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Official Report: Monday 14 September 2015


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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed, I acknowledge that I am sure there is a full range of concerns and questions from all sides of the House about the current situation. I understand that, and I have allowed a Matter of the Day from Ms Sugden this afternoon to allow the House a brief opportunity to express views on the current situation. My role is to oversee our procedures and to ensure we carry out our business as best we can until we get to easier times. That includes upholding the standards of respect and courtesy in debate, which I reminded Members about last week. Heightened temperatures in the Chamber are not going to produce any greater clarity or bring a resolution. Ultimately, these are issues that are going to be resolved only in cross-party talks, and that is a place where I encourage Members and parties to engage.

Ministerial Resignations: Mr Jonathan Bell, Mr Simon Hamilton, Miss Michelle McIlveen and Mr Mervyn Storey

Mr Speaker: Can I make some announcements about developments before we proceed to the organised agenda for today? I advise the House that I have received notification of the resignations of Mr Jonathan Bell as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; Mr Simon Hamilton as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; Miss Michelle McIlveen as junior Minister; and Mr Mervyn Storey as Minister for Social Development. Their resignations took effect from Thursday 10 September 2015.

Committee Deputy Chairperson Appointments

Mr Speaker: I also advise the House that the nominating officer of Sinn Féin has informed me that Mr Fra McCann has been appointed Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, with effect from 8 September 2015 and that Mr Conor Murphy has been appointed Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, with effect from 10 September 2015. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met.

Matter of the Day

Mr Speaker: The first item in the Order Paper is a motion regarding Committee membership. As with other similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion, and there will be no debate.

I apologise to Ms Sugden. The Matter of the Day is not in my electronic copy, but, as I announced earlier, you have been given leave to make a statement on the future of the Northern Ireland political institutions, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should do so by rising in their places and continuing to do so. All Members called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this, or any other matter, until this item of business has been finished.

Ms Sugden: Mr Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak on this matter. I will begin by saying how privileged I feel to stand here and represent East Londonderry in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Whilst we find ourselves in exceptional circumstances, I will continue to do the job that I was entrusted with while I can. The 100,000 constituents I work for expect me to represent them in the House.

This house of cards is falling, and good will come of that only if the jokers at the top come crashing down too and do not get up again. I am concerned because we have much to lose, not just in the message that Northern Ireland has failed but with the prospect of being governed by people who do not know us, who are, understandably, quite fed up with us and who will not fight for the people or sell our country for the potential that it has as we can.

The events that unfolded on Thursday make me very sad. My constituent Mr Watton — I know that he will not mind me saying his name — has been waiting for a disabled parking bay for over six months. Mr Watton is very ill. It takes all his strength to walk several feet, and he is certainly entitled to a space. He is entitled to a public service that will make his life that little bit easier while he focuses on his strength and his day-to-day struggles. He will not get that disabled parking bay because the Minister and the Committee have to sign it off, and the former does not exist any more.

Mr Watton is only a small piece of the puzzle of Northern Ireland, but when one piece is missing, the bigger picture is ruined. The collapse of our institutions is being felt from the people up. Politics are being played badly from the top down. The events that have unfolded since the death of Mr McGuigan are really quite unbelievable. A lot of big decisions have been made on "What if?" To go further, in my belief, many who sit in the House are not fit for the job. Yes, I appreciate that they were given a mandate, but I really do not think that the people expected this nonsense when they trusted you with their vote.

My interpretation of what really is happening here is deflection and election. There are people bleeding this country dry, and the current events are providing a very convenient smokescreen. I see it in my constituency, where we have a drug problem that is often hidden by raising contentious issues. These people will be caught, and I look forward to that day, because the people of Northern Ireland deserve better, and I trust that they will realise that come the next election. Whether it is in a month or next May, we will have an election. There is nothing wrong with electioneering, but it should begin the day after you earn the mandate that you were given, not in a panic to get one over on your competitor.

As an independent, I probably have more to lose than anyone in the House, but it is not about me. It is about the people whom I represent. If losing my seat and never speaking a word in the Chamber again will help us to move forward positively, by all means, bring it on, but it will not do so, because, I believe, Northern Ireland will only truly move on when the people who were involved in the Troubles are no longer in politics.

Mr Speaker: Will the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Ms Sugden: So for the good of the people you claim to represent, move on — step aside, if you will — and encourage young politicians like Gary Middleton, Steven Agnew, Chris Lyttle, Claire Hanna, Megan Fearon, Sandra Overend and me to be the future of Northern Ireland and these institutions.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. The Member's time is well up. You have had three minutes.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ms Sugden brought this matter to the House today, and you, Mr Speaker, have advised Members to be mindful of the remarks that they might want to make and to keep those remarks and the intentions behind them for the talks themselves. Clearly, the talks are due to begin today, so we will see how today pans out and what we are facing at the end of the day when the parties have had their various bilaterals and trilaterals and so on.

From our party's point of view, in the talks beginning today, there needs to be the political will, between all parties and all participants, for a successful outcome. As far as Sinn Féin is concerned, there can be only two outcomes: either we have a successful conclusion to the talks or we go straight into elections and let the people have their say on all the various parties.

In that respect, I am calling on both unionist parties to end their sham fight and have the political will to go into the talks today with the serious intent of getting successful outcomes in respect of all the outstanding matters, not least the current crisis but, indeed, the matters that have been inflicted on this Assembly for a long time, particularly in respect of cuts imposed by London.

I am asking both unionist parties to demonstrate the political will to end their sham fight. Keep your sham fight for Scarva. There is no question that both parties need to ask themselves the real question: whose interests or agenda will be best served by the collapse of these institutions or with the continuing political uncertainty that there is today? It is certainly not the agenda of those of us who are trying to demonstrate to the wider public that politics actually works. It is certainly not in the interests of people who want first-class public services at their disposal. We have heard a litany of examples of people being frightened or anxious and angry about the prospects of non-delivery of public services when Ministers are no longer at the wheel and in charge of their Departments. People want parties here who are working on their behalf and championing against the kinds of cuts that are being imposed from London. We are seeing in British politics the potential of a hopeful period when there are people now in civic society who are trying to challenge the status quo around the austerity agenda of cuts and attacks on public services and on people who are vulnerable and on benefits.

As far as our party is concerned, it is essential for these institutions not only to remain in place but, more importantly, to work in the interests of all the people the parties in the Chamber represent. In the context of the continuing instability and uncertainty, there is an imperative to intensify the work of these institutions, including the Assembly and the North/South institutional bodies.

Mrs D Kelly: It is with great regret that I find myself having to speak on behalf of my party on such a topic. The political institutions here came about, if Members need reminded, as a result of a vote and the overwhelming desire of the people here in the North and across the island of Ireland. People voted for three main institutions and they wanted to see delivery on economic and social agendas. We wanted to build a reconciled and shared society, but what we have had, very clearly, are the shenanigans that have been going on over the last number of years. This crisis did not emerge over the last number of weeks. It has been heightened over the last number of weeks but we were heading into a political storm in October anyway because we have not agreed a Budget and we have no shared agenda. We have not agreed what the people wanted us to agree on.

I have spoken to people over the weekend and they are out of their minds and cannot believe that we are in this crisis. They want us to get on with it. They are saying, "For God's sake, get on with the job and create a better future. Get the nurses their pay rise. Get the hospital waiting lists down. Get the schools built." Others are just saying, "We're fed up with the whole lot of you." It does not matter who the guilty parties are; goodness knows there are parties that bear more of the blame than others. When the people voted in 1998, they voted for an absolute end to all violence and to take the gun out of Irish politics. That, clearly, has not happened in the way in which the people had hoped.

On the other hand, there were people believing in and voting for a shared future so that my children and their children could live in a peaceful society in which they did not see their neighbours being shot and murdered or discriminated against in jobs and housing. They voted for a better, peaceful way of doing business. It is they who have been betrayed. It is not about each of us who sit in the Chamber proudly representing each of our constituencies being in or out of a job; it is about the hope and ambition of all the people who willed us, who voted for us, to be here.

Over the last number of months, there has been outcry after outcry over the failure of the two main parties in this Government to deliver on simple things like an anti-poverty strategy, a domestic and sexual violence strategy or on racial equality. This institution was built on the promise of equality and the same playing field for all our citizens. That, clearly, has not happened.


12.15 pm

We have seen tit-for-tat politics over the last seven years. There have been plenty of photo opportunities but no real, meaningful collaboration across government that puts the people at the heart of government. It is the people's desire that these institutions remain and that we get ourselves sorted out this time once and for all.

Mr Nesbitt: The Ulster Unionist Party stretched itself almost to breaking point to bring forward the agreement of 1998, and we are ready to stretch ourselves again in these talks because I believe these talks will kill or cure devolution.

I hope that the result is a cure and that we refocus on what we envisaged 17 years ago — a truly peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland, measured by three outcomes. Could we deliver mutual respect for each other's traditions? Could we bring on a peace dividend that would deliver that prosperity? Would we convince the electorate that we could deliver government better than direct rule? If we are honest and look into our own hearts, today the answers are no, no and no. We have not delivered.

Peter Robinson summarised the last mandate as one where the outcome was survival. He went on to say that this mandate had to be about more than survival; it had to be about delivery. Have we delivered? Hospital waiting lists are longer than they have been for 15 years, £37·5 million of £80 million of social investment money remains unspent after four years and £12 million of childcare money is largely unspent after four years.

So, after eight years of DUP/Sinn Féin rule at the heart of government, it is clear that we are not delivering positive outcomes for our people. This is our challenge: to recognise that what we are delivering is broken and needs to be fixed. We have to return to values. A key value is going to be credibility, and, frankly, as the Taoiseach said, the stance Sinn Féin is taking on the existence of the IRA in 2015 is "incredible".

I hear what Mr Maskey says to me about a sham fight between unionist parties. I question whether he hears what I say, which is that Sinn Féin cannot be "ourselves alone" in a coalition government. You cannot be yourselves alone in the face of what the Chief Constable says about the IRA, what the Secretary of State says about the IRA, what the Prime Minister says about the IRA and what the Taoiseach says about the IRA. You cannot turn a blind eye to what is going on. You cannot build a proper peaceful and political process by turning a blind eye.

Where we agree with Sinn Féin is that there is criminality on our streets, so let us all join forces and for once say that we want an end to all organised crime, fuel laundering and the rest by republicans and loyalists. That is what we called for when we met the Secretary of State today to start these critical talks about our future. Truth is not a bargaining chip.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Dr Farry: Quite clearly, as we meet this afternoon, we are in a very difficult situation. The latest point in this deterioration in the sustainability of devolution is that we have only just over half the Government in place. That is not a tenable situation and not one that is really going to be at all credible with the public, even on a short-term basis, never mind a long-term basis.

So, something will have to give over the coming weeks, one way or another. We are going to see the collapse of devolution and elections or suspension with the return of direct rule or, indeed, some form of joint authority, or we will see some refreshed version of devolution where we have the opportunity for a fresh start with the people of Northern Ireland, where we can reflect on what has gone wrong over the past number of years and set that right, begin to fully deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and seize the opportunities that are out there for us.

I think it is important that we bear in mind the importance of devolution and what it offers to the people of Northern Ireland. At times, people are rightly cynical about where we are today. Devolution is the forum through which we bring reconciliation together at a political level. It is the forum at which the different political traditions in Northern Ireland can share power together.

It is also the focal point for local decision-making and accountability, which are incredibly important. We are also able to deliver different outcomes from those in other parts of the United Kingdom, on other parts of the island of Ireland and, indeed, in other parts of Europe and the world. There is one small example today that is worth reflecting on. In Westminster, some very draconian legislation on trade unions is being moved forward. Employment law is devolved in Northern Ireland. We are able to say that we are not entertaining that type of reform here, and I have taken that decision as a devolved Minister. That is just one tangible outcome of what we have under devolution.

We have many challenges ahead. We clearly have a rule-of-law challenge that involves not just the fallout from a particular murder but a situation in which paramilitarism is a cancer in our society and has a degree of social control across many communities. That is not just about what happens with organised crime but about the relationships that build up between different people who take on the guise of gatekeepers in communities and about how political parties and the state respond to them.

We have a challenge with the Stormont House Agreement, particularly in the implementation of welfare reform and budgets. In some respects, power-sharing has broken down because the normal give and take, compromise and the sense of reality about the framework in which we operate have been lost. We have to reflect on that. It is why trust and confidence have broken down between parties. That has been magnified by our structures, and we are moving from one crisis to another. Let us get it fixed properly this time.

Mr Allister: What we are witnessing all about us is not just the catastrophic failure of government in Northern Ireland but the catastrophic failure of the system of government, and it is that reality that all these other parties wish to dodge. The reality is that mandatory coalition has failed. That should be no surprise to anyone because it defies the basic tenets of democracy.

Look across the world. Apart from totalitarian states, any Government that is durable and any system that works is built out of respect for the fundamental tenets of democracy and the idea that the electorate has the right to change the Government, vote a party out of government and have an opposition. The only place where we deny those basic democratic rights is here in Northern Ireland, and then people are surprised that the system of government crumbles and fails. When it defies the dynamics of the essence of democracy, of course it will fail. That is despite its being propped up for years by all the false promises and all the false hopes and the peddling of those false hopes that the IRA had gone away. Now those who peddled those hopes and lies and who went into government on the basis of that con have suddenly discovered that the IRA still exists and is still killing. That has been the catalyst that has brought us to this point.

It is now time to sweep away the debris of failure that these institutions represent. Let us build a system of government as you would build it anywhere else in the democratic world: if no party is big enough to form a Government on its own, you build it on the basis of voluntary coalition with a weighted majority, if need be, to ensure cross-community involvement. It should also be built on the principle of an opposition. The urge of so many, because of the vested interest that comes with it, is simply to get the sticky plaster out and patch up failure. Sadly, the vision of some is to get back to the charter of failure: the Belfast Agreement example of devolution. It is time that we swept away the debris of failure. It is time that we had an election. The DUP is running away from an election, which is why the First Minister did not resign and tip Sinn Féin out of government as it deserved. It is time that we had an election. Of course, the DUP does not even —

Mr Speaker: Thank you. Time is up.

Mr Allister: — come into this battlefield for debate.

Mr Agnew: Urgent talks are being convened again today involving the same parties, the same issues and even in the same venue as they were last winter. Those who caused the crisis are being entrusted to resolve it. It strikes me that that is an example of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result, which, as we know, is the definition of madness.

We need a compromise, but we need to recognise the failures of Haass and the original Stormont House talks. Why did those talks fail? In both cases, a document was produced and a compromise was reached, and, in both cases, the negotiators could not sell those proposals to their parties. We have had parties constantly watching their backs for fear of being outflanked; that, should they support a compromise, the opposing parties within their communities will somehow steal a march on them. We need to get a way around that. How did we do that before? What was the success of the Good Friday Agreement? Whatever failures there have been, it created these institutions and, for a period, it provided peace and relative stability in Northern Ireland.

What has been different about the recent talks? They have all been behind closed doors, they have been party political and there has been no engagement with the general public. The Good Friday Agreement was agreed after a referendum. The parties who reached those compromises had the legitimacy of saying that they made those compromises and they were tough compromises but the people of Northern Ireland accepted them. The failure of Haass and Stormont House is that the negotiators asked their parties to support them; they never asked the people. Until we do that, we will not get an agreement. Until we go back to the people of Northern Ireland and say that this is the next stage in their peace process and the next step of the people's agreement and ask them whether they support that step and us, as parties, taking that step, we will not get a sustainable solution.

We need a referendum in Northern Ireland. Whatever the outcome of the talks, a compromise should be proposed, and it should be put to the people. We saw the level of engagement in Scotland and how, when people are asked a question, they engage intelligently and respond. That was the same in the Republic of Ireland with the equal marriage referendum. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and deserve to have their voice heard.

Mr B McCrea: I congratulate Ms Sugden on a brilliant piece of politics in bringing the Matter of the Day before the Assembly. I say that as one of only six people in the House who are not party to the talks. The only thing that I did not like about her speech was that I think that she ran out of time before she mentioned my name in the list of people going forward, but it is — [Interruption.]

Mr Kennedy: No, she did not. [Laughter.]

Mr B McCrea: I can only assume that that is what happened.

I want to come on to tone. Mr Maskey told her off. He reminded her, in senatorial terms, about the tone that she might use and the damage that she might do to the talks or whatever. He then went off and had a chat about sham fights with unionists and used a tone that was not particularly constructive himself. I have to say to you, Mr Maskey, through you, Mr Speaker, that I do not think that your tone is appropriate. We should all be listened to in the Assembly, and that is where I agree with Mr Agnew. We should not be having the talks behind closed doors; we should be having them on the Floor of the Assembly.

Mr Nesbitt mentioned a few points. He said that it was make or break, that we will or will not get it sorted out. I do not believe that we will get it sorted out. We will get some sort of fudge — we always get a fudge — and some way of staggering on through, but we will not sort out the basic problems.

The dispute is not about the IRA. Did anybody here seriously think that the IRA had gone away? Did they really think that it had gone away? I do not think that that is the case. You can turn blind eyes or whatever. It was not part of the agreement. The dispute is about the inability of the parties of Government to get on with one another, to find some common goal and some way of doing something.

Mr Allister has pointed fingers around the Chamber. He said that there is nowhere else in the world where a democracy or a Government works without an opposition.

Well, if memory serves me, he was a member of the European Parliament for quite a period of time. There are areas where it is not the right way forward, and we agreed by referendum and through the Good Friday Agreement that we would set up this type of arrangement. That is what the people voted for; that is what they want.


12.30 pm

If you want to get a change to that, I do not think that you will be able to rush it through in four or five weeks. There is the idea that we are going to pull it all together, put bygones behind us —

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

Mr B McCrea: — fix the whole thing and move forward. Frankly, you should know from the six of us here that people are looking and they are not impressed.

Mr McCallister: I hope that, once my Bill has cleared legal advice, it will, very shortly, come to the Floor of the House and give each and every Member of the Assembly a chance to form an opposition and look at how we can change the way we do our politics here. I have often made the argument that we have almost too much peace process and too little government here. We need to get on with the business of government. Those who are charged with that, the Executive Ministers, need to get on and make decisions, work in a collective way and present a collective Programme for Government that has the best interests of all our people at its heart. We have Ministers who can sue each other and take each other to court. We have Ministers who want to do things but are blocked and we have the politics of the mutual veto. All of that leads to a very dysfunctional system.

I congratulate Ms Sugden on bringing forward this matter of the day. I detect from many people in my constituency that, while they are frustrated with these institutions and the speed of decision-making, they desperately want to see it working, and they want to see everyone putting their shoulder to the wheel and making it work. That is the difficulty with the talks process and knowing when something is agreed. We saw that last year with the Stormont House Agreement; it was agreed and then, suddenly, parties were barely out the door until some people were not happy with it and others objected to it.

We need to get a collective agreement and get on with the business of governing and delivering for people. That will happen when you normalise politics and bring forward the issues that are important to people — jobs, schools, hospitals; all of those things — instead of always going for the lowest common denominator in politics. A Government and opposition helps to provide that as it creates scrutiny of the Government, provides choice for the electorate and normalises politics when we start to debate issues. It is not a matter of who can jockey for position more impressively than the other. That is why it is important and why my Bill will, I hope, make a contribution.

Mr Eastwood: I might be a bit of a renegade for saying this, but I actually have some hope that we can solve these problems, because history tells us that we can solve our problems here if we all collectively decide to try to do it. We at least need to be determined to find a solution. I am not detecting determination from every part of the House, and that needs to change. We need to protect these institutions. We do not protect them by trying to destabilise them. We do not protect them by threatening them. We do not protect them by walking out one week and walking in the next. We also have to rid the politics of Ireland of paramilitarism and the finances that they have built up over the years.

I come from a constituency with the highest unemployment levels of any Westminster constituency across Britain or the North. The people I represent have more reason than most to be cynical about the lack of delivery of this place. However, in my conversations with people in the last couple of weeks, I have met nobody more determined to make sure that this place works, and works better, than those in my constituency. People are, of course, fed up with the type of politics that we have and the lack of delivery, but they are determined to make it work, and they think that we are nowhere near as far forward as we should be in that regard.

The constituency that I come from also has a level of latent dissident activity. If we think that pulling down the institutions and continuing with the type of politics that we have seen over the last couple of weeks will do anything to cement democracy or progress, we are absolutely wrong. All that we will be doing is playing into the hands of those dissident republicans who want to put young people in jail or the cemetery. We need to be determined to fight against and change that.

We have heard talk this afternoon of refreshing devolution. We are absolutely, 100% in favour of devolution but only devolution with power-sharing, equality and protection for minorities at its heart. We are not interested one bit in renegotiating what was long and hard fought for and voted for by the people of Ireland. That is our bottom line, Mr Speaker. We are happy to see some changes in order to help this place work, but we will not stand over any changes to the fundamental principles of the institutions: power-sharing; equality; and human rights.

Mr Speaker: That concludes that item of business.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the beginning of business, you identified to us that various Ministers had resigned. You made no mention of the office of First Minister. Media reports suggest that we now have something called an "acting First Minister". Is that the case, and is there recognition in the House of the office of acting First Minister? Who is the First Minister?

Mr Speaker: There is provision under the Act for the First Minister to step aside. Of course, it is not the first time that it has happened. We have not had a resignation of the First Minister.

I ask Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.

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

Assembly Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As with similar motions, the motions on Committee membership will be treated as business motions. There will therefore be no debate.

Resolved:

That Mr Danny Kennedy replace Mr Ross Hussey as a member of the Committee for Education; and that Mr Danny Kennedy replace Mr Robin Swann as a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. — [Mr Swann.]

Resolved:

That Mr Phil Flanagan be appointed a member of the Committee for Social Development; that Mr Conor Murphy replace Mr Daithí McKay as a member of the Public Accounts Committee; that Mr Daithí McKay be appointed a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety; that Ms Bronwyn McGahan replace Mr Chris Hazzard as a member of the Committee for Justice; and that Mr Chris Hazzard replace Ms Bronwyn McGahan as a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. — [Ms Ruane.]

Ministerial Statement

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on the current crisis in a number of farm sectors, particularly the dairy sector.

We share a common concern about the fall in prices in the dairy sector and across a number of other key sectors; how that translates into prices below the cost of production; the effect on business profitability; and the direct impact that it is having on farmers and their families. I am doing everything that I can to support the industry through the current crisis so that it can survive and ultimately realise its growth potential.

I would like to outline to Members the actions that I have taken to date to support our farmers, as well as the next steps. I have always been a champion of the agrifood sector here. I have promoted the world-class, safe and traceable food that we produce. I recognise that the agrifood sector is the bedrock of our economy and a key force in shaping our natural environment, culture and society. Agrifood continues to be a significant growth sector for the local economy, with recent statistics showing turnover in the food and drinks industry heading towards £5 billion. The statistics also show an increase in employment of 5% as well as increased exports of more than 7%. The figures indicate that the trend for growth in the food and drinks sector over the last 10 years is continuing and that the sector is continuing to make a valuable contribution to the wider economy as a whole.

The dairy sector makes a particularly important contribution to the local economy. In 2014, it accounted for 41% of gross agricultural output, whereas the EU equivalent figure is 15%. It provides employment on over 3,000 farms, has a gross turnover of about £1 billion and employs over 2,000 people in the processing sector. Milk production in the North in 2014 was 9·4% higher than in 2013, and, in 2014, 2·2 billion litres of milk were produced. We have a good track record and a good dairy farming reputation. Our farmers have continuously invested for growth. The overall structure and efficiency of our dairy farms is good, and better than the EU average. Since 1990, the average herd size has more than doubled from 39 cows to 82 cows, and the yield per cow has increased from 4,900 litres per cow to 7,200 litres per cow. That compares with 29 cows in the EU with an average yield of 6,900 litres per cow. The processing sector has also made significant investments to improve its overall efficiency and the mix of dairy products.

Of course, those positive figures are very much overshadowed by the current financial crisis affecting farmers, particularly in the dairy sector. That is my main focus at the moment. Clearly, we will not continue to have a thriving food sector if we do not have a thriving farm sector. That is a challenge for us all, going forward. Our dairy industry is facing a unique and extreme set of circumstances. The dairy sector in the North is very directly exposed to commodity markets and is vulnerable to the currency exposure that brings because of the nature of our market. We do not have the same large domestic market for our liquid milk as other EU countries, and our producer price is closely linked to global commodity prices. In 2014, liquid milk in the EU accounted for 21% of volume, compared with only 10% in the North. Also, as the North exports around 85% of the milk we produce, currency fluctuations have compounded our difficulties. Our milk prices have therefore fallen considerably more over the last 18 months than is the case in Britain. Our prices are 22% below those in Britain. Milk prices in the North fell to 18·87 pence per litre in July 2015. That is a drop of 36% on the average price in 2014, and many industry stakeholders feel that there is worse yet to come.

The current crisis has been caused largely by a range of global factors outside our control, including increased milk production in several countries, the Russian ban on food imports, reduced demand from key markets such as China, and a weak euro. As those factors are outside our control, it points to the need for an effective EU action to address the very damaging consequences of the situation. That action must be immediate; any further delay will see many farmers going out of business. Local industry and political representatives alike are all agreed that this crisis cannot be solved at a local level alone. It needs concerted action, with everyone working together to a common aim, playing their part and making a contribution.

I have done and will continue to do everything that I can at a local level to address this problem. Given the challenges that the wider farming sector is facing, we also need additional EU support. Our aim should be to make much needed money available quickly to our farmers to ease the cash flow situation and tide them over until the market recovers. Our local industry representatives throughout the dairy supply chain have called for a significant increase in the intervention price. I have strenuously supported that call.

We need to examine the intervention system and assess whether it adequately fulfils the role of providing an effective safety net. It was, after all, set 12 years ago at the 2003 CAP reform, and it urgently needs to be reviewed. In the interim, there has been a substantial increase in production and marketing costs. The support threshold is, therefore, outdated. To be meaningful, it needs to be set a higher level. I cannot see the point in having a safety net if it does not reflect the current market realities. That view has been supported by the recent report on the prospects for the EU dairy sector, which was agreed by the European Parliament on 6 July. Lessons also need to be learned from the crisis in the dairy sector in 2008-09, when prices fell at the end of 2008 and remained low until the autumn of 2009. The €300 million made available at that time is widely regarded as being too little, too late.


12.45 pm

I have been working with industry and political stakeholders, particularly in relation to the dairy sector, for more than year. I have been engaging regularly with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to emphasise our unique circumstances in the North of Ireland, and I have pressed her to support our case for effective and timely EU action. In particular, I have been pushing for a review of the intervention threshold rates and immediate help for the dairy sector. I have also highlighted the plight of our other farm sectors.

I have also been liaising with our MEPs, my opposite numbers in Scotland and Wales and Minister Coveney in the South. I have taken our case directly to Brussels. I met European Commissioner Phil Hogan in late March and took the opportunity to impress on him the importance of the dairy sector for the North, our particular exposure to global market volatility and the potentially dire consequences of the growing problems in milk prices. I subsequently wrote to the Commissioner and sought an urgent meeting with him ahead of the special meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 7 September.

On 1 September, I took our case to the heart of Europe, securing an unprecedented meeting with Commissioner Hogan and his senior officials. I brought a strong delegation of local industry and political representatives with me, including our MEPs and the Chair of the Agriculture Committee, William Irwin MLA. I am grateful to the members of the delegation for their support. We presented a united front to the Commission and worked collectively to present a convincing case to Mr Hogan that there is an urgent need for action from Europe on intervention prices and for effective support for the dairy industry and the other sectors. As a result of that meeting, I felt reassured that Commissioner Hogan had a better grasp of our unique circumstances, the particular vulnerability of our industry and the difficulties it faces because of our high dependence on exports, poor exchange rates and extreme market conditions. I emphasised the need for immediate action to put money into farmers' pockets and pressed him very hard on reviewing the intervention threshold.

On Monday 7 September, I attended a special meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels. Ahead of that meeting, I had a further round of useful meetings with representatives of the farming unions, DEFRA and the devolved Administrations and Minister Coveney. I continued to argue the case for farmers in the North with our counterparts in DEFRA, Scotland and Wales.

I have also been engaging with my Executive colleagues to bring their attention to the difficulties faced across the farming industry. I have highlighted the extreme price volatility to which the agrifood industry is exposed. I have encouraged them to assist where they can, for example by ensuring that local businesses are able to bid for public-sector contracts and encouraging them to engage with the British Treasury on the scope for any further flexibility on taxation.

On a practical level, my Department’s dairy advisers have, throughout the spring and summer, held workshops and training events that have detailed the specific issues of cost control, technical efficiency, benchmarking and business management. A series of press releases was followed up with technical articles and radio interviews. I have had a number of meetings with the banks and the feed merchants, which have all been constructive. I have encouraged them to be proactive, sympathetic and flexible where possible. I am also engaging with the retail sector. My Department will continue to offer that practical support. I am also committed to making direct payments to as many farmers as possible in December 2015.

Prior to the special meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, Commissioner Hogan held a press conference at which he promised to bring forward a comprehensive package of measures to address the difficulties in the farming sector. At the Council meeting on 7 September, we learned that there was little new thinking behind that package. The Commission announced a €500 million package of proposals that was aimed at the cash flow difficulties facing farmers, the functioning of the supply chain and stabilising markets. That includes an envelope of aid to all member states to support the dairy sector, permitting up to 70% of direct payments to be made in advance, advancing certain rural development payments, providing for financial instruments and further use of the income stabilisation tool under rural development programme.

The Commission also proposed a new private storage aid scheme for milk powder and pigmeat, increasing the budget for promotion programmes, strengthening the Milk Market Observatory and opening up new markets. To tackle supply chain challenges, the Commission will establish a new high-level group to focus on clearly defined issues, such as futures markets. The Commission will also seek to finalise negotiations on the school milk scheme.

While confirmation of targeted financial aid is welcome, we need to see much more detail on exactly what is being proposed, how it will be targeted to those farmers most in need and when it will reach our farmers. In addition, I have real concerns that the €500 million will not go very far across 28 member states. I am also concerned about the scope for differentiated aid for the North of Ireland as it is within a member state.

In summary, the Commission package raises more questions than answers, and I have written to Commissioner Hogan seeking urgent clarification on how it will support our farmers. I remain very concerned about the impact of the current crisis on farmers and their families and about the future of the wider agrifood industry.

As Members will no doubt be aware, the special meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council was preceded by mass demonstrations by farmers from France, Germany, Belgium and, indeed, the North of Ireland, which almost brought Brussels and the European Quarter to a standstill.

Closer to home, the UFU coordinated a demonstration here at Stormont on 4 September, where representatives from across the agrifood supply chain and local politicians came out in force to show their support and express their concern for the industry. To me, the numbers involved in those demonstrations and the depth of farmers’ concerns send a powerful message to the European Commission that we are not prepared to stand by and watch our most important industry collapse. We need effective action from Europe now to ensure that we have a sustainable industry for the future. Europe cannot ignore the plight of farmers here.

We know that the next few months will be crucial for the industry. We will continue to press the Commission hard for swift and effective support for our most important industry. I will continue to work closely with our industry on the implications of the Commission’s announcement at the Council meeting on 7 September. I will continue to fight to get the best deal for our hard-pressed industry. There will be further examination of the proposed package at the informal meeting of Agriculture Ministers in Luxembourg tomorrow. I will continue to urge the Commission not only to use the full range of tools at its disposal but to ensure that these are fit for purpose by committing to a review of intervention thresholds in line with article 7.2 of the CMO regulation. I will continue to work with colleagues across these islands and with industry to explore mechanisms to support a sustainable and profitable agrifood industry into the medium and longer term.

As I announced recently, support for knowledge transfer, innovation, cooperation and capital investment will be available under the rural development programme, including the proposed farm business improvement scheme. Following the approval of our RDP by the European Commission, I plan to open the first phase of the farm business improvement scheme measures later this year. This will include the establishment of business development groups and training for farmers, including farm safety and business planning, with the other schemes to follow in a coordinated manner. I am committed to supporting greater fairness, transparency and communication in the supply chain, and I have tasked the Agri-Food Strategy Board with developing proposals to take this forward. I am pleased that the first supply chain forum event is scheduled to take place in October. My Department will continue to support the industry’s growth ambitions, as set out in the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s report 'Going for Growth', through the provision of education, training, technical support and research to help to improve efficiency, competitiveness and innovation. I will also continue to work hard to stimulate export growth and open up new markets.

I remain optimistic for the future. Whilst dairy farmers face a very difficult time at present, I believe that, with a growing world population, the longer-term outlook for the industry is good. My priority now is to do all that I can to ensure that the dairy industry is still in place and that it is healthy so that it can seize on those opportunities when the global markets and prices improve.

Mr Byrne (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): I thank the Minister for making the statement today. It is very timely and important, given the serious condition that the farming industry has been in for the last three or four months. First, what support can the Minister give to the farming community generally and the dairy sector in particular at present to help with the cash flow crisis that many farmers are experiencing? Secondly, will DARD be able to administer an upfront 70% payment of this year's single farm payment in October, as signalled by the EU Agriculture Commissioner's office, given that cash flow is the biggest crisis facing most farmers?

Mrs O'Neill: I absolutely agree with the Member that the crisis that we face in the farming industry is a cash flow crisis. Why are we in this position? It has been building up for some time. We have consistently made the argument with the European Commission that it needs to review the intervention price. Given the nature of the market, even to have signalled that action would have created a floor in the market, which would have allowed the market to recover naturally by itself. However, Phil Hogan has chosen to turn his face to that approach. Unfortunately, we did not have support from DEFRA on that approach because the British Treasury's position is not to look at intervention prices. That is unfortunate because that would have helped the market to recover naturally. I fear that the Commission has taken the same stance and repeated exactly the same actions; anything that it has brought forward has been too little, too late. Exactly the same happened in 2008 and 2009, when the Commission stood back and took too long to act, and it took the market a very long time to recover. However, a package of measures has been put on the table. It creates a €500 million package to deal with cash flow, but it remains to be seen what that looks like for our farming industry. When that is distributed across 28 member states, I suspect that it will not amount to an awful lot of money for farmers. However, every little helps, particularly given the situation that we are in.

As I said, we are scoping out with the Commission and our MEPs more of the detail of the package that was put on the table on 7 September. Alongside that, over the last year I have been working closely with the banks on the action they are taking and asking them to be proactive and to work with the farming industry, to be flexible and sympathetic and to work with farmers on business planning. I am making the point that the longer-term prospects for the industry are good but, if we do not help farmers to get through this crisis now, they will not be there to produce.

Alongside the work with the banks, the Grain Trade Association and the farming unions, as well as working collectively, we have been making sure that we try to cover all the bases in any supports that have been brought forward. My Department has increased the number of workshops that it has done. It has been disseminating information about feed and working with farmers on cash flow. We have certainly seen an increase in the number of farmers coming forward and asking for that support. We have Rural Support on the ground providing excellent advice and support for farmers who really are at the end of their tether. That is right across all the farming sectors.

On your last point about single farm payments or the basic payment scheme, as it is now referred to, the Commission announced that, as part of its package, there is an opportunity to look towards advancing payments. We will not be in a position to make advance payments. The Member will know what my priority has been over the last number of years: I have improved the situation year-on-year, and this year I intend to match that. I have made sure that I have prioritised the work in the Department. My priority has been to make sure that we pay the maximum number of people in that first week in December. That is still the intention. We need to see farmers receiving the money as quickly as possible. It is certainly my intention to make sure that we achieve that. As I said, there have been improvements year-on-year, and this year I expect to match that.

If I was in a position to make part payments or to advance the payments, I would certainly do that. You know that I am trying to make sure that the Department reaches that position. However, there have been massive changes as a result of the common agricultural policy this year, and we are moving from one single farm payment to three separate payment, as well as getting the IT system, making sure that we do all that work and dealing with new entrants and young farmers. All those things have compounded the difficulties with being able to make part payments, even though the Commission has now indicated that it will allow some work and some advance in that.

My message to the farming industry is this: I am doing absolutely everything that I can. I will continue to press the Commission. I still believe that it needs to take a review of intervention prices. The current price is outdated. The other assurance that I will give the industry is that my Department has prioritised making sure that the maximum number of farmers are paid in that first week in December.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Minister tell us what focus she has placed on developing new markets?

Mrs O'Neill: There has been a lot of focus on that, because I think that, given the global market conditions that we work within, one of the best ways that we can help to guard against the volatility in the marketplace is by going out and targeting new markets. The more opportunities we create for our industry, obviously, the more potential there is to get into new markets, achieve a good price and be competitive in those markets. I am quite enthused by a lot of the work that has been done in getting into markets. Obviously there has been a reduction in the demand from the Chinese market. However, we are running hard to try to get into the Chinese market, particularly for pork. Alongside that, we have inspection visits from the US and Australia later this year, and we are working with the Philippines. So, quite a number of new markets are being targeted. I am quite enthused by the opportunities that are there. One of the best ways that we can help to protect the industry is to look for those new markets and opportunities. That is at the core of Going for Growth, the strategy for the industry, which is on increasing our exports. That will help to grow the markets. We are seriously taking on board all those opportunities, and we are working with industry to get into all the new markets that we can.

Mrs Dobson: I also thank the Minister for her statement, although there is little in it that will actually reassure farmers or deliver any meaningful support.

The Minister rightly talks about the size and importance of our local agrifood industry, but does she accept — this is a point that has been raised with all of us so many times over the summer during the protests — that her main priority must be to stabilise the industry and keep the farmers that we have in business? Many face financial ruin, as you know, Minister, and the mental anguish associated with that. We have to protect the farmers we have at the moment, as well as getting that balance of seeking to expand.


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Mrs O'Neill: Yes, and I think that what I outlined is exactly what we have been doing. I have said consistently — I say this publicly on every opportunity that I have — that if this is a cash-flow issue and we do not support the industry to get through this crisis, we will not have farmers to produce and avail themselves of the potential opportunities that we are trying to open up for the future. So, I agree with everything that you said. What I tabled and outlined today are all the measures that I have taken to date, all the steps that I have taken to date, what we are working on and what we will continue to work on in the future.

I believe that we have a fantastic product to offer. I believe that we have a fantastic industry and that we can go confidently around the world to get into new markets and say that we have a very clean, green image and a very wholesome product. So, we need to be able to support our sector to get into the opportunities that are there. That includes getting every sector through this immediate crisis. I clearly set out everything that I am doing, but the situation that we are facing is obviously because of global market conditions.

The tool and mechanism to help the industry was very clearly needed at a European level. Unfortunately, the Commission has not gone as far as I want to see it go — I might add that that includes other member states — but there is something on the table now. We will work with that and work out the detail of it. I will continue to make my voice heard about why we are unique, compared with even Scotland, Wales and England. We export more product. We export 85% of everything that we produce, so we are more susceptible to market conditions. I will certainly argue that, to reflect the nature of our export industry, we are entitled to receive a fair share of any support that comes.

Mr McCarthy: I also thank the Minister for her detailed statement. There is no doubt that she is fully committed to seeing our farmers fully rewarded for the work that they do.

I am concerned, however, that her statement says that unless "immediate" action is taken a number of our farmers will go out of business. That is the last thing we want to see. What is the difference between the €500 million package that has been on offer and the prospects of intervention if the commissioner was to go down that road? What is the difference between that €500m million and the intervention prices that we have been asking for so that the farming and agriculture industry is progressive and remains stable?

Mrs O'Neill: Given the nature of the dairy sector — I will use the 2008-09 example — there are going to be peaks and troughs in the market. So, we will continue to come back to this point so that we can help the industry to get through this difficulty now. The European Commission's proposal is to throw an aid package on the table. I believe that that is not a very long-term outlook. I believe that it should intervene and review the intervention price. People trade in milk product in a global market. Speculators do not buy, because they are waiting and waiting for the price to come down. If the Commission reviewed the intervention price and set a floor below which the price cannot fall, the market would start to correct itself.

The free market does not work. So, although I welcome the approach of the European Commission as being of some help — there is some initiative there, and every bit obviously helps when the industry is in difficulty — we will be back in the same position making the exact same arguments in a number of years' time. I think that it is a very short-sighted approach, and it puts a sticking plaster over the problem rather than deals with it. That is the main difference, I believe, with the intervention price. I have not given up on that, and I am quite encouraged that other member states have also not given up on it. I think we need to still push it, because, given the nature of the dairy market, we will keep coming back to this position time and again unless a proper long-term view and approach is taken to it.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome the statement and thank the Minister for presenting it to us this afternoon. How beneficial will the Commission's focus on tackling the supply chain challenges be for the local industry?

Mrs O'Neill: I welcome the signal from the industry that it will have a high-level group that will look at supply chain issues. I have always said that it is central, even to our own local strategy around Going for Growth, that we have one supply chain. I welcome any mechanisms that will work towards and signal that there needs to be that fairness, and I welcome that it will be coming from a European level. As I said, I have always been an advocate for greater fairness in the supply chain, because that is the element of it that is continually pushed when it comes to trying to bring prices down.

I will feed into the European Commission's review. I have also been speaking to DEFRA in England and the Scottish and Welsh Ministers on what else can be done closer to home. I have asked the Agri-Food Strategy Board to establish a supply chain forum. I am delighted that its first meeting will be in mid October, which will be the start of a local approach. We are coming at it from a number of angles. The fact that the European Commission has signalled an intention to bring something forward at a European level is to be welcomed.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for bringing the statement to the House today. It shows the Minister's commitment to the farming industry and farmers. She promised that she would do all that she can, and the statement sets out exactly what she has done. The agriculture industry has a leader at the front. We have seen that in everything that the Minister has done. The future for the farming industry is good, and we have a strong leader. What will the targeted aid package provide to the industry?

Mrs O'Neill: What was most unfortunate was that there were very high expectations. Thousands of farmers came to protest outside the Commission as the Agriculture Council sat. It is fair to say that expectations for the detail of any proposed package were very high. We had the headline figure of €500 million, but, unfortunately, when you break that down across 28 member states, and it is then decided how that will be distributed within member states and what sectors will benefit, it does not amount to an awful lot of funding.

We have asked for further clarification on the detail. The industry is obviously looking on keenly at what it means for individual farmers. I want to make sure that that aid is targeted and that we work closely with the industry in how we distribute it and how we can do that as quickly as possible. We are working with the Commission. As I said, there is a meeting of Ministers tomorrow, which will thrash out more of the detail. We will work with the Commission on getting the detail and making sure that we can get the funding distributed. Although it may end up being a small amount, we will get it distributed as quickly as possible.

Mr Rogers: Thanks for your statement, Minister. Following on from your last answer, when do you expect that payments from the €500 million European package will come? What fraction do you expect to get, bearing in mind our unique position, particularly, as you mentioned, with milk prices here being 22% below what they are in Britain?

Mrs O'Neill: We still do not have confirmation on when the funding is coming. That is what we are working on with the Commission. In the aftermath of the council meeting, I said that the most disappointing element of the meeting was that, while headlines were given, there was no detail as to when and how the funding will come. We are working our way through that as we speak. You could give a rough estimate. Britain and the North of Ireland represent about 10% of the dairy output. If you were as crass as to use that to make a very blunt calculation, you would be talking about some €50 million. However, that remains to be seen. A contribution will go to DEFRA, and we will have to fight our corner. To date, we have been very successful in arguing why we are unique and different. I will deploy those arguments again when it comes to the actual distribution of the funding within the member states.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for bringing a statement on this crucial issue to the House. Let her be reassured that we will not run away from her and that we will use our mandate to stay in the Chamber to question her and seek clarification on her statements.

Minister, point 41 states that the Commission has brought forward little new thinking behind the package. Will the Minister indicate what new thinking she has brought to the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland in the 63 points in the statement?

Mrs O'Neill: The Member has listened to me relay my statement. I have very clearly set out all the initiatives that I have been involved with. I have been very proactive on the issue. The crisis in the farming industry is a result of global market conditions. Despite the Member's view, at the rallies that I have attended, we have always said that we need to work together to help the industry. This should not be used as a political stick to try to beat each other with. For me, we need to come at this from a collective point of view.

The industry needs the Executive, the Assembly and every political party in the Chamber to work together to help it to get through the crisis; it does not need bickering, unionist party rivalry or unionist party electioneering. It wants to see action. I have clearly set out all the initiatives with which I have been involved, all the things that I am doing and all the things that I intend to do. I have clearly shown leadership on the issue and will continue to do so for the industry.

From the moment I took up ministerial position, I have said that this is an economic Department. The agrifood industry is crucial to the overall economy of the North of Ireland. I will continue to champion the rights and benefits of that industry and the rights of farmers in the supply chain. I have consistently shown leadership and will continue to do so. I have set out all the practical things that I can be involved with and will continue to do that. Because global market factors have contributed to the crisis that the farming industry is in, we needed the European Commission to take action. Unfortunately, I do not believe that it has gone far enough, and I have said so publicly. I will continue to challenge the Commission on what it is doing, but I will not be found wanting in my action to support the industry.

Mr Dallat: I was somewhat comforted by the assurance from Mr Swann that the unionists will not run away from this crisis, but one could be forgiven for wondering why there were so many empty seats across the Chamber when this critical statement was delivered.

I ask the Minister what progress, if any, has been made by the Commission to introduce or finalise negotiations for the school milk scheme. I ask that question in all sincerity because, as the Minister knows, last week there were new figures on child poverty. Primary schools are finding it increasingly difficult to fund breakfast clubs. We all know that, among the people who really depend on the Assembly, there are many children from a background in which they get their nutritious meals in the morning in school.

Mrs O'Neill: I agree with the Member on the benefits of the scheme coming forward. As he says rightly, it may be the only milk that a child gets in a day. As I said, the Commission very much went down the road of using headlines at the Council meeting, so we do not have much detail about how it will take the scheme forward. At a local level, there is uptake of the scheme by some schools; however, for various reasons, not all schools participate. Some find it too hard to administer etc. This is an opportunity for fresh thinking on whether there is anything else that we can do to encourage schools. I have written to Ministers to highlight that.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her statement. Clearly, these are serious times not only for the dairy sector but for everyone involved in the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland, including a great many people in my constituency, Newry and Armagh. The Minister made reference to her engagement with the banks and the retail sectors. What concrete proposals and specific measures has she been able to agree with the banks and the retail sector to provide some measure of comfort to hard-pressed families as the crisis moves forward?

Mrs O'Neill: As I have said, this crisis has been building for some time; it is not something that we just arrived at overnight. To go back as far as December last year, I met the banks and put the proposal to them that they should be proactive in contacting all their customers. That was in relation to the dairy sector alone. Obviously, however, given the problems that face all the other sectors, throughout the past year, I have engaged on quite a number of occasions with the banks. They took that proactive approach and contacted their customers and went out and talked to them. We offered support from our advisers in the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE). I thought that it would be of benefit to the industry to widen out that meeting, which we did. We then invited representatives of the feed industry and the farming unions to talk collectively about what practical steps we could take. It was really about flexibility from the banks. It was about everybody having an opportunity to identify the challenges that face each element, because when farmers are affected the wider rural community is affected, in that there is a knock-on effect in paying for feed and making payments to banks. Collectively, we decided to continue to work together. Over the last couple of months, particularly over the summer, we had two meetings where we had all the players round the table. Again, the whole focus has been on how we work together proactively. I am pleased to say that the banks actually took that on.


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Because we had everybody, including the farming unions, round the table, we were also able to point to examples where maybe we felt that banks were not doing the job that they should be doing or had suggested that they were doing. We had the opportunity to challenge them about what they were doing. That is an invaluable area of work. I have said that I will continue to do that and meet again regularly as we go through this difficult time.

Mr Allister: Given the Commission's rejection of the lifeline of intervention, which would have put a bottom in the market and given essential confidence to allow the market to recover, and instead its paltry and meaningless package, does the Minister agree that the EU has let our farmers down and will drive some of our dairy farmers to the wall?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I agree that the Commission proposals do not go far enough. To say that it was a disappointment that it did not work towards reviewing the intervention price is an understatement. As I said, the Commission has not learnt the lessons from previous experience. It has made the same mistake again and has waited too long. What it has put on the table is not worth much. We will be back in this position again over the next number of years, time and time again. To continue to throw a few pounds of aid at the problem will not tackle it at source. The only way to do that and the only opportunity to allow the market to actually recover itself is to review the intervention price. I do not understand — I put this point very clearly to Phil Hogan — what the fear is in reviewing the intervention price. When the Commission stepped in previously, it actually made money. It is nonsense. I do not understand the rationale for why it has not reviewed the intervention price.

As I said, I welcome the fact that there is something on the table, but, for me, a lot of the initiatives are a rehash of things that were already happening. They are certainly more of a medium- to longer-term approach to the issue, but the core problem remains that, if we do not get farmers through this immediate crisis, we will not have farmers to avail themselves of the new opportunities that we see in the longer term.

Mr McCallister: I welcome the Minister's statement. Looking round the Chamber, I did not realise that abstentionism was so contagious.

In her answers to Mr Byrne and Mr Kennedy, the Minister acknowledged that cash flow was tremendously important. Sorry, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker; I should declare my interest or draw Members' attention to the fact that I am a farmer, a recipient of single farm payment and a member of the Ulster Farmers' Union. In terms of cash flow and the discussions that she had with the banks, which she mentioned in her reply to Mr Kennedy, were there specific discussions about capital holidays for farmers? Is that an idea? I know that the farmers' unions have certainly pressed the idea. Is it one that would garner her support? If so, will she continue to make that point? It would be an easy way to reduce the pressures on farmers' cash flow.

Mrs O'Neill: I am glad that the Member is here to ask the question. I am here to make a statement on all the actions that I have taken; that is what I am here to do. I am sure that the farming industry will be disappointed to know that other unionist parties have decided not to take part during what is one of the most challenging and difficult economic times for farmers across all sectors.

Capital holidays for farmers is certainly a matter of ongoing discussion with the banks. Some are offering them and some are not. The approach that we need to take is that, whilst we continue to push banks on making capital holidays available — I believe that the majority of the main banks make them available — it is not perhaps the best solution for every farmer. The point that we have made consistently and that I have made along with the unions to the banks is that, if there were a range or suite of measures that farmers could avail themselves of, they could work on a case-by-case basis and try to suit the individual needs of each farmer.

Private Members' Business

Civil Service (Special Advisers) (Amendment) Bill: First Stage

Mr Allister: I beg to introduce the Civil Service (Special Advisers) (Amendment) Bill [NIA 61/11-16], which is a Bill to amend sections 7 and 8 of the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 and article 3 of the Civil Service Commissioners (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 in relation to special advisers in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Principal Deputy 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 are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr McAleer: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises that the current multiple deprivation indicators do not accurately identify the extent of poverty and deprivation in rural areas; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to review this urgently.

The overriding reason why we decided to table the motion calling for a review of multiple deprivation measures (MDM) is the impact that they have on rural communities, particularly government policies for rural areas and associated funding streams.

In the aftermath of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development's review of rural poverty, which included an analysis of the deprivation measures and during which we took evidence from expert witnesses from NISRA and others, we felt that now was an appropriate time to bring such a motion to the Chamber to open it out to wider discussion. In the course of our deliberations and meetings with various rural stakeholders, we found that there is a very strong view among those stakeholders that the current method used by government to assess deprivation in rural areas underestimates its full extent. That theme was expressed during the Agriculture Committee's recent review, and it was discussed at a seminar that was held last year — 'Poverty Amongst Plenty?' — which I co-hosted with MLAs from other parties. The seminar was addressed by NISRA and other representatives. We heard some very compelling evidence from organisations such as the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU), the Rural Development Council (RDC) and the Rural Community Network (RCN).

A recurring theme during any deliberation on the issue or with any lobbying is the view that the model that is used in the North is a spatial model. It focuses mostly on small areas of concentrations of deprivation, and they are more easily identified in urban areas than in rural areas. When you use a spatial model, it is more difficult to target individuals, and that makes it extremely difficult. Indeed, the completion of the Committee's report and the current scrutiny of the Rural Proofing Bill makes now a good time for this motion.

We looked at some of the inadequacies in the current measures. Income and expenditure are two of the key domains that are looked at. They count for 50% of the overall MDM score and account for 25% each in how it is weighted. The income level domain is quite rightly focused on, but, from a rural perspective, it does not look at expenditure. There is a great deal of evidence from organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that it costs more to live in a rural area, where the cost of living is higher. They estimate that it could cost up to 20% more to live in a rural area. If you live in a rural area, you have to own, for example, at least one car if not two, and more travel time is needed to get to shops and childcare services. That is compounded by a less than adequate public transport system compared with urban areas.

The other domain that is looked at is employment, which accounts for 25% of the overall score. However, the MDM does not take account of the fact that a lot of people emigrate from rural areas to work in urban areas, or, in the case of my constituency of West Tyrone, go across the water or down South to work.

In the overall MDM score for super output areas across the North, of which there are 890, proximity to services is weighted at 10% of the overall score.
There is concern among an awful lot of rural stakeholder organisations, particularly the RCN and the RDC, that there is not enough weighting afforded to proximity to services.

A lot of work has been carried out on this across the water in Scotland. The Church of Scotland commissioned a study to compare the experiences of its rural and urban congregations, and that was carried out by Geddes and Houston in 2011. They found that there was huge deprivation in access to services in rural areas, and that can have a negative impact on people's lives in terms of employment, medical care, participation in social activities and, indeed, travel times, which are up to 10 times greater in isolated rural areas.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr McAleer: Yes, of course.

Mr Beggs: Coming from a rural area, I have a degree of sympathy for the Member in wanting a review, but can he indicate which other deprivation indices he wishes to reduce in order to increase proximity to services?

Mr McAleer: I thank the Member for his intervention. It is important to look across all the domains to see whether it is possible to take a little bit off some domains to increase access to basic services. We look forward to NISRA coming back to us with its recommendations and to seeing what it suggests. The evidence that we heard from NISRA indicates that there is guidance for rural areas, but it is not 100% content that they are being focused on; there is more focus on the overall score. Obviously, we look forward to NISRA coming back with some recommendations.

Studies found that the lower weighting given to proximity to services has a huge impact on underestimating deprivation in rural areas. We found it astounding that not a single rural super output area features in the top 10% most deprived areas across the North. Obviously, that will have implications for anti-poverty initiatives. Rural organisations are very concerned that policy-makers and funders may focus on the top 10% to 20%, even though there is rural guidance on how best to use those measures. I think that it is alarming that there is not one rural area in the top 10% of the 890 in the North. Indeed, the closest we have is Castlederg in the West Tyrone constituency, which ranks ninety-seventh. That is all in the context of the DSD family resources survey, which indicates that 24% of people in rural areas live in poverty.

Given that the current measure is a spatial index of deprivation, it is very important that we focus on how to capture deprivation when it is widely dispersed. The Ulster Farmers' Union made that point very clear when it addressed the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development during the inquiry. It said that it would like to see a method that will pinpoint deprivation in rural areas and that, unlike urban areas, which are more socially segregated, people of all socio-economic backgrounds live side by side in rural areas.

To use its own words, it said that:

"One person could be in poverty and the person down the road could be in relative affluence. We are not sure that the MDM takes that into account at present."

As for some of the other stakeholder organisations that we routinely meet at the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, and as MLAs, the Rural Community Network and the Rural Development Council strongly feel that urban areas are socially segregated, whereas, in rural areas, deprivation exists amongst relative affluence, and there must be a change in the current measures to ensure that they capture the extent of rural deprivation. Their fear is that that distortion can impact on Government policies and spending in rural areas. Indeed, when Mr Trutz Haase came to a seminar recently, he referred to what he termed the prevalence of opportunity deprivation in rural areas being caused by lack of access to centres of decision, key services and career opportunities.

In conclusion, there is a great deal of consensus among rural interest groups that the current system does not accurately measure poverty and deprivation in rural areas. At the very least, unlike in urban areas, rural deprivation — I spoke about a couple of these key issues during my opening speech — is not concentrated in any particular area; it is very widely dispersed. The proximity to services domain has a very low weighting, and that affects the overall MDM score.

I thank Members for coming here today for this important motion and I look forward to hearing their contributions.


1.30 pm

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm bheith ag labhairt ar an rún tábhachtach seo inniu. I dtús báire ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil mé i bhfabhar an rúin agus tá roinnt moltaí de mo chuid féin agam i leith an rúin. At the outset, it is important to be clear about what deprivation is. Deprivation is usually taken to refer to unmet needs across a number of areas or domains.

The most recent Northern Ireland multiple deprivation measure was in 2010, five years ago. It provided a relative measure of deprivation in small areas across Northern Ireland. It was constructed from around 52 different indicators relating to seven separate types of deprivation; income, employment, health, education, proximity to services, living environment, and crime and disorder. According to NISRA in 2010, approximately one third of the super-output areas were classified as rural and two thirds were classified as urban. The average size of the urban areas was 2·1 square kilometres compared to rural areas, where the average size was 45·1 square kilometres.

The 2011-15 DARD tackling rural poverty and social isolation framework found some very startling figures when looking at rural deprivation. The rural west, for example, had some of the highest proportion of households scoring on each of the deprivation indicators. These indicators included not being in a position to save at least £10 a month, not being able to replace worn-out household items such as furniture, not being able to keep accommodation sufficiently warm and not being able to meet household bills and so on. Rural regions have the highest proportion of people with Post Office card accounts. The rural west, however, is more likely to have people with no savings; that figure is 53%. Rural areas also had the highest percentage of households, 8%, that were behind in one or more household bills. This rose to 10% in the rural west compared to 6% in urban areas.

I do not think it is as clear in the Northern Ireland multiple deprivation measures as it could be. There are changes to the system of measurement which could be made to improve the identification of multiple deprivation areas in the rural region. These include the measures used in the Republic of Ireland — the Pobal HP method — which are designed to remove, or minimise, these issues, and measures used in Wales that were developed specifically as rural multiple deprivation measures.

The motion calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to review this urgently. I believe that it should be urgently reviewed so that we can learn the full extent of deprivation. However, I believe that there should be a cross-departmental approach with responsibility on all Northern Ireland Executive Ministers as opposed to focusing solely on DFP. Deprivation is the responsibility of many Departments, not least DSD and DARD. Whereas, obviously, the Department of Finance and Personnel could lead the approach, it is important to include other Departments that also have an interest in rural affairs.

I note a question that was asked of OFMDFM around nine months ago on what work that Department was doing, along with other Departments, to address multiple deprivation indicators in rural areas. To date, that question has not been answered, so I hope that is not an indication of the interest that that Department has. In conclusion —

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

Mr D Bradley: In conclusion, we support the motion and commend it to the House, with the proposals that I made in my speech. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Cree: Several key questions are raised by the motion. First of all, what exactly are the current multiple deprivation indicators? Secondly, what is wrong with them in their operation in rural areas for measuring poverty and deprivation? Thirdly, what alternatives to them exist that would be more accurate?

The Northern Ireland multiple deprivation measures 2010 are made up of a total of 52 indicators relating mostly to the period 2007 to 2009. They are grouped into seven types or domains of deprivation and relate to income; employment; health; education, skills and training; proximity to services; living environment and crime and disorder.

Many of them appear to be obvious ways to measure deprivation, such as adults and children in income support, jobseeker's allowance households, incapacity benefit claimants, and the proportion of working-age adults aged 22 to 59 with no or low levels of qualifications. Information was aggregated and broken down into small geographical areas known as output areas and special output areas.

There are 5,022 output areas, each with a population of approximately 350 people. There are 890 special output areas, each with a population of approximately 2,000. Approximately one third of the special output areas were classified as rural, with the other two thirds classified as urban. It is important to remember that not all deprived people live in deprived areas. The deprivation measures will identify areas with large concentrations of deprived people, but those deprived people living in areas where only a small proportion of the population is deprived will be excluded from a solely spatially based policy.

What is wrong with the measures in their operation in rural areas for measuring poverty and deprivation? In the past, NISRA acknowledged and addressed concerns from representatives from the rural community in the 2005 and 2010 research. Although special output areas were designed to have special population sizes of approximately 2,000 to aid comparison across Northern Ireland, due to the smaller geographical size and similar socio-economic characteristics of the population in urban areas compared with rural areas, small area concentrations of deprivation are more readily identifiable in urban than rural areas.

In the geographically larger rural areas, the socio-economic characteristics of the population vary to a great extent. Clusters of deprived households or concentrations of deprivation are, therefore, identified less often in rural special output areas. When one looks at the most deprived rural super output areas and compares the difference between 2005 and 2010, one sees that 10 of the areas have either worsened or seen a very minor improvement. The other 10 that did see an improvement are still in the bottom 20, which tells a tale of how effective the Executive have been in alleviating deprivation.

The situation is even worse for urban super output areas. Of the bottom 20 urban areas in 2010, 19 were in Belfast and one was in Londonderry. Fifteen of the areas that were in the bottom 20 in 2005 were still there in 2010. From the NISRA statistics, it would appear that the Executive's ability to alleviate urban deprivation is as ineffective in urban areas as it is in rural areas.

What alternatives exist to the measures that would be more accurate? We recognise that the indicators are five years old and are based on information that is even older. We also believe that reform and re-evaluation should be constantly ongoing in virtually every walk of life so that lessons can be learned and improvements made. Therefore, we would not be opposed to looking at alternatives that might deliver a more accurate or equitable outcome. However, we must take care to ensure that any changes we might propose are not only an improvement on what is there already but that they hold up to rigorous academic scrutiny.

The Northern Ireland multiple deprivation measures 2010 are based on the same methodology developed by the social disadvantage research centre at the University of Oxford and used in the surveys of 2001 and 2005, as well as for multiple deprivation measures in England, Scotland and Wales.

If we are seriously talking about moving away from this, we need to be very clear about what measures we propose to remove and ensure that the alternatives that we propose are capable of standing up to robust scrutiny.

We support the motion and point out the dangers of deviating from common practice in the rest of the UK.

Mr McCarthy: I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate and fully support the motion to review the multiple deprivation indicators. However, it is worthwhile pointing out that, although I support the urgent review of the indicators, they have served a purpose over the past five years.

The 'Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure', as was mentioned by other Members, was published in May 2010 and replaced the 2005 report. Five years have passed, and the context that the people of Northern Ireland face is dramatically different from before. Accordingly, from the outset, it is clear that the indicators must be reviewed to update their effectiveness for the purpose that they were created for, namely, challenging poverty and deprivation right across Northern Ireland. The 2010 report published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) presented key indicators that it felt could best be used by Departments to tackle deprivation in Northern Ireland. However, tackling deprivation is complex, given the many interrelated forms that it can take, and the 2010 report attempted to recognise that through the seven general indicator areas that it chose. However, a key and recurring word throughout the 2010 report was "relative" — that is to say that it should not be taken as absolute and applicable to every context.

That brings us to the debate today on the challenges that rural areas are facing in tackling poverty and deprivation. Statistics show us that, in rural areas throughout Northern Ireland, food and fuel poverty rates are higher and access to employment and housing significantly more difficult than in urban areas. Despite that, rural areas are not ranked higher in the index table, even though affluent rural areas have been shown to contain those living in poverty or deprivation. Those individuals and their families are being overlooked when it comes to support from the Assembly because of the nature of the indicators as they stand, and it is one of the reasons why my party colleagues and I have called for their urgent review.

Moreover, I would like to see an improvement in the indicators through the recognition of opportunity deprivation, which could be highly eye-opening, given that it could be argued that application of the current index does not accurately represent our rural communities and thus is leading to a vicious circle of poverty and migration from these areas. Access to public services, education and, therefore, the opportunity to improve oneself is vital. A 1000-mile journey begins with one step, and the current indicators should not be seen as failures in the struggle against poverty and deprivation. Rather, they should be seen as positive steps towards recognising a complex issue in our drive to realise our objective of defeating poverty and deprivation in rural areas.

In conclusion, I fully support the motion and call on the Minister to review the indicators used as soon as possible as we move into an uncertain and concerning 2016. Indeed, issues such as this should serve as a reminder of how essential the work of the Assembly is and why the Executive are so vital to the people of Northern Ireland. It is a real pity and shame that the Chamber is not full of Members, including the Minister, to discuss and debate fully the important issues in the motion. However, the Alliance Party is content to support it.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I begin by acknowledging the work that the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has conducted to date as part of the Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Inclusion (TRPSI) review. I found the presentations and discussions that followed very informative indeed. I also record my thanks to the research team for preparing the pack in preparation for the debate.


1.45 pm

It is generally accepted among rural stakeholders that the methodology used for measuring deprivation does not accurately assess the extent of deprivation in rural areas. Urban and rural areas are not directly comparable. Rural areas are not populated in the same manner; rural communities are often dispersed, with affluent people and those who are less well off living side by side; the day-to-day difficulties that rural dwellers face are not the same as those faced by those who live in urban settings; and the level and depth of poverty are not as easily identified. Rural dwellers are also not as likely to take up benefit entitlements, and farmers, in particular, often have no access to benefits due to having family land or buildings despite having no or little income.

Deprivation can come in different forms, such as a lack of access to opportunities. Rural dwellers have to travel to attend higher education, to increase their employment prospects, to access health care and to socialise. The multiple deprivation measures disproportionately focus on income level and employment as domains but do not consider the higher cost of living in the countryside.

As has been stated by Members who have spoken, a lack of public transport makes it a requirement for most rural householders to own at least one car. Added to that are the running costs and the travel time that is lost each day by getting to and from work, appointments, childcare providers and shops. As has been stated, a 2010 study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the minimum income standard concluded that rural dwellers need to spend 10% to 20% more on everyday requirements than their urban counterparts. No allowance is made for that in the multiple deprivation measures. Additionally, those factors impact on who can avail of employment opportunities and increase the likelihood of young people emigrating or moving to urban areas.

Another concern that has been voiced is the weighting afforded to the proximity to services domain in the current methodology. The fact that there is a lower weighting of 10% means that rural areas are unlikely to feature in the top 10% or 20% of the most deprived areas across the North, which has implications for funding and anti-poverty programmes. That is further compounded by the fact that proximity to services is not the same as access to services. The ability to access services has huge implications for the elderly, the disabled and people on low incomes. It becomes irrelevant how far leisure centres or hospitals are if you do not have the ability to get there.

That is evidenced by the fact that no rural areas ranked in the top 10% most deprived of the 890 super output areas across the North. That was despite a survey by End Poverty Now in 2013, which estimated that 35% of children in Maghera, a small town in the constituency that I come from, are growing up in poverty and a recent claim by the Trades Union Congress that female part-time workers in Mid Ulster, a predominantly rural constituency, are the worst paid in the North.

Despite explanations from NISRA in relation to how the MDM figures should be read in a rural context, that does not appear to be the reality. There is perhaps a lack of understanding in Departments and the public sector about the guidance for rural areas, but that could be remedied by moving forward with the review and changing the method of capturing and presenting data. The MDM statistics are regularly used when addressing social need. Therefore, if we are to tackle poverty and disadvantage effectively, we need to look at how it is measured.

I am encouraged by the work of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development to date and the acknowledgement from NISRA when it completed the 2010 review that further work needed to be undertaken to identify rural deprivation.

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

Mr Milne: Whilst agreement has still to be reached on a preferred methodology, there is widespread consensus among interested rural groups that the current system is not accurately measuring poverty and deprivation in rural areas. I join my party colleagues in calling on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to bring forward the review as a matter of urgency.

Mrs D Kelly: As someone who lives in the townland of the Montiaghs, I am acutely aware of the paucity of service provision and access to public services experienced by rural communities. However, I am sure that many people are prepared to pay some price in lack of access so that they can enjoy the beauty of the Irish countryside. Twenty-first century statistics continue to show that the level of unfit houses that people have to live in across rural Northern Ireland is quite mind-boggling. I think that Fermanagh still experiences the highest level of unfitness.

Increasingly, the private sector is providing domiciliary care in the form of home helps, and I have to deal with that issue in my constituency. However, that sector says that it does not particularly want to do that business. It has stopped paying its staff the mileage to and from homes and it cannot recruit staff. I had to intervene in a case where a person had gone into hospital and was then put into respite care. The family wanted their mother home so that they could care for her, but the trust was unable to provide the home help, or domiciliary care provision, to allow that person to be discharged.

The indices that others have referred to during their contributions this afternoon have a real and meaningful impact on how services are provided. Rural people seldom ask for help. As others have said, there is great community support and people do not like to complain. Sometimes, people do not like to complain because they think that, if they complain about the services not being great, they will not even get to keep the service that is not so great that they are already getting. There is a greater need for people to look at the reality of service provision and at the definition of necessity versus luxury. Having two cars at a rural home is a necessity. It is half a mile from my house to the nearest school bus stop, and, quite often, the children walked that distance. That is a reality not just for my kids but for many other children.

As others have said, a high level of fuel poverty is also experienced by many people. New challenges have been set by DSD, for example, in how the affordable warmth scheme is being delivered. Based on research commissioned by Queen's, I think, local authorities now go out and knock doors and ask people whether they are living in rural poverty and whether they need some help with boiler installation etc. I am not saying that that is the case, but it would be tempting for those officers to hit a hotspot in an urban area, where they could run up and down the street and do about 10 houses in the space of an hour, whereas it would take them two or three hours to cover a rural area.

I would like to see some realism injected into the outworkings of NISRA's definition of deprivation and the poverty indicators. I would like to see greater cohesion across the Executive table. It is with great regret that I note that the Executive, and OFMDFM in particular, were taken to court by the Committee on the Administration of Justice over their failure to deliver an anti-poverty strategy. You would think that it is something that would be uncontroversial. If we were all putting the needs of the most vulnerable at the heart of our decision-making, we would resolve and collaborate on those issues very quickly.

It is not just the Finance Minister who needs to look at how some of the indices are calculated. A former principal of my local primary school told me that free school meals were not a good indicator, as many families are too embarrassed to take them. The uptake of school uniforms would be a much truer reflection of poverty in these areas. There is a job of work to be done —

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

Mrs D Kelly: — by not only the Finance Minister but the whole Executive.

Mr Beggs: First, I recognise the professional manner in which the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency collects statistics to ensure that they are robust. This research was carried out in a very professional manner, which means that we are working with figures that are as accurate as possible.

When I look through the 52 indicators, I see a degree of validity in each one of them: a reason why it has been included. I do not think that there is a need for vast change, although there may be a need for tweaking. Certainly, like my colleague, I am open to taking a good look at and re-evaluating them. However, any change will need to stand up to scrutiny, not only from rural communities but from those in need in urban communities.

I note from the information pack provided to us by the Library, for which I am grateful, that, in the past, the statistics were produced using methodology developed by the Social Disadvantage Research Centre at the University of Oxford. They follow a methodology similar to those used to produce multiple deprivation figures for England, Scotland and Wales. It is important that we know what the need in Northern Ireland is relative to other parts of the United Kingdom.

There is wide recognition that not all deprived people lived in a deprived area, and, similarly, not all people in a deprived area are deprived. There is no perfect indicator: once you get away from the individual or the household to spatial areas, you lose a degree of accuracy. The most accurate measurement is of individuals and individual households: for example, in my constituency, Glenfield estate in Carrickfergus has been widely recognised over the years as an area of need, but its need has been masked by its location in an otherwise relatively affluent area — certainly, more affluent areas neighbour the estate. There are problems with whatever method is used.

When I tried to read up on this, I noted something in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development's position paper on DARD's anti-poverty and social inclusion programme. NISRA has told the Committee that Wales has just provided an update and advised that it is waiting for — guess who? — OFMDFM and the statistics coordinating group, which is a cross-departmental group, to give direction on the way forward. The motion criticises the wrong group. NISRA appears to be saying that it is not holding anything up: it is the politicians in OFMDFM. We cannot criticise the statisticians when the political direction has not been given. Those who tabled the motion should have been aware of that, and, rather than criticising statisticians, recognised that the failing is in OFMDFM.

Going forward, local councils will play an increasing role in this area as they take a wider interest in community planning. I hope that that will be the case. There are particular challenges in rural communities at present. There is an obvious additional cost to every individual and every family living in a rural community when they have to travel, no matter what they do. Whether they travel on the limited public transport available, hire a taxi or use vehicles that families are forced to keep on the road as the only means of getting to their local town or village.

There is also the issue of heating. Gas is widely recognised as the most efficient method of heating, but it is not available in every rural household. That is just an outworking of the practicalities of gas supply. There are undoubtedly additional costs to living in rural communities.

I commend the MARA project for the work it has carried out over the years in trying to identify those in need who may not have taken up all their benefit entitlement and trying to give them help and advice. That has been a worthwhile project, and there will be a need for it going forward, particularly at this time —


2.00 pm

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

Mr Beggs: — given the difficulties that exist in the rural community and the current financial situation in agriculture.

I am open to looking at change, and I support the motion.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Oliver McMullan to conclude and wind on the debate.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

Agriculture and Rural Development

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The overall young farmer payment is capped at 2% of the overall fund, which equates to approximately €6·5 million. Assessment of the young farmer applications received is still ongoing, therefore the actual payment value cannot be calculated at this time. The value will be set once the number of eligible applications is established.

Mr Nesbitt: The Minister will remember that I asked for this clarification back in May, when she told the House that she needed to work out how many people had applied. Five months later, it is very disappointing that she is not able to provide that clarity for young farmers and their businesses. Is it simply the case that the Minister did not have enough staff in place to process this year's applications?

Mrs O'Neill: No, that is not the case.

Mr Byrne: Following on from the previous question, will the Minister indicate what timescale will be required before we know the number of young farmers who may qualify for the scheme? What is the average grant aid addition that they might get from such a scheme?

Mrs O'Neill: The young farmers, new entrants and those who were prevented from being allocated payment entitlements as a result of force majeure or exceptional circumstances may be given an allocation of payment entitlements or have the value of their existing payment entitlements increased to the regional average from the regional reserve. To date, we have received 2,082 young farmer registration applications, and we are working our way through those as we speak. A dedicated administration team with technical support will take the final decisions on some issues of clarity around whether you qualify for the young farmer scheme. That is all work in hand.

In terms of the top-up when it comes to grant aid, we are talking about an additional 10% for young farmers in regard to the farm business improvement scheme.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. How optimistic is the Minister that payments will be made in December?

Mrs O'Neill: This is an area that I have prioritised. Obviously, all sectors are feeling the pinch and pain at the moment, so I have prioritised this area of work to make sure that we continue to build on the positive work that I have been able to bring forward over the last two years, where we have seen an increase year on year in the number of people paid. My determination and priority is again to have the maximum number of farmers paid in that first week in December. I have prioritised staff to deal with that.

Mrs O'Neill: I am very aware of the real concerns that the levels of crime are causing amongst the farming community. I have met the PSNI Chief Constable and the Minister of Justice on a number of occasions and made them aware of my concerns. Responsibility for tackling rural crime lies primarily with the PSNI, but DARD's veterinary service enforcement branch assists and advises the PSNI on a regular basis concerning agricultural crime. DARD continues to work with the PSNI, the Department of Justice and representatives of the farming community on a number of joint initiatives including the Farm Watch scheme, the freeze-branding initiative and the Crimestoppers campaign.

Veterinary service represents DARD on the steering group of a dedicated rural crime unit that was set up by the PSNI. The unit is jointly funded by the Department of Justice and NFU Mutual. It is focusing on a range of issues from the identification of trends and patterns to the delivery of targeted initiatives. The multi-agency approach has led to the recovery of stolen animals and successful prosecutions in the North and the South. The veterinary service's enforcement branch assists in particular with the detection, tracing, recovery and identification of stolen livestock and has been using sophisticated DNA profiling techniques to verify the ownership of recovered animals. I am pleased to note that the PSNI’s latest quarterly updates on agricultural and rural crime show that the number of offences relating to agricultural activity has decreased significantly in the last year.

I encourage farmers to participate in these initiatives and do all they can to help secure their properties. Anyone who has information that might help us to combat the threat to rural businesses should report their suspicions to DARD, the PSNI, the Garda Síochána or the investigations division of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for her detailed reply. I agree with her that, in the efforts to combat crime, the whole issue of Farm Watch is very important. Leaving that for a moment and looking at how crime has developed, there is a North/South dimension. There is a cross-border trade in goods, equipment, farm machinery and livestock that has been stolen. Would it not be appropriate, therefore, for the Minister to embark on an intensive North/South programme to combat agricultural crime?

Mrs O'Neill: I agree that that is an approach that we need to take, and it is one that we have been taking. I have outlined some of the initiatives that we have been involved with, particularly around joining up the efforts of all the agencies, including the PSNI and the Garda Síochána. So, there is a North/South area of work. At a recent North/South Ministerial Council meeting, I had quite a lengthy discussion with Minister Simon Coveney on other actions that we can take, particularly on smuggling, fuel laundering and things like that in border areas.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. Will the Minister elaborate on the discussions that have taken place at North/South Ministerial Council level to address rural crime?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, we had an extensive discussion on cross-border smuggling and fuel laundering, which are issues that I had raised previously at a plenary meeting and that had also been raised at a recent NSMC environment, agriculture and transport meeting. Ministers noted the ongoing efforts in both jurisdictions to tackle the serious issues and the introduction of a new fuel marker that will help to address smuggling and fuel laundering. We also noted the concern at an EU level, and the Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries has been in correspondence with Environment Ministers, both North and South, concerning the latest developments and actions taken to address the issue. This is an ongoing issue for us to deal with at NSMC level, and maybe a standing item on the agenda should be to look at how we can work together and cooperate on sharing information about practical steps. That is happening in the approaches of the PSNI and the Garda Síochána, but it is something that we need to continually review.

Mr Swann: The Minister is still fully aware that smuggling is a real issue in regard to rural crime. Can she provide the House with any update on what actions have been taken since I last raised the issue, when over 9,000 cattle had been stolen in Northern Ireland in a three-year period? This is an organised crime, so is it time for the National Crime Agency (NCA) to be called in?

Mrs O'Neill: Smuggling is a serious issue. As I said, it was one of the hot topics of conversation at the recent NSMC meeting. The responsibility for tackling crime — smuggling is crime — is the PSNI's. However, my Department will play its role where it can assist, particularly though its veterinary and enforcement staff. We have been very proactive in that work. Taking on organised crime gangs is absolutely something that needs to be done. We need to make sure we remove any barriers, particularly in relation to food that has illegally entered the food chain, which needs to be removed as it jeopardises the first-class reputation that we have in food promotion and our reputation for traceability in our food systems. In any initiatives that tackle that, I am fully committed to making sure that my Department plays its role. I will continue to engage with the PSNI and the Garda Síochána on the actions that they are taking. I will make sure that we work together where we can, and I will hold them to account when they need to do what they should do, which is tackle crime.

Mrs O'Neill: As you will be aware, the European Commission approved the rural development programme for 2014 to 2020 on 25 August. That has allowed my officials to issue interim local rural development strategy templates to local action groups, moving them into the final stage of the appointment process.

My Department has set a return date of 31 December; however, officials will work at the pace of the fastest, and any of the 10 LAGs submitting a strategy before that date that meets the required standard will be eligible to receive a contract to deliver LEADER on behalf of the Department. That will cut some 18 months off the set-up time compared with the previous programme. LEADER was extremely successful during the 2007-2013 programme, achieving 100% project spend and creating 996 rural jobs. That is why job creation is a key objective of the economic theme of the LEADER element of the programme going forward, and there is an overall job creation target of 700 jobs. LEADER has made a difference on the ground, and I have every expectation that it will continue to do so in the time ahead as we open up the new scheme.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer. I held a very successful small business seminar in the county recently, and there was much interest in it. Can I ask the Minister which schemes will open first?

Mrs O'Neill: The rural business investment scheme should be the first scheme to open in each area, following a period of Local Action Groups (LAGs) working with potential applicants on the ground. That is called animation. This time around, more work is being done at the pre-application stage to increase the number of successful applications that come forward. Access to basic services, village renewal and broadband will open shortly after that.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, the rural development programme has been a very successful programme. Can you perhaps outline the socio-economic benefits of ensuring that not only are businesses helped but that there is that community and social infrastructure? For example, assisting with childcare might be a feature of it. You may be able to tell us a bit more about some of the aspirations of the programme that is coming in.

Mrs O'Neill: Obviously, the programme is about helping to create sustainable, thriving rural communities. That is taking in all the issues and looking at the challenges. From my experience of being out and about and visiting projects that have benefited through all the different measures over the last number of years, I have very clearly seen the community benefits right across, whether that be in basic services in a rural village for a community hall or having a local business that is able to create jobs. As I said, the current programme has created about 1,000 jobs, and, obviously, we want to see a lot more of that in the time ahead. Childcare, broadband and all the different challenges are there for rural communities. We set the parameters around the six broad themes for each area, but it will be individual LAGs that decide the priorities in each area.

There is no doubt about it: the benefit of this programme is second to none. One of the beauties of it is that it is the community asking for help to fund something that it identifies as a need as opposed to a Department telling a community that it is what it needs. I look forward to getting the scheme opened. We received our European Commission sign-off in the summer, which, obviously, is fantastic. It allows us to support rural communities, farmers, farm businesses, rural businesses, the environment and, obviously, the community and voluntary sector in all that. I look forward to getting the scheme opened as quickly as possible.

Mrs O'Neill: My Department undertook a public consultation exercise earlier this year on my proposals to enhance the rural proofing process by placing it on a statutory footing. The responses received indicated broad support for the proposals. These proposals are designed to promote a fair and inclusive rural society by introducing a duty on government and councils to consider the needs of our rural dwellers when they are developing their policies and delivering public services.

My final policy proposals for a rural proofing Bill were agreed by the Executive on 7 July, and since then, my officials have been working with the Office of the Legislative Counsel to produce a draft Bill that will give effect to these proposals. I hope to bring that Bill to the Executive as soon as possible prior to its introduction to the Assembly. I will be working hard to ensure that this new legislation can be introduced in this Assembly and can complete its passage within the current Assembly mandate.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I commend the Minister and her Department for the excellent work on the rural proofing Bill so far. Can the Minister further outline what powers and provisions will be in the Bill?

Mrs O'Neill: The Bill is aimed at ensuring fair and equitable treatment of rural communities in the policymaking process, and it will build upon the existing arrangements that are already in place, particularly on statutory rural proofing.


2.15 pm

It is proposed that the Bill will contain a number of provisions, including the following: a duty on Departments and district councils to consider the needs of people living in rural areas when they are developing their policies and delivering services; a duty on DARD to promote and encourage Departments and district councils to consider the needs of people living in rural areas; a duty on DARD to produce regular monitoring reports to be laid before the Assembly; provision for Departments and district councils to make arrangements for cooperation and collaboration to help to ensure a more consistent and cohesive approach to addressing the needs of rural dwellers; power for DARD to support rural proofing and the implementation of the Bill through the provision of training, advice and guidance; and power to make regulations to extend the Bill to non-departmental public bodies as may well be specified in such regulations.

Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister, for your answers so far. Will you tell the House what plans you have for the Bill and how you intend to include shared future proofing in it, particularly given the number of hidden sectarian interfaces in rural areas?

Mrs O'Neill: As I have outlined, the purpose of the Bill is to make sure that we put Departments' responsibilities for assisting rural communities on a statutory footing to make sure that, when it comes to policy decisions and strategies being developed at both central government and local council level, they consider the needs of rural dwellers. We are not suggesting for one minute that that means that there has to be a hospital on every corner or that there have to be all those services. However, we are saying that rural people deserve to have equality in access to services and that they may need to reconfigure how services are rolled out to make sure that they meet the needs of rural dwellers. Obviously that is something that assists all members of every walk of life. Everybody in the community will benefit from improved rural proofing when it comes to policy and strategic decisions from Departments.

Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. While we welcome the July sign-off, will the Minister reflect on the speed with which other Departments are moving in the direction of rural proofing, particularly the Department of Health?

Mrs O'Neill: There was an Executive commitment, going back as far as 2002, that all Departments have responsibility to rural-proof their policies. I do not believe that it is consistent enough right across the board or across all Departments. I do not believe that the veracity or rigour that could be applied is always applied across all Departments, so the Bill is an attempt to make sure that it is consistent so that, no matter what Department is looking at whatever policy, it has to have a duty to rural dwellers and the impact that it will have on them. It puts it on a statutory footing. It also allows us to lay a report before the Chamber, which will be for debate, obviously, and that will allow us to scrutinise the work of each individual Department. I believe that it will lead to a situation where we have improved access to services for rural dwellers and an improved response from Departments in the decisions that they take.

Mrs Overend: Can the Minister provide us with an update on her engagement with the Education Minister with regard to the definition of rural schools? Until that definition changes, it completely weakens the prospect of genuinely rural proofing changes to our schools estate.

Mrs O'Neill: Rural schools are like any other policy decision that any Minister will take. When the legislation comes into effect it will mean that all decisions have to be policy proofed. I have previously informed the Member that I have met the Minister of Education to discuss rural schools and their importance to communities. They are often the only central meeting point for rural communities, which is why the Minister has very strong criteria that look at the viability of schools not purely on a numbers basis but on the basis of all of the other benefits. There are six criteria that he applies, and links to the community is obviously a strong criterion in any decisions that he takes.

Mr Speaker: Mr Conor Murphy is not in his place.

Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 6 and 13 together.

I am acutely aware of the difficulties facing a number of farming sectors at present. I am very concerned about the impact on individual farmers, their families and, indeed, the wider industry. It is clear that the current crisis has been caused largely by a range of global factors that are outside our control, including the Russian ban on food imports, reduced demand from key markets, and a weak euro. It cannot be solved at a local level alone.

Over the past year, I have been engaging regularly with the DEFRA Secretary of State to emphasise our unique circumstances in the North and to press her to support our case for effective and timely EU action. In particular, I have been pushing for a review of intervention threshold rates and immediate help for the dairy sector, but I have also highlighted the plight of other sectors.

I have also been liaising with our MEPs, my opposite numbers in Scotland and Wales and with Minister Coveney in the South. I have taken our case directly to Brussels and led a strong delegation of political and industry representatives, including our local MEPs and the Chair of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, to meet Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, on 1 September.

On 7 September, I attended the extraordinary EU Agriculture Council meeting in Brussels. Although there was welcome recognition of the particular difficulties facing our local farmers, I am disappointed at the lack of detail in the package of proposals that has been brought forward by the Commission. I will continue to work closely with our industry on the implications of the Commission’s package and press for swift and effective support for our most important industry.

Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for her answer and for her efforts. When we visit our supermarkets, we find Fairtrade coffee, bananas and so on, and, although this area is not a developing country, it is certainly at the mercy of ruthless traders. What efforts will you make to have fair trade for our agricultural produce?

Mrs O'Neill: I have always been consistent on the need for fairness in supply chains. That means that our farmers should not be — as they feel and as the evidence sometimes suggests — the element of the supply chain that is continually pushed and squeezed to make savings. We have concrete plans and a strategy in place for the economic vision for the agrifood industry. I have always said that, if we are to be successful in achieving that, we need to see fairness in the supply chain. We need every element of that supply chain protected, respected and treated fairly.

I have asked the Agri-Food Strategy Board to convene a supply chain forum, which, I am glad to say, will meet in mid-October. That will bring together the farmers, processors, retail associations and all the players in the supply chain to start to open communication and have forward planning, so that farmers are not continually surprised when retailers decide that they will have a different ask this year compared with last year. We have a good opportunity to strengthen the supply chain and make sure that farmers have fair representation and conversation with that whole supply chain.

Alongside that, there is an ongoing conversation with retailers about buying local. That is a promotion that we can be involved with. I have written to all Ministers asking them to ensure that, for example, where Departments have opportunities to tender for the supply of food, they look towards and try to facilitate local businesses where possible within European rules. We can do a lot more work around promoting local product and encouraging people to buy it where they can.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, you detailed a number of meetings and conversations that you have had. Can you perhaps give us some insight into the product and achievements arising from those discussions and meetings? I appreciate the difficulties. It may be helpful if you refer particularly to the dairy farmers and the help available to them.

Mrs O'Neill: As I said in my earlier statement to the House, this crisis has been building in the farming sector for some time; it is not something that we have arrived at overnight. Going back as far as last year, I have been meeting the banks, the feed merchants and the farming unions around how we can collectively tackle what is effectively a global market crisis. Many of the factors are outside our control: the strength of sterling against the euro, the Russian food ban, China not buying so much and the oversupply of milk in the market. All those factors have led to the price that our farmers receive being far below the cost of production.

In dealing with DEFRA in England, I have been very active in highlighting the fact that we are unique — our diary sector is unique. We export 85% of everything that we produce. I have been consistently clear in lobbying the EU Commission on the need to review intervention prices. Unfortunately, what the Commission put on the table at the 7 September meeting fell far short of what we wanted to see. It has now announced that there is to be a €500 million package for farmers, but, when you distribute that to 28 members states, it will not equate to a large portion of funding.

The European Commission's approach is wrong. It could have decided to review intervention prices, which would have helped the market to recover by itself. The sticking plaster that it has put on the issue means that in years to come we will be back having this conversation around the future of the dairy sector. It happened in 2008-09; it has happened again now; and it will happen again. Without the Commission taking that action, the proposals on the table fall short. Every little helps, particularly in trying to get some cash flow into the sector, but it fell short of what we expected to see. However, I have not given up on that. Other member states are also supportive, and we continue to push the Commission to review intervention prices. Alongside that is all the practical work that we are doing on the ground, where our CAFRE advisers are out working with farmers. We will have a farm business improvement scheme of up to £250 million to help farmers to modernise and to help them with their farms.

Mr Speaker: That was a very important question that needed a detailed answer, but I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Mrs Dobson: The Minister has just touched on my point about the €500 million package. It appears attractive at face value, but, as you say, once it is divided across the 28 member states, it certainly declines quickly. The UK's allocation is subdivided into the four regions: can the Minister provide an update on what discussions she and her senior officials have had with DEFRA about Northern Ireland's allocation?

Mrs O'Neill: I have consistently raised with the EFRA Minister the issue of why we are different, particularly when you compare us with Scotland, Wales and even England. Given that we export 85% of everything that we produce, we are obviously a lot more susceptible to market forces and volatility. I have been successful in getting the other regions to recognise that we are unique. I would like to think that that will play out in the discussions.

We still do not know what the allocation from Europe will be. I will use a rough calculation, which is that Britain and the North of Ireland produce about 10% of the EU milk product. If you use that for a very crass calculation, you are talking about €50 million, which would obviously then have to be distributed between Scotland, England, Wales and us. I have written to the EFRA Minister on the back of the EU Commission meeting. I have also written to the commissioner to establish exactly what our allocation will be. I will not be found wanting in making our case. I believe that we are different. I believe that we should receive an allocation that is proportionate to the fact that we export so much product, and I will certainly make that case. As I said, I have written to both the commissioner and DEFRA. I will have that discussion with Liz Truss, the EFRA Minister, again in the weeks ahead.

Mrs O'Neill: The farm business improvement scheme is designed to help to drive competitiveness in our agrifood sector and will be an important part of the North's new rural development programme for 2014-2020. The scheme will be a package of measures aimed at knowledge transfer, innovation, cooperation and capital investment that will help to support sustainable growth in the sector. It will have a budget of up to £250 million and include business development groups, farm family key skills, European innovation partnership groups, an innovation and technology demonstration scheme, farm exchange visits, an agrifood producer cooperation scheme and a business investment scheme.

We plan to roll out the farm business improvement scheme package in a phased way. With the approval of the rural development programme by the European Commission last month, my officials continue to work hard to open the first phase of the scheme's measures later this year. The first phase will include the establishment of the business development groups for farmers. This will encourage farmers to learn about and enhance their knowledge of business management, new technologies and innovative ways of working, which will assist them to think clearly about their farm, their income and their future. We are also planning farm family key skills training schemes, including farm safety and business planning, in the initial phase. These knowledge transfer measures will help farmers to think carefully about their business plans and help to prepare the way for the proposed business investment scheme capital programme that is planned for next year.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for her response. Can the Minister provide some comfort for farmers that, if the Assembly were to be suspended, the farm business improvement scheme would still be available? Is she confident of that?

Mrs O'Neill: I do not think that we should have that kind of defeatist attitude. We are all elected to show leadership and work together. The talks process has now opened, and we all need to show leadership and work together to find a way forward to represent the needs of the people who elected us.

I am committed to making sure that the scheme opens up. We have a lot of work to do. We have been working hard over the last number of years to get to this position. The fact that we now have European sign-off is obviously very welcome. I want to work with farmers to help them to improve their efficiency and productivity when we open the scheme later this year.


2.30 pm

Mrs O'Neill: Surveillance and testing for ash dieback has been undertaken since the first confirmed findings of the disease in recently planted ash trees here, in November 2012. In the North, as of 7 September 2015, the number of positive sites confirmed is 93, including: 64 in forestry plantations, three in nursery/trade, nine in urban amenity settings, three on roadsides, 10 in private gardens and four in hedgerows. Current scientific understanding suggests that the conditions for spread in the wider environment exist on the island of Ireland. To date, there is no evidence of spread to mature ash trees locally, which is, obviously, something that will be welcomed.

Mr Attwood: I appreciate that. Given the pressure on indigenous wood production and supply, the scale of other countries' exports coming into the country, and the fact that all the estimates show that, very quickly, we will become more and more dependent on imports of hardwood, will the Minister outline — given the nature of the disease — the strategy to replant in order to reduce dependency on imports of hardwood?

Mrs O'Neill: A forestry scheme will come forward under the new rural development programme, which will allow us to bring forward a grant scheme to help farmers to plant trees. Hopefully, working with Forest Service, they will plant trees that are less susceptible to disease.

Mr Speaker: That brings us to the end of the period allocated for listed questions. Members listed for topical questions 2, 3, 7, 8 and 10 have withdrawn their names.

T1. Mr Eastwood asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development whether she remains confident of achieving the decentralisation of DARD HQ to Ballykelly as soon as possible, given the current political circumstances. (AQT 2801/11-16)

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I am fully committed to that project. We have done a lot of work on it over the last number of years in developing outline cases and doing all the groundwork. Staff are very keen to move. Obviously, there is quite a demand in the public sector among people who want to work in the north-west. This will be of tremendous benefit to those people. Record numbers of staff indicated willingness to move. It means that there will be more opportunities and a fairer distribution of public-sector jobs. The Member knows that I am very committed to the project. I hope to be able to go to tender with the actual contract over the next number of months.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for that answer. She knows well the numbers of people who get the 6.00 am bus from Foyle Street in Derry. Will she support an Executive-wide decentralisation programme, whereby all Departments would be asked, and, hopefully, would be able to deliver, a level of decentralisation to the north-west and other areas of high unemployment?

Mrs O'Neill: I would support that. The facts that I have moved forestry to Fermanagh, Rivers Agency to Loughry in Cookstown, fisheries to Down and that headquarters is going to Ballykelly, show that I am absolutely committed to delivering on the decentralisation of public-sector jobs. We have to see more of that. This will be the first Department to move completely out of the greater Belfast area, and I want other Departments to also consider such a move when it comes to potential changes in the future. It is only right and proper that there is a fairer distribution of public-sector jobs and that rural communities get to avail themselves of the benefits of the increased footfall of people in their area, the potential construction jobs and the ongoing servicing of buildings. All those benefits should be felt and enjoyed by people right across the North, no matter where they live.

T4. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what proposals she has, in conjunction with the Forestry Service, to develop, in number and quality, a sufficient amount of trees and forest and to outline her view of the development of forestry in Northern Ireland, which is a little bit of a personal obsession, given his great interest in the development of forestry in Northern Ireland. (AQT 2804/11-16)

Mrs O'Neill: Forest Service has very clear targets for the planting that we want to see until 2020. There is a strategic vision set out in a document, and I refer the Member to the DARD website where he can see a link to it. The document very clearly sets out the Department's priorities and the areas that we are looking at. As I said earlier, we have an opportunity in the new rural development programme to look at grant aid for planting. I know that many farmers are looking with interest at that scheme coming forward. Forest Service does quite a significant body of work. I refer the Member to its strategic business plan, which is on the Department's website.

Mr A Maginness: I hear what the Minister says. Obviously, there is a business plan there, but given the fact that our economy is developing and the construction industry is developing and growing — perhaps not at the pace that we would like, but growing nonetheless — does she believe that, in fact, there is sufficient timber production that will meet and serve the needs of the economy here in Northern Ireland?

Mrs O'Neill: That is not a concern that has been raised with me. Forest Service works closely with the industry, the mills and other stakeholders on developing a strategy and looking towards the future. That issue is not being highlighted as a concern. However, in moving forward, you have to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. You have your strategy, your vision and your targets in place, but obviously you have to be able to be adaptable to the local economy and its needs. If the Member has any particular concerns which he wants to write to me about outside of this, I will be very happy to receive them.

T5. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development whether she supports a ban on hunting with dogs. (AQT 2805/11-16)

Mrs O'Neill: Our position has been very clear that we continue to oppose blood sports. That includes dogfighting, badger-baiting, cockfighting and bullfighting. However, in acknowledgement of the support in rural Ireland for initiatives such as hare coursing, my party's position is that hare-coursing practices should be regulated to ensure sustainable wildlife management and to minimise any sort of unnecessary suffering. We are absolutely opposed to blood sports. That is my position.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for her response. Does she agree that hunting with dogs is indeed a cruel, inhumane and ineffective approach to wildlife management and animal welfare? Will she bring forward legislation on that issue to be debated in the Assembly?

Mrs O'Neill: The Member will be very aware that I have brought forward some of the strongest animal welfare legislation, both that which was started by my predecessor, Michelle Gildernew, and by me. We brought forward some of the most stringent legislation. We actually committed to reviewing it to ensure that where there was bad practice and incidence of any form of animal cruelty, there would be action and that agencies would have the ability to step in and take action. I have previously responded to a debate in this House, which I think the Member possibly brought forward, where we discussed a review of the legislation. I have done that. We are bringing forward an interim report. I think that there are opportunities to strengthen the legislation that we have even though it is very strong, particularly when compared with legislation anywhere else in our neighbouring islands.

T6. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for an update on the targets that her Department has reached in the better regulation and simplification review to reduce red tape. (AQT 2806/11-16)

Mrs O'Neill: I do not have those figures with me, but I am very happy to provide them to the Member in writing.

Mrs D Kelly: It is hard to ask to a supplementary question on that, except to welcome the update. Will the Minister, in providing the update, give some insight as to the amount of money, or indeed the time and effort by farmers, that could be saved by reductions in red tape?

Mrs O'Neill: We are always looking for areas where we can improve things, make them simpler and remove any bureaucracy that is there. One recent example is the fact that we are now brucellosis free. That allows us to relax the testing regime, which has a saving of £7 million to the industry. Obviously, that is very significant. As I said, I will write to the Member about the targets and where we are at in achieving them.

T9. Ms McCorley asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for her view of the recent admission by the British navy that it was involved in an incident with a fishing trawler from Ardglass in April, something which was denied at the time. (AQT 2809/11-16)

Mrs O'Neill: The fishermen involved were very fortunate to survive that incident. After such strong initial denials by the British navy, I am appalled that it has taken it five months to admit its responsibility. When the incident happened, I visited the trawler, the owner and the skipper to see for myself the damage that was caused to the boat. Subsequently, I wrote to the Secretary of State and the Minister for Transport, requesting that the matter be fully investigated in order that we can prevent any further potential incidents.

With the admission, as recently as 7 September, I issued a press release calling on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to explain why denials were issued and to explain its evasiveness. I do not think that it is good enough that it sat for five months, knowing what had happened. How was the industry able to protect itself against it happening again? I have severe questions for the British MoD on its approach to this and why it left our fishing industry susceptible to something like this happening again and, potentially, a fatality, because the incident of five months ago was quite severe. There are questions to be asked, and I am determined to make sure that I ask those questions and that we get to the bottom of this and make sure that it does not happen again.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a cuid freagraí. I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she elaborate on the further action that she is prepared to take to ensure that such incidents do not happen again?

Mrs O'Neill: I have written to the British Minister for the Armed Forces seeking a full report. I asked why submarines are operating submerged on the fishing grounds. To build confidence in the fishing fleet, I have requested that fishing industry representatives be fully engaged in changes to the submarine protocol. Furthermore, I fully expect that the navy will address the issue of compensation to the Wills family, the fishing family that was impacted at the time. We need answers, we need a full report, and we need guarantees that this will not happen again.

Mr Speaker: Thank you, Minister. That brings us to the end of topical questions. As the next period of questions does not begin until 2.45 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until then.


2.45 pm

Culture, Arts and Leisure

Mr Speaker: We now move to questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Question 12 has been withdrawn.

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

I can advise Members that the funding allocation to Disability Sport NI has no direct impact on the activities of Special Olympics Ireland, which is a completely separate organisation.

I can confirm that, as part of a £2·3 million cross-departmental package, which also included funding from colleagues in OFMDFM, DHSSPS, DSD and DE, DCAL provided £459,000 of core funding to Special Olympics Ireland for the four-year period from 2011-15. The package was extended by a further £545,000 for the 2015-16 period. The funding package has enabled the organisation to expand its activities throughout the North and to extend its reach in providing sports training and competition opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. It included support for the athletes from here who represented Ireland in this year's Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.

The Special Olympics team had one of the most successful games ever, with athletes from the North making a significant contribution to the medals won at the games. I am delighted to report that the team did exceptionally well, securing 82 medals. I am also proud of the achievements of the 12 athletes from the North, who secured 19 medals, including five gold, nine silver and five bronze.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for her response. I welcome the fact that there will be no direct impact on the Special Olympics. Coming from a successful Olympic town, as Coleraine is, with Sean Campbell winning silver in the recent Special Olympics, I feel that it is important that the Minister acknowledges the part that disabled-bodied people have to play in sport. Does she have any plans to introduce further money into the sector?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. Indeed, Coleraine has a great heritage of Olympians, Paralympians and Special Olympians. There are greater numbers participating in sport generally across the board. There are clear increases there.

The answer is yes. At the minute, we are working with colleagues in Sport NI. I recently met Special Olympics Ireland as well. I will have meetings with Disability Sport NI to ensure, particularly when we are looking at the next CSR, that business cases are not only refreshed but try to reflect the increase in participation numbers among athletes. It is really important that we do that, given that, based on their successes in competitions, it is not only about participation but the athletes' achievements, which have been enjoyed by us all.

Mrs McKevitt: Will the Minister outline how her Department and Sport NI will support athletes preparing for the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics? A bit of investment has been put in, and you can see that through the medals that have been won. However, what further advice and money can her Department give to those preparing for the Olympics?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. She will remember the build-up to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In particular, the work of the families and the governing bodies ensured that the athletes were able to go over to London and perform. It is that sort of spirit that we are hoping to capture for the 2016 games, but that will not happen on its own without support, particularly from Sport NI to the governing bodies. I know that, as we speak, Sport NI is actively meeting all the local governing bodies about the athletes' performance programme and the other supports that we can give them in preparation for the 2016 games.

Mrs Overend: It is recognised that the Minister's budget is limited, but is she prepared to reconsider her existing allocations to the disability sports' legacy?

Ms Ní Chuilín: We need to look at protections for disability sports, particularly in the arm's-length bodies. As I said in response to Mrs McKevitt, we are working with Sport NI, Disability Sport NI and, indeed, some of the other governing bodies that provide opportunities for people with disabilities.

We certainly need to ensure that, if we receive additional moneys, we target those who are in most need.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Gabh mo leithscéal. I thank the Member for her question. I am currently developing an arts and cultural strategy to ensure that recognition is given to the value that arts and culture have in enriching the lives of individuals, building capacity in our communities, growing our economy and creating a more inclusive society. I firmly believe that the arts and culture deserve a central place, given their importance in contributing to positive health and well-being and in developing skills and confidence on individual levels as well as in communities.

Arts and culture are also inspirational drivers for our creative industries. They make a significant contribution to creating a cohesive society, and they certainly help with promoting tourism. In conjunction with the ministerial arts advisory forum that I established, DCAL is finalising a consultation document that I propose to launch before Christmas. Through this consultation, we will listen to the views of the public, and I intend to bring forward an arts and cultural strategy that will have a focus on delivering to the public and promoting equality. I totally believe in the value of arts and culture and all that they can bring to everyone. I think that it is vital that the best opportunities to enjoy arts and culture are made available to everyone. I hope that an aspiration can be shared and achieved by delivering a successful, engaging consultation that will inform future policy direction.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Could you outline some details about when the consultation will begin and how long will it last?

Ms Ní Chuilín: As I indicated in my primary answer, I anticipate that the consultation will be brought forward before Christmas. I actually hope that it will be around November. I would like it to last for no less than 12 weeks, but I am looking at the possibility of it being for 20 weeks. This is the first time that there has been an overarching cross-departmental strategy for arts and culture. We have one for sports. It is the right thing to do, and it will be for at least 10 years. I would like as many people as possible to engage in this consultation, because it is not just about people participating; it is a good economic driver. I think that that is what is missing, particularly when people talk about the arts. It is also about creating job opportunities and apprenticeships in the arts. When we look at our film and television industry, we can see that there are trends in the economy that are not getting the attention that they deserve.

Ms Lo: I certainly welcome the Minister's initiative for consultation, but given the haphazard way that arts funding has been cut — there was a nearly 20% cut to the Arts Council this year — how can she provide us with any reassurance that the arts sector is not going to be decimated?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The concern that the Member has highlighted is one of the main reasons why we need to ensure that there is a cross-departmental strategy for arts and culture. The situation that we are all in, in not having budgets secured, is completely unsatisfactory. It is crucial that we get cross-departmental and cross-Executive buy-in to a robust strategy for arts and culture. It needs to be properly costed and consulted on. I have a focus on the economy, and I know that the Member raised concerns about intercultural arts strategies, which impact on various Departments. For me, it is about embedding the arts in government spend from here on in. This is about future-proofing. I completely agree with the Member: we need to have better security, particularly around the arts.

Ms Ní Chuilín: With the Speaker's permission, I will take questions 3 and 6 together.

I thank the Member for his question. My Department has been developing the subregional programme for soccer. A strategic outline business case has been developed with DFP, and approval was received in June this year. Programme-specific details in terms of criteria, funding strands and funding limits are being finalised. Plans for formal public consultation with stakeholders are under way, and I hope to commence a consultation shortly.

Following that public consultation, it is envisaged that the subregional programme will be formally launched in 2016. A step-through of the assessment process, including the various audits of need, competitions and business cases, is planned for 2016, with capital delivery to be undertaken in the financial years 2016-18.

The forthcoming process for the allocation of funding will be fair, open and transparent and based on an evidenced approach to demonstrating need and investment. Award recommendations will be made on the basis of criteria and projects attaining a high assessment score. I will approve all award decisions.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Minister for that answer. Could she indicate, while she is still in the planning process, what notional budget she plans to allocate to the programme? Can she confirm the number of grounds she anticipates will benefit, and when does she expect moneys reaching the clubs and organisations to be spent on the ground?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that it is the remainder of the regional stadium money, which is £36 million. In terms of the number of clubs, I cannot say at this stage because it all depends on their eligibility and, indeed, the criteria. I have made my intentions known. I would like a phase 2 of subregional development for the three sports. There is a big need for it.

In this first subregional phase, it would be anticipated that as many clubs as possible that are in a state of readiness will bring their plans forward. I am aware that many have been doing that for at least a year, and I welcome that. I am delighted that I received DFP approval in June. We are in the final stages of preparing the public consultation. I expect the programme to be delivered from the beginning of 2016, in this financial year, through to 2018 and into the next mandate.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer. She will be aware that some football clubs are better organised than others and have greater resources. What additional help is available to clubs that are, perhaps, not as au fait with making applications for funding? Can she assure us that the money will be dispersed across the region?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I appreciate the Member's question. It is a concern that I have had for some time, not just within sport but within the arts, that, when it comes to some of the big, well-organised organisations, those who shout the loudest get. That is not where I want to be. In fact, that is not where most Members want to be. To that end, I have asked my officials to take responsibility for the programme. As part of the consultation, along with the IFA, they and others will be out and about. We have had engagement with some of the new councils, but it is important that clubs can come forward in their own right, and they will be supported in doing so.

My officials already know that some areas and clubs are better organised than others, so, in the first instance, everybody will be given the same information. However, there will be an assessment of how we anticipate clubs being able to proceed. If we get a sense that a club might have all the needs and tick all the boxes but cannot progress because of its own capacity, we will need to identify some support.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answers. What form will the consultation on subregional facilities take?

Ms Ní Chuilín: It is important that we do not just stick to the usual, such as just look at the website or maybe you might see it in a box somewhere in a local paper some night or whatever. It is important that I, as Minister and as the lead for this, and my Department go out and explain to people as much as possible. We will do it with the IFA and others, but I want to ensure that as many people as possible have an opportunity to feed into the consultation. In response to Mr Dallat's question and Mr McGimpsey's question, while this is the first phase of the subregional, I anticipate perhaps phases two and three for the other two partners in the regional stadia programme.

It is important that we get a good profile of where the need is.


3.00 pm

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I am committed to seeking to secure £2·5 million for the development of a community sports facility in Dungiven as part of the legacy of the City of Culture for the north-west. That commitment, like all major capital investment, is subject to budget availability and to the approval of a business case that will include confirmation of any necessary partnership funding for the project.

I understand that the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council has completed a consultation exercise on plans for sporting provision in Dungiven and is progressing with the development of a business case and detailed designs. Officials from DCAL and Sport NI are working very closely with the council to provide support and advice on the business case. In addition, under the boxing investment programme, Sport NI has issued an indicative letter of offer to St Canice's amateur boxing club in Dungiven, and that club also received boxing equipment with a total value of £1,600. In the last financial year, DCAL has also provided £12,000 for a range of digital equipment for the cultural hub at the Benbradagh community association through the north-west social and economic development plan.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. The Minister knows well my personal interest not only in this but in the North Coast Sports Village, which, of course, was the partner project. Can the Minister give me an idea of a completion date for the community sports project in Dungiven?

Ms Ní Chuilín: In anticipation of your question, I checked with officials, and things are very well progressed. I have made very public commitments at every opportunity about the investment in the Dungiven area, but there are governance issues that we need to cover, not due diligence. We need to complete the business case and ensure that the security of the additional funding that is needed is there and that it has the approval of council. The Member will be aware, particularly with the new super-councils, that there are new criteria. All that is in a good place, and, like the Member, I look forward to making a public announcement of when the programme can be delivered.

Mr McKinney: The Minister has touched on my question. Can she detail the extent of partnership funding required for the project?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I mentioned that in response to Cathal Ó hOisín; the Member referred to that. We are working very closely with the council. It is a very positive experience in that people want to see the programme delivered in the same way that the programme and the sports facilities were delivered for Coleraine. It is part of that package. There is a process to make sure that the committees and the full council have ratified the money, but, as well as that, that the questions and queries, now in their final stages, in the business cases are completed before a final announcement is made. I have no reason or indication to believe that any of that is impossible. In fact, I am very optimistic that we can announce it fairly soon.

Mr Beggs: Can the Minister justify to the arts sector, particularly to those groups that have suffered 20% cuts, why they have had to endure reduced funding this year or even had funding withdrawn in-year while she is able to find additional capital funding for the Dungiven area related to the Londonderry City of Culture? What measure of sustainability is being used to ensure that, in the future, money will be available for all groups?

Ms Ní Chuilín: One is a capital programme, and one is a resource programme. That has been organised and developed for at least a year and a half. That is why good progress has been made. In terms of the resource, that is the difference between the capital and the resource: further money for the Arts Council. The budgets have not been confirmed yet.

I absolutely can justify it. Even though the Member lives in the east of County Antrim, he will know that, particularly in that whole swathe of the shoreline and in the north-west and particularly west of the Bann, investment of this nature has not been what it should have been for decades. He may be happy enough or content with that, but I am certainly not. I am also certainly not content with a lack of support and value, particularly around the arts. Given the seriousness of that, perhaps people will now see the need to support an overarching all-departmental strategy for culture and arts.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. A shortlist of eight companies that could provide expert advice was identified by the Central Procurement Directorate (CPD) using the RIBA database, and that list was reduced to three. Three companies were immediately ruled out as they were already directly involved in the regional stadia programme and projects, another was ruled out as it was not available during the period of the review, and a further company did not respond to CPD's request.

Of the remaining three companies, KSS was deemed to be the most suitable and was, therefore, engaged by CPD. As part of the process to engage the independent technical expert advisers for the review team, CPD specifically sought appropriate conflict-of-interest assurances from the eligible companies to ensure that any company that had previously worked on the regional stadia programme or any of its constituent projects would be ruled not eligible to advise the review team.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for her full response. Is she not concerned that the design group that was selected had a direct connection to the contractors that were appointed to carry out the work at Casement?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member raised something similar when I was in front of the Committee, and he will be aware that we are dealing with a very small pool of companies. The connection with that company is with one of the partners that is developing the stadia. They are connected and involved in developing stadia across Britain and, indeed, even other parts of Ireland.

I do not think that there is a conflict of interest and neither does CPD. As the Member will be aware, I deliberately sent the PAR to another Department to look at it, and I asked for the assurance of CPD. It sought assurances and was assured by the response that it got. I do not believe that it is the direct conflict of interest that the Member perhaps perceives it to be.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Minister tell us what authority she thinks that the Sports Grounds Safety Authority has?

Ms Ní Chuilín: That is not related to the question at all. However, with the authority and respect that the Sports Grounds Safety Authority has, many people look to it for feedback and guidance. If the Member wishes to ask a relevant question, I will try to answer it.

Ms Ní Chuilín: As a member of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, the Member will be aware that my officials will brief the Committee, in its role as a super consultee, on the findings of the Bill consultation on 1 October. I will consider all comments that the Committee wishes to make regarding the content of the Bill and will publish the report of the consultation after the briefing.

I remain committed to an Acht na Gaeilge, and the consultation shows, once again, that there are huge levels of support for an Acht. Nearly 13,000 people responded to the consultation, and 95% of those support legislation for the Irish language.

I am determined to progress the Bill as far as possible, and I call on all sides of the House to show their support.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh milé maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. Is fada muintir na Gaeilge anseo sa Tuaisceart ag fanacht le reachtaíocht chuí a thabharfadh a gcearta dóibh. Tá súil agam go mbeidh deis againn an iarraidh seo reachtaíocht a thabhairt faoi bhráid an Tionóil agus cearta a thabhairt do phobal na Gaeilge.

The Irish language community in this region has been waiting for legislation that would give it the rights that it so richly deserves. I hope that the process that the Minister has initiated will eventually bear fruit and bring it that legislation. How does the Minister intend to proceed post-consultation?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that many people have been waiting for an Acht na Gaeilge because it is very important for language rights. As part of the consultation process, I met extensively with people in that sector and different sectors. It is incumbent upon me that I receive cross-party support to bring this to the Executive. I have told people who are lobbying for this that my door is wide open, and it always has been. I am one of the advocates for this. Perhaps people — I am not suggesting that the Member does this — who have yet to be persuaded of the need for an Acht na Gaeilge could talk to the people whose parties are in the Executive about trying to convince them to support this. People would certainly see it as a sign that people have moved on politically and recognised that the language does not belong to one section of the community; it belongs to us all. I believe that an Irish language Act is well overdue. For the generations who are waiting for language rights, it would definitely be a sign that this place was moving in the right direction.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Ba mhaith liom tréaslú le Dominic as gach rud ar dhúirt sé ansin. Ach an cheist ba mhaith liom a chur ar an Aire is é go raibh mé ar Bhóthar Bhaile Nua na hArda inné agus bhí taispeántas ann i gceantar aontachtach ar chúrsaí Gaeilge. Cad é na hiarrachtaí atá déanta aici le tacaíocht a fháil ón phobal eile? I agree with Mr Bradley. The Minister talked about trying to achieve support from across the community. I was in a church community centre on the Lower Newtownards Road yesterday, where there was an exhibition on the Irish language, and we welcome that. What steps is the Minister taking to try to achieve support, right across the board, for an Irish language Act?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member rightly points out that the language is cherished, supported and enjoyed by members across the community, and that goes throughout the communities, including the different Churches. There is an unhealthy assumption that, once people hear of a percentage in support of an Acht na Gaeilge, they assume that they are all from one side of the community. I can tell the Member that responses to the consultation for an Acht na Gaeilge come from right across the community. That gave me heart because, at times, the Irish language, particularly in this place, has been the subject of some very offensive comments. Right across the community and the Churches, people are saying that an Irish language Act threatens no one; the language belongs to everybody. Within that 95%, I know that there is overwhelming support from everybody in the community for this to be brought forward. When the report is published, people will see the responses to the consultation themselves.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. The recent success of boxers from the North at major competitions once again highlights the strength of the sport. I take this opportunity to congratulate Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Carl Frampton and many others on their recent successes.

Moving on to the criteria for funding, I can confirm that affiliation to an internationally recognised governing body is a standard requirement for the majority of Sport NI's funding programmes. That ensures that a club’s activities are independently regulated and adhere to clear and consistent standards of safety, coaching and child protection. The importance of that has been demonstrated in the criteria for the recent boxing investment programme, which stated that clubs must be affiliated to the Irish Amateur Boxing Association at the time of the award, that is upon receipt of the final letter of offer. The aim of the programme, which received lottery funding of £3·27 million, is to help boxing to address the needs of local clubs: development, sustainability and the provision of suitable facilities and boxing equipment.


3.15 pm

Mr Speaker: That is the end of the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions. I inform Members that questions 3, 4, 5, 7 and 10 have been withdrawn.

T1. Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the pathway that will enable a young Northern Irish athlete who aspires to represent Team GB to do that, given the sporting affiliation regime that she supports and which currently prevails in Northern Ireland. (AQT 2811/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: In the 2012 Olympics, the team was called GB and Northern Ireland. That was the official title. However, it is up to the governing bodies to put forward and recommend athletes for those competitions. The governing body of boxing in Ireland is the Irish Amateur Boxing Association. There are corresponding bodies for England, Scotland and Wales. I assume that the Member is taking about boxing. That is the pathway for putting forward athletes.

Mr Allister: I assure the Minister that I was not talking just about boxing, although boxing illustrates my point. All these young athletes are told that, under the Belfast Agreement, of which the Member is now a proponent, they have the right to express their Britishness or their Irishness, but, by virtue of this affiliation requirement to, say, the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, the only way a young local boxer can box internationally is to wrap himself in an Irish tricolour. Why does the Minister sustain that discrimination?

Ms Ní Chuilín: First, I have reminded the Member on several occasions that I completely refute his allegation that I would discriminate against any child or young person. He hides behind parliamentary privilege and will not say that outside.

He is wrong. The Good Friday Agreement, which I supported from its inception, promotes a person's right to identify as British, Irish or both. People are entitled to do that. It is the governing body of each sport, not the Good Friday Agreement, that sets the rules. Those governing bodies are, in turn, governed by world-renowned organisations. The Member insists on providing information that is factually incorrect. I suggest that he needs to ensure that he gives the proper information to the families who come to him for support.

T2. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, while acknowledging her generosity in her press release about the athletes from the Commonwealth Youth Games and stating that it is admirable that, even though there are some political issues, she congratulated them, to state whether her Department is in any way involved in the preparation of the bid to bring the Commonwealth Youth Games to Northern Ireland and, if so, to update the House. (AQT 2812/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: First, since coming into this Department, my position has been very clear and consistent: athletes, regardless of how they describe their national identity, have my support. If they are from here, they have my support. How they describe their religious or political affiliation is, for me, academic. I believe that most people in the House are like that.

I have supported the Commonwealth Youth Games bid. I have met the council on several occasions. To be frank, the difficulty for me is — I am sure that the Member is aware of this — that it is in the gift of DETI to promote major sporting events. I understand that the ETI Minister gave his support for this event before he resigned. I know that officials are talking to one other about trying to ensure that the bid happens, and I am certainly keen to support what I believe will be a great opportunity for children and young people.

Mr B McCrea: I acknowledge the Minister's even-handedness in this, and I wanted to put that on the record. I realise that it is primarily DETI that is taking the lead on the matter.

Is she aware that there is concern from the Commonwealth Youth Council that failure to agree a bid by the Northern Ireland Executive by the end of September means that we may lose this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Will she write to Departments to encourage them to support games that everyone thinks are a good thing?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Absolutely. That is already in progress: we are writing to the acting First Minister and the Minister of Finance and Personnel. As well as that, we are working with officials in those Departments. I am totally uncomfortable with this. We all looked the Commonwealth Youth Council in the face and said, "We'll do our best". I can put my hand on my heart and say that I am doing my best. I will ensure that not only will I do my best, but I will go that bit further. If the bid is successful, everybody will claim the credit, but if it is not I want to ensure that I did everything that I could to get as much support, resource and attention as possible. We are not there yet. Hopefully, we will have this concluded within a week or so.

Another aspect is that it would need to be cleared under urgent procedure because, as the Member is aware, there are no Executive meetings happening. This is an example of children and young people being penalised for something that is well beyond any of their doing.

T6. Mr McMullan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on the progress of the decade of centenaries. (AQT 2816/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: In March 2012, there was an announcement that we — the Executive — would bring forward a decade of centenaries covering 1912 to 1922. Within that, we are looking at areas like the First World War, the battle of the Somme, the 1916 rising, the signing of the covenant, limited suffrage for women, the Irish Volunteers. There are many issues that we will cover. The important thing is that it is not open to interpretation and is based on historical fact.

I can only speak for DCAL, but I am working with some of my arm's-length bodies and great advocates in the Heritage Lottery Fund to bring forward a suite of activities and initiatives that will give honour and inclusivity to people who want to celebrate the different events as part of that decade of centenaries.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Minister for her answer. Can she explore the potential for exhibitions in PRONI, libraries and museums on the 1916 period?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I can. PRONI is leading, particularly on some of the documentation. It has an archive, and there are people working there who have excellent skills that are second to none across this island. In the DCAL family, we are working very closely with museums and extremely closely with libraries. Libraries are based in most communities, and it is important that, if there is a possibility of having exhibitions in libraries, we exploit it. That may engender conversation and inclusivity, particularly among young people and people who are not so young who want to hear what people have to say and look at the historical facts. Other such events have been used to create good relations, particularly in communities that have been hard-pressed.

Mrs McKevitt: The question that I had prepared about the Commonwealth Games has already been answered.

T8. Mrs McKevitt asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for an update on the stewardship of Sport NI. (AQT 2818/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. The interim chief executive, his team and the auditors are still working through some of the grievances that were brought forward. The Member sits on the CAL Committee, and, as she will be aware, I brought the initial report to the Committee and gave a commitment to come back. That process is still under way. The Member will also be aware that, of the three processes that are under way in relation to Casement and everything else but certainly the grievances that arose from this, the Audit Office is dealing with this. Sport NI is still working through it. I am really keen that it is given the time, latitude and space to get through that, because some of the issues that were brought to my attention are very serious indeed.

Mrs McKevitt: I am sure that the Minister agrees that, until the situation is resolved, a lot of our sporting bodies and volunteers who are involved in sport are the big losers in all of this. Is the Minister in a position to enlighten the House on where the board sits at the minute and what responsibilities the likes of the volunteers are losing out on?

Ms Ní Chuilín: First, I have not had any indication that anybody has been impacted in terms of support as a result of this. I have asked that question. If anything, Sport NI enjoys a lot of loyalty and support from throughout the community, so no group has been impacted at all by this internal matter for Sport NI. In a sense, that is a good thing. However, public confidence in Sport NI has been tested, but I think that people were assured by the action that I initiated, certainly in the short term. The board members who did not resign have remained, and fair play to them. Indeed, credit to the people who resigned, who gave at least eight to 10 years of their volunteering time to the development of sport and Sport NI. I genuinely thank them for that. I am looking at a process to add to the board because I believe that the board needs support. I am delighted at the overwhelming response, including from within the Civil Service, for people to volunteer in the short term until we go to a full public appointments process. With regard to the Member's concern, I have asked the governing bodies whether there has been any direct impact on delivery as a result of what is going on in Sport NI, and the answer has been no.

T9. Mr Swann asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to look into the registration of community and amateur sports clubs to see whether either she or Sport NI has any responsibility for it, given that she will be aware of his questions for written answer and, in her answers, she has stated that it is the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but, when he checked the legislation, it states that Sport NI has a role in recognising the governing bodies. (AQT 2819/11-16)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I certainly will. As the Member has pointed out, he has corresponded with me on the issue. As the Member will be aware, it happens across the board that I get questions about sports delivery in a constituency. When I give the answer, I quote the Recreation Order, which deals with councils. I do not want to be passing the buck. I will endeavour to find out where my responsibility starts and stops and where someone else's starts and stops and try to get a bit of clarity around this.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister very much for that guarantee. When she is doing that, can she especially look at homing pigeons and racing societies? Because of that definition, that is one of the organisations that falls outside the amateur sports clubs regulations in all spheres of funding, grants and all the rest of it.

Ms Ní Chuilín: In the first instance, I will try to get the definition, and then I will come back to the Member specifically about pigeons.

Mr Speaker: Short and sweet. Time is up, and, before we return to the debate —

Mr Swann: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Under Standing Order 20A(1), topical questions are allowed to be 15 minutes. If, in future, we get to a stage where that 15 minutes has not been utilised but there are still Members remaining in the Chamber, can you look to draw them either from Members standing in their place or from a rotation in some other fashion?

Mr Speaker: I think that the current procedures do not allow that, but you have raised a question that we can explore to see whether there is any flexibility. If topical questions finished early, I had intended to move straight to the debate that we have already started so that we would not lose any time, but we have almost landed on it precisely, so take your ease until we change the top Table.


3.30 pm

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

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly recognises that the current multiple deprivation indicators do not accurately identify the extent of poverty and deprivation in rural areas; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to review this urgently. — [Mr McAleer.]

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. The Noble indices, as they are at present, work against the rural dweller in quite a lot of cases. Therefore, it is time to look at how we arrived at the present system. I believe that, instead of looking at the difference in urban and rural, we must now look at the difference between urban and urban and rural and rural and not be judged by urban against rural and vice versa. To look at how we deliver better values and systems for the rural dweller, we need part of the rural-proofing Bill to be in place now. That would enable rural dwellers to compete in business and to avail themselves of suitably skilled staff. At present, small rural businesses find it extremely hard to compete because of the lack of skilled staff, training facilities, transport and communication. They also lack the ability to offer fuel to firms that want to come in and set up. That adds to the problems of all those small rural businesses.

Employment figures show that more of the male population in rural areas travel longer distances for employment. That will entail the use of the family transport, while mothers, who may have high qualifications, tend to take employment closer to home. That is because of inadequate childcare facilities and poor access to public transport. Quite a lot of the time, the employment that they do take is for low pay — far lower than their grade of education would stipulate.

Housing poverty and fuel poverty go hand in hand. Fuel poverty is defined as a family having to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel to heat its home. Prices for fuel are higher in rural areas than in urban areas. That is compounded by the total lack of piped gas in most places in rural areas.

Housing is a sector that has not kept pace with demand. At present, the Housing Executive has a total stock of 87,219 houses, of which 72,315 are urban and 14,904 are rural. Housing associations stated that their latest stock in March this year is 35,858, of which 32,855 are urban, leaving only 3,003 that are rural. Those figures clearly show the vast difference between urban and rural. They also tell us that more and more young people are leaving the rural environment not only to get housing but to get work. The fallout of that is that quite a lot of them do not return, so we are losing more and more of our young people because of a lack of housing and employment.

On health, hospital appointments are continuing to create problems. Those are not being dealt with and are the same problems that have been there year-on-year. With little public transport in my area of the glens, it takes three buses to get to Antrim hospital. Therefore, a return journey would mean that you are out all day until 7.00 pm and sometimes longer.

If that carries on, what does it tell us about the rural dweller? How can we compare ourselves with the urban dweller? From the age of four, children with special needs spend an average of four hours per day travelling to school. I hear other people complaining about having to travel half an hour each way or three quarters of an hour each way. These children are bused out from the age of four until they finish their education at 18, travelling four hours per day on a bus. That is way above the average that anybody would expect "normal" — I do not like using that word — children to do. There would be more of a public outcry if we were to have our children spend that length of time on a bus. Some of these children have to travel in taxis. We have not yet figured out that problem.

On the issue of social isolation, the MARA project clearly sets out the barriers to meeting the everyday needs of the older population. The present population suffers from restrictive public transport, which leaves older people facing financial and logistical barriers. Only for the MARA project that was brought in by the Minister of Agriculture, we would still not have a clue what was going on with older people in rural areas and the problems they face. We have found out from the MARA project that a lot of these older people could have been availing themselves of grants and money from social services, but, because of their isolation, they were not able to look into this. Therefore, the MARA project has been a lifeline for that. However, MARA cannot be a report that sits on the shelf. It must now be used by all public bodies to see how they can improve the livelihood and life of anybody living in a rural area.

Transport is another big problem in the isolation of the older generation. Transport is a lifeline to communicate with people in other areas. We had local transport, which the previous Minister withdrew. So, we do not have anything there to help older people to communicate. People with special needs and disabilities are still suffering because of the lack of transport. They cannot get out and communicate either. They cannot even take part in training for the Special Olympics because the only place that they can go from my area of the glens is to the Antrim Forum, a round journey of nearly 70 miles.

I will comment on some of the things that Members said. Mr Declan McAleer was the architect of this private Member's motion, and I have to congratulate him on his hard work and the hours that he spent putting it together. He stated that poverty is widely dispersed and the present system cannot cope with it.

Dominic Bradley said that we should be looking to the examples of the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Indeed, he supported the motion. Leslie Cree supported the motion, as did Kieran McCarthy, who said that the present indices have served their purpose but must be reviewed urgently. I agree with him. Ian Milne said that the current method does not show the depth of poverty faced by rural dwellers. Dolores Kelly stated that she had to intervene on behalf of a patient who needed domiciliary care. Rural people are hesitant about coming forward to ask for help.

Roy Beggs mentioned that gas is available to rural villages. Am I correct? Did I take that up right? [Interruption.]

Oh, it is not available.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: I had hoped that the Member would know that gas is not available to most villages and towns.

Mr McMullan: That is OK. I did not hear what you said at the end, and I take that as done.

To finish up here, we have the farming community and all their families involved in it. In this dispersed rural area, the farming community are the last people to come forward when they have health problems or any problems at all. That drives more and more of the farming community into having suicidal thoughts and committing suicide. That is recognised by farmers, the farmers' unions and all. We must take a real look at what goes on in the rural area. It is not the same as the urban area. We keep centralising services. In reality, when we centralise services, we are leaving the rural dweller having to travel further and further to get treatment.

I am quite saddened by today. In this debate, as with the Minister's statement earlier, we should all be supporting the farming community and the rural dweller. It is sad to see the empty seats across the way. They speak publicly about supporting the farming industry and the rural dweller, but that has certainly not been shown today. I ask everybody here to support the motion.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises that the current multiple deprivation indicators do not accurately identify the extent of poverty and deprivation in rural areas; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to review this urgently.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I ask Members to take their ease 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 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 are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr McGlone: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the 2014 Employers For Childcare survey that indicated that 46% of parents in Northern Ireland reduced their working hours or left work due to a lack of affordable childcare; recognises that greater childcare provision would be a key catalyst in bolstering the economy, retaining a skilled workforce and improving the lives of working families; further notes that the Childcare Bill announced in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s July Budget will increase free preschool childcare entitlement for three- and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week in England; and calls for the establishment of an equal 30 hours of free childcare locally as part of a move towards the establishment of a universal childcare model.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle, as an deis an rún seo a chur os comhair an Tionóil inniu. Thanks very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to bring the motion to the House along with my SDLP colleagues.

The issue of childcare has been at the fore of our thinking for many months, and, as we will hear today, the situation is becoming worse for parents who want to work and contribute to our economy but simply cannot afford to return to work promptly and fully because of the rising cost of childcare. The SDLP has prepared a research policy paper on childcare. I will relay it to the House later today as we explore many of the statistics we uncovered while talking to stakeholders, parents, providers and academics about childcare, its impact and the current situation in the North.

Let us look at the biggest barrier for parents, especially mothers, who wish to return to work when their child reaches the age of three or four: cost. The cost of childcare for parents who want to return to work is a considerable burden, and I, like many others in the Chamber, have received representations from many constituents. I am sure that many in the Chamber have personal experiences of that. In Northern Ireland, the average full-time — 50 hours — private childcare place costs £162 a week; the average childminding place costs £157 a week; and a day nursery place averages at £155 a week for a child who is younger than two years of age and £154 for a child over two. Action needs to be taken to help working families, given that the average wage in Northern Ireland is not commensurate with the rising costs of childcare. In fact, the 2014 childcare cost survey report found that average full-time formal childcare costs equate to 44% of the average salary. Over half — 55% — of respondents to that survey stated that childcare costs were over half of their or their partner's take-home pay. It also suggests that one fifth of parents use financial support to meet costs. That includes bank loans and credit cards, and 4% even use payday loans.

Those facts become more relevant when we consider the economic performance of Northern Ireland within the UK. PwC reported that, in 2015, economic growth would remain the lowest of all the 12 regions. In the context of an increase in population, overall employment levels in Northern Ireland have decreased; part-time working, the majority of which is carried out by female workers, has increased; and female employment rates/economic activity levels are significantly lower than in England. The list keeps going. The economic inactivity rate for those aged 16 to 64 in the North stands at 26·8%.


4.00 pm

The evidence suggests that income in Northern Ireland does not match current childcare costs. Families here face huge difficulties, first, sourcing appropriate preschool childcare and, secondly, paying for it whilst balancing the costs of daily life. It is difficult to incentivise parents to return to work when the financial pressures of childcare might push them into in-work poverty. Research carried out by OFMDFM further emphasises that point. A 2014 research survey found that more than half of our parents saw costs as the main barrier to using childcare. Many parents stated that the cost of childcare prevented them either from using registered childcare services at all or from using those services as much or as often as they would want.

Of course, there are wider economic and social impacts at play when considering childcare. Let us look at what Sir Christopher Pissarides, the Nobel laureate economist at the London School of Economics, has said. Through the greater provision of good childcare, there is a direct impact on productivity and growth in the economy. In his exposition of childcare and cost, he found that the one job of child caring sustains two other jobs in the economy. Pissarides observes that, when working parents have children in countries with minimal daytime childcare provision, one partner frequently stops working because the cost of childcare is so high. His estimate is that the average cost is the equivalent of working 40 hours — too high a cost for working families. The mere act of having a baby reduces household income by turning a two-earner home into a one-earner home, and no childcare worker is employed because of the cost disincentive. In providing subsidised childcare, there is an economic multiplier effect: both parents continue working, and a third worker, in childcare, is added to the labour force. All of them pay taxes. Without childcare, two workers are turned into one, and both labour productivity and the tax base shrink by the same.

There are, of course, wider societal benefits, as noted by the European Commission:

"In recent decades, childcare services have become a matter of serious public concern. Affordable and good-quality childcare services may improve the reconciliation of work and family life and thus foster labour market participation and gender equality."

When you speak, especially to young mothers, about the overall advancement of females in the workplace, the glass ceiling, as it is referred to, and the attempts to rectify it are talked about on numerous occasions. That glass ceiling, which inhibits the advancement of capable young mums in the workforce is fast becoming the "childcare ceiling".

There is a further consideration when debating childcare, and that is the effect that it has on our workforce. As well as inhibiting the advancement of young mums, because they have to remove themselves from the labour market, we are losing their skills. Many businesses in the North are concerned that they will not be able to recruit enough highly skilled workers to succeed in the future, according to the 2015 CBI/Pearson education and skills survey. Can we really afford to lose that mostly female and skilled workforce? I contend that we cannot. If parents here cannot return to full-time work or, indeed, cannot be incentivised to remove themselves from benefits to go into full-time work, because of the rising costs of childcare as outlined, the labour market in Northern Ireland will pay the price.

In Northern Ireland, funded preschool childcare is available in nursery schools, primary schools with nursery classes, some voluntary and private playgroup settings and day nurseries through the preschool education expansion programme. The programme is targeted at all children in the year immediately before they enter P1. Places are available for two and a half hours a day, five days a week, for at least 38 weeks a year. In England currently, each child is entitled to receive a maximum of 15 hours a week over no fewer than 38 weeks a year, up to a maximum of 570 hours a year.

The Conservative Government in England have committed to passing legislation through the Childcare Bill to increase the entitlement to free preschool childcare for three-year-olds and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week. For this reason, the pre-existing inadequacies in childcare in Northern Ireland will be further highlighted by a changing UK context — indeed, it has exacerbated the disparities between the two — while the Northern Ireland Executive continue to consult on a childcare strategy. If no action is taken, a greater inequality will begin to emerge, as parents and employees in Northern Ireland face a reduction in in-work tax credits, which last year supported 89,000 working parents. Barnardo's estimate that the average single parent working full-time on the minimum wage will face an annual loss of £1,200 when the Chancellor's changes are introduced in 2016, thereby placing further and increasing pressures on working families.

Given the legislative change by the Conservative Government as outlined above, we ask that we are treated equally here so that an inequality does not arise whereby access to childcare in work for families in England is much easier than access to childcare in work for families here. That is an integral part of it. We have spent a huge amount of time trying to reconcile the issues around welfare reform but we need to step it up a pace and change it to welfare and work reform, particularly for those working families who are fast becoming the working poor.

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGlone: I do not have enough time. The funded childcare allowance here should be increased to 30 hours a week on a par with what will become available in England. This change can then be used as a platform to work towards a universal childcare model and the effective implementation of a childcare strategy for Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member must bring his remarks to a close.

Mr McGlone: Essentially, we are asking for an equal footing to help stimulate our economy. We have seen the introduction of 30 hours —

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

Mr McGlone: OK. Thank you.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I do not want to nitpick the motion because I support the sentiments behind it. However, by focusing primarily on working families and on three-year-olds and four-year-olds, it does not go far enough. Childcare and the development of children and young people should not be a service for the labour market and the workforce. It should be because it is the right thing to do to provide care for children and aid in their development.

It should be the aim of all of us to develop an integrated approach to providing positive experiences and the promotion of opportunities that will enhance the quality of early care and education services to improve outcomes for all our children, not just three-year-olds and four-year-olds, allowing each to fulfil their potential and enhance their life chances.

It is important that early care and education initiatives are designed with the best interests of the child in mind. Provision should focus on the developmental needs of the child and, as such, should not simply be seen as a babysitting service to allow participation in the labour force. All children should be able to access early care and education services that are appropriate to their age and stage of development, which would help them to develop improved cognitive, social and emotional skills.

As such, we are proposing a model that is publicly subsidised, high quality and universal. In fact, there is growing scientific, neurological and economic knowledge that validates our view that investment in the early years of a child's life leads to greater economic, social and emotional benefits later on, at an individual as well as a societal level, as it can counter the effects of disadvantage and deprivation.

Unfortunately, there is currently a lack of cohesion in policy for and provision of early care and education services, with a range of Departments being responsible for different aspects of policy and provision. This manifests itself in the form of different registration and inspection processes, different curriculum and quality standards, different staff:child ratios and different funding levels. As long as we have that lack of cohesion, we are always going to have a difficulty with the provision of excellent childcare and education.

If the Stormont House Agreement is ever implemented, there are opportunities there with the reduction in the number of Departments, with many, if not most, of OFMDFM's functions relating to children and young people transferring to the Department of Education. That situation, along with the recent establishment of the Education Authority, affords an ideal opportunity to review the range of early childhood care and education services, with a view to getting a consolidated policy framework.

A new early years model is achievable if childcare is treated as a public service and receives investment accordingly. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mrs Overend: I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, as childcare is an important issue to many parents and should be an important issue to the Assembly. Having three children myself, I know only too well the difficulties, some of which are outlined in an article in today's 'Belfast Telegraph' by a constituent from Mid Ulster who pays £2,640 per month for childcare for her five children.

Questions and problems that parents face when looking for childcare include: can I find childcare close to my home or on my way to work; is childcare close to the child's school; can my children get transport to the childminder after school; is childcare available for all my kids in the one facility; and do the working hours of my childminder coincide with mine? Those are questions that we ask after the usual worries about the quality of childcare and its suitability for my child's needs, especially if they have additional care needs etc.

It is clear from the Northern Ireland childcare cost survey 2014, carried out by the Employers for Childcare Charitable Group, that families requiring childcare face a major financial headache. Mr McGlone referred to the costs of various types of childcare, which I will not regurgitate. Suffice it to say that in the 2014 childcare cost survey, 48% of parents stated that childcare consumed around half of their partner's or their own pay, and 27% of respondents said that their childcare bill exceeded their mortgage or rent payments.

Many of us depend on grandparents to help with childcare, usually because of unusual working hours or the ad hoc nature of care needed. Only 45% of parents in the survey used only formal childcare. We can conclude that the impact of childcare costs on families across Northern Ireland is significant, impacting on living standards and career progression. That sentence is key to this debate: it is impacting on living standards and career progression.

Affordable and accessible childcare is a key commitment of the Programme for Government. However, the sad reality is that the huge cost of childcare means that many parents who want to work simply cannot afford to. Those, surely, are the type of people whom we want and need in Northern Ireland's workforce.

Let me tell you, it is not easy leaving your children behind to go into the workplace, only to be told, in an indirect way, of course, "Well, you brought the children into the world, so you should pay for them and look after them yourself". By not prioritising childcare, that is exactly what the Government are telling them to do.

Parents, be it the mother or father, have a contribution to make to society and to the economy. The skills that working parents have are needed to bolster the economy and must be retained in the workforce. Therefore, I support measures to keep working parents in the workforce, like Mrs McKeown featured in the 'Belfast Telegraph' today. It just does not make good sense that someone working and contributing to society and to the economy should be forced onto benefits because of the high costs of childcare.

Just last week, following a question to OFMDFM, I found it incredible that, from a budget of £12 million set aside for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for childcare, just £3·4 million has been spent since 2011.

When I questioned the Department last week, the junior Minister attempted to deflect the blame towards the Westminster Government, yet was unable to give any reason for such a significant underspend. That is yet another example of budget mismanagement by a dysfunctional Department at the head of a failing Executive, and it is letting down families across Northern Ireland. It is one thing to come up with great ideas and strategies but it is quite another to actually deliver on them. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has a reputation for promising much but failing to deliver.


4.15 pm

In conclusion, in recognising the Childcare Bill that was announced in the July Budget, I join calls for the establishment of a universal childcare model. The advantage of devolved government is the ability to prioritise certain issues. I share the proposer of the motion's disappointment at failing to deliver on putting childcare to the fore in their priorities.

Mr Lyttle: I welcome the opportunity to debate childcare at the Assembly. It is regrettable that not all parties appear to be represented here today. This is precisely the type of issue that the Assembly should be dealing with on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, and I thank the proposers of the motion for bringing it forward. I think that I overheard someone saying that I will attempt to pick holes in it, so I will flip that on its head and try to be as positive as I can, because this is an important issue and some important points have been put forward.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Employers For Childcare cost of childcare survey 2014, not least because I sponsored its launch at the Assembly. As people have said, it is an extremely important piece of work. It gives evidence that 51% of parents in Northern Ireland reduced their working hours or left work due to a lack of affordable childcare, and it goes into a raft of other startling details on the impact of childcare on families in Northern Ireland. Forty-four per cent of earnings are allocated to childcare. After housing costs, the childcare bill is the largest outgoing for families. Fifty-eight per cent of parents struggle with childcare costs throughout the year. Twenty-seven per cent of respondents said that their childcare bill exceeded their rent or mortgage payments and, indeed, 49% of parents were unsure if they were claiming all the family benefits and entitlements that are available to help them with those extreme childcare costs. I will be sponsoring the launch of the Employers For Childcare cost of childcare survey 2015 on 9 February, and I have no doubt that those issues will be as stark as ever.

It brings into stark contrast, therefore, the approximately £8 million underspend of a £12 million childcare budget for 2011-15 in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. That is a startling fact given the scale of the challenge for families in our community.

Mr McCarthy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Given the figures that you have just spoken about, has the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister given any reason why that deficit remains?

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

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for his intervention. The explanations so far have been vague at best. We have to recognise that OFMDFM, under the DUP and Sinn Féin, has brought forward Bright Start, which has key actions in relation to childcare. Indeed, there is a childcare strategy out for consultation, but it is long overdue. Other parties that held the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister previously need to take responsibility and work collectively with parties in the Assembly to address the long overdue nature of that improved provision, and today's motion is hopefully a start in doing so.

Any response to the childcare challenge faced by families in Northern Ireland has to recognise the need for a comprehensive strategy based on improving accessibility, affordability, quality for parents and for childhood development. We also need a high-profile public awareness campaign to promote the take-up of existing financial assistance that is available to families and employers, such as the childcare voucher scheme, and to explain how the proposed childcare subsidy announced in the 2014-15 UK Budget might be implemented in Northern Ireland.

Approximately 11,000 parents in Northern Ireland and 1,400 local employers benefit from the childcare voucher scheme, making savings of around £13 million per year through tax and National Insurance savings on that salary sacrifice scheme. Employers — large, private companies and public-sector organisations — are saving around £4 million per year in total, and parents are delivering collective savings of around £9 million per year. However, that leaves a huge number of families and employers who are not availing themselves of that scheme. That could be anywhere in the region of 200,000 families. They, employers and the Northern Ireland economy are all missing out on millions of pounds worth of savings.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has been presented with proposals for public awareness campaigns on a regular basis. Indeed, Employers for Childcare stepped in when that Department failed to raise awareness of that type of assistance and had to conduct its own awareness campaign. I think that is an indictment on that Department, given the scale of savings that could be available from that provision for extremely hard-pushed families.

I agree with the motion that improved childcare provision would be good for the economy, access to skills development and working families. The motion also proposes an increase in the free childcare provision that is available here to a level that is equal to or in line with the proposals for 30 hours a week in England. We are not necessarily comparing apples with apples, and I think that the proposer of the motion alluded to that. Some key questions remain to be asked on that, particularly about whether we wish to follow the English model of flexible childcare, where it can be taken up in a preschool-based setting or through a strictly childcare-based approach, or whether we want to maintain our model of —

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

Mr Lyttle: — set times each day in nursery classrooms, as has been suggested.

Those are issues that we want to see worked out. I encourage people to get involved with the childcare consultation to ensure that we drastically improve provision in that vital area for families in Northern Ireland.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. It is important, and I think that there are few in society who would not advocate an increase in childcare provision.

The motion calls for what the Member who spoke previously referred to as the:

"equal 30 hours of free childcare locally as part of ... the establishment of a universal childcare model."

Again, I think there are very few in society who would not advocate that kind of approach. It is important to reflect on the fact that it needs to be much more than that and much more than an approach simply to childcare provision. In my view, child development must be the concept and, indeed, child poverty must be the starting point. It seems to me and to many that a cheap, safe or convenient, almost child-parking, facility might suffice to free up parents to go to work but would do very little to meet the developmental needs of the child. At times, those two policy directions, if you like, might conflict.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for giving way. As someone who has had to work all her married life, I find your comment about "child parking" most offensive. I find it offensive as a working mother, and I am sure that other working mothers in the Chamber and, indeed, parents would also find it offensive. I ask you to reflect on that remark and to withdraw it.

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

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Member for her intervention. Had the Member reflected properly on the comments initially, she would have realised that I was outlining that that is not what our model should become. I am very clear. Whilst we look at a move to increase childcare provision, which is right and proper, we cannot do so in the absence of addressing the developmental needs of the child. Whilst it is right and proper to look at increasing provision that will free up our people in society, male and female, to go back to work, we cannot do that in the absence of dealing with the challenges that exist in society through the developmental needs of the child. Particularly at a time when public funds are limited, in my view, the developmental needs of the child need to carry much more weight and be of a higher priority.

Poverty must be the starting point. The DSD figures show the stark reality of a growing population of children living in poverty.

We also need to make available robust data on affordability. We need statistically reliable survey data, with proper sampling, to show robust analysis for smaller vulnerable groups. In essence, what childcare are they obtaining, what is it costing and how does it affect the remaining disposable income? Any strategy claiming to be affordable but lacking monitoring data for groups in need does not make sense. We need that longer-term approach to be taken to plan for population increases and shifts and to respond to increased needs in a coordinated and strategic way, not piecemeal. How childcare is made accessible and affordable to those on minimum or low wage is critical, and any action on that should also be proofed to make sure that it does not disincentivise women from returning to work after having children.

I want to reflect on the Department of Health for a minute. When we look at the whole area of childcare and early child development, we need to look at having a better interface and, in fact, a formal duty of cooperation between the two Departments. In 2012-13, family and childcare expenditure was £196 million; in 2013-14, it was £200 million. The World Health Organization has told us that early intervention must be in and around 6% of the overall budget. My understanding is that it is currently in and around 3%.

In conclusion, I want to reflect on a number of comments that may validate the child development approach. The Early Intervention Strategic Partnership that I am involved in in my constituency is very clear. It is not only about children being in accessible and affordable childcare. We must see that as part of the nurturing and development of children, and we must have quality assurance of the kind of childcare that they receive as a continuum leading into preschool. If we look at an early intervention model, it is critical that we look at the nought-to-three age group — even before children hit preschool. There is a strong theoretical argument for stimulating and engaging the care of babies in particular to increase their cognitive and emotional skills for life. Therefore, the quality of childcare matters. I support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): This is the first debate in which the Assembly will hear from Ms Claire Hanna, so I remind the House of the convention that a maiden speech should be made without interruption.

Ms Hanna: Childcare and its impact on social and economic well-being, gender equality and childhood development is exactly the sort of thing that the Assembly should be discussing, and I will come back to that in a moment. This is my maiden speech, and, last week, I thought that I might not be making it. However, as a member of the SDLP for 15 years and a mum of two young children, I thought that the opportunity to speak for five minutes uninterrupted was something that I could not pass up.

In making my speech, I am helped by the admirable tradition that you refer to your predecessor and to your constituency. As well as paying tribute to Alasdair McDonnell, I thank him for the opportunity that I have had to contribute to Assembly politics at a challenging time and to the renewal of the SDLP. I am very proud of the SDLP's history, its origin in the civil rights movement and its commitment to non-violence, good governance and the rule of law. Respectful as I am of our past, I know that we need to talk a bit more about our future. We are a party comfortable in Irishness and confident in inclusive civic social democracy and the absolute rights of others to their Britishness. We are committed to making this place work and to getting rid of the real and artificial divisions, while making our case for a peaceful and agreed change in constitutional status. I was 17 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and I still remember the hope, the possibility and the generosity around that time. That creative possibility is not something that I feel in this Building these days, and I hope that that can be changed.


4.30 pm

Alasdair McDonnell and other SDLP representatives have laid out clearly how the South Belfast constituency is an exemplar of how Northern Ireland can and, I hope, will be. It is well integrated, ethnically diverse, vibrant, respectful of tradition, forward-thinking and, mostly, doing OK economically. I feel very fortunate to have grown up in and to live still in South Belfast, and protecting those values will be my focus in my time in the Assembly.

More broadly, the focus of the SDLP will be on protecting those most exposed to a stagnant economy. It will be on supporting excellent public services and rewarding enterprise and work. Those are the fundamental tenets of social democracy. That is why the proposals outlined in our strategy "A Better Deal for Working Parents" are inextricably linked to reform of work. That reform is about more work, better calibre work, better working conditions and better pay. That is why we as a party led the campaign for a living wage and why we support measures such as enhanced childcare provision, which will increase equality of opportunity and social cohesion as well.

My colleague outlined the transformative effect that universal childcare would have on those trying to balance their work and home life, the impact that it would have on educational outcomes and equality in the workplace and the net economic benefit of having more parents in the labour market. As a mum of two children under four, I understand acutely the challenges people face in finding quality, convenient childcare. Two hundred pounds per week per child is not unusual, and many parents get to Wednesday or Thursday in the working week before they have paid their childcare bill. For many people working is not economically viable, although it maintains their skills and their foothold in the jobs market.

As well as the investment that we have outlined, families need choice and flexibility. Every family is different, and people will use a mix of private care, voluntary family support and after-school care. Traditionally, many stayed at home to raise their family, as many still do — that should be celebrated and supported as well — but most people, however, accept that childcare is a privilege and a duty for mums and dads and that working parents can absolutely still develop warm and secure relationships with their children. Whether the mother works outside the home can have a major impact on the world view of children, particularly on the aspirations of young girls and their knowledge of the options available to them.

Many parents will want to work part time and flexibly, and more must be done to encourage employers to facilitate that and to allow the childcare system to pick that up. Fulfilling and stimulating work for parents is about much more than financial remuneration, and, similarly, while the focused and structured learning through play provided in childcare is vital for development and has a lifetime impact, childcare is about supporting the parents as well. We know, too, that the patience, understanding and love that a child gets at home are the strongest guarantee that he or she will flourish.

Mr Deputy Speaker, if we are to use these institutions to do anything more than process the peace, we have to take the opportunity to strengthen —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I invite the Member to draw her remarks to a close.

Ms Hanna: — our economy and empower the young families who are its future. Childcare is a sound financial investment, and, if we fund it, we will see benefits for years to come.

Mr McCallister: In this Building, a week is a long time in politics, never mind a few months. It seems strange that, after all the warnings about George Osborne's Budget, it is now held up almost as an example. Our difficulty, of course, is that this is set against the backdrop of all the other issues that our Executive have to face. There is no decision yet on welfare and no decision — not even any real debate — about things like tuition fees, water charges or prescriptions, and yet we are looking at asking for more money or increasing our share of the Barnett consequential. If we got that money, what would we use it for? Would we make these decisions, or would we continue to pay penalties on welfare? These are all things that we have to face.

So far in this debate we have largely talked about all the benefits this policy might bring, without any sense of realism about where we are and what we face, the difficult decisions on welfare that we have not wanted to face up to or to take.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCallister: Certainly.

Mrs D Kelly: Mrs Overend made the point that over £8 million of the childcare moneys available to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister remain unspent, so it is not a case of the money not being there.

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

Mr McCallister: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to Mrs Kelly for that point. Looking at that and the social investment fund, we can see that our Executive are not exactly great at spending or being in control of what they have.

I remind colleagues that, in Westminster terms, the Institute for Fiscal Studies looked at this policy. It stated:

"Amongst the small number of women whose youngest child went to preschool for the first time as a result of this policy, around one quarter moved into work. For the remaining families, the policy effectively gave parents a discount on preschool education they would have paid for anyway. Offering free preschool places to all three-year-olds is thus an expensive way to move a small number of women into work."

Even when the House of Lords Committee looked at the issue, it found that reprioritising spending on early intervention and childcare to focus on disadvantaged children had a bigger impact on moving parents back into the workplace. That comes back to some of the points that Miss McLaughlin made about early intervention, and she quoted the figure of 6% of spend. That is exactly the point that I made in the welfare debate: we ignore all of the early intervention best practice from around the world. That is why I was so critical of some of the mitigation measures: early intervention is what we need to be doing. Right across government, whether in health or education, early intervention is where we can make a difference.

We can tailor the policies to intervene early. Miss McLaughlin mentioned nought-to-three years, but many studies say that you might start intervening and helping women and families as early as 20 weeks of pregnancy. That way, you are working with families and identifying those who need the support. That is what we should be looking at. At a time when money is tight and we are not facing up to the difficult decisions, we need to look at that. When you set it in the context of the challenges that we face, the families who suffer most from the scourge of poverty and paramilitarism are from many of our working-class communities. To tackle educational underachievement in Protestant and Catholic working-class communities, we need to be intervening early across the board and looking at tailoring this policy.

I support the broad principles of the policy. As pointed out, and I know this from having three young children under the age of five, the cost of childcare is pretty enormous. At the end of the month, it is the biggest bill that we face. How do we tailor this so that it gets to the families whom it will impact on the most, namely, the more vulnerable, the lower paid and those who need support in developing as best they can? That is vital as we look at what the policy should do and at where we spend the money of the Executive.

Mr Rogers: I thank all those who contributed to the debate. The bottom line is that childcare costs £600 per child per month. Others mentioned the 2014 childcare costs survey, in which over half of the respondents stated that childcare costs took up over half of their partner's take-home pay. That is difficult to manage. If you bring the economy in along with that, you see that, in UK terms, our economy is underperforming. PwC reported that economic growth would remain the lowest of the 12 UK regions in 2015. In that context, overall employment levels in Northern Ireland have decreased. Part-time working, the majority of which is carried out by female workers, has increased, and female employment rates and economic activity levels are significantly lower than in England.

OFMDFM research from 2014 found that more than half of parents saw cost as the main barrier to using childcare services. Many parents stated that the cost of childcare prevents them either from using registered childcare services at all or from using them as much and as often as they would prefer. The SDLP realises the impact that the rising costs of childcare are having on families here, and not just on mothers. We have stay-at-home fathers as well. It is having an impact on mothers and fathers who wish to return to the workplace. They need to be supported so that, if they wish, they can return to work without fear of crippling childcare costs.

There has been quite a bit of talk today about the advantages to the child of early intervention. In 2012, an analysis on maternal employment rates and their correlation with child poverty and found out that those OECD countries with the highest maternal employment rates tend to have the lowest rates of child poverty. A greater investment in childcare in Northern Ireland should not be viewed as a primary benefit to parents in monetary costs only. High maternal employment rates and affordable, high-quality childcare not only helps families financially but helps with the development of the child. Maeve McLaughlin focused very much on the development of the child.

As other Members said, not every parent will choose childcare. One or other parent may decide to stay at home and rear their children, but for many that is not an option. It is of necessity that many have to go out to work. A number of studies, some of which included control groups, indicated that childcare provision, especially when targeted towards groups that might otherwise be characterised by various social problems, has the potential to produce favourable social and educational outcomes, especially over the long term.

Mr McGlone: Will the Member give way?

Mr Rogers: Yes, I will.

Mr McGlone: On that very point, I know that quite a bit of research has been done in the United States and Canada to show that childcare is longer term in the development of the child when it comes to reducing problematic issues in the education system and more widely in society. Childcare has been proved to be a societal investment, with good returns further down the line.

Mr Rogers: Thanks for that intervention. If we can give our children the right start, they can reach their potential and make a positive contribution to society. Not alone can we deliver social change but economic change through better childcare provision.

Other Members talked about the Northern Ireland/England divide and explained the differences between the Northern Ireland and the English systems. The Conservative Government in England have committed to passing legislation to increase entitlement to preschool childcare for three- and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week. This change is planned for England only and will not replace the current preschool education expansion programme here in Northern Ireland. For this reason, pre-existing inadequacies in childcare here will be further highlighted by a changing UK context whilst the Northern Ireland Executive continue to consult on a childcare strategy. The Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, said in another context recently that you will not get anything better here than you have in England. We just want the same with childcare provision.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he acknowledge that childcare is a devolved provision in Northern Ireland and that to introduce additional provision, notwithstanding underspends that have rightly been referred to already, there may be a need to generate additional revenue to meet that increase in provision, given that it is not a direct transfer?

Mr Rogers: There are a couple of things on that. As I think I said earlier, childcare and provision for our young people are fundamental to the building of our economy. It is something that can be looked into under the Barnett consequentials anyhow.


4.45 pm

We propose that, given legislative changes by the Conservative Government as outlined above, we ask that we are treated equally on this so that inequality does not arise with access to childcare and work for families in England. It is much the same as what we want here.

Mr McCallister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Rogers: I will give way once more.

Mr McCallister: I will be very quick. I am grateful to the Member. I absolutely agree that we should get it if England gets it, but should the same not apply to welfare?

Mr Rogers: You are speaking from the heart here, Mr McCallister, as a parent of young children and so on, but this is fundamental to the development of our children and our economy, so I will not take that any further.

We talk about contributions from people today. Mr Sheehan felt that our motion did not go far enough, but he did not want to nitpick. Perhaps if an amendment had been tabled, we would have looked quite favourably at it in how it could be developed even further to make it a more substantial debate. He talked about how it should not be a service for a labour market. It is about improvements for all. It is not a babysitting service. Mr Sheehan also talked about the lack of cohesion. That is quite a familiar word at the minute, with the lack of cohesion of the Assembly. If we could get the Assembly working together — and other people have referred to the lack of representation from the Bench opposite in developing this very important area of childcare for our children, for this generation and for future generations.

Mrs Overend spoke passionately as a mother of three on how you balance work and childcare. She reminded us of the Programme for Government and affordable childcare for all. I suppose you could sum up OFMDFM as "Could do much better". Chris Lyttle talked about 51% of parents reducing their work because of lack of childcare. He also mentioned OFMDFM. It needs to do a lot better.

I mentioned Maeve McLaughlin earlier. She talked about the whole area of developing needs and that we also need to get that long-term approach. That came across from a lot of people today — the cohesion or cooperation between Departments. Those of us in the Education Committee know about the lack of cohesion, particularly between health and education and that early intervention.

My colleague Claire gave her maiden speech, and I congratulate her for it. It was a passionate performance by a young mother of two. All I could think of was that Carmel Hanna had a good strategy for rearing her children. The product is here today. Claire talked about the link between childcare and work. The reform of work is central to that. She mentioned — and it is very important — the balance between home and work. More must be done to allow mums to work part time.

We have another parent to my left with a young family. John McCallister said that this must be the backdrop to many other decisions that the Assembly needs to take. There needs to be a dose of realism, certainly around the Assembly. It does not seem to have got home, because we do not have a great turnout here today. The emphasis is again on early intervention and lack of cohesion. We want cohesion all the way here.

As for my party colleague, I congratulate Patsy for organising his conference.

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

Mr Rogers: The one thing that struck me recently was when I heard a young mother who pays over £30,000 a year in childcare. The introduction of 30 hours of subsidised childcare would provide an appropriate platform on which to build the Executive's childcare strategy and move towards universal childcare in Northern Ireland as a more permanent step to supporting working families here.

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

Mr Rogers: Did you not give me an extra minute?

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the 2014 Employers for Childcare survey that indicated that 46% of parents in Northern Ireland reduced their working hours or left work due to a lack of affordable childcare; recognises that greater childcare provision would be a key catalyst in bolstering the economy, retaining a skilled workforce and improving the lives of working families; further notes that the Childcare Bill announced in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s July Budget will increase free preschool childcare entitlement for three- and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week in England; and calls for the establishment of an equal 30 hours of free childcare locally as part of a move towards the establishment of a universal childcare model.

Adjourned at 4.50 pm.

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