public sector land that is not required is being developed by housing associations, which is a good thing.
Mr Hamilton: Neither the Minister nor senior officials have had any discussions with other political parties on welfare reform since June 2015. In June, a meeting was held with Executive parties in the Hilton Hotel in Belfast to brief them on the progress of universal credit payment flexibilities, social sector size criteria, the supplementary payment scheme and the disability protection scheme. The meeting was to ensure that there was a full understanding amongst political parties of how the schemes were developing and to provide parties with an opportunity to engage further on all elements of the schemes. Following the meetings, the papers on the remaining schemes agreed at Stormont Castle were issued to all political parties to consider. Since then, there has been only one enquiry from one political party.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for the answer. I think that the last real engagement, as he said, was on 10 June in Belfast city centre, which was 13 weeks ago or, to put it another way, £27 million of penalties ago. As we prepare to go into further talks, will the Minister assure us that, this time, unlike Stormont House, there will be no twin track, that all five parties will be involved and that there will be no side deals or side discussions, such as at Belfast City Airport?
Mr Hamilton: I was going to say that we are looking forward to the talks process; that is probably the wrong way to describe it. We are imminently entering a talks process to resolve a range of issues. We are looking forward — I think that is the right term — to the Member coming forward with his cunning plan to resolve the issue of welfare reform. I thought that he believed that issue had been resolved at Stormont House. Of course, we are all mindful of the fact that welfare reform is a policy that he and his party supported in 2010. He ran on a manifesto to introduce the form of welfare reform that is happening in Great Britain right now.
The Member criticises the time that there has been since discussions with the Minister for Social Development. As I pointed out in my response, yes, there were discussions back in June. The Minister for Social Development provided papers to all the Executive parties — the parties that were Executive parties at the time — in June. I would have assumed that, once the Minister has presented parties with papers, the ball is very much in the court of the other parties to come back with any queries that there might be, any questions that they have or any suggestions that they might have for improvement. Since June — in those 13 weeks, as the Member helpfully points out — only one party has come back with any queries, suggestions, solutions or whatever it might be, and, funnily enough, it is not the Member's party. In those 13 weeks, there has not been a single enquiry or question. Nothing has come back from the Member's party, yet he seeks to criticise the Minister.
Mr Agnew: There has certainly been some commentary in the media that suggests that we are some way towards an agreement on welfare. Given the public interest and in the interests of transparency, can the Minister shed some light on what that agreement might look like?
Mr Hamilton: I think that we all listened with interest to what the Secretary of State said in her speech in, I think, Cambridge on Saturday evening. She has also made a statement in the House of Commons in the last few hours. She has indicated that, as a last resort, to paraphrase her, she is prepared for the Government to step in and legislate for welfare reform. We ought to welcome that, given the circumstances that we find ourselves in.
Some may huff and puff about what the Secretary of State has said. If we do not proceed with welfare reform quickly through a decision that we have taken — the Stormont Castle and Stormont House agreements will form the basis of that; we enter a talks process not to renegotiate the detail of that and certainly not to renegotiate the size of the financial package associated with welfare reform — and there is no agreement between the local parties, we face the very real prospect that, early in the next financial year, over 600,000 people in Northern Ireland who receive social security benefits and tax credits will not receive those because we will not have a functioning IT system in place. That does not take account of the impact that not proceeding has on the Executive's finances and the impact that it might have on jobs in the Social Security Agency here in Belfast and in the north-west.
I am glad that the Secretary of State has come forward and brought clarity to the whole process. We will enter into the talks and, if there are cunning plans or other ideas or thoughts that might come forward, that is fine, but there has been that very clear indication from the Secretary of State that the Government will legislate if no agreement can be reached between the parties, and I welcome that.
Mr Attwood: Could the Minister be less coy and at least confirm that the SDLP has gone back to the Minister for Social Development since the meetings in June and has sought to meet with him in relation to a number of matters?
Given the scale of the Chancellor's 8 July Budget and its proposals on working tax credit, given that there are 160,000 people in Northern Ireland on working tax credit, which brings an income of £1 billion into Northern Ireland every year, and given that those proposals are going to impact adversely upon many of his own constituents as well as constituents of every MLA, does he not accept that, in order to deal with the welfare issue, the issue of working tax credits and its adverse impact on Northern Ireland has to be part of the negotiations that are meant to commence at 5.00 pm?
Mr Hamilton: I am not sure whether I should seek to embarrass the Member and his party or not, but, according to the information that I have, the Member's party did not come back with any response. Nor did the Green Party. I am not sure whether there have been other lines of communication, but there certainly have not been any officially through the Minister and the Department.
On the issue of tax credits, nobody would demur from the Member's analysis of the impact that the changes that the Chancellor announced in July will have on society in Northern Ireland. The impact will be similar to the impact that there would be from the unadulterated version of welfare reform that there is in Great Britain instead of the version that has tweaks, changes and flexibilities adapted for Northern Ireland.
Mr Hamilton: The point that my friend and colleague makes from a sedentary position is a relevant one in this debate. The Secretary of State and the Government have made it clear that there is no more money. That puts it on this Executive, with the finite resources that we have, which are under considerable pressure, to find resources to ameliorate something that is not within our direct control, namely tax credits.
From the talks process before Christmas, I remember listening to the Member's party colleague Mark Durkan, the MP for Foyle, talk about seeking to deal with the problems that we were facing with this package of welfare reform whilst understanding that we could not do this forever and a day simply because the Executive could not afford to.
Those points are worth bearing in mind, but that does not take away from the analysis that the Member provided: the changes that the Chancellor put forward in his Budget in July will have a negative impact on people in Northern Ireland.
Mr Hamilton: The Housing Executive initiated an investigation into the Mill House hostel in Ballymena once concerns were brought to its attention by the Simon Community. An action plan to implement the recommendations from the investigation is being implemented by the Simon Community. The Housing Executive has not suspended funding. However, it continues to monitor improvements to the service, as agreed in the action plan. New intakes to the facility have been suspended.
The Department has, more recently, been made aware of further concerns at Mill House, including allegations that relate to criminal activity. Officials have passed those allegations to the PSNI. In addition, the Department has referred the concerns to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, which has a regulatory role over registered charities in Northern Ireland. The Department is liaising closely with the Charity Commission as a result.
Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. Concerns over Mill House were raised with me by some of the residents. There were quotes that the conditions inside it were Third World and that you would not keep a dog in it. That was where we were placing the most vulnerable in our society. It is right that the Department has called in the Charity Commission and is looking at the practices that were going on in Mill House.
Can the Minister give us some clarification on what will happen to the Simon Community? There is a planning application for a new hostel in Ballymena. What can he do to assuage the concerns of the residents of Ballymena?
Mr Hamilton: I am not aware of the application for a new facility, and I am sure that the Department will come back to the Member on that in due course. This is an issue that I became aware of through press coverage. As I alluded to in my substantive answer, there were two different and separate types of press coverage.
It is concerning, and that is why the Department responded as it did and called for an investigation. I think that the initial story that was run in the local press was about what the Member said about the conditions and the standard of accommodation. Whilst that was rebutted and refuted by the Simon Community, an action plan has been put in place, as I said. That aimed to address all the outstanding issues that were raised as a result of that initial inquiry and the investigation that followed from it. All those remedial actions, which I think will include the standard of accommodation, are to be dealt with and completed by 1 November. The Department will then further review that with the Housing Executive once all investigations have concluded to make sure that the action plan has been lived up to.
I agree, and I am sure that the Minister will similarly agree, that accommodation for vulnerable people and homeless people in our society should be of the highest possible standard and that people who are in need of such care should be looked after appropriately, whether it is by the statutory sector or, in this case, by a charity that is doing that work on our behalf.
Mr Allister: The Department says that it is aware of these disturbing allegations. What assurance is there that there will be no witch-hunt against people who probably qualify as whistle-blowers in respect of this establishment? There have certainly been some suggestions that they may not be receiving the protection that they should.
Mr Hamilton: If that is the case, it is the sort of thing that would concern me. I am sure that it would concern the Minister similarly if it is the case. If the Member has any information, I encourage him to pass it on to the Minister for Social Development. I can assure him that it will be appropriately dealt with. It does not matter whether it is accommodation of this nature or whatever else it may be or whether it is being operated by the Department for Social Development, my Department or whatever Department it might be. If there are people who think that the standard is not appropriate and that there is illegal or unlawful behaviour or criminality, it should be reported through the proper ways. I encourage anybody to do that, and, if the Member wishes to pass on any information that he has or which has been passed to him, I encourage him to do that.
Mr Campbell: Given the further serious allegations that the Minister alluded to, can the Minister outline what options are open to the Department post the November timeline that he has indicated, looking forward to 2016?
Mr Hamilton: The Member is right: these are incredibly serious allegations, and they are being properly investigated, just as the original allegations were investigated thoroughly and an action plan was put in place. Given that the investigation has been going on and that information has been passed to the police, it is an important and relevant point to say that it is too early for us to jump to any conclusion about possible outcomes.
Irrespective of what goes on and what is found in the investigation, the Housing Executive has a range of options that it can put in place if a provider of Supporting People accommodation such as this is in breach of its contractual obligations. That can range from amending the terms of a contract to suspending the services through a contract or even terminating a contract. Obviously, as you would expect, the Minister will take appropriate actions on the basis of the conclusions that are brought forward, notwithstanding the fact that there is a need for this type of accommodation in the Ballymena area, just as there is in other parts of Northern Ireland.
Mr Hamilton: Salaries of the staff in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive are in line with the terms and conditions of the National Joint Council salaries scheme used by local authorities.
Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for that scant detail. I understand that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has gone through its own voluntary early release scheme, releasing 149 staff over the last six months at a cost of over £5 million. Can the Minister explain why, with fewer social houses and significant powers due to be released to local government, the number of high-paid level-9 staff has increased from 23 to 28 over the past two years and numbers of level-8 staff have almost doubled over the past two years, both costing over £1,200,000? Is the Minister simply replacing lower-level staff with high-level management?
Mr Hamilton: I am aware of some queries. Actually, I think Mr Beggs mentioned level-8 staff in the previous debate, just as I arrived into the Chamber. The Member is right that there has been an increase from 36 to 66 level-8 staff — that is the information that I have — from 2013-15. The reasons given to me as to why that is the case are that, first, in 2014, the increase from 36-51 was principally around a restructuring of the landlord services section in the Housing Executive to a three-region structure, which was to better reflect the reform of public administration and the new council structures. In order to properly realign with the RPA, the stock and staffing size of the new area significantly increased, which led to the appointment of more level-8 area managers.
In 2014-15, the increases were principally related to restructuring within the Housing Executive's corporate services division, which included a move to a HR business partnering model, the establishment of a corporate strategy and planning office and a temporary transformation team, as well as a regrading exercise, which resulted from a request for job re-evaluation on the part of the Housing Executive's team of solicitors, so there are a range of reasons that the Minister would offer as to why the number of level 8s has gone up. Whether the Member is satisfied with that or not, she can take it up with the Minister. If she or her colleagues have not taken it forward in the debate, I am sure that she can take it up in writing with the Minister.
T1. Mrs Dobson asked the Minister whether he is aware of any inescapable pressures developing in the 2015-16 DSD budget, no doubt similar to pressures on his budget. (AQT 2791/11-16)
Mr Hamilton: We could talk for much longer than the two minutes that I have about the pressures in my own Department, as the Member will be well aware. I am not aware of any particular pressures that the Minister for Social Development is facing in his budget, but I am sure that, if his Department is anything like mine — although, having been Minister in two Departments, I am not sure if there are any other Departments quite like the Department of Health — he will be facing a range of pressures and will have to make very difficult judgement calls as to where to use the finite limited resources that he has at his disposal.
Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he provide an update on any indication the Department may have received from DFP — as you know, you have experience of that one — about the potential for in-year cuts to departmental budgets?
Mr Hamilton: Obviously, the Finance Minister, when she was bringing forward her Budget towards the end of the last session, pointed out the financial realities that we were facing at that stage as a result of not moving forward with welfare reform. Her concerns — as they were my concerns when I was Finance Minister, and they remain my concerns in my current position — were on the failure or inability of us to move forward with a voluntary exit scheme (VES). Obviously there has been good news in that respect in the last number of days, when the Secretary of State, following her speech at the British-Irish Association, has made it clear that she is willing to let that funding be released.
I think that the Finance Minister confirmed yesterday that the first tranche of people exiting the service will go ahead at the end of this month. That will relieve pressure in the Department for Social Development. I know that it was seeking to exit one of the biggest numbers of staff from the Civil Service. If those people could not leave at the end of September it would create severe strain on the DSD budget in-year, and I do not think that the Department would have been able to live within its budget in-year, much as many other Departments would not have been able to live within their budget in-year, because they were relying on those savings coming forward.
The ability to move forward on the VES, which I very much welcome, will not solve all of the budget problems that all of the Departments, including DSD, have, but it will offer them some relief. More importantly, it has given certainty to those staff who were waiting to exit and who had notice given to them. They will now be able to exit the Civil Service. I am sure that they will be greatly relieved that they have that confirmed and do not have to live in limbo any more.
T2. Mr Nesbitt asked the Minister, at the risk of being accused of being parochial, for his assessment of the effectiveness of the support given to the voluntary and community sector by the Department for Social Development in the Strangford constituency, which they both have the honour of serving. (AQT 2792/11-16)
Mr Hamilton: I would never accuse anybody who raises issues about the Strangford constituency of being parochial by any means.
Mr Hamilton: I am well used to Barry McElduff, as is everybody in the House, and parochial does not quite describe it.
The Department obviously has a role, remit and responsibility for the community and voluntary sector, which is, I suppose, underpinned by the concordat that has been in place for a great number of years. I think that the relationship between the community and voluntary sector and the Department or Executive as a whole will always be one of assistance and challenge. So, in that respect, I think that a healthy relationship has existed. I know from my current posting that there is a good, healthy relationship between my Department and the community and voluntary sector, and it is one where we are more than able to work together to resolve issues and problems as they arise, hopefully in a mutually beneficial way.
The Member and I know the Strangford area well. We are very fortunate to have in our constituency quite a large number of very good community organisations that are supported by a range of different networking organisations that provide good support and capacity and continued development and training in the constituency. I am sure that through his mailbag, emails and telephone, he is contacted by the same sort of people who I am contacted by. It is not perfect by any means, but, on the whole, from experience, I think that we have a very good relationship between the statutory sector and community and voluntary organisations in the Strangford constituency.
Mr Nesbitt: I am sure that the Minister is aware of the difficulties with 12-month funding, which lead too often to an annual hiatus in service delivery and staff retention. On that basis, will he join with me in welcoming and endorsing the recommendation in the newly published Heenan-Anderson commission that states that where community groups are delivering positive outcomes, they should receive a minimum of three-year funding agreements?
Mr Hamilton: This is one of those conundrums that I can see in my Department, and I am sure that the Department for Social Development will have the same issues. I recall it very clearly from my time in DFP. It is one of those things where doing that is obviously the right thing. It does not matter whether it is the community and voluntary sector; it can be in the statutory sector as well. If you are trying to have long-term sustainable impacts on social problems, health problems or whatever it might be, having security of funding over a long time is self-evidently the best way to go about it. It is quite difficult to deliver in the public financial system that we have in this part of the world. It throws up particular challenges in years like the year that we are in. That is not just because this year is one where we are challenged by the resources available to us but because it is a year with a one-year Budget. There is not the certainty for Departments to be able to do that, particularly in an environment where we are expecting further cuts to resource expenditure, especially in the years to come. It is very hard for Departments to give that degree of certainty to community and voluntary organisations or, indeed, to any organisations and even some units in their Departments about future spending. That does not always produce the best outcomes, and it does not allow you to tackle with any degree of certainty those long-standing ingrained problems that there can be in our society.
So, I accept the point that has been raised. I have not seen the newly published report, although I was aware that it was being published today. I have not seen that recommendation or, indeed, any of the recommendations. It is a sensible proposal to put forward, but it is a little bit more difficult to execute in reality, in my experience.
T3. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister whether he agrees that, following the Secretary of State’s speech on Saturday, which referred to welfare reform, Northern Ireland is now being forced either to accept full-throated Tory welfare cuts or to act responsibly by ensuring that we implement what was agreed at Stormont House. (AQT 2793/11-16)
Mr Hamilton: I agree entirely with the Member. I could not have put it better myself. He is absolutely right. I was going to say, "we have", but I do not think that my party or the Member's party has this choice to make; it is for others to make this choice. We agreed a way forward on welfare reform at Stormont Castle and Stormont House. That was being faithfully honoured until Sinn Féin, aided and abetted by the SDLP, walked away from those commitments. To be fair, the SDLP backed away from them much quicker than Sinn Féin did, and we are now faced with that choice.
The Secretary of State has said what she has said, and I think that it is a game changer. I think that it has unlocked the situation and has made the negotiations that we are entering into not easy but perhaps a little less difficult on this issue. It is up to others to make that decision. Do they want welfare reform as it is in Great Britain? We are all hearing various stories about how difficult it is to implement there and its painful impact on people. Or do we want our own version in Northern Ireland? We have the template in the Stormont House Agreement and Stormont Castle agreement. It is up to others to show some responsibility and maturity and to live up to the commitments that they made last year.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for his response, and I totally agree. Will he agree with me that the refusal of those to sign up to or to agree to what they did agree to at Stormont House will affect the most vulnerable? We hear so much about the most vulnerable in our society, and those will be the people most directly affected. If things go as we do not want them to, does he agree that we will all end up being worse off and on the receiving end of the new Tory Government's wrath by them making sure that we accept welfare reform?
Mr Hamilton: I again agree with the Member's analysis. Let us not forget that we are already seeing an impact on vulnerable people in Northern Ireland as a result of the failure of Sinn Féin and the SDLP to show some maturity and to live up to the commitments that they made last Christmas. The impact of their backing-off on welfare reform and failing to let welfare reform legislation pass through the House is seen nowhere more starkly than in the Department of Health, where the £9·5 million a month that we are losing could pay for a lot of hip and knee operations. It could take many people — to use the Member's phrase, very vulnerable people — off waiting lists on which they have been for a very long time.
Some now have a choice to make on whether or not to live up to their commitments and responsibilities by moving forward with a form of welfare reform that is more suitable to the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. We have the opportunity, through devolution, to be able to fashion welfare reform — at a cost, yes, but it is an opportunity to fashion welfare reform in a way that better suits our citizens. That choice is still there for those who, up until now, have not shown any maturity or responsibility. That choice is there for them, and I hope that they grasp that opportunity in the coming days and that we move forward with sensible, good, sound welfare reform proposals that help put the Executive's finances back on an even keel and allow us to move forward and make some progress.
T4. Mrs McKevitt asked the Minister how he and his colleagues — who, unfortunately, are not meeting — will work to decrease the figures given in the 'Households Below Average Income' report for Northern Ireland for 2013-14, which was published at the beginning of September, containing a number of worrying statistics, including one that one fifth of the population is living in relative poverty. (AQT 2794/11-16)
Mr Hamilton: I am not aware of the report that the Member refers to, although I am happy to take a look at it, and I am sure that the Minister and Department will be aware of it and will have a look at it. I will ensure that they respond to you with specific comments around the report and its recommendations and on what the Department is doing to deal with it.
I think that we all accept that there are serious and significant poverty issues in Northern Ireland. Our region has gone through very difficult economic times in the past number of years that will have only served to exacerbate existing issues and problems around poverty, particularly child poverty. That is why I have long supported, and will continue to support, not just the range and package of support that the Minister for Social Development's Department, or, indeed, the Department of Health or other Departments, puts forward to support vulnerable people and those in need but my colleague the Minister for the economy in trying to grow our economy in Northern Ireland and increase our competitiveness.
We may have many disagreements in the House about welfare reform and other issues, but I think that we are all in agreement that the best way out of poverty is to give people a job, to get them back into the workforce and to encourage them to earn money and contribute to society. That is the best answer to poverty, and it is a better answer than anything that the Minister for Social Development can do under his remit.
Mrs McKevitt: Through media reports, I have noted that the Social Development Minister has visited some food banks and taken a great interest in them. The same reports state that a quarter of individuals in families with a disabled person are living in relative poverty. The same was reported in 2013 and 2014. I wonder whether the research that was carried out by the Department into the use of food banks contained any data on people with disabilities needing to use food banks. When you report back to the Minister, perhaps that can be included in his answer.
Mr Hamilton: I will make sure that that is done. Now that food banks have been mentioned, it is probably worthwhile putting something on the record again. I remember a debate that Mr Douglas, who is still behind us, and I brought to the House some years ago. Our motion praised what was, at that stage, the very early work being done by food banks across Northern Ireland. Obviously and unfortunately, that work has had to increase out of necessity in recent times. We should always take time to praise those who, in many cases, volunteer for the work that they do and to thank those who have provided food banks with food and other materials that can be given to people in need across our Province. I think that it has been a good and appropriate response, particularly from those in the faith-based community, to problems that they see in the communities that they live in. It is worth taking time to praise them for the work that they do.
Mr Dallat: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. You are aware that the Assembly was prevented from asking questions to the Ulster Unionist Minister for Regional Development today, yet his party leader and three of his colleagues turned up to ask questions on Social Development. Will you please investigate whether this is an infringement of the rules of the House that makes us the laughing stock of the Western World?
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Will you clarify this in case there is some misunderstanding: is there an Ulster Unionist member of the Executive?
Time is up. Before we return to the debate on Housing Executive structures, I ask Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to instruct the chairperson of the Housing Executive to cease immediately the dismantling of Housing Executive structures until full political debate has been held on the future of housing. — [Mr F McCann.]
Mr Dickson: Like others, I am somewhat at a loss to understand the nature of the motion, although I understand the sentiments around it. I would like to start by saying that I started my married life as a tenant of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. It housed me at a time when it was appropriate for it to do so, and I was able to move on when it was equally appropriate for me to do so. I value the work done and the role played by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive over the many years since its inception.
I have to express some surprise and concern at the nature and content of the motion. The call on the Assembly to ask the Minister to "instruct" the chair of the Housing Executive certainly rings some alarm bells with me. The call for an instruction implies that something has gone wrong in a fundamental area of governance. As a member of the Committee and in my time in the Assembly, I have had concerns about how many organisations operate, but I do not think that I share the concern that would require an instruction to a chairperson of an arm's-length organisation funded by the Department.
We are all aware that reforms of the Housing Executive remain in discussion. They are important and sometimes contentious issues, and, from that perspective, Sinn Féin is right. There are areas that need serious debate, but the nature and tenor of the motion is premature. It is important that we have that discussion and that the new Minister — not so new now — comes to us when he is available, and we have a genuine opportunity to go through all the issues that have been raised and continue to need to be raised on how we deliver quality public-sector and social housing for all those citizens who require it today and in the future. I do not think that a motion like this will advance the cause of that debate in any direction at all.
Inevitably, there are very serious issues when it comes to the situation in which the Northern Ireland Housing Executive finds itself. We were told at a Committee meeting last week that some £1·5 billion will be required for repairs and maintenance over the next five years. The challenge is: from where will the funds come? On the one hand, we have housing associations that have a much more modern housing stock; on the other hand, we have a Housing Executive that has a decreasing quality of stock because it is ageing. That requires innovative ways forward, whether stock transfers or increases in rent. However, the party that is proposing the motion does not want anybody to spend any more on anything or give any more money towards how we take things forward. Expressing concerns that the Minister should take this matter up directly with the Housing Executive rings alarm bells with me.
I welcome the steps taken to address the issue in Committee. I believe that the Committee will see housing as its key focus in the remaining days of this mandate, however short or long that will be. However, I have to say that the fundamental message that the Alliance Party and I want to send out today is that we support the Housing Executive and its work. We are opposed to its wholesale dismantling or change for change's sake, but, like all organisations in the public sector, it needs to meet the challenges of change and those of delivering in this day and age. We cannot look back through rose-tinted glasses at what the Housing Executive has done through its many achievements. There have been many achievements, but, equally, there have been many failures. It is important that the Housing Executive is supported in its changing and evolving role, but I do not believe that today's motion aids that situation at all, and I encourage the Member to reflect on what he is asking the House to do. That debate should continue, as it has done since 2013, in Committee.
Ms P Bradley: Along with other Members, I am somewhat bemused as to why the motion has been brought forward at this time, albeit I understand a lot of the sentiments that lie behind it. I know that it was recognised, even in the last mandate of the Assembly, that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was going to face huge financial challenges over the years ahead if some reform did not take place. Mr McCann, along with others, spoke about the 2011 PwC report and its review of the Housing Executive.
I am sorry to see that Mr Attwood has disappeared from the Chamber because I join my colleague, along with other Members, in commending the Housing Executive. It worked in Northern Ireland for over 40 years, during the most difficult times. No other part of the United Kingdom or, indeed, the Republic of Ireland has had to face the same pressures as our Housing Executive. Mr Attwood tried to paint a picture that all members of the DUP are against the Housing Executive, and he was quite surprised by my colleague Mr Douglas's comments. I find Mr Attwood's assertion quite unbelievable because I would also make such comments. Like Mr Dickson, I grew up on a housing estate. I am very proud to say that and very proud of my roots in living in that housing estate, so I have a connection.
Over the years, we have come to recognise that there is a need for significant change not only in how the Housing Executive is structured and but in the delivery of our social housing programme.
It was over two and a half years ago that the then Minister, Nelson McCausland, addressed the Assembly with a statement in which he outlined the changes in structure that were required for a more sustainable social housing market that would benefit tenants and taxpayers. In a statement at that time, he made it very clear that the Housing Executive reform was not about abolishing the Northern Ireland Housing Executive but was about improvement in the delivery of its functions.
I believe that the Social Development Committee works very well together when it is discussing issues that affect our constituents. When proposing the motion, Mr McCann talked about working together. I think that we have that within the Committee; we work together on many things. There are things that we will, maybe, never see eye to eye on, but we do work together. I understand. He brought up issues, some of which are very close to my heart. He talked about homelessness and how the new structures are going to affect that. Yes, I believe that we, as a Committee, need to scrutinise and look at that further, because I believe that we still have a big black hole in our plans when it comes to homelessness. One of the first decisions the Social Development Minister made when he was appointed to his position was to ring-fence Supporting People, although I do not believe that that goes far enough in supporting our homeless in Northern Ireland. Maybe we need to look at something a little bit more innovative.
I picked up different points from Members. In bringing forward the motion, there do not seem to be any strong proposals on what Members want us to put in place. As a constituency MLA, I, along with everyone else in the Chamber, know about the situation. There is no party or person in the Chamber who does not represent the vulnerable in their community. I think Mr Douglas brought up the point. Daily, or, at least, weekly, someone enters our offices with a housing problem. The majority of those who come into my office are homeless and are having to present as homeless. So, we know the level of need that is out there for good, sustainable, effective housing for the people we represent.
I understand the issues. In his proposal, Mr McCann also said that the changes taking place within the Housing Executive should be politically driven. I believe that we, as an Assembly, have worked hard to get to the stage we are at with the reform and restructuring of the Housing Executive. I believe there is still a role for the Committee to look further at faults that have occurred, to recognise those faults and to do something about them, but I do not think that we should be calling for the motion as it sits today.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht thábhachtach seo. I welcome the debate on this important motion. From speaking to people, I know that there is a widening and growing concern about the proposed governance arrangements within the housing sector. I, at my most optimistic, remain to be convinced that the dismantling of the Housing Executive is the best way to deal with this situation. I strongly believe that politicians need to show a lead on the issue and build consensus on the way forward. I do not think that these decisions can be taken without political consensus and political support behind them. It is largely for that reason that we have brought the motion forward.
We need to see increased levels of accountability and transparency in how housing is delivered across the North. The current governance arrangements within housing associations are not good enough. From sitting on the Public Accounts Committee with you, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is clear to see that there is a serious difference between how the Housing Executive and housing associations are treated when providing transparency and accountability to the Department and to those of us who are elected to the House to hold them to account. I believe that a mechanism such as the Housing Executive is a much better way of doing it than having a third-party agency, such as a housing association, running it. These are the types of debates that we need to be having to ensure that there is cross-party consensus on any future arrangements.
Many Members have spoken about the PwC report, and there has been considerable commentary on some of its findings, but it is important to remember that one of the things that it said was that the Housing Executive:
"is one of the success stories from [the North's] recent history... it has delivered significant social benefits throughout [the North], with the quality of the housing stock having moved from one of the worst in Western Europe to what is now regarded as the best-quality stock."
So, like other Members, I pay tribute to the Housing Executive for the work that it has done since its foundation and will hopefully continue to do. It has dealt with what is a very sensitive issue in our community. The rationale for the establishment of the Housing Executive has not gone away. Very many people believe that some politicians cannot be trusted to allocate houses and that we still need the Housing Executive for at least that purpose, if not much more. It is not simply about allocating houses; it is about deciding where houses are based. For that reason, I do not think that we are at a stage yet where there is consensus about the delivery of social housing.
From my point of view, one of the greatest strengths of the Housing Executive is its ability to command respect and support from right across all sections of our community.
Mr Campbell: I presume that the Member was talking about the past when he talked about politicians being trusted to allocate properties. Now he is talking about the Housing Executive being trusted as an institution. He has not at any time during his contribution in the debate lamented or even referred to the notorious under-representation of Protestants amongst the workforce in the Housing Executive that has prevailed for over 30 years.
Mr Flanagan: I thank the Member for his contribution, but it is my understanding that positions at all levels in the Housing Executive are awarded purely on merit. Maybe the Member wants to see a different process, but it is my understanding that, in the Housing Executive, places both for houses and for employment are offered on merit, and that is the way it should stay.
To conclude, a decision of this nature should not take place without a substantial level of political debate, political oversight and consensus. That is why we are asking the Minister to stall progressing this move. We think that there needs to be consensus. There needs to be a much broader debate and much more agreement amongst political parties before such a drastic move of dismantling the Housing Executive proceeds any further.
Mr Allister: I share some of the puzzlement as to the timing and purpose of the motion, because this process began many years ago with the PwC report. Indeed, some time ago, when I quizzed some officials in the Committee, they said that the process of "reform" in the Housing Executive might continue for another 10 or 12 years, so the purpose and timing of this particular call is not immediately clear to me.
I regret that we do not have the Minister here to reply to the debate, because I think that it would have been important to hear from him about the current sense of direction within his vision. Undoubtedly, his predecessor, when he came to the House in, I think, January 2013 almost in crusading spirit, seemed to have a very distinct agenda about overhaul if not dissolution of the Housing Executive.
The sense that I have from the current Minister is that he is tamer in those matters and not as exercised as his predecessor, but one would have liked to have got a sense of direction from him about the future, particularly in circumstances where we pass through a process called transformation in the Housing Executive. We had all sorts of staff recruited, and a director of transformation was brought in who was going to — I do not know what she was going to do, but she was going to transform things pretty mightily. Then she was chief executive, and then she was gone as quickly as she arrived. Yet, last year, the transformation staff in the Housing Executive cost us three quarters of a million pounds. I would have liked to have probed and to have heard just what the import of Mags Lightbody was to that transformation, where it has left, where it is now headed and whether there is any really purposeful direction to what is happening in that regard.
I would also like to comment on the fact that, well in advance of any other voluntary exit scheme, we have had a voluntary exit scheme in the Housing Executive targeting some 500 staff, of whom, I think, 149 have already gone at a cost of £5 million, it seems. Given that, as I understand it, the age profile of most of those who have gone was 60-plus, one asks whether there was a value-for-money approach to the voluntary exit scheme in the Housing Executive. There are certainly issues there to be explored.
At the same time, a developing part of the Housing Executive, in consequence of the collapse of Red Sky and other companies, has been a huge increase in the direct labour force. I would like to have heard from the Minister what is the sense of direction about the future of the direct labour force and whether they will be properly integrated with the resulting benefits, which they deserve, or kept as some sort of adjunct in the Housing Executive.
There are many issues in flux in the Housing Executive that it is right to identify and discuss, but the focus of the motion does not seem to be on those issues. It seems, rather, to be driven by some sort of ideology that I question the relevance of. I regret that it has not focused on what would have been more pertinent issues.
Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I thank Fra McCann for tabling the motion and all the Members who participated in the debate. I want to clear up a couple of points. Obviously, on reflection, one could have rephrased the motion but, having listened to the Members' contributions, I note that everyone, to one degree or another, usually quite positively and strongly, has given support to the Housing Executive and commended it for the great work that it has done over many years, albeit that every one of us, me included, would add caveats around the Housing Executive's failures over the years. However, it is heart-warming to hear all the Members who spoke express confidence in the Housing Executive to some degree or another. That vindicates us in tabling the motion, albeit, as I said, that we could have, perhaps, reflected on the use of the words.
It is important to say also that I would benchmark this against the appointment of the current Minister, Mervyn Storey. I have no doubt — I have personal experience of it — that this Minister has made very important efforts to stabilise uncertainties not only in the Housing Executive but in the broader housing sector. Our motion reflects a long period when people inside the Housing Executive and people outside it involved in housing provision have had a concern that there was, initially, an agenda essentially to get rid of the Housing Executive. I have heard that expressed to me by people who should have known better. I am talking about people who were, in some way or other, involved in the development of policy around the Housing Executive. Clearly, there were proposals on the table that would have got rid of the Housing Executive and dismantled it into a landlord body, with all the social housing transferred to a number of housing associations. We would then have had a regional housing authority that would have dealt with other issues including homelessness, supporting housing and a raft of other important policies, a number of which Members have addressed this afternoon.
People in the Housing Executive were witnessing those things and expressing concerns about them. Those concerns have been raised in the Committee for Social Development but also directly in public and in private with Members. People see that there was an effort made. Amid all the other turmoil of the past couple of years, concerns were expressed to us and others by people in the Housing Executive — senior people at that — that what was not being delivered by way of political agreement and consensus was being delivered by stealth. In other words, important policies and delivery mechanisms were being taken away from the Housing Executive. That is where the motion stems from. It is about addressing the fear that many in the Housing Executive and the wider housing body have expressed. Those people have been expressing concern that, while we have not ultimately agreed on what we are going to do on social housing provision, there are things happening now to the Housing Executive that are significantly damaging that organisation's ability to do that which we have all commended it for doing and that which it has done well for a number of years. I apologise if people think that the motion is unclear or uncertain, but it is clearly designed to say, "Let's get political agreement on the social housing structures to be delivered". That has to reflect the best of what was the Housing Executive, which everybody has praised this afternoon. Any efforts that may be ongoing to take away some existing functions from the Housing Executive really should not proceed until we get the political agreement.
I speak as a political representative today and not on behalf of the Committee for Social Development, but I am very pleased that, as those of us who are members of that Committee are aware, we have adopted housing as a priority piece of work for the Committee for the next weeks and months, however long that takes. We will do that in conjunction with the Department and Minister on a constructive basis. The social housing reform programme has been reporting to the Committee on everything from rental policy to allocations, procurements, funding for social housing and so on. I hope that that programme and those reports can, as part of that prioritisation by the Committee for Social Development, be accelerated to make sure that we can, hopefully, get political agreement, before the end of the mandate, on the future delivery of social housing.
A feature of the housing sector for the past two or three years has been a terrible uncertainty and instability among providers. Clearly, when the Housing Executive was losing senior managers at the rate of nearly one a week for a time, and there was a lack of leadership and a loss of leadership and key managers for a variety of reasons, a lot of staff in the organisation, who were working hard every day to deliver social housing and working with tenants to deliver on their needs, were worried about their future. There was instability in the Housing Executive and the broader housing field because a lot of people in the housing associations, for example, were saying, "Are we going to have to pick up the pieces? Will we be getting some of those houses transferred to us? Where are we all on this?". I am certainly much more confident following the appointment of Mervyn Storey as the Minister for Social Development that we can have a constructive debate and good dialogue. I believe that the Minister is well up for that, and he has expressed that to me. I know that he has gone to great lengths to talk to people in the housing sector to explain that he wants housing need met on behalf of all the people we collectively represent and in a way that avails itself of structures that are modernised and improved.
Mr Douglas: I thank the Member for giving way. The motion states:
"cease immediately the dismantling of Housing Executive structures".
We all know that, with economic appraisals, the first option is to do nothing. Is that what this motion is about? If we are talking about doing nothing, there is very often a cost. Has this been costed? Will it cost the Assembly money if we just stop what we are doing?
Mr Maskey: No, this has nothing to do with doing nothing. This is simply to say that people have a fear that there are things happening in the Housing Executive that should not happen until we have agreement. We all agree that what has been best for housing has been the formation of the Housing Executive and the work that it has been involved in for many years, albeit there is no doubt that there were failings. What we are up for is to properly consider the options that are on the table.
As people here will know, the social housing reform programme officers have presented to the Social Development Committee on a number of occasions. As far as I am concerned, this Minister is up for a proper early discussion on what structures we now need to modernise the Housing Executive. Our party's point of view is that it has to be what I have often referred to as the Housing Executive mark 2 with whatever sufficient reforms are required, because we need to get money into the system so that we can build more houses to meet the needs of people; we need to find the finance to update, repair and modernise houses that need it; we need to look at the allocation systems; we need to look at how need is met right across the board. So, we are saying that this is not about —
Mr Maskey: Sorry, I cannot give way, Mr Beggs, because I am running out of time.
We are simply saying that there has been a lot of uncertainty, particularly from within the Housing Executive. We are saying that there are people in there who believe that there are measures being taken in the Housing Executive. There may not be that many more measures being delivered at the moment. So, the motion may be slightly out of date, but it is very well intended. It is simply saying that, if things are done in there that undermine the Housing Executive's ability to deliver, they need to stop. We are asking the Minister to do that. That may simply require a conversation between the Minister, senior officials and the Housing Executive. Even the Housing Executive senior management is still going through change management, and that means that uncertainty can be created.
This is not a do-nothing option but is saying, "Let us look urgently with the Minister and the Department at the social housing reform programme and accelerate that work, particularly in the Social Development Committee". It is a matter for that Committee and the Minister to agree on, but I believe that an acceleration and intensification of the discussions on the social housing reform programme will make the Assembly a greater success, especially if we can agree on the new structures required for the provision of social housing before the end of the current mandate.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 31; Noes 51
Mr Agnew, Mr Attwood, Ms Boyle, Mr D Bradley, Mr Byrne, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Ms Hanna, Mr G Kelly, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mr Ramsey, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Maskey, Mr F McCann
Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Cree, Mr Dickson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Somerville, Mr Spratt, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Ms P Bradley, Mr Douglas
Question accordingly negatived.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes, and all other Members who are called to speak will on this occasion have only four minutes, as there has been quite an interest in speaking in the debate.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I rise in the knowledge that this is the first debate on the Dalriada Hospital since November of last year, and a lot has happened since then. It is important first to place on record our thanks and appreciation to the "Save the Dal" campaign, which in the end, or in the most recent financial year anyway, saved the Dal. I thank the campaign's committee, its volunteers, the social media activists, the tractor drivers who campaigned in rallies around the town and the public, who turned out in their hundreds at meetings in Bushmills, Ballycastle, Cushendall and elsewhere.
I will never forget the first meeting that we had in the Sheskburn in Ballycastle. There was no standing room, and we had to set up other rooms for members of the public. For Tony Stevens, who had only recently come into post at the trust, it was very much a baptism of fire. As I said, a lot has happened since then. Thankfully, the trust changed its position, and Philomena McKay was successful in her legal challenge, which saw the High Court overturn the non-admissions policy. At the time, the Assembly backed the reinstatement and continuation of services at Dalriada. I hope that that remains the case, because the motion was brought forward by my constituency colleague Mr Swann, and the House unanimously supported it. The House supports the Dalriada and the retention of services there, and we need to ensure that that remains the case.
In February of this year, the old Moyle Council commissioned a report on the future of Dalriada Hospital. The Dal currently has 20 intermediate beds, 12 MS respite beds and a range of clinics and outpatient services. The report takes a holistic approach to the Dal, and it was very frustrating last year when the trust focused on short-term savings without looking at the concept of value for money and at how rural-based services can save the taxpayer money by preventing things such as bed-blocking in acute hospitals; namely, Antrim Area Hospital, the Causeway and Altnagelvin. It is very frustrating, because the Dal works. It has a high demand for beds, and occupancy figures remain in excess of 90%.
A report by Colin Stutt Consulting and Seamus Carey demonstrates to the trust that there is opportunity: opportunity to innovate; opportunity to save money; and opportunity to improve the health of the community. I know that the Minister wants all of these things. I know, from his time as Finance Minister, that he was big on innovation, and I believe that this is a big opportunity for innovation and public-sector reform. Dr George O'Neill made comments along similar lines last week. He said that there needs to be leadership and innovation in the health service. The Minister has asked for that to be brought forward, and this is an example.
There is emerging evidence of new approaches to addressing the needs of elderly populations. One example was a pilot scheme in Newquay in Cornwall, which is being rolled out across seven locations in England, including Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, with up to 1,000 patients covered in each case. Early results show significant improvements in well-being and substantial savings through reduced hospital admissions. Early figures include a reduction in all acute hospital costs of 41%; a reduction in all non-elective hospital costs of 61%; a reduction in inpatient hospital activity of 43%; a reduction in emergency department activity of 36%; and a reduction in total social care costs of 8%.
As the new Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council has already stated, the population currently served by Dalriada is perfectly suitable for a pilot of this new approach. It could be a hub for outreach, support and care services for the frail, elderly and the vulnerable in Ballycastle and its surrounding area, villages and hamlets. This could be a pilot for the rest of the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area and much farther afield across the North.
It is nearly a year on from the proposal to close, in effect, Dalriada Hospital, and I do not want the same thing to happen this year. I do not want any sudden announcements or anything that will send the community into a spin, as it did last year. That community has character, that community has resolve, and that community demonstrated how to stand up and give your community a voice. It gave an example of volunteerism the likes of which we have never seen in north Antrim. I commend those people again for that.
Why would we like an assurance? I believe that it is because the report shows that, despite the outright opposition to the trust's proposal last year, the community listened and responded to the trust, taking into account the financial difficulties and issues that it faces. In June, Minister, you stated:
"there have been a lot of opinions expressed by people about diagnosing the problems, but not a lot of suggestions as to what the exact treatment should be."
This model is called the Dalriada pathfinder. It is innovation in healthcare. It will lead to better outcomes in health, and it will lead to greater savings at a time when money is scarcer. This deserves your support.
Mr Frew: I commend the Member across the way for securing the Adjournment debate at a very timely juncture. We recall the campaign that was led last year by the Save the Dal group, and I have worked with other like-minded MLAs who fought hard for the Dalriada Hospital and worked closely with the people involved in the group.
I saw straight away that it was not just a normal campaign that people fight when things close. There was method in it, and a strategy was put in place. It is easy to fight for things to remain open. It is easy to do the polar opposite of a government agency or the trust. It is harder when you try to justify it or to get rationale and arguments for keeping something open and enhancing it. The Save the Dal group did that tremendously well. Not only did it have a coherent strategy of motivating and mobilising the community — it also did that very well — but it had a strategy and tangible plans in place not only to save the Dal but to enhance it.
Save the Dal is probably not the most appropriate name for the group; it should be Enhance the Dal because it is doing what it said it would and putting practice into play. It produced a report on the Dalriada pathfinder pilot. I have had a look at it, and I agree with my colleague across the way: this could be the way to go. It seems to be getting a reasonable hearing from movers and shakers in the trust and in the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council. It has merit and should be looked at. I ask everyone, and I plead with the Minister, to look at the report to see what can be done by using it.
We fight this endless battle with the trust. Every time I meet the chief executive and everyone else below him, I keep pleading with them to stop delivering messages to the population, to MLAs and to the Minister in a piecemeal and negative way. We are sick to the back teeth of hearing about the closure of this and the closure of that. Let us see a holistic approach and a plan for the whole Northern Trust area. That may be the logic and rationale needed when decisions have to be taken. I am not saying that hard decisions should not be taken; they should be. However, simply deciding one month to close this part of the health service and then to close another part of the health service the next month is wrong. It is unreasonable to suggest that people should go with that. There could be a holistic approach, whereby the trust lays down where everything should be and the whole jigsaw can be viewed by the population at the one time.
I know what it feels like when a town loses its hospital. I still get it on the doors — every single week, I knock doors — about losing the hospital in Ballymena and how we have suffered since. The trust would admit that a mistake was made: Antrim Area Hospital was put in the wrong place, which meant that the Causeway Hospital had to be put in the wrong place. That shows you that one error impacts on another, and so on. It should not make the same mistake in the future.
We are told that we have sufficient bed space in Ballymena and that we do not need Pinewood. When I write to the Minister or the trust on behalf of constituents who need a bed in the Ballymena area, they are given a list of beds, but not one of them is in Ballymena. That is wrong. That is why I want a holistic approach by the trust and Dalriada —
Mr Dallat: I am pleased to take part in this debate as I was involved in the campaign. I have to express disappointment that we have not moved forward, but I am encouraged by the contributions to date.
I became involved with the Dal many years ago in quite an unusual way. A good friend of mine had MS, and he was looked after in Peter Stott Martin House in Cullybackey. Of course, he was devastated when that closed. An undertaking was given that the same quality of service or better would be provided at the Dal, and it certainly lived up to that. It must be devastating for MS sufferers to find that, for the second time, they have been let down.
The closure does not only affect MS sufferers, it is in complete contradiction to Transforming Your Care. These cuts and closures are not consistent with the community-focused ambition of TYC, which aims to shift healthcare from centralised institutions into the community to facilitate people better and closer to their homes. The decision to close community facilities will have a devastating effect on patients and their families.
Some reference has been made to the overstay of patients in the Causeway Hospital and Antrim Area Hospital. A GP told me the other day that the problem is very clearly the lack of intermediary care, which, of course, the Dal was providing. As Paul Frew pointed out, it is not just about saving the Dal, it is about planning for a future that meets the needs of the people. We are blessed that we have two excellent hospitals, but they have problems with bed-blocking and looking after patients who are not quite ready for home but could be looked after for a short time in the Dal.
Some reference has been made to the Save the Dal group's July 2015 report. The recommendations in the report are encouraging and include piloting the Living Well approach in the Ballycastle area and working in partnership with the trust, the council, the local community and the community and voluntary sector. The Living Well approach would turn the Dal into a hub for outreach, support and care for the frail, the elderly and the vulnerable in Ballycastle and beyond. It is worth noting that those proposals have not yet been formally presented to the Northern Health and Social Care Trust. Therefore, the debate may be premature. I do not know.
It is a real pity that this Assembly is again in doubt and that the ordinary bread-and-butter issues that we are discussing may not be adequately addressed. That would be a shame. Let us hope that, in the next few weeks, the negotiations will bear in mind that there are very serious issues relating to health that have not been addressed. Those issues must be addressed in an ever-changing world.
I have the highest praise for my hospital in Coleraine. The Dal, as an outreach, performs a vital service to that hospital to make it viable and part of the future. So, we are not just talking about saving the Dal, we are talking about retaining and enhancing a facility that will give essential support to our two main hospitals.
Mr Swann: I thank Mr McKay for tabling this topic for the Adjournment debate. On reflection, this has been the most debated Adjournment topic concerning North Antrim in my time here. On every occasion, there has been cross-party support.
In opening the debate, Mr McKay mentioned Tony Stevens appearing at the first public meeting in Glenshesk, at which there were hundreds of activists and community people. It is one of the few occasions on which me, Daithí, Mervyn Storey, Jim Allister and Donal Cunningham shared a platform on the same message, and it was also the last time that Tony Stevens was seen in public. Fearghal came to one of the later meetings in Bushmills: I saw him indicating, so I wanted to acknowledge him. That demonstrates the seriousness of the Save the Dal campaign. It was never about saving a building; it was about preserving and enhancing the service that was there. Members who spoke previously indicated that that was where the campaign started: trying to keep what was already there.
Having had a chance to look in detail at the Dalriada pathfinder pilot, I think it is a tremendous piece of work for any community group to undertake, outside of any structured body or trust, to bring a development proposal forward to this degree of detail, with the research and structure that was behind it. I think that they have to be commended, but I think that Mr Dallat is right. Maybe we are pre-empting the presentation of that pilot project to the Northern Health and Social Care Trust. That is where the decision will be made, and maybe we should wait to see its reaction to the pilot project. Hopefully, the Minister's reaction to the pilot project — and to what the Dalriada pathfinder is about delivering — here today to the Members who have debated this and brought this forward will be an indication as to how he thinks the Northern Health and Social Care Trust can possibly take it forward.
I think that there will not be disagreement from any Member here today that the Save the Dal campaign has worked. The Dalriada pathfinder pilot project is another step on the road for retaining that vital service that has been delivering for the community in the Causeway coast and glens area for a number of years. As Mr McKay said, it received the support of Moyle Council, and it has also received unanimous backing from the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council. There is a strong feeling that this is a way to go as a pilot project.
Mr D McIlveen: I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter. It is something that I think is close to the hearts of not just the people of North Antrim but the people of other constituencies. We can see from the other constituencies represented in the debate that it has certainly had an impact on many, many people.
The sense of community involvement from this campaign has been astonishing, and I think that it has shown just how much this place means to the people in the area. As Robin Swann has just said, it is not just about a building. I think that an over-sentimentality with buildings sometimes exists, particularly hospitals, where there have been births and good memories that have come from those buildings. This is absolutely not about that. It is about a unique service that other people have tried to replicate. There have been patients who, for various reasons, have not been able to have, for example, respite in the Dalriada Hospital and who have gone to other places. Unfortunately, the level of care on every other occasion has been found wanting in the private sector. Therefore, I can understand why the community has worked so hard to try to come up with an alternative to keep the Dalriada Hospital functioning in whatever capacity it possibly can.
The Minister also worked hard, and the current Minister's predecessor did visit the hospital during the campaign. I think that it was one of the most amusing things that I have seen, as Minister Wells attempted to inconspicuously leave the premises through a side door as he had another engagement to go to. The look on his face as 200 supporters bounded towards his car, led by Ian Paisley, was a look of terror that I will never forget. I hope that that in some way helped to convince Jim Wells that keeping the Dalriada open was important.
So the Minister worked hard, and the MPs and MLAs have worked hard. Why did we do that? I think that it is very simple. There are two categories, as far as the people in this area are concerned. There are things that people care about, and there are things that people do not care about in this area. What they care about is the Dalriada continuing to deliver good outcomes for patients. That is absolutely head and shoulders the outcome that is required for people living in the area. Secondly, they care about a good level of care, and, as I have mentioned, there have been occasions where, unfortunately, alternative care arrangements outside of Dalriada have been found wanting. I know that that is something that the Minister and the trust will want to ensure does not happen in the future. Thirdly, I think that people care about a secure future for the Dalraida, because this crisis management approach, year to year, with the fear or the threat of partial or full closure, is something that drains the life out of people. It drains their energy, and that constant feeling of a threat upon it is something that I believe people care deeply about and want to see something done about.
What people do not care about is who funds it. That is why I believe that the work that has been done — the Dalriada pathfinder document — is worthy of consideration. It takes a lot of the financial responsibility away from the trust and the Department and brings in other stakeholders that also have a vested interest in this. I think it is right. We all regularly talk in this place about cross-departmental thinking and how we can do things differently, and this document undoubtedly provides a way in which to do that, so it is right to consider it. Dalriada should be considered as a pilot for this project.
I know, having worked closely with him in his days in the Department of Finance, that the Minister loves to quote people. He has quoted everybody from Gandhi to John Lennon. I will quote Mark Twain in finishing and say that doing the right thing:
"will gratify some people and astonish the rest."
Mr Allister: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak again in support of the Dal. I commend the tenacity of the Save the Dal campaign, which did not shrink from taking on the trust and the Department and, for its tenacity and the common sense that was on its side, saw a significant victory for people power over the trust and the Department. That was very welcome. It is also good to note that, not prepared to leave it there, they then embarked on a self-help initiative, producing the Colin Stutt report. It certainly makes for a very interesting read, with some positive proposals in it. For me, one of the most important things that it says about moving forward is that, drawing on the lesson of the attempt by the trust and Department to ram something down the community's throat, there has to be a partnership approach to moving forward. It cannot be a top-down dictatorship again, simply handing down the solution as seen by some.
If a future is to be moulded that meets the needs of all interests, it has to be done in partnership. As the report reflects, it has to be one that is itself reflective of the particular composition of that locality, with its higher than average number of senior citizens. Therefore, there has to be what the report refers to as a "strong fit" between the needs of the area and the outcomes for the area. That is key to all of this. It has to be a wholesale systems approach so that there is that tight fit between what the community needs and what the outcomes will be.
If I have one reservation about the thrust of the conclusions of the Stutt report, it is in the realm of the lack of a clear focus on the future of the MS facility. It seems to me that it was a bit light in that department, yet that is a vital facility for that area and the wider area. However, holistically, I think it tracks a potential future approach that has much to recommend it and is certainly far preferable to the cul-de-sac that the trust and the Department previously wanted to lead us into. I trust that the spirit and vision that motivated the Save the Dal campaign will continue to the final delivery of that which fits the needs of that region.
Mr McKinney: I too welcome the opportunity to take part in today's Adjournment debate. I do so because, as SDLP health spokesperson, I recognise the important role that Dalriada plays in the local community. I commend Mr McKay for bringing the debate to the Chamber. I also commend all those who have been involved in the Save the Dal campaign. At the start, they adopted an emotional approach to it, but, very quickly, as has been reflected in the debate today, they moved on to the strategic approach, which, I think, has been very welcome.
Mr Allister referred to the MS unit. It is important to recognise the extent to which that illness puts severe pressure and demands on individuals and families, and respite provision is all the more important, as is — I think that this is what you were reflecting — the need for a centre of excellence. Other trusts need to avail themselves of that service to make it, too, as viable as possible.
If we look back over the decisions and events of the last months, we can see how important local hospitals are to communities and the strength of a community coming together in force. I was delighted, as others have clearly reflected here today, to see the strength of that support and the fact that it resulted in 20,000 signatures being brought here to Stormont, as well as numerous debates and rallies, and I welcomed the opportunity of being invited to Bushmills. It became clear very quickly just how prized and valued the Dalriada facility was in the local community and, importantly, that it had local cross-party political backing.
For me, to get down to the nuts and bolts of it, the decision lays bare the lack of strategic direction, with the Department looking for cuts and then foisting cuts on trusts that make them without a strategic context. In fact, the excuse comes back from the trusts that it is counter-strategic. We all know that the health service is under severe financial pressure, and, as Mr Frew said, we have to be mature about that, but it is how cuts are administered that is important. The House will be aware — I have reminded it many times, as the Minister will be aware — of the importance of TYC at the heart of the health service and how that plan has not been funded properly. Therefore, major cuts have emerged as a result and those impositions of contingency plans are counter-strategic. It is important to state to the House that the Dalriada closure was not a strategic cut; it was a short-term cut. The previous Health Minister had to admit that in this very Chamber, and I welcome the fact that the courts took the right decision on it.
Mr Frew wants a holistic approach. I want a holistic approach, and I think that the Chamber, as reflected here today, wants a holistic approach. That is what TYC was supposed to be about. It was supposed to identify the elements in a community that could be dealt with to keep people away from the expensive side of the health service. It is supposed to be a mixed market, if you like, in that sense, and, if anything represented that, it would be a centre of excellence for MS, as Mr Allister has talked about, a step-down facility in the local community, married to further and better services being delivered out into the community, which prevents people having to come up to the very expensive side of health, be it in Causeway, Antrim or, indeed, Belfast. We have not got that, and I will make a plea once again for us to return to the principles of that and let us start jointly finding some mechanism to achieve that.
I refer to the report as well. It makes some clear recommendations on how Dalriada Hospital could be retained and reconfigured, and I am struck by the figures.
Mr McKinney: Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am struck by the figures. There could be savings in this. I have more to say, but time has beaten me. I support the motion.
Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): I begin by thanking Mr McKay for proposing today's Adjournment debate. I have been impressed by the considered, thoughtful and valuable contributions that have been made in the Chamber this afternoon, and I hope to respond, in the remarks that I make, to most of the points that have been raised.
It is clear to me that the Dalriada Hospital and the services that it provides are held in the highest regard by the people of the community that it serves. As we have heard today from virtually every Member who has spoken, Dalriada Hospital provides a range of non-acute community hospital services, including intermediate care beds and a multiple sclerosis respite unit, along with outpatient and allied health professional clinics and a GP health centre.
We are all well aware of the background to this debate; if we were not, we have been familiarised with it during today's Adjournment debate. It is the decision last year by the Northern Health and Social Care Trust to temporarily close the intermediate care beds and the MS respite unit beds followed by the restoration of the status quo as a result of the court's interim relief ruling in December 2014.
That cannot be and is not the end of the story. The pressures and service trends that lay behind the Northern Trust’s decision are very much still with us. I think that we are all familiar with the pressures facing our health and social care services, which include a rise in chronic conditions driven by both our ageing population and unhealthy lifestyle habits; increasing demand and over-reliance on hospital services; growing expectations of our population; fast-moving opportunities in technology and medical interventions; workforce challenges; and, of course, the financial pressures that we face. The Northern Trust has not been immune to those challenges, and I want to talk a little bit about the Northern Trust if I can.
I acknowledge that there have been problems in the past, and it would be foolish to think that there will not be difficulties in the future. However, this trust is transforming. I am determined that the lessons learned from the turnaround process will be carried forward and become embedded as this organisation continues to improve.
It is important to set the context of what care the Northern Trust delivers on a day-to-day basis and the environment in which it operates. The Northern Trust area has a population of 440,000 people, the largest resident population in Northern Ireland. In common with the rest of Northern Ireland, the demand for health and social care in the Northern Trust area grows annually by approximately 6%. That includes demographic growth, resulting in more older people with complex health needs and co-morbidities and increased referrals. In 2014-15, the trust had 50,625 people admitted to hospital care and 26,581 day cases. Some 2·6 million hours of domiciliary care were provided through the trust and the independent sector, which equates to care for 4,600 people.
Despite the scale of the challenges that the trust has faced and overcome, it has also performed well. Performance in unscheduled care has improved remarkably. In 2014-15, across the trust, there was a 35% reduction in patients waiting more than 12 hours to be assessed, treated and either discharged or admitted to hospital. That improvement builds on the 50% reduction the previous year. In addition, the Northern Trust’s acute hospital network has been recognised among the 40 top hospitals in the UK for 2014. The 40 top awards are based on the evaluation of 22 indicators covering safety, clinical effectiveness, health outcomes, efficiency, patient experience and quality of care.
It is a trust that is doing well. This is an indication that it is focused on the task in hand, which is to deliver high-quality safe and effective care in the most efficient manner possible. I would like to pay tribute to the hard-working staff in the hospitals and those delivering health and social care services in the community for their service to the local area and their commitment to delivering high-quality health services. I wish to pay tribute to the leadership of the trust as well.
When I took up post in May, I set out my vision for a world-class health and social care system in Northern Ireland building on the many world-class services that we already have. Delivering that vision requires innovation, change and reform across our health and social services. In the next number of weeks, I intend to come forward with my vision for the future of health and social care in Northern Ireland and how we intend to take forward the recommendations in the Donaldson report and future commissioning and the reform of the administration of the health and social care system in our country. That is a huge undertaking of major reform, but it is much needed reform. When you look at the range of challenges that our health system and social care system faces, you see that these are not decisions that we can continually push down the line. We need to take decisions, and we need to get political consensus on them.
Our current pattern of health and social care services is not sustainable and needs to change. Transforming Your Care and the Donaldson report both make important points about the need for a mature debate on our overall hospital-based services. They need to shift from hospital-based care, and they need to ensure that our finite resources are maximised to provide the best value for money for patients and the services provided for them. The challenge for us today is to sustain and further develop the best in health and social care while embracing innovation. As Mr McKay pointed out, I am supportive of innovation across the public sector.
There is much evidence of innovation in the health and social care sectors. I have been pleasantly surprised by the evidence of innovation right across them since taking up post. Of course, embracing innovation, as I have been encouraged to do by Mr McKay, involves challenges for us all because new ways of working, which maximise the considerable but also limited resources that are available to Health and Social Care, sometimes mean doing things differently. That can cause concern but, if the outcomes are better, I think it is well worth pursuing that path. Being innovative means taking decisions about how and where we deliver services to maximise the quality of care for patients, deliver the very best outcomes and ensure that patient safety is maintained.
What does that all mean for the future of Dalriada Hospital? I know that Members wish to have a commitment from me today that intermediate care and MS respite services at Dalriada Hospital will remain unchanged indefinitely, forever and a day; but that is not something which I can give. Decisions about the provision of services at Dalriada Hospital are, and should always be, in the first instance, matters for the Northern Trust to consider. In this, as in lots of other issues, I look to trusts, commissions and others for their expert advice on quality and, particularly, safety of services. To that end, the Northern Trust has been reviewing the range of services available across the trust area in relation to intermediate care and is developing a long-term vision, predicated on the need to maintain people at home for as long as possible and to provide services at home, or as close to home, as possible. It is its intention to engage with a range of stakeholders later this autumn.
The trust has worked closely with MS service users to capture their views and requirements in relation to respite care at Dalriada, what is available and how to access it. At the request of service users, the trust has developed a leaflet to highlight the range of respite care options available. At present, the majority of users do not want hospital-based respite.
I am aware, and it was referenced in virtually every contribution this evening, that the old Moyle District Council — now part of the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council — commissioned a report to support the case for a continued role for Dalriada Hospital. I have taken a look at the report; I think it is excellent. It recognises the need for a changing role for small local hospitals like the Dalriada. The particular recommendation for its future — as a hub for outreach, support and care for the frail, elderly and vulnerable people in general in the area — is an interesting proposition and one worth carefully considering. I will ensure that consideration is given to it by the trust. It represents change, but I think it is positive change to the service, and it is something worth studying more carefully. I will ensure that the trust does that.
In conclusion, I have no doubt that this report will make a valuable contribution to the discussions which the trust will have with the council and other stakeholders as the future of these services is discussed and shaped over the coming months. I can assure you all this evening that the Northern Health and Social Care Trust will engage fully with the people who use the services, the staff who deliver them, and the wider community in discussing the future of the Dalriada Hospital.