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

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

Official Report: Monday 21 September 2015


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

Assembly Business

New Assembly Member: Andy Allen

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to today's business, I have some announcements to make.

I wish to advise the House that I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Andy Allen has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the East Belfast constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from Mr Michael Copeland's resignation. Mr Allen signed the Roll of Membership and entered his designation in the presence of myself and the Director of Clerking on 17 September 2015. The Member has now taken his seat. I welcome him to the House and wish him every success.

Mr Speaker: I have to advise the House that the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, as nominating officer for the DUP, nominated Mr Jonathan Bell MLA as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr Simon Hamilton MLA as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Mr Mervyn Storey MLA as Minister for Social Development. Mr Bell, Mr Hamilton and Mr Storey each accepted the nomination and affirmed the Pledge of Office in the presence of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Clerk/Chief Executive on Wednesday 16 September 2015.

Ministerial Resignations: Mr Bell, Mr Hamilton, Mr Storey

Mr Speaker: I have to advise the House further that those three Ministers subsequently resigned their offices on 17 September 2015. Standing Order 44(3) provides for a seven-day period during which the party that held those offices can nominate members of their party to replace them and take up office. That period expires at the end of Wednesday 23 September 2015. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met. Let us move on.

Speaker's Business

Mr Speaker: The first item of business is the appointment of a Minister for Regional Development. I will conduct the process for filling that office in accordance with the procedure in section 18 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and Standing Order 44. I will commence by asking the nominating officer of the political party required by the formula contained in section 18(5) to nominate a person to hold the office of Minister for Regional Development who is a member of his or her party and of the Assembly.

In accordance with Standing Order 44(4), within 15 minutes of my request, the nominating officer must respond and the person nominated must affirm the Pledge of Office and take up the office. An extension to this period may be requested by any Member of the Assembly providing they give a reason, or reasons, and the Assembly approves the extension. If that is clear, we will move on.

I call on the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, as nominating officer of the —

Mr Dickson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I ask you to rule with regard to the appointment of a Minister, given that, in their Pledge of Office, Ministers are required to:

"discharge in good faith all the duties of office".

Can you indicate to the House, in your own time, how someone can discharge those duties given the in/out nature of recent appointments and particularly the appointment to be made this morning?

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for that point of order. Clearly, these are, I suppose, unusual and quite serious times that we are in. I very much welcome the talks that are about to be convened today and I wish them all possible success. As we stand, I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met. I am alert to the issue you have raised but I am not proposing to take any particular action other than to continue to monitor the situation and review the legislation. Let us move on.

I call the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, as nominating officer of the political party for which the formula laid down in section 18(5) of the Act gives the highest figure, to nominate a person who is a member of his party and of the Assembly to hold the office of Minister for Regional Development.

Mr P Robinson: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I nominate my colleague Michelle McIlveen —

Mr Allister: Courtesy of murder.

Mr P Robinson: — to hold the office of Minister for Regional Development.

Mr Allister: Courtesy of murder.

Mr Campbell: You have some neck on you, a 20-year absentee.

Mr Speaker: Thank you. On behalf of the Assembly, I wish you well, Mr Robinson. It is good to see you in your place. May I now establish whether the nominated person is prepared to confirm that she is willing to take up the office and affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office?

Miss M McIlveen: Yes, Mr Speaker, I am willing to take up the office of Minister for Regional Development —

Mr Allister: Courtesy of murder.

Miss M McIlveen: — and I affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office as set out in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Mr Speaker: If there are any more interruptions of that type, I will take immediate action. I will use my full authority to ensure that there is good order of business in this place. Interrupting people who are on their feet will not be tolerated by me, and that applies to any Member of this House.

Michelle McIlveen is now the Minister for Regional Development.

Ministerial Statements

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, Mr Speaker, and in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding the North/South Ministerial Council inland waterways meeting that was held in Belfast on 10 June 2015.

The Executive were represented by me as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and by the former junior Minister Michelle McIlveen from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Irish Government were represented by lead Minister Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and Minister Joe McHugh TD, Minister of State with special responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs. The statement has been agreed with former junior Minister McIlveen and I am making it on behalf of us both.

The meeting dealt with issues relating to inland waterways and the constituent agency, Waterways Ireland. At the meeting, the Council received a progress report from Dawn Livingstone, chief executive of Waterways Ireland on the activities of Waterways Ireland, including the continued management and maintenance of waterways, with over 99% of the waterways remaining open for navigation; capital expenditure focused on major infrastructure repairs, with replacement lock gates installed at Tarmonbarry on the Shannon and bridge repairs on the Grand canal completed and progress on the installation of floating moorings at Galloon and Knockninny on Lough Erne. The Shannon Blueway won the Lakelands and Inland Waterways Sport Tourism Innovation Award at the Shannon Airport Sport Tourism European Summit. In addition, 63 kilometres of canoe trail, with associated cycleways, will be completed by the summer on the Shannon-Erne waterway, and 106 events have been offered support under the 2015 sponsorship programme.

Ministers considered the action plan for the Grand canal dock and Spencer dock and agreed that Waterways Ireland proceed with its implementation, subject to available resources.

The Council noted the progress to date on the restoration of the Ulster canal from Upper Lough Erne to Castle Saunderson in County Cavan. Ministers approved a proposal to facilitate the development of a greenway along the route/linear corridor of the Ulster canal from Castle Saunderson to Charlemont, County Armagh. The Council also agreed to Waterways Ireland undertaking the role of lead partner on that project with the support of relevant councils and other stakeholders.

Ministers noted the update on Waterways Ireland's work to maximise the benefit of EU funding opportunities. The Council approved Waterways Ireland making an order to amend Lough Erne by-laws in order to enhance its ability to manage the navigation effectively and ensure a safer waterway for all users.

Ministers noted that the Waterways Ireland annual report and accounts 2013 were laid before the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas on 11 March 2015. Waterways Ireland's annual report and draft accounts 2014 have been submitted to the Comptrollers and Auditors General, and, following certification, will be laid before the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Council consented to a number of property disposals. It agreed to meet again in inland waterways sectoral format in November 2015.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas ansin. Can the Minister provide an estimate of the costs of the restoration of the Upper Lough Erne to Clones section of the Ulster canal, and what is the current cost of the entire restoration project?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The anticipated cost of restoration of the Ulster canal was over €171 million. The Upper Lough Erne to Clones section was over £45 million. That cost is expected to be slightly higher, including the optimism bias.

The Member will remember that at the start the Irish Government indicated that they would bear the full costs, and that was some years ago. This is one of the most active items during the sectoral meetings, particularly the restoration of the Ulster canal. I think it enjoys the support of all parties across this island. I am content that preliminary work has started to try to secure the full restoration of the canal. It is certainly something we are keeping a close eye on.

Mr Cree: I am sorry; I could not hear the Minister. She was speaking away from the microphone. In the same area, what progress has been made on that part of the canal, and is there some idea of the cost of the greenway?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I apologise to the Member if he could not hear. What I said to Mr Ó hOisín — and the Member will also remember — is that some years ago, when the full restoration was announced, the Irish Government said that they would bear the full cost. The economic situation has changed, certainly in terms of the cost. However, preliminary work has started. The project has received full planning permission in both jurisdictions. All county councils and local councils have been involved in work, not only to have the Ulster canal fully restored but, as the Member mentioned, looking at areas of opportunity, including greenways, blue ways and how each council area can maximise opportunities in preparation for the restoration. Work has begun.

My colleague Michelle O'Neill has met officials in the South about getting this advanced. We will work closely with all representatives across this island because, as I said to Mr Ó hOisín, the full restoration of the Ulster canal is one of the very few projects that, regardless of where people are sitting politically, enjoys support from everyone right across this island.


12.15 pm

Ms Lo: It is a pity that the Minister's statements on the Council's work are always so scanty and with so little detail. It is sometimes very difficult to even know what to ask you. Can I request that, in future, there is a bit more detail? They seem to be always just headlines of what is discussed and the title rather than the details. I am very keen to hear more on all the topics discussed.

Can I ask about the EU funding opportunities? You said that you "noted the update", Minister, can you give us a bit more detail on what EU funding opportunities have been examined? There are plenty of opportunities, and we really need to move up a gear to maximise opportunities for North and South.

Ms Ní Chuilín: First of all, the Member will be aware, as Chair of a Committee, that the statements are really highlights and headlines of the North/South meetings. There is absolutely nothing stopping the Member, in between the sectoral meetings, asking questions on detail that is not there or raising a request to have any of her concerns addressed. There is absolutely no need to wait for the statements on the sectoral meetings to try to ascertain that. That format has been agreed for all the sectoral meetings. I appreciate the Member's interest, particularly in the environment sector and how it impacts on the role of the Environment Committee. The offer is open: if there is any part of the statement that the Member feels is amiss or needs to be filled in, I am happy to try to respond to her.

I can confirm that both sectoral formats that I am responsible for have been fairly active in trying to maximise EU opportunities. They are looking at transitional programmes in terms of INTERREG, LEADER and Horizon. They are looking at the programme for social change and others. Indeed, under INTERREG IV, Waterways Ireland had very successful European bids met and had very good partnerships with other European countries that visited here and visited our waterways. Dawn Livingstone, the chief executive of Waterways Ireland, and her staff have been very active in trying to ensure that we maximise, as well as possible, any opportunities in Europe for funding.

Mr Rogers: Thanks to the Minister for her statement. Minister, what discussions have you had with the Department responsible for trade and industry about developing the full tourist potential of all our canals?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am one of the accompanying Ministers with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, particularly on the sectoral end of it, and that information has been fed into Waterways Ireland and vice versa. Minister Jonathan Bell and I asked that opportunities, particularly for our waterways, are explored and exploited as well as possible, and that has happened. We work very closely with Fáilte Ireland, as does Waterways Ireland, to ensure that we not only provide opportunities for local communities to be involved in marketing and promotion but that some tangible benefits arise from that. I will continue to do that and continue to meet Minister Bell and other Ministers who have responsibility for this to ensure that there are no gaps, because there is really no need for gaps at this stage, particularly four years into a mandate when we are accompanying Ministers for each of our Departments and have that role. We are all very keen to maximise those opportunities, particularly around waterways.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What are the main priorities for Waterways Ireland, including in the corporate planning period from 2015 to 2016?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. He will have seen, even through the statement, that 99% of the waterways were open for navigation. That, in itself, is extremely good. I suppose that the priority is to manage and maintain the navigation to make sure that it is open and accessible to the public.

It is also, as I said in response to Seán Rogers, to ensure that the public have opportunities to enjoy the potential recreational activities on the waterways. It is also about unlocking opportunities, maximising our resources and continuing to develop the waterways. Basically, for us and for me, the corporate plan is to ensure that we maximise all the opportunities. Keeping the navigation is one success, but marrying potential opportunities with DCAL, DETI and the tourist boards across the island will help not only local council areas but local residents to ensure that the corporate plan period is met and that we go beyond that and do a bit more.

Mr B McCrea: Paragraph 1(ii) of the Minister's statement, under "Progress report", mentions capital expenditure. The last time that the Committee was down talking to Waterways Ireland, we were told that there was some concern that there was barely enough money in the capital budget to keep the infrastructure open. Is the Minister able to tell us what the forthcoming capital expenditure will be and whether there will be any opportunity on the Northern side, as it were, to do more with that great asset that we have?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. He is right: there has been some concern among all the North/South bodies, particularly on the availably of additional resources, and even among big-spending bodies like Waterways Ireland about the availability of capital.

We have kept marines open, certainly on the North side, and the Member will be aware of some of the preliminary works that we are trying to initiate and keep going on the Ulster canal. I will happily get the most recent update possible and furnish him with that.

The Member and other Members have raised that point before. It is important that we invest, particularly in capital infrastructure that will help to attract tourism and more local people to our waterways. I will meet Dawn, the chief executive of Waterways Ireland, hopefully over the next couple of weeks, to try to get a better sense of what we need to do more of. We obviously have a smaller budget, but we certainly need to try to do a bit more.

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission and in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding the North/South Ministerial Council language body meetings, which were held in the Ulster-Scots Agency office in Belfast on 10 June 2015.

The Executive were represented by me as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and by former junior Minister Michelle McIlveen from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Irish Government were represented by lead Minister Joe McHugh TD, Minister of State with special responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs, and Heather Humphreys TD, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. This statement has been agreed with former junior Minister McIlveen, and I am making it on behalf of both of us.

The meeting dealt with issues relating to the language body and its two constituent agencies. Ministers noted progress reports from the chairpersons and the chief executive officers of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency, which include the following achievements relating to the period November 2014 to May 2015.

Foras na Gaeilge reported on continuing progress on the new funding arrangements, including 12 meetings to date of the partnership forum and three meetings to date of the language development forum, the recruitment of staff and the establishment of offices by the six lead organisations in Belfast, Newry, Dublin, Ráth Chairn, Athenry, Casla, and Dungarvan. It also reported success in securing European funding under the Creative Europe programme, in partnership with four other organisations, to foster creative writing in minority languages; further progress with the new English-Irish dictionary and the design of the app specification, which will be available for the academic year beginning September 2015; and the publication of new guidelines for best practice in serving the Irish language community, which were issued to the new super-councils at a conference that was held in Armagh on 25 March 2015.

The Ulster-Scots Agency reported on the organisation of the Burns Night concert, in partnership with the Ulster Orchestra, in the Belfast Waterfront Hall in January, which was subsequently broadcast on BBC Two. It also reported on the launch of the new Ulster-Scots web portal for visitors, which includes an ever-expanding range of visitor attractions, including Bushmills Distillery, First Derry Presbyterian Church and St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast; the new Ulster-Scots gallery at the North Down Museum, Bangor, which was funded by the agency and opened on 14 May 2015; and the funding provided for the delivery of Ulster-Scots music and dance tuition in 42 primary schools, in addition to the delivery of 24 Ulster-Scots after-school clubs and 11 Ulster-Scots school workshops.

Ministers also noted progress on collaboration between Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency: the safeguarding policy and code of practice for funded bodies has been reviewed and updated by external advisors; and, under the joint project for integrated schools, six workshops were delivered to Priory Integrated College in Holywood, County Down during November/December 2014, providing 25 year-8 students with an insight into the Irish language and the Ulster-Scots culture and language. The roll-out of the programme continued with Shimna Integrated College, Ballymena in May/June 2015, and plans are under way for other schools.

The Council noted that the 2013 consolidated language body annual report and accounts were laid in the Houses of the Oireachtas and in the Assembly on 5 June 2015. The Council also noted that the field audits for the 2014 accounts have been completed for the Ulster-Scots Agency and will commence for Foras na Gaeilge in June/July 2015. Ministers noted that the agencies of the language body are continuing to engage in the identification of possible opportunities to maximise the benefits of EU funding.

The Council noted the Ulster-Scots Agency's exploratory discussions with a number of interested parties about the potential for a project relating to entrepreneurship with young people in isolated communities under the Northern Periphery and Arctic programme. Possible partners include Mourne and East Donegal linking with the Scottish Highlands and Norway. The agency is liaising with the transnational/interregional programmes regional contact point at the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) regarding potential funding for the project.

Ministers noted Foras na Gaeilge's success in securing EU funding under the Creative Europe programme for a literary project entitled Other Words, in cooperation with Spain, Slovenia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Sweden. The project will be launched in July, and it will raise the profile of minority language literature throughout Europe, in the original language and in translation.

The Council welcomed the fact that collaboration between agencies and officials in both jurisdictions can continue to maximise drawdown of EU funding and encouraged officials to continue to seek new opportunities for potential projects that can attract such EU funding.

Ian Crozier, the CEO of the Ulster-Scots Agency, delivered a short presentation outlining the work being progressed by the agency in building capacity and supporting community development through its community impact programme. The programme involves supporting a small number of full-time development posts in an effort to provide more targeted and sustained support to community groups.

The Council approved, within the existing budget, a revised timetable for the English-Irish dictionary project to ensure the provision of a more comprehensive end product, including a choice of print, online and app formats. The Council noted the updated targets, comprising publication of 120,000 sense units in 2015, publication of a further 10,000 sense units in 2016, with particular emphasis on the primary and secondary curricula in both jurisdictions, and the publication of the print version of the dictionary for the start of the academic year in 2017.

The Council agreed to meet again in language body sectoral format in November 2015.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a dara ráiteas anseo inniu. Will the Minister advise what is happening to the revision of the scéim phobail Gaeilge — the community language officer scheme — funded by Foras na Gaeilge?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. Certainly, at the minute, Foras na Gaeilge, as part of its statutory functions, has responsibility, as the Member knows, for bringing those programmes forward. Both Departments are considering proposals submitted by Foras na Gaeilge in relation to revising scéim phobail Gaeilge. I have a big interest, particularly in the revision of such a scheme. I have encouraged, and will encourage, that any revisions will not be detrimental, particularly to the development and protection of language for groups in the North.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas a chuir sí os ár gcomhair inniu. Ba mhaith liom cúpla ceist a chur uirthi maidir leis an app don English–Irish dictionary, mar a chuirtear air. An bhfuil an app ar fáil, nó bhí mise ag iarraidh teacht air inné agus ní raibh mé ábalta é a aimsiú.

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


12.30 pm

I have tried to find the app for the English-Irish dictionary. Could the Minister perhaps provide some further detail on how to get it? That is by the way. In regard to securing European funding under the Creative Europe programme in partnership with four other organisations, an dtig leis an Aire cur in iúl dúinn cá mhéad airgead atá ar fáil, agus cá mhéad a chuirfear ar fáil, do na heagraíochtaí sin, agus an bhfuil tionscnaimh úra eile ar bun ag an Roinn le go bhfuigheadh siad tuilleadh airgid ón choiste sin? How much money has been drawn down and there other projects the Department has in mind for this funding?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a cheist. I will provide an update in writing both on money spent so far on Foras na Gaeilge's dictionary project and on how to access the app. Needless to say, Foras na Gaeilge and groups on the ground are actively exploring opportunities for additional funding. I know of one group in Belfast that is not in receipt and is not one of the six lead groups. Other groups have gone over to Europe to try and access funding. Certainly, Foras na Gaelige, as I said in my statement, is looking at the literary project, at partnerships producing literature for minority languages and at tourism opportunities through the teanga or Irish language.

Musical opportunities are also being explored. I met a group recently — it has yet to go to Foras na Gaeilge — that is trying to protect and enhance the language through music, particularly in schools and through nursery rhymes for preschool children, and is trying to maximise opportunities for European funding. Groups in the community are much more active and robust in trying to source opportunities, and I will ensure that that activity and robustness is reflected by Foras na Gaeilge.

Mr Cree: In relation to the Foras na Gaeilge project report, will the Minister give more detail on the staffing and costs of the six lead organisations in the seven locations?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am happy to write to the Member on the full costs, but the lead organisations have almost completed, although they are not there yet, in my opinion, in terms of the full complement of staff, particularly in the North. I know one of the groups; I have met one of the groups that is very active in Conradh na Gailege, which is based in west Belfast. Overall in terms of groups in the North, in the rest of them, in my opinion, too many people are asking too many questions about the services that should be provided across the North, so I have asked for an urgent update on all the groups. I know they have secured premises in Newry and elsewhere, but what I need to know is what staff have been recruited and how they are working with existing groups. Within that urgent update will be included the costs to date.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for her statement, which contains a lot more information than her previous one. Was an evaluation done of the feedback from students who took part in the workshops in the joint project for integrated schools before it is rolled out?

Ms Ní Chuilín: There was a preliminary evaluation, and one of the things it indicated to me was that the demand for the work of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency within those schools has increased and continues to increase. It has also increased outside the integrated sector, which is very good. I have absolutely no doubt and have full confidence that any additional evaluation of the work of the two agencies will demonstrate that, not only is this project good value for money, but that both groups are providing, as well as good leadership, opportunities for children and young people, in particular, to find out about each other's culture; to debunk some of the myths out there; to learn something new; to have a better appreciation of who we are, where we are from and how we describe our culture; and to get a better understanding of communities. I know that there is increasing demand for Foras na Gailege and the Ulster-Scots Agency to go into schools right across the board.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her answers. Can she tell us, given the previous delays in publishing the annual reports and accounts, what is being done to speed up the process?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I am aware, as the House has been aware, that, even since the previous mandate, there has been an ongoing delay in trying to get the accounts and all the subsequent reports brought up to a better level. To that end, we consolidated all of the processes and procedures. We tried to intervene at an earlier stage to try to have the accounts and reports brought before the Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas. I am delighted that, even since June of last year, we have had at least six sets of accounts and reports brought up to date. That work has to be commended, particularly the work of staff of agencies and the work of officials in both jurisdictions to help them to do that. It is important, however, that we keep that momentum going to ensure that the gaps that were made in the early 2000s are not made again and that the mistakes made then are not repeated in the future.

Mr Allister: I advise the Minister that, contrary to her statement, Shimna Integrated College is not in Ballymena; I think it is in Newcastle. I thought that the Minister might have known that, but there you are.

The Minister said that she was making the statement on behalf of herself and junior Minister McIlveen. Are we, therefore, to understand that, despite the statement about disrupting North/South business, the DUP is still endorsing statements on North/South business?

In relation to the accounts that, belatedly, for 2013 have been provided, do they reflect at all the finding in her Department's resource accounts for that year that there was illegal spend to the tune of £8 million by these North/South bodies under her wing because business cases had not been approved? Is that reflected in the business accounts that have been approved in respect of this North/South body?

Ms Ní Chuilín: With your indulgence, Principal Deputy Speaker, I am here to answer questions on my statement and not on Members' statements. Therefore, I am not responding to the first part because I feel that it is overtly political. In fact, it is rubbish. Indeed, the Member is consistent because the second part of his statement and the subsequent questions are also wrong. I have not incurred illegal spend in my Department.

Mr B McCrea: Given that there were some changes in Irish language delivery and planning, can the Minister outline what steps we have been able to take to reassure the entire community that the Irish language will be supported on a cross-community basis and not just for one section of our community?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question, and I also want to put on the record that I thank the Member for the way he has presented his question, not just today but in previous questions around the Irish language. It is important that Members from the other side of the House in particular ask questions about the Irish language in a very respectful manner; so, I pay tribute to the Member for doing that.

The work of Foras na Gaeilge and, indeed, the restructuring of core funding has been a very important step, but it has been a fundamental change in the way that the sector has been organised. That is one aspect. The other aspect is, as the Member will be aware, the Líofa programme that I have progressed in my Department. I know Líofa, and the response that the Member will receive on 1 October in relation to the proposals on the Acht na Gaeilge consultation. I do not want to go into that now because I want to have regard for the Committee, but I know already that there is overwhelming support for an Irish language Act. Within that very high percentage, there is cross-party support for an Irish language Act. Members who are involved with and have signed up for Líofa come from across the community. That is to be welcomed. Members from right across the community are funded by Foras na Gaeilge, as well. That is a mature development, progressed by Foras na Gaeilge and supported by the work of the Ulster-Scots Agency, the two Departments and, more importantly, the community. Whatever is said in here, I have full confidence that the community, on this issue and perhaps others, is well ahead of us.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: This item of business is listed in the name of the Minister for Social Development. As that ministerial office is vacant, the item of business cannot be moved.

Houses in Multiple Occupation Bill: Second Stage

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: This item of business is listed in the name of the Minister for Social Development. As that ministerial office is vacant, the item of business cannot be moved.

Committee Business

That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 20 November 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Health and Social Care (Control of Data Processing) Bill [NIA 52/11-16].

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. The Health and Social Care (Control of Data Processing) Bill was referred to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety on 30 June for Committee Stage. The Bill should, under Standing Order 33(2), complete its Committee Stage on 6 October. The main objective of the Bill is to provide a statutory framework and safeguards to enable the use of identifiable health and social care information for medical or social care purposes that would improve health and social care or are in the public interest, without the consent of the individuals whose information may be used. At its meeting on 9 September, the Committee considered the 23 written responses to its call for evidence. It also considered the stakeholders from which it wished to take oral evidence.

There are a number of issues of concern in relation to this legislation that need to be explored in much greater detail: issues around public interest, social well-being, safeguards and others. Given the complexity of these issues and the sensitivities around sharing identifiable information without consent, the Committee feels that it is essential that it is afforded the time to exercise its scrutiny powers to the full. I therefore ask on behalf of the Committee that the House supports the motion to extend the Committee Stage of the Bill until 20 November.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 20 November 2015, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Health and Social Care (Control of Data Processing) Bill [NIA 52/11-16].


12.45 pm

Private Members' Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Irwin: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with concern the crisis facing all sectors of agriculture across Northern Ireland; recognises the need to deliver significant change in the short term and into the future; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to do more for the industry by ensuring basic payments are issued to farmers in early December 2015, lobbying the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, to raise dairy intervention prices as a matter of urgency and bringing forward a wider strategy to deal with the immediate challenges facing the industry.

At the outset, I must declare an interest as a dairy farmer. I welcome the opportunity to bring this matter to the Floor of the House today. Whilst we have a significant and very real crisis ongoing in our agrifood production industry, we have an equally serious crisis ongoing in our devolved Administration. The current crisis does not assist in responding to and making a positive impact for the good of the Province's agriculture community.

We need a stable, devolved Assembly without the fear and threat of renewed violence, and we need a Budget agreed by all the parties to allow our Assembly to take the types of decisions that may help in some way to sustain our agriculture industry and help it recover from this current crisis. We have neither of those important elements at the moment, and that makes the challenges facing our agriculture industry much more challenging. It is therefore vital that those parties, namely, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, get to grips with reality, face up to the current difficulties and move positively to address them.

With that being said, I now move my focus to the plight facing our farmers. They all share the same concerns — lack of economic stability, lack of a level playing field in farmgate pricing and a lack of respect from the larger retailers. All sectors, including dairy, meat, vegetable and arable, are experiencing the same difficulties, and the main message that I have heard on my many engagements with farmers around the Province is the need for a rebalancing of the supply chain so that the person at the start of the chain sees a fair return for their efforts.

There have been ongoing protests across the Province at supermarkets and other locations, and we have had a number of demonstrations here at Parliament Buildings. With a lot of media attention surrounding the issue, the wider public are now well aware of the problems facing our agrifood industry. We should capitalise on that support by asking consumers to buy British produce.

A number of factors are contributing to the crisis in our dairy sector, including the Russian import ban, general oversupply of milk across Europe, a weak euro currency and the lack of an appropriate level of intervention in order to assist producers in the immediate term.

As a dairy farmer for many years, I have seen many highs and lows, and, in recent times, there has been a real jagged edge to the pricing graph. The instability in pricing has not assisted our industry, and when a few months of good prices are followed by sustained periods of poor prices, it hinders the growth and sustainability of the sector.

I have taken many calls from concerned farmers on the need to raise dairy intervention prices, and in my meeting with EU Commissioner Hogan in Brussels a few weeks ago, along with other representatives, I took the opportunity to stress to him how that could benefit our dairy sector at this difficult time. I also had useful engagements, organised by my colleague Diane Dodds MEP, with Commission officials to discuss the market trends across Europe and to gauge the condition of the industry Europe-wide. The situation is similar in many states across Europe.

Dairy is obviously only one sector in our wider industry that is under pressure, and it is clear that all sectors are under increasing strain. This is the first time that I have seen a wide range of sectors facing such difficulties at the one time. The current weather is not helping the situation for the arable sector.

All sectors in our agrifood industry need stability to be able to, first, consolidate and, then, look to make progress. To ask any industry to cope with prices well below the cost of production is simply not sustainable.

In order to assist farmers in the shorter term, the package of aid that has been distributed across EU member states must be shared fairly within our own UK region. It is important that Northern Ireland farmers, who have certainly been hit hardest in the current crisis, get the lion's share of the £26 million of aid available to the United Kingdom. I urge the Minister to make every effort and a very strong case for a suitable share of the financial package to come to Northern Ireland. My colleague David Simpson and I met Liz Truss MP a few weeks ago, and we left her in no doubt as to the concerns of the Northern Ireland industry. We provided examples of how Northern Ireland has suffered to a greater extent in this crisis than the rest of the UK.

The motion refers to the need for basic farm payments to be issued in early December. However, there has been a development since we submitted the motion: the EU Commissioner now allows flexibility on the payment of basic farm payments. In the light of that development, I urge the Minister to prepare her Department immediately to enable payment of that vital cash from 16 October. In such financially challenging times, farmers who are under severe and continuing pressure must not be made to wait on their basic farm payments by the Department. Delays are costly for farmers, especially when, across sectors, they are having to cope to shore up their own businesses and continue producing. That situation, as I said, cannot go on much longer. Farmers cannot continue to lose in that way.

The situation facing our industry at present requires a broader response and a collective responsibility from stakeholders to improve the outlook for agrifood production in Northern Ireland. The issue of pricing from farm gate to plate needs to be addressed, and big retailers need to recognise the importance and value of sourcing locally to produce food at a sustainable price for the farmer. Competition between the big retailers, whilst good for the consumer, is driving down prices and has a knock-on effect down the supply chain in reducing margins dramatically for farmers at the farm gate. Let it be clear: we are not asking consumers for more money but rather that the supply chain distribute the profit more fairly. As an immediate response to the crisis, the big retailers must do more. That is a message that has been repeated many times, and it remains an important part of the response to the crisis. It could not be more straightforward: farmers deserve to receive more money for their product.

As we look at the medium and longer terms, I think that it is clear that we need to find new markets to increase the marketability of Northern Ireland produce. Along with that, there is a growing need for consumers here to buy British to ensure that we are directly supporting our own producers. The banking institutions also have an important role to play, and there needs to be greater recognition by the main banks of the situation that farmers face. Some banks have already shown some leniency in providing more flexible arrangements in light of the current crisis. I have used recent opportunities to continue to consult the banks and press for more leniency from them. Farmers have a tremendous affiliation and connection to the land they farm, and they want their business not only to survive but to succeed. That has been the resilient attitude of farmers in Northern Ireland for many decades. The banking institutions, therefore, must continue to lend a sympathetic ear to farmers and recognise the value of the agriculture industry to the wider economy.

Other measures that will be of assistance include the new rural development programme, which has recently been granted approval. The Minister must ensure that the various strands of support available to farmers, such as those helping them to create greater efficiency in their business, are quickly made ready and open for farmers to apply for. With the previous programme in mind, and some of the issues that plagued the delivery of the rural development programme with red tape and bureaucracy, the Department must look comprehensively at reducing that burden on our farmers. Red tape is a burden not only of time but of finance, especially when farmers have to consult other agencies for assistance in the completion of records and forms. That adds to the overall cost to the farmer.

Agriculture is in a very difficult place, but, despite that, as I mentioned, farmers have shown a lot of resilience right across Northern Ireland. With that in mind, agriculture can and must recover. Despite the very concerning trends at present, there are better days ahead. Let us ensure that those in positions of responsibility step up and help us to make the changes that could bring those better days sooner rather than later.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call Mrs Dobson to move the amendment, perhaps Members would take action on the telephone or iPad that is interfering with the recording system. Thank you.

Mrs Dobson: I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after the first "industry" and insert

"by availing of the important permission from the European Commission to make up to 70 per cent of advance Basic Payments from October 2015, lobbying the EU Agriculture Commissioner to raise dairy intervention prices as a matter of urgency and bringing forward a specific set of action points to deal with the immediate challenges facing the industry.".

I would like to start by declaring that my husband is a beef and cereal farmer. I very much welcome the fact that the motion has been moved and the opportunity to speak to it, although no doubt it will confuse people further as to what exactly the DUP is doing with its games in the Assembly. If they are not games, why did no one contribute to our debate last week on the waiting times that affect one in five of our constituents?

There can be no doubt that the crisis facing all sectors of our farming industry, from vegetable to sheep and from beef to dairy, is the greatest threat and challenge to our rural way of life in Northern Ireland for many decades. I agree with much of what Mr Irwin's motion says. However, I thought it an oversight that he left out the issue of advanced payments. That is why I tabled the amendment in my name and that of Robin Swann. Maybe it was his party's hastiness in submitting the motion, or maybe it is the case that he simply accepts the Minister at her word. Either way, it would be wrong of us not to raise the issue. Let us not forget how significant 70% advance payments from next month could be. They would provide immediate financial support for farmers facing some of the most challenging circumstances of their lifetime.

The Ulster Unionist Party has called for advance payments for many years. However, successive Agriculture Ministers simply said that that could not be delivered because the European Commission would not allow it. Now that the Commission gives us the opportunity on a plate, the Department rejects it. I think that it is shameful that the Minister, who claims to realise the scale of the crisis in the sector, did not even take the time to consider it. There has been no clearer example of how out of touch the current Minister really is with the scale of the problem, and the industry is, understandably, in uproar. On one day, the Minister stands up, pledges full support and promises that every issue will be explored —

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for giving way. You criticised the Minister by saying that you do not take her word for what she is doing. Perhaps you could tell me what your Minister is doing about the crisis.

Mrs Dobson: I thank the Member for giving way. We do not hold the Agriculture Ministry, but I think that you will find that we have worked hard on the issue.

On the next day, the Minister firmly rejects what is probably the single biggest support measure that could be delivered. Of course, the Minister will no doubt say that she cannot issue advance payments as this year's applications require additional time to process. However, the Department has known for some time that this year's applications would be different, so it clearly failed to plan for them.

Another good example is the fact that, after months have passed since the application deadline, the Minister still refuses to indicate, even approximately, what the young farmers' top-up rate will be. I would like to focus the remainder of my contribution on the young farmers who will become the next generation of farmers in Northern Ireland, because, during recess, it was a young farmer — Johnny Matthews — who contacted me to raise his grave concerns. That resulted in a meeting in Donaghcloney, which was attended by over 60 farmers from across Northern Ireland, after which Edwin Poots and I requested the Committee's recall.

I do not propose to go over the timeline of meetings, protests, letters and announcements that followed, whether here, in London or in Brussels. However, the measure of all those efforts must be seen in the farmyards, if we are to help farming families and retain the rural way of life for Northern Ireland as we know it. I pay tribute to the farmers who refused to be put off and met those in positions of responsibility to press for that action.

On Friday, I got the opportunity to relay the concerns of local farming families to the Bank of England's chief economist, Andy Haldane. We discussed the potential impact of possible interest rate rises, and his suggestion was that the rate, far from rising, could fall further. That would certainly be welcome news, not only for mortgage holders but for our farming families.


1.00 pm

Mr Haldane was a guest of the Portadown Chamber of Commerce, and I put on record my praise for the chamber for securing the attendance in our constituency of one of the world's 100 most influential people. It is beholden on all of us to use the influence that we have to help our industry through the present crisis.

At Committee last week, Minister, I asked for further clarity on the EU aid package and on what the reality of that announcement will mean to our farmyards. I am sure that Members would welcome any further light that you can shed on that today. Again, Minister, when we met alongside my party colleagues, Tom Elliott MP, Jim Nicholson MEP and Councillor Rosemary Barton, I raised my serious concerns around mental health issues in rural communities. Perhaps your contribution to the debate could also highlight what action you have taken on the issue. I have also been working alongside the chief executive of the Southern Trust on the issue and would welcome an update from the Minister today.

I want once again to focus on young farmers, like Jonny Matthews and James Stewart, who presented to us at Committee. They have come through CAFRE and are waiting in the wings to take over as heads of holding. They need to be given hope for a sustainable and profitable future in farming, now so more than ever.

Minister, we are all aware of your Department's drive towards online documents and forms. However, a short search through the DARD website shows that you do not have a dedicated section of advice and guidance for young farmers: 100-page PDF guides do not work. Will you give a guarantee to look at how your Department provides help and guidance to young farmers? After all, they are the next generation of farmers across Northern Ireland and they deserve support at this time of crisis like never before.

Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat. The present crisis in the dairy trade is another blow to our agriculture industry. We have seen crisis in the sheep trade, the beef trade, the pork trade and now dairy. The Russian ban on our agricultural products has added greatly to this. The Chinese are trying to bolster their own domestic market rather than buy milk from Europe, and we now have a glut of milk.

We have special circumstances here, and our Minister has made that very clear to DEFRA in London. We face a unique and extreme set of circumstances. The dairy sector in the North is directly exposed to the commodity markets and vulnerable to currency exposure. At the present time, the difference between euro and sterling means something in the region of 4p and 5p a litre. That gives you an idea of how volatile it is.

We do not have the same large domestic market for our milk as other EU countries, including Britain, so our producer price is closely linked to the global commodities market. From day one of the present crisis, Minister O'Neill has been lobbying DEFRA to make it understand that the problem is here. That is one of the problems facing us: DEFRA did not see a crisis in the industry here. That made the lobbying even harder. That begs a question about DEFRA — to my mind, it is more of a hindrance than a help to the farming industry here, and that makes a stronger case for having an all-Ireland basis for the promotion of our farming products.

Minister O'Neill also went to Europe to lobby Commissioner Hogan. She has taken delegations of people from groups here to Europe. She has spoken to the banks. She has spoken to the producers. She has spoken to everybody she needs to. When nobody else could, she managed to get a meeting with Commissioner Hogan to make the case for the farmer here.

The one thing that all farmers, groups, delegations and even protesters outside have said is that they want to see the political parties here unite in taking the industry forward, and not snipe at each other to score cheap political points. As well as all the meetings she has had, the Minister has been working with the industry, the political stakeholders, particularly in relation to the dairy sector, for more than a year. She has also raised the plight of other parts of the farming industry. She has engaged more regularly with Liz Truss to emphasise circumstances here. She has also been pushing for a review of the intervention threshold rate, which, I believe, was last visited in 2003 and has not been changed since.

She has liaised with all the MEPs, her opposite number in Scotland and Wales and with Minister Coveney in the South. As I said, she has also taken the case directly into Europe. So, this Minister has proved that she is there for the farmer; she is pushing the case forward. We have got to get the intervention level for milk up. The last time that was done, as the Minister has said time and again, it put a floor on the market price and allowed it to recover. At present, Europe is not doing that. We have got money coming in but the problem now is how we are going to spend it and where it will go. By the time that DEFRA sends the money here, there will not be a terrible lot to put round, so we will have to see how we can best place that in the industry without leaving out other parts of the agriculture business.

All I can really say is that, when I look round the Floor today, some of the parties and all the Members who are sitting here, who lecture my party for what it is doing and what it has not been doing, according to them, should look to themselves —

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

Mr McMullan: — because some of the other parties' milking parlours are very empty today.

Mr Byrne: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate, as agriculture spokesman for my party, the SDLP. It is an indictment on the Department that we are having a debate on a motion entitled "Agriculture Industry Crisis". This is not a pop-up crisis, nor is it one that is dictated by immediate and pressing factors that can be reversed. Instead, it has been festering for many months. Those in the Chamber, in the Department and farmers have been aware that we would eventually reach this point and, so far, little has been done to address the situation.

Let us look at the factors that have got us to this stage. There has been a growth in milk production in the past two years, because preset EU milk quotas were abolished in April 2015. Before the abolition of the quotas, less milk was produced than is currently the case. We are producing 85% more milk than we consume on the island of Ireland. We need to export. Indeed, that is why we attempted to amend the motion to reflect the need to re-evaluate EU private storage capacity.

The expansion of EU private storage capacity for skimmed milk powder (SMP), butter and cheese is important to help to temporarily adjust the short-term market for dairy products. I welcome movement on this issue that was recently announced by Commissioner Phil Hogan on 7 September, after the EU Council of Ministers meeting. Throughout the second half of 2013 and most of 2014, the world market price for milk was high, and farmers locally were getting over 30p per litre. At present, farmers are getting less than 20p per litre, a 40% drop in 10 months.

The biggest setback came with the Russian import ban on European agriproduce at the end of 2014, coupled with a reduction in Chinese imports of skimmed milk powder in particular. There has also been an expansion in milk production in New Zealand and Australia over the last two years. The reality is that many dairy farmers here expanded their business in that time, and some borrowed heavily. I am aware of many farmers who invested large sums to expand their milk business when the price was over 30p a litre. They were, quite simply, plunged into a cash-flow crisis due to low prevailing farm-gate prices, as low as 18p per litre in some cases. That is why, now, it is the duty of the banks locally, as well as the Department, to be cognisant of that fact. We do not need to write off the moneys owed, but farmers need breathing space so that milk prices can be returned to more normal levels.

The EU Agriculture Commissioner has said that he is in support of the European Investment Bank's soft loan finance for farm business investment for Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland has introduced such a scheme, and it is proving beneficial to farmers. Unfortunately, DARD has not pursued a scheme for Northern Ireland so far, particularly within the rural development programme proposals. Why is that so? Farmers need an explanation of that failure.

Over the last six months, another major external factor has been the fall in the euro against sterling. Poland and other European exporters of agri-produce to Russia in particular are now flooding the market. Resultantly, we have a classic market failure because current supply is outstripping demand in Europe and the market price for milk has fallen dramatically. In Ireland, North and South, 85% of all dairy produce has to be exported and sold in the European and world markets, hence the big disadvantage that the Northern Ireland dairy farmers find themselves in given the current world market situation.

The SDLP said a few weeks ago that the only way that this market crisis can be managed is to have the European Commission introduce intervention mechanisms, coupled with a more sensible baseline threshold price of at least 20 pence sterling per litre to put a bottom on the market. Our Minister went to meet the Minister in DEFRA, but DEFRA was not convinced of the need to lobby the European Council of Ministers for a change in the intervention price. Was that a failure of DARD and our Minister or is it a failure of DEFRA to recognise the situation?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Mr Byrne: This crisis has not been fixed. The question is this: what can be done about it? More representation has to be made in London with DEFRA to address —

Mr Byrne: — the matter.

Mr McCarthy: I welcome the opportunity to speak this afternoon on behalf of the Alliance Party and to support the very important motion before us today. For Northern Ireland, our agriculture industry is vital for many reasons. It is the lifeblood of our rural communities, employing thousands of people who, in the main, have to work in very trying circumstances all hours of the day and night. At the moment, they are very poorly rewarded. The produce of the Northern Irish farmer is world-class simply because those working on the farms are dedicated to the work that they are involved in and want to produce only the best. It is unfortunate that, all too often, the work of the farmer is taken for granted and very little appreciation is given to the time and effort put into ensuring that our reputation for first-class food production is maintained.

We are all aware of the extreme difficulties faced by our dairy farmers in recent times. Those of us on the ARD Committee heard from many of those in the dairy industry on the real hardships now being experienced by so many. It is our wish that solutions can be found as soon as possible. I am delighted to see our Agriculture Minister present today in the Assembly to hear the debate. I am sure that Minister O'Neill is as anxious as everyone else to see improvements without delay to get not only the dairy farmer back into a profitable position but everyone engaged in farming and food throughout Northern Ireland, regardless of which sector the farmer is working in.

The motion asks the Minister to get farmers paid in early December, to lobby Commissioner Hogan to raise the dairy intervention prices and to create a wider strategy to tackle the challenges facing the industry at this time. The Minister came to the House only last week and gave us a lengthy statement as to the things that she and her Department are doing and continue to do.

At that meeting of the Assembly last week, I commended the Minister for her work on trying to get solutions to the serious gaps that exist throughout the entire agriculture industry. The latest support from Brussels was some €500 million. That funding was described as a robust and decisive response to meet cash flow difficulties, stabilise markets and address the functioning of the supply chain. The funding is welcome, but, when broken down and divided throughout the member states, large gaps will remain, and the misery will continue, unfortunately.


1.15 pm

The biggest disappointment for everyone is, I think, the refusal of Commissioner Hogan to increase the intervention prices. Despite the Minister's best endeavours, the commissioner still does not accept the rationale for that request. Everyone on these islands has shown by their submissions and their protest campaigns up and down the country, and through the support from all elected representatives, the farmers and, hopefully, today, the unanimous agreement of all in the Assembly, that, despite our other differences, there is a willingness, when it comes to the livelihood of so many of our constituents, to stand shoulder to shoulder and, once again, make the plea to Brussels bureaucracy: our agriculture industry is on its knees; you have the means to help it survive and prosper. We cannot sit idly by and see local farmers go out of business. Experience has shown that the slowness of Brussels to react previously put many of our farm businesses in jeopardy. That must not be allowed to happen again. Introduce intervention prices now and save our entire farming industry.

I encourage our Minister to keep up the pressure to see a better future for our industry. The Alliance Party is happy to support the amendment this afternoon.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on the current crisis within the agriculture industry. I welcome the fact that the motion recognises that it affects all the sectors, not just the dairy sector. The fall in prices and the impact that that is having on farm families and the wider economy has been well documented. I do not want to repeat all that has been said by Members who have already spoken, but I acknowledge the difficulties and challenges that are faced across the sector. I also acknowledge the work that the Minister has done to date, much of which she outlined in her statement to the House last week. That work included a list of engagements with the industry and political stakeholders, and she highlighted our exposure to the global market, high dependency on exports, poor exchange rates, extreme market conditions and price volatility. She also highlighted practical initiatives at a local level and put forward the case for an examination of the intervention system and, crucially, for fighting for additional EU support.

There is a real concern that the proposed €500 million will not stretch across 28 member states in a meaningful way. Out of that, €36 million has to be divided between the North, England, Scotland and Wales, so it is crucial that we continue to fight for the lion's share in line with the unique difficulties that are faced here. Additionally, we have to recognise, continue to lobby for and bring forward initiatives that will help to alleviate the current crisis as quickly as possible. Therefore I support the motion and the amendment.

Mr Rogers: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. I declare an interest as a sheep farmer. It was interesting to listen to the Chair of the Agriculture Committee make so many political points given that, last week, he was not in the Chamber to respond to the Minister on a very, very important statement.

As the motion notes, there has been a growing crisis across all sectors of agriculture in Northern Ireland, particularly the dairy and beef sectors. It is a crisis that has left farmers' confidence shaken and has significantly undermined the Department of Agriculture in the eyes of farmers across the North. Let there be no doubt of the crisis that we find ourselves in. Certainly, we cannot claim that the current problems are trivial or short term, when we see farmers being forced into protests across the North. Last week, I held a farming focus event. The message must get through that farmers are very concerned about loss of income and the uncertainty of the future. There is also a clear message from farmers: stop playing politics.

The crisis has been caused by multiple factors, and, to be fair to the Minister, it would be unreasonable for any Member to claim that the current situation is solely due to a failure by DARD. We cannot blame the Minister for a Russian import ban and a surprising downturn in the Chinese market. That said, DARD's actions and decisions over the last five years, particularly last year, have not aided the situation. In fact, the failure of DARD to evolve has not only allowed international fluctuations to hit but allowed them to hit much harder. The SDLP has consistently voiced concern that DARD has failed to reform its administrative system to match the needs of farmers and has instead created only more bureaucracy. The failure in the delivery of the single farm payment best represents the ongoing flawed system.

I welcome the Minister's statement last week, her commitment to championing the agri-sector in Northern Ireland and her support for a raised intervention price, although I am slightly concerned about how discussions with DEFRA and the Commission have been going. Last week, I asked the Minister how the discussions were going. Her response was promising, and I hope that further negotiations will be more fruitful. I urge the Minister to negotiate hard because of the unique position our Northern Ireland farmers are in.

As for the relief package, it would be madness to have the same level of aid across GB and Northern Ireland. Farmers in England are getting up to 22% more for their milk. Is it fair that farmers who have a supermarket contract worth 30p a litre get the same aid as Northern Ireland farmers?

In the crisis that we are facing, it is critical that the Minister engages with her counterparts at all levels and that they work together to ensure a solution that contains further damage.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Member for giving way. I agree with what he says. Does he agree that one of the main problems is DEFRA and its inability to grasp the situation in the farming industry here? Day by day, it is showing itself to be more of a hindrance than a help to our agriculture industry. Go raibh maith agat.

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

Mr Rogers: As I said at the beginning, forget about playing politics: we need all political parties to lobby DEFRA to ensure that Northern Ireland gets a fair price.

I regret that the SDLP amendment was not accepted. It had a simple distinct purpose and would have resulted in a positive outcome for farmers. Our amendment called for the upfront delivery of 70% of the basic payment. Think of what that would do for cash flow.

There could be a raise in the intervention dairy milk price and an increase in private storage capacity, in line with Commissioner Phil Hogan's extension of private storage capacity schemes for skimmed milk powder, butter and cheese. Any one of those measures would greatly alleviate the crisis. An increase in private storage capacity, for example, is essential for dealing with the overproduction of milk that has occurred since the abolition of milk quotas earlier this year. As my colleague Joe Byrne noted, we are simply producing more milk than we need on the island of Ireland at a time when we are without proper access to large markets such as Russia or China. Private storage presents the best solution by ensuring that our dairy produce can be kept and distributed effectively to maximise the benefit for our farmers.

The need for cooperation cannot be stressed enough. Northern Ireland needs to take advantage of every opportunity possible to restore farmer confidence and rehabilitate the dairy industry. Historically, Northern Ireland farming has been complex and versatile, and it has always required a level of cooperation from the South, from Britain and from Europe.

I return to the issue of sheep. A great strategy document, 'Going for Growth', was published a year ago, and one of its recommendations for beef and sheep was:

"Producers must be encouraged to place more emphasis on commercial/performance attributes".

We encouraged our sheep farmers to improve their product. Many farmers did that by improving their breeding and introducing better nutrition, increasing their productivity from 1·5 lambs to 1·9 or two lambs per ewe. The figures, however, do not match up. The farmer today is getting £20 less per lamb, so it just does not work.

We have the product and the quality, so all we need is confidence and a Department that will ensure that farmers are given the space to deliver a quality product.

If we are to avail ourselves of the new €500 million relief package and deal with this effectively, we need a flexible and confident joint approach that seeks the best outcomes for our farmers.

Mr Dallat: I have been around the Assembly for a long time. I looked up the Hansard report of a debate in 2000, when there was a crisis in the agriculture industry. I recall the debate getting off to a very bad start when an Ulster Unionist Member queried the syntax: he asked about the omission of the indefinite article and whether it should read "a crisis" or "crises". If the Ulster Unionists were back today, perhaps they would realise that it is serious.

What has happened in the 15 years since that first debate led by the late Dr Paisley? Why is it that, today, farmers are painted into a corner with nowhere to go? Other Members covered the components of the "crisis", but why have we left the industry to the free market and taken a laissez-faire approach to how business operates? It is a fine mess with no obvious solutions as to what to do about it, other than to sit idly by and allow thousands of farming families to go to the wall. Hopefully, that is not the plan. I am sure that that is over the top. I have no doubt that there are people in our farming industry with vision, aspiration and belief who see better solutions than bankruptcy, bad health and, indeed, suicide.

One lesson that we can learn immediately is not to leave an industry as important or as serious as the agriculture industry to the mercy of private enterprise, certainly not the supermarket chains that are selling milk more cheaply than mineral water with no regard to the long-term outcome of exploiting the dairy industry for short-term gain. That is disgraceful.

Unfortunately, farmers are not their own best friend. When times are better, they buy new plant and machinery. They become the envy of their neighbours, who interpret shiny new tractors as evidence of money in the bank. The neighbours do not realise that those shiny new tractors are all too often bought with bank loans granted on the basis of evidence that income was stable when they were bought.

More recently, we were told by the Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee, who is a farmer — I am glad that he is the Chamber today, along with one other Member of his party — that the problem is global and that a solution does not lie with the Assembly. One wonders, therefore, why the DUP put the motion in the Order Paper today. Is it serious about the crisis — or is it crises? — in the farming industry or is the motion just for the optics, given that an election will certainly come up some time soon, perhaps sooner than some parties want?

In the distant past, when the gombeen men were ripping off the small farmers of Ireland, those farmers took control of the situation and established farming cooperatives in almost every town across the country and began reaping the benefits of their hard work. Regrettably, many of those wonderful cooperatives disappeared or became part of bigger and bigger cooperatives. That changed the whole ethos of the cooperative principles to such an extent that they, too, are victims of global markets that do not give a hoot about the long-term survival of the agriculture industry. Perhaps it is time to look again to the Assembly to encourage the farming industry to take charge of its destiny and create a renaissance of the cooperative principle that works extremely well for credit unions and an increasing number of other activities that we hear hardly anything about.

If we continue to sit on our hands and claim that we can do nothing, the agriculture industry will go to the wall, and its future will be lost for the next generation — the work will be lost, and that does not save our environment, our wildlife or the many services that the public take for granted when they go running to the large supermarkets to buy their cheap milk.

Finally, let us reflect on just how important the farming industry is to our countryside, our tourism, our environment, and, indeed, our basic health. Let us not confine the debate simply to the Lidls and Asdas of the world, which are exploiting the farmers in the way that they are. I support the motion.


1.30 pm

Mr Allister: Of course, it is right that the Assembly should debate this important issue, but there needs to be recognition of the reality that, above all, our agriculture policy, courtesy of our membership of the EU, is set not by this House, not even by DEFRA, but by the unelected European Commission. It is the Commission that has steered the ship of European agriculture onto the rocks, as far as many of the aspects of this crisis are concerned.

Of course, it was the Commission that was determined not to be turned on the issue of the abolition of milk quotas, as someone else referred to. That, in part, has fuelled the crisis in our industry. It was the European Union that took the big geopolitical decisions that have aggravated the crisis in Russian imports. It was not farmers who decided the geopolitical path that Europe would tread; it was the faceless bureaucrats of Brussels, by and large, who took that path, and now it is the farmers of Europe who are left to pick up the pieces.

It would be remiss not to identify the fact that the European Union, being in control of our policy, has much of the responsibility for the current crisis. Therefore, when its response is to slam the door on the only short-term salvation for the dairy industry, namely an increase in intervention, it makes the situation so much the worse. Every major player in the dairy industry across the world has some mechanism akin to intervention. The United States of America has its margin protection policy, which is there as a safety net. In the EU, we have a safety net, but it is one that has not been serviced since 2003 because there has been no upgrade in the level to make its impact significant and positive. By refusing to take that action, the Commission compounds the crisis.

Of course, intervention would do two things: it would provide an immediate bottom to the market, which is what it needs, but more than that and, long-term, more important than that, it would provide the trader confidence that is lost in the market on which growth and recovery would be built. In addition, it would not be a loss for the European Union because experience of intervention is that, when the market turns on foot of intervention, the people who make the money are the European Commission because it cashes in by selling, at a much higher price, the product that it bought in at an intervention price. It is beyond comprehension, for an agency that has control of our policy, why it is so resistant to helping the industry through this crisis.

Therefore, much of the blame and the responsibility needs to be put where it belongs: on the EU and our membership of it. Yes, DARD could do more. It has sat on its hands, for example, with the capacity for over a year to introduce the October single farm payments. It has done nothing to revise the system to make that possible in the year that that has been approved from elsewhere. DARD, with DETI, puts its hand to 'Going for Growth', which is a fine document in many ways but one that seems to forget that the first priority surely is to protect the producers that we have.

In protecting the producers that we have, we have to adopt policies that are not just —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Mr Allister: — this flamboyant, expansive notion that the abolition of milk quotas and everything else feeds into. Then, when the crisis comes, they want to pass the parcel. This parcel of responsibility rests primarily in Brussels.

Mrs O'Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the motion and thank Members for providing the opportunity to discuss this important issue again. The fact that this is the second week that we have discussed the issue sends a strong message to the industry that the Assembly takes it seriously.

The matters raised today are of extreme importance to me. Indeed, as many Members already know, I have spent much of the past year working to address the crisis in the dairy sector. That work intensified over the summer. I have been focusing on ensuring that there is timely and effective support for the dairy sector and other farming sectors at this difficult time. I agree with much of what was said. I am pleased that there is a shared desire to see immediate, effective help for our hard-pressed industry.

It is clear to all that the crisis facing all sectors of agriculture is largely a global one. Members are aware that it has been caused by a range of factors outside our control, including oversupply in world markets, the Russian ban on imports, reduced demand from important markets such as China and a weak euro. It is important that we remember that this crisis cannot be solved at a local level alone. It needs immediate, additional action at EU level to address the damaging consequences of this situation for our farmers. I know that many of you agree with that sentiment.

I went into considerable detail on the crisis facing farming, especially the dairy sector, when I made my oral statement to the House last Monday. I also took the opportunity at a meeting last Tuesday to update the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development on action to date and the emerging details of the Commission's aid package. Time will not permit me to repeat all that I said on those two occasions. However, I want to pick up on specific points that were made during the debate today.

In relation to the actions taken to date, I remind Members that DARD and I have been involved in practical supports over the last year. In recognition of the cash flow pressures on dairy farms, my Department's dairy advisers held workshops and training events throughout the spring and summer dealing with cost control, technical efficiency, benchmarking and business management. I have continued to meet farmers and processors. I have encouraged retailers, feed merchants and the local banks to engage positively with farmers and support them through this challenging time.

I have been engaging with colleagues on the Executive to bring to their attention the difficulties faced across all farming sectors. 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 in ensuring that local businesses are able to bid for public-sector contracts and to engage with the British Treasury on the scope for any further flexibility on taxation.

Whilst we are very much in crisis mode in terms of the challenges facing the industry, I believe that the longer-term prospects for the agrifood sector remain positive. The sector has the potential to grow and exploit opportunities arising from the predicted expansion in world population.

My overall aim is to help the sector to improve performance in a sustainable way. The Department will continue to support the industry's growth ambitions as set out in the Going for Growth strategy through a range of measures, including education and training, technical support and research to improve efficiency, competitiveness and innovation, and a suite of proposed measures under the next rural development programme.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for giving way, and I recognise what she has done. Would she accept, however, that we will have to have the establishment of a semi-state marketing board to make sure that the agriproduce that is produced here can be sold successfully, branded and marketed at a premium price and command confidence in the market?

Mrs O'Neill: I do think that one area that we really need to focus on is opening up those new markets and new market opportunities. To be successful and consistent in getting into those markets, we need that marketing body. That is one area that is being taken forward through the Agri-Food Strategy Board. Hopefully, we will see more detail on how that is going to roll out in the immediate future.

I will pick up where I left off on the rural development programme. Members know that I recently announced the EU approval of our new rural development programme that will run up to 2020, which will make support for knowledge transfer, innovation, cooperation and capital investment available to farmers, including the proposed farm business improvement scheme. Members will also know that I have tasked the Agri-Food Strategy Board chair with developing proposals to improve the supply chain. I think that we can all agree that we need to tackle the supply chain challenges that are presented to us, and I very much welcome a lot of focus on that. I also welcome the Commission's intention to tackle supply chain challenges by establishing a new high-level group to focus on clearly defined issues such as futures markets.

High animal health status is vital to securing and maintaining trade with existing new markets, and I have officially secured European Commission approval of our case for official brucellosis-free status. That enables me to announce further relaxations to our brucellosis controls in the near future. It is excellent news for the whole industry and will generate further cost savings both for taxpayers and farmers. I recognise that we also need to stimulate export growth and open up new markets, as I have referred to, and we are working very hard on that front, with a measure of success. You will be aware of my efforts to strengthen relationships with the Chinese markets. We are doing all that we can to help farmers survive the current difficulties and seize the opportunities for the future.

Members have all referred during today's debate to the need for a review of intervention prices, and I am still wedded to the view that we need to continue to push the European Commission on that. One Member asked where the failure lies in relation to intervention prices. Unfortunately, the position that DEFRA has adopted is very much a Tory ideological position. I made it very clear to Elizabeth Truss that I knew that her hands were tied in terms of the British Treasury position, but that shows, more than ever before, why these institutions need to work and need to deliver for our local farming industry. The Minister from DEFRA turned her head and her face to the challenges that are facing our local farming industry, so we need locally elected Ministers who understand the plight of the farmers and the situation that they are facing.

We need locally elected Ministers who can stand up and fight the corner in England with DEFRA, but also at a European level. I clearly did that over the last number of months when I took all the cross-party delegations. That, in itself, showed strength to the industry and showed that there was a willingness here to work together to deliver for the agrifood industry.

As I said, I have raised the issue and made the case to Phil Hogan. I have listened to what Members have said today and I totally agree on why we needed the review of intervention prices. It would have put that floor in the market, which would have allowed the market to correct itself. The reality is that the free market does not work. I stand by that position and am continuing to lobby the EU Commissioner on that. I am pleased that other member states are also continuing to raise that issue.

Many Members referred to basic payments from October and called on me to ensure that those are issued to farmers as soon as possible. Members will be aware that I have consistently, year on year, made improvements in single farm payments and in getting money into farmers' pockets sooner. We have made tremendous improvements in that regard and will continue to do that. The motion calls for payments to be made in early December, and others are pressing for advance payments to be made in October. As I told the House and the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee last week, I have already given my commitment to make full direct payments to as many farmers as possible in December this year, and that remains a priority for me. My Department officials have been instructed in that regard, and we will continue to make sure that we have the maximum number of people paid in December.

It is widely recognised across Europe that this year will be challenging for the administration of direct payments in general, due to the new schemes introduced under CAP reform. The Commission's recent announcement that it will allow advance payments of up to 70% to be paid from October is based on the premise that all checks and controls have been completed and processes are in place to facilitate an advance payment. For many claims, particularly inspection cases, that will not be the case, and no payment will be possible in October. The Commission has advised this week that it will consider a proposal to waive the requirement for all inspections to be completed before advance payments can be made, but my focus has been on ensuring that payments are made to as many farmers as possible in that first week of December. As I said, that is a priority area for me. I want to get to a position where we make part payments and are able to make early payments. We are working our way steadily towards that and have, as I said, made improvements year on year and will continue to do so.

Members are aware that this is a particularly important issue for me. I welcome the fact that we have had across-the-board support and recognition that this needs to be tackled. The issues facing farmers, particularly the dairy sector, need to be tackled at a European level.


1.45 pm

I have set out my stall with what I have done at a local level. That includes the practical supports that I have offered and my engagement with the banks and the grain trade. I will meet the industry again today and will hopefully meet Liz Truss again at some stage this week to discuss our share of the EU package. I will continue to fight the case for our farmers. I have made the case to DEFRA and have highlighted that we are different because we are so dependent on export markets.

The approach of the European Commission is unfortunate. It has put a package on the table, and, whilst we welcome some support, I do not think that it has taken the right approach. It has announced that £420 million will be available for targeted aid. That does not amount to an awful lot across 28 member states. We know what the member state's share is, and my job and focus now is to make sure that we focus DEFRA's attention on why we are different and need additional supports. I have certainly been fighting our corner to make sure that we have the best possible share of that funding. That is ongoing and priority work for me over the next number of days.

I welcome the fact that the House has spent time discussing the issue today, and I think that we should continue to have those discussions. I assure the House that my immediate priority is to ensure that the Commission's package is quickly and effectively implemented and that we get the money into farmers' pockets as quickly as possible. My officials and I are working hard in conjunction with the various stakeholders to achieve that.

I will continue to work with colleagues across these islands and, of course, with the industry to explore mechanisms to support a sustainable and profitable agrifood industry in the medium to longer term. I will continue to work through all the channels that are available to me to support farmers during this very difficult time. I will continue to seek the best deal for our farmers in the North. I will continue to support farmers so that they are able to face the future with confidence. I look to others to continue to play their part also.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for her statement and comments today. I have not heard an awful lot that is new since the statement that you gave to the House a couple of days ago, but there is something different today compared to the reassurances that you gave to the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development last Tuesday. I have the Hansard report here. When referring to the Commission's proposal in your statement, you said:

"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". — [Official Report, Vol 107, No 2, p9, col 2].

Earlier in your statement, you said that you would everything that you could at a political and practical level to help and support the industry through the current difficulties.

Our amendment to this very important motion is specifically about that 70% and enabling it to come forward earlier. Our amendment states "from October". We are realistic and know that the Department has to put in place a number of things to allow some of those payments to be made. That is why we have asked for that 70% to come forward earlier.

A year and a half ago, the Department introduced remote sensing. That was meant to facilitate those payments being made earlier. I ask the Minister to look again at that 70% option, to not give up on it and to not let her officials in the Department dictate to her that there are too many processes and procedures in place to allow them to be made. If the will is there, there will be an ability to do it. That 70% advance payment will help all sectors of our industry, not just the milk sector. It will help sheep, beef, arable and potato farmers.

The Minister has committed to doing all that she can. When she moved the amendment, my colleague Jo-Anne Dobson raised the emotional strain that farmers and farm families are under. I ask the Minister to go back and look at her funding of Rural Support. I have heard her refer to that organisation a number of times, but, from the figures that she has supplied to me, I have noted that her Department's financial support of Rural Support has fallen since she took office in 2011. I ask her to go back and look at that. The agriculture industry is in a state of difficulty, the families are in a state of difficulty, and that is where the pressure is really coming from.

The Minister has also talked about working with everybody politically, and Members have made the point about not engaging in political point-scoring. I ask her to have a serious conversation with the Minister of Finance and Personnel. This morning, it was raised with me that a Land and Property Services (LPS) official visited a farm to put pressure on the family to declare all their income. The agricultural rate relief is applicable to 50% of income from agricultural activities, and, because we are looking at a decrease in agricultural income, some families are falling below that 50%. LPS — I will not apologise — is acting like a vulture. It is now coming into some farmhouses and agricultural homes to look at their finances to see whether it can increase the rates take from those families who are already in a difficult financial situation. I ask the Minister to commit to meeting the Finance Minister to address those issues.

There was talk of political point scoring — I noticed that it came from the SDLP as well — and of not going down that line. I ask the SDLP to ask its Minister of the Environment to look at NIEA inspection levels and the same pressures and untoward stress that those inspections, which, in many case, are undue, are putting on our farmers at this minute. When those inspectors come onto a site, it puts additional pressure on farmers who are already feeling vulnerable.

Minister, I think that a job of work can be done. With regard to the 70% of advance basic payments, when you were in front of the Committee last Tuesday, you said that it could not come forward. By Friday, a departmental spokesperson had given a statement to the 'Farmers Weekly', which was:

"Our focus is on ensuring that farmers are notified of their entitlement in November, with payments being made to as many farmers in December as possible."

That spokesperson is not giving the same commitment to the farmers who are reading that journal as you are today. I ask you to go back and make sure that your Department and its officials have the same commitment to addressing this current crisis as you and the rest of the House.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Mr Swann: Thank you.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Edwin Poots to conclude the debate. The Member has up to 10 minutes, but there are only nine minutes available before we reach the 2.00 pm deadline. The Member can conclude his remarks within that time; otherwise, I will have to cut him off at 2.00 pm.

Mr Poots: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I will endeavour to conclude by 2.00 pm.

I think that I am the youngest Member to speak thus far, aside from the Minister, but I have been in politics since 1996, including during the BSE crisis and all that; I go right back to that time. I am the only Member elected here from 1998 throughout the period, so I have been through a few agriculture crises in my time — Mr Dallat has been here, too — and I have seen how people have responded over the years. During the 1996 BSE crisis, we had many meetings with the then Ministers who were dealing with the issues, and they were generally junior Ministers who were lords. I am hugely disappointed that the response from this Minister is little better than the response that we saw from the lords and baronesses who were over here as direct rule Ministers. That is harsh, but I am afraid that it is factual.

The farming community and I are sick, sore and tired of hearing what cannot be done. We cannot do the single farm payment before December because the European Commission does not allow it. Then the European Commission tells us that it is allowed: 70% of it can happen from October. However, when the Department is told that it can be done, it will not be done. There is a difference between "cannot" and "will not" do something. I am afraid that, at this point, it is more the case of will not do something —

Mr McMullan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Poots: No, I will not give way to Mr McMullan. My time is curtailed, and we have heard quite a bit from him. He has become an apologist for the inaction that has taken place. All that we get from Mr McMullan is constant criticism of DEFRA. Tell me: has DEFRA set the intervention price? Is it a British DEFRA Minister or is it an Irish commissioner in the European Union? Mr McMullan concentrates his political stabbing at the British Minister who is letting us down, but he never actually speaks about the Irish commissioner, who is letting us down more than anybody at this point. Phil Hogan is letting dairy farmers down by not raising the intervention price and by not making the case for the intervention price to be raised.

Consequently, people are suffering, and people will go out of business.

I was out in my constituency, as I am regularly, speaking to farmers. One man asked me, "Edwin, is there nothing that can be done to help us?" In my heart of hearts, I know that things that can be done to help that man — there are things — but they are not being done. The problem that I have with the Minister, the Department, DEFRA and the European Union is that there are things that can be done at every level to help the agriculture community. I am not referring purely to dairy farmers: many of the farmers in the glens of Antrim whom Mr McMullan is supposed to represent are getting badly punished when selling their lambs this year, and Mr McMullan thinks that Mrs O'Neill is doing a wonderful job.

I am getting plenty of complaints from sheep farmers about the poor prices that they are receiving. Vegetable, potato and cereal farmers are suffering as well. Right across the board, prices for produce are lower than they should be. Mrs O'Neill's great strategy is to send out dairy advisers. She is sending dairy advisers to farmers who could teach the dairy advisers what to do. When farmers in the top 10% or 15% of producers in the United Kingdom are losing money hand over fist, they do not need a dairy adviser to tell them what to do. They need cash in their pockets — not platitudes, which is what we are getting from Sinn Féin.

Many farmers are at breaking point. Farms that have been in families for generations — generations — could be sold as a consequence of the current agriculture crisis. I expect that farms will be sold on the back of what is happening. Meanwhile, the Minister's strategy is Going for Growth. It is about moving headquarters, so we will spend £40 million here and we will spend £35 million on a new computer system. That is not all. Let me make this very clear: that is not all capital spend — a considerable amount is recurrent spend, and that is where the money could come from to assist farmers. Money that is being spent recurrently on those things could be going to the farmers.

Where is the market support? Where is the opportunity to delve into hardship payments for farmers? Direct payments in October would help farmers' cash flow when they face huge bills for conacre and from agricultural contractors. Bills that all have to be settled at that time of year. The European Union is not holding the Minister back from ensuring that farmers' cash flow is improved by getting that money out earlier.

Mrs O'Neill referred to how they have been handling animal health issues. There has been an absolute failure from this Minister and the previous Minister to deal with the problem of TB — there has been a Sinn Féin Minister throughout — because they have a greater affection for badgers than for the people they are supposed to be serving.

Pig farmers should be selling their offal to China, which would be worth around £3 million a year to Northern Ireland farmers, but that is not happening because a document that was supposed to have been signed off has not been signed off. What work is going on between DEFRA and the Department to ensure that the issue gets over the line?

Enough is enough. People in the farming community need support, and they need it now. They are fed up hearing from this Minister, from her Department and from her party that they are incapable of doing anything. If they are incapable of doing the job, perhaps they should not bother doing the job.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. Sorry. My apologies.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes with concern the crisis facing all sectors of agriculture across Northern Ireland; recognises the need to deliver significant change in the short term and into the future; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to do more for the industry by availing of the important permission from the European Commission to make up to 70 per cent of advance Basic Payments from October 2015, lobbying the EU Agriculture Commissioner to raise dairy intervention prices as a matter of urgency and bringing forward a specific set of action points to deal with the immediate challenges facing the industry.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I now return to Question Time beginning at 2 pm. I suggest that the House take its ease until then.


2.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

Mrs Foster (The Acting First Minister): The Executive's draft 10-year strategy for affordable and integrated childcare is open for public consultation until 13 November. The draft strategy proposes 22 interventions or areas of development, including the creation of up to 44,000 new childcare places to meet need to give effect to the Executive's vision for childcare that every child, parent and family will have access to affordable, integrated and quality childcare. Preliminary work has been carried out on costing the proposed interventions in the draft childcare strategy. Indicative costs are based on estimates for revenue and capital grants to support new childcare places and the projected costs of grant administration and registration and inspection of new childcare places.

Of the 22 proposed actions, the current school-age childcare grant scheme, expanded to include preschool childcare, is the most ambitious. It aims to create nearly half of the 44,000 places. The grant scheme will also be the most costly of the 22 actions. A key aspect of the evaluation of the current school-age childcare grant scheme will be to estimate the cost of any future interventions and thereby their feasibility in the current economic climate.

Other actions that will carry a cost are community-based childcare, cross-border childcare, assistance for private sector providers, childcare for private firms, capital fund for childcare, flexible childcare and childcare for low-income families. These costs will be offset by a range of social and economic benefits that will be considered more fully in the development of the individual business cases and economic appraisals for each separate intervention. Sustainability is a core objective of the draft childcare strategy.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Acting First Minister for her answer. It is very welcome that these childcare strategy proposals have been brought forward. However, many will feel that, without the finance to back them up, they will be worthy targets without actions to go along with them. Is the Acting First Minister confident that the finance will be made available to fund the strategy?

Mrs Foster: I think that it is very important that that does happen. The costings in the consultation document are based, as I have said, on modelling that was used for the school-age childcare grant scheme. Of course, we should remember that the idea behind these childcare interventions is that they will be sustainable in the longer term. Whilst there may be an initial injection of money from the Executive, the idea is that, in future, those childcare providers will become sustainable, either through a social economy model or, indeed, through private models as well. The idea is that there will be an injection for a while, but we do not want to get to a situation where we are having to pay out a grant every year, year on year, as that would drag down the market for childcare, which would be the wrong way to move forward. We need to look at how we are putting the intervention in place and make sure that we are getting the best value for money out of it.

Mr D McIlveen: I thank the Acting First Minister for her answers so far. I am sure that the Acting First Minister will be aware that, already, there has been some criticism from the childcare sector, particularly around the issue of regulation, which, at times, does appear to be quite confusing.

Does the Acting First Minister intend to take a look at this? Does she feel that there are any actions that can be taken to address it?

Mrs Foster: As the Member will be aware, regulating and indeed registering and inspecting childcare facilities is the responsibility of the Department of Health, which is represented on the childcare strategy programme board. However, he is right to point out that some complaints have come forward in respect of the relatively new minimum standards and associated regulation. Indeed, a number of private nurseries in my own constituency came to me around some of the ways in which those regulations had been put in place and were being implemented. There is more work to be done between OFMDFM and the Department of Health. I am glad to say that that work continues. We want to be able to make sure when it come to the final issue of the childcare strategy, namely regulation, that the Department of Health and OFMDFM are on the same page — I know that that phrase has been used often recently — so that it is fit for purpose.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. Given that one of the aims of the childcare strategy is to promote the development of children in their own right, how will those of unemployed parents be catered for in the strategy?

Mrs Foster: I am sure that she is aware that people who are disadvantaged in one way or another are already given priority in respect of movement into the early years sector. I am sure that that is a policy that will continue into the future. There is a need for us to address children of all different strata and to make sure that, not only in early years but at school age, they are able to have childcare provided to them in an affordable way. That is important. You will recall that OFMDFM had to step in because there was literally a stand off between the Department of Health and the Department of Education on who had primary responsibility for childcare, and that is why the strategy now sits with OFMDFM.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Acting First Minister for her response. Given that last year's Employers For Childcare survey indicated that the cost of a full-time childcare place has risen to £162 a week, when does the Minister anticipate hard-working families being able to benefit from the childcare strategy?

Mrs Foster: That is right. We do not want to put people out of work because of childcare costs. We want to be able to facilitate them to go into work. That is the whole purpose. As well as the development of the individual children, we want to be able to free parents up so that they can go into and be active in the area of work. That is why those twin strategic approaches in relation to the strategy have been adopted. It is about developing a child, but it is also very much about freeing parents up to go to work.

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed, I inform Members that questions 5, 6, 9 and 12 have been withdrawn.

Mrs Foster: The Shackleton site is one of massive opportunity. We are determined to maximise the benefits that it can deliver for not just Ballykelly but the wider north-west. To unlock the full potential of the site, we placed approximately 622 acres of it for sale on the open market on 30 June. There has been significant interest in the site, and it will remain on the market until 2 October. A key element of the sale is the creation of jobs. Any potential purchaser will need to demonstrate how their plans will create employment opportunities and deliver community and environmental benefits. Northern Ireland Water has confirmed that it will purchase approximately 85 acres of the site to develop an integrated constructed wetlands to replace the waste water treatment works that currently deals with waste from Ballykelly village. With DARD's relocation plans also well under way, it really is an exciting time for Ballykelly and the north-west.

Mr Campbell: I thank the Acting First Minister for her response, and I am glad to hear that the date of 2 October is just around the corner. When the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is looking at the development of the site, will it ensure that it is compatible with the surrounding area, that it maximises the potential for economic growth and that some of the projects that are being projected for there reach the full potential of the entire north-west to bring hundreds, if not several thousands, of jobs to the area?

Mrs Foster: The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister very much believes that the sale of what is a huge area of land up in the north-west will act very much as a catalyst for economic development in that region. That is one of the reasons why, when deciding on who should be the purchaser of the site, they have placed weightings in relation to different elements. So, for example, job creation has a weighting of 45% in terms of whether the purchaser should be identified as the correct purchaser. Obviously, they look at the financial offer as well, but they also look at community and environmental benefit to the particular area, so those four elements will be looked at very carefully. We have had over 70 expressions of interest in the site, so there is a lot of interest in it. Obviously, those may not all come forward as bids, but that says to me that there is a lot of interest.

Mr Dallat: I welcome the fact that we have a good-news story coming out of the Assembly today. I fully support the Minister and sing from the same hymn sheet as Mr Campbell on this issue. The Minister said that she was looking at community input. How does the Minister intend to keep the wider community involved and, indeed, those 70 expressions of interest so that the 900-acre site is absolutely maximised, as Mr Campbell said, not just for Ballykelly but for the entire north-west?

Mrs Foster: The aim is to maximise the potential of the site. That is certainly what has been talked about by officials in OFMDFM and by Ministers. Officials have had a number of meetings, as I am sure the Member is aware, with Ballykelly Community Association to discuss various community benefits from future use of the site. In fact, it will be interesting to see the different proposals in respect of community benefit that come forward from those people who put forward a purchase price, and we may see some new and innovative ideas for the benefit of the community. This is absolutely a good-news story, and we look forward to 2 October when the bids will come in.

Ms Sugden: It is a great thing that there is some positive news coming from Ballykelly, and it just goes to show that this Assembly can do things when we want to. Have any of the stakeholders interested in the site expressed any concern about the current political situation?

Mrs Foster: No. I am not aware of anyone raising any particular issues in relation to the site. Overall, this House is very much aware of the fact that, when we have stability here in Northern Ireland, it is a great enabler to people looking at Northern Ireland for investment. However, I think that the House should be very pleased to hear that over 70 expressions of interest have come forward in respect of Ballykelly, and we look forward to seeing what comes out of those.

Mr McAleer: Will the Minister elaborate on the DARD headquarters and NI Water developments? Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs Foster: In respect of the DARD headquarters, that is probably more of an issue for the Minister of Agriculture, but the relocation of staff, I understand, is expected to be phased, with approximately 350 staff taking up position in 2017 and up to 350 more expected to relocate after phase 2 of the construction when it is completed in 2020. That is in respect of the DARD headquarters.

In respect of the Northern Ireland Water situation, OFMDFM intends to sell approximately 85·8 acres of the site to NI Water to develop. It is a very innovative way of using land that otherwise might not have been used.

NI Water will use it to develop an integrated constructed wetlands, and that will replace the waste water treatment works that has been dealing with Ballykelly village for some time. It is a very innovative way to move forward, as I say, with land that otherwise may not be used.


2.15 pm

Mrs Foster: We remain committed to ensuring that victims and survivors receive the best services possible. In this financial year, over £14 million has been allocated to victims' services with an opening budget for the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) of £13·245 million. Following on from the independent review of VSS in 2014, our Department, in collaboration with the Commission for Victims and Survivors and the VSS itself, continues to improve services to victims. The recruitment of a new Victims' Commissioner and additional members to the VSS board aims to ensure that, going forward, the needs and interests of all victims and survivors are both promoted and safeguarded. In addition, a collaborative design programme has been set up to develop an improved model for service delivery that better meets the needs of all victims and survivors. That programme has already made progress, such as improved monitoring and evaluation for groups and greater flexibility for individuals. Extensive engagement with a range of groups, as well as individual victims and survivors, has provided positive feedback that will provide a useful steer to build on the improvements to services that have occurred in recent months.

A VSS-led pilot in the use of personalised budgets, caseworkers and the assessment process commenced in July 2015. That approach will identify whether changes can be made to current service delivery systems to improve the outcome for victims and survivors in receipt of services through the VSS programmes. Key strands of work are also being taken forward under the Stormont House Agreement in relation to advocacy, a pension and the establishment of a mental trauma service.

Mrs Hale: I thank the Acting First Minister for her answers so far. She will be aware that there have been recent reports that perpetrators will be given an amnesty under the new arrangements of the Stormont House Agreement. Will the Minister confirm that this is absolutely not the case and never will be?

Mrs Foster: I am glad that the Member has brought that up, because there have been a lot of confusing reports in the media recently in relation to amnesty. Of course, there is no proposal for any amnesty for those who come forward to the truth recovery mechanism under the Stormont House Agreement: that is very clear in the Stormont House Agreement. There is no agreement to that. No amnesty has been suggested or discussed by party leaders at the Stormont House implementation group. There is no intention to include it in any legislation that will be progressed at Westminster.

I have to say that the reporting of the matter, which is wholly untrue, has been very upsetting for a wide range of people who suffered during the Troubles. It is very irresponsible and has caused a lot of distress, and we have seen that reported in the media. Those who have reported on an amnesty in that way should look at what they are doing to victims and survivors.

Mr Lyttle: On behalf of parties, I thank the Acting First Minister for her helpful clarification of the issue of amnesty. I ask her to update the Assembly on the progress that is being made on additional advocacy assistance for victims and survivors in helping them to navigate the various avenues of assistance that are available to them.

Mrs Foster: Yes, the Stormont House Agreement stated that, while limited services are in place to provide basic support, there is an urgent need to work collaboratively with victims and survivors and service providers to determine the characteristics of advocacy services provision and associated costs. That is very much something that was agreed by all the parties at Stormont House. A draft paper was presented to the implementation group on 17 August. Departmental officials continue to research advocacy provision to ensure appropriate and adequate future provision. I believe that that is a very important part of the Stormont House Agreement, and it has been lacking, particularly for individuals who do not want to join the various groups and therefore have no voice when they want to come forward. The advocacy provisions are very important.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for her comments on the matter so far. Does she agree that it is important that, in the current talks, a meaningful and real effort be made to address the fears and apprehensions of victims and survivors, particularly those who have suffered unduly and when we have examples of big atrocities like Loughinisland, Bloody Sunday, Enniskillen and Omagh among others? People feel that this place and the Governments need to address their concerns and fears seriously.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question and commentary; indeed, it underlies what I have been saying. There is a duty on people who report something as fact when it is not fact. It causes a lot of distress and does a lot of harm. It puts more pressure on the services available to victims and survivors.

There has been a lot of confusion about a draft Bill that has been produced by Amnesty International, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and others, which outlines a number of provisions. They have brought together a Bill that, to all intents and purposes, looks as if it has been drafted by draftsmen either here or in Westminster, but it is not a government Bill. It is certainly not what was agreed in the Stormont House Agreement and therefore should be seen as a commentary provided by outside bodies.

Mr Allister: How can the Minister talk about an improvement in the lot of victims when one of the parties with responsibility for victims is, in her words, "inextricably linked" to an organisation that is still in the business of victim making?

Mrs Foster: Mr Allister is, of course, talking about an issue that we are talking about in the talks. There is a very real need to deal with the death of Kevin McGuigan and those who killed him and the assessment that then came from the Chief Constable on the issue. I am dealing with the issue, and we are dealing with it in the talks. The way to solve it is through the talks. It will certainly not be solved by standing outside shouting about it.

Mrs Foster: Three projects are at an advanced stage of delivery in the southern zone that will directly benefit those living in the Upper Bann constituency. They are an employment project called Work It, which will launch later this month, and two capital projects, New Directions and Sustaining the Infrastructure. New Directions is a project to redevelop two community premises in Lurgan and Markethill, and it is out to tender for a design team. Sustaining the Infrastructure, a project to redevelop or refurbish 14 community facilities across the zone, has a number of design teams in place. Work is ongoing to progress the appointment of contractors and the remaining design teams. Both those significant construction projects are being led by Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.

Three other projects in the southern zone have been prioritised by the steering group. Armagh Harps, a new two-storey build to a GAA facility, was approved for funding, but costs have risen significantly. Work is now ongoing to minimise the increase and impact on affordability. The remaining two projects — the community sports programme, which is focused on capital works to four pitches, and the jobs market employment programme — continue to be considered for funding through the economic appraisal process. Officials are working with promoters to expedite approval, where possible, and move to letter of offer, subject to affordability.

Mr Anderson: I thank the acting First Minister for her response. Will she confirm that everything possible is being done to push those projects in Upper Bann and to get them towards the completion stage as soon as possible, bearing in mind the length of time that they have been waiting and the other projects in Upper Bann that are waiting to see where they sit at this stage?

Mrs Foster: Absolutely. I can appreciate the frustration felt by some of the promoters, but an innovative and progressive strategy was laid out. It has taken some time to get to where we are. We appreciate that a number of projects remain to be approved. That is frustrating for the steering group and the lead partners, but the appraisal process is very robust because we want to ensure not only that we get value for money for the projects but that the projects will be sustainable into the future.

There is little point in building structures across Northern Ireland if they will not be sustainable in the longer term. We have been looking closely at that through the appraisal process. It is frustrating — I accept that — but we want to ensure that there will be a legacy from this programme in the longer term.

Mrs Dobson: Will the Acting First Minister explain why £78 million of the £80 million set aside for the social investment fund is unspent? What is the Minister's message to the groups that are in limbo and awaiting funding in my constituency of Upper Bann?

Mrs Foster: As at 11 September of this year, the social investment fund has approved 39 projects with associated costs of over £53 million across all nine investment zones.

Mr Nesbitt: It is unspent.

Mrs Foster: I hear some commentary that it is unspent. I hope that it is not being suggested that we should withdraw those projects. If you want us to proceed in Upper Bann and other areas, we have to ensure that it is done in a sustainable way and that it provides value for money. I accept that it is frustrating for project promoters, but, if we work collaboratively, we will make this happen, and there will be a legacy right across Northern Ireland.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answers. Will she outline whether there are any potential difficulties in any of the zonal budgets or the progression of any projects should DSD, for example, fail to follow through on its previous funding commitments to SIF projects?

Mrs Foster: There was a pressure in the southern zone of around £2 million. I mentioned the rising cost of some of the capital projects in the substantive answer. That has now been minimised to £1·5 million. With budgets, there will always be pressures carried forward, but we are trying to work with the promoters and the steering groups to push those pressures down and deliver what is sustainable on the ground.

Mrs Foster: The Belfast North social investment fund steering group prioritised five projects within the zonal allocation following the area-planning process. Therefore, SIF was not subject to applications from organisations Rather, it focused on the development and prioritisation of projects to address need. Of the five projects prioritised, two are at an advanced stage. The first, a capital project called Childcare and Family Support will build two community childcare facilities, in Henry Place and Alliance Crescent. Design teams are being procured. The second, called Ethical Investment, is a social economy project aimed at helping community groups set up, support and develop market-ready property-based projects. A service delivery organisation has been appointed and delivery has commenced.

Of the remaining three projects, one capital and one revenue project have been approved for funding. A capital project called Increasing Community Services (Rebuild) will build community facilities at St Enda's in Glengormley; Crusaders FC on the Shore Road; Westland Community Centre; PIPS on the Antrim Road; and Arts for All on the Shore Road. Letters of offer are being finalised. The revenue project, called Employment Fuel Poverty, aims to provide placement for NEETs and a training programme focused on the installation of measures to reduce fuel poverty. Discussions are ongoing to secure a lead partner for the project.

The last remaining project, Increasing Community Services, intends to support refurbishment works to four community facilities. It will be considered for funding through the economic appraisal process. Officials are working with promoters to expedite approval where possible and move to issuing letters of offer subject to affordability.

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Acting First Minister for her answer. I welcome the fact that there seem to be advancements in north Belfast. Will the Acting First Minister give a commitment that the money promised by the Executive for the social investment fund will be ring-fenced to bring about that much-needed change in our most disadvantaged communities, not least north Belfast?

Mrs Foster: When people talk about processes, they sometimes forget the reason why the programme was put in place in the first place. The whole idea behind the social investment programme was to help those areas of disadvantage by giving people who had particular needs a hand up and putting in place infrastructure not previously present. We will continue to work with the project promoters to try to deliver those programmes and capital builds so that they will make a difference to those communities. We think that that will be the legacy of this programme.


2.30 pm

Mr Speaker: Very quickly; I do not think that there will be time for a supplementary. [Laughter.]

Mrs Foster: There are five projects prioritised by the steering group in the south-eastern zone that will directly benefit those living in the North Down constituency. Of these, a revenue project called Transitions: Early Intervention has service-delivery organisations appointed and working to begin project delivery across the zone.

The four other projects are being considered for funding through the economic appraisal process. Two revenue projects, one called "employment and training" and another called "youth intervention" will operate across the zone. The community houses project will refurbish eight community houses, six of which are in North Down, and the community-operated sports project includes a proposal to develop a 3G pitch at Kilcooley, alongside two others in Downpatrick and Ballyhornan. Officials are working with promoters to expedite approvals, where possible, and to move to a letter of offer, subject to affordability.

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

T1. Mr Eastwood asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how much money from the social investment fund budget has been spent in the Foyle constituency. (AQT 2841/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I do not have those figures in front of me. I will have them communicated to the Member.

Mr Speaker: It would be good if you can get a supplementary out of that.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for that answer, I think. Further to that, when will the letter of offer be sent to Derry and Strabane Council to allow work to start on the redevelopment of the Brandywell?

Mrs Foster: Again, I am sure that I could make that letter even longer by ensuring that those details are sent to him as well.

T2. Mr F McCann asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the Acting First Minister has any appreciation of how damaging her reference to her ministerial colleagues as "rogues and renegades" was. (AQT 2842/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I did not catch that. Can he repeat the question?

Mr Speaker: Can you repeat the question?

Mr F McCann: Does the Acting First Minister have any appreciation of how damaging her reference to her ministerial colleagues as "rogues and renegades" was?

Mrs Foster: You know, Mr Speaker, when I was a student of history at school, I always thought it was important to look at the original source material to find out what was actually said rather than to have it analysed and commented upon by other people. I have noticed that, when I said that I was the gatekeeper who was put in place to prevent the "possibility" of decisions being taken by rogue or renegade Ministers, all of a sudden nationalist Ministers in the Executive immediately identified themselves as such.

I do not know how "possibility" becomes "actuality", but there we are. I think that people should look at exactly what I said because, of course, there is form in this regard, and they need to remember that there is not a clear record.

Mr F McCann: It seems strange because, if that is her view, she was quite happy to work with the same Ministers over the past eight years.

Mrs Foster: I wonder whether the Member actually listened to what I actually said. I said the "possibility" in relation to these matters. I did say that there was form in this regard, and, of course, we recall that the Minister of Agriculture had to be taken to court in relation to CAP reform. The Minister of the Environment — I cannot hear what the Member is saying because I am answering the question — [Interruption.]

Mrs Foster: We are awaiting a judgement on the Minister of the Environment in relation to matters that he did not bring to the Executive, where he felt that he could take a decision as well without the consensus of the Executive. I am simply pointing out that, in an Executive made up of a coalition, you are meant to bring decisions to the whole Executive. Given that our Ministers have resigned from their positions, nationalist Ministers remain in place until such time that there is an election. Even were an election to be called, they would stay in place until that election was over. It is important to bear that in mind, and that was the reason for saying what I had to say.

T3. Ms Ruane asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the Acting First Minister thinks that the fact that there is no Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, no Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and no Minister for Social Development is a disservice to the public, leading to a lack of decision-making in vital Departments. (AQT 2843/11-16)

Mrs Foster: It could have been so different. It could have been much more easily dealt with. We put forward a proposal to the Business Committee on 1 September that the Assembly would be adjourned so that we could get on with business on the talks process. We were not supported in that respect; at least, the Alliance Party supported us, but everybody else decided to vote for business as usual in the Assembly. Today, there was meant to be a round-table meeting of the talks at 1.30 pm, but it had to be put off. Do you know why? Because I had to be in this place answering questions for OFMDFM. It is already having an impact on the intensity of the talks. I regret that. I regret the fact that other parties did not agree to an adjournment so that we could focus exclusively on the talks process.

Ms Ruane: I thank the Minister for her answer. Thankfully, democracy ruled, and, on four occasions, the Business Committee ruled to continue business as usual. I would be interested to know whether the DUP will continue with the tactic of nominating and resigning. Will the newly appointed Minister for Regional Development resign or carry out her duties?

Mrs Foster: Because majority rules in the Business Committee and it has decided that business as usual will continue, it is up to this party to take action to make sure that we point out that it is not business as usual. A man has died. The finger of blame has been pointed at the IRA. Therefore, action needs to be taken. We will ensure that action is taken through the talks process.

T4. Mr Nesbitt asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the number of strategies awaiting completion, sign off and publication by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. (AQT 2844/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I would have thought that, given that the Member is the Chair of the OFMDFM Committee, he would have had a clear view on that matter.

Mr Nesbitt: I welcome the Acting First Minister's response, which clearly indicates to me that she does not know the answer. The areas you are responsible for include racial equality, sexual equality, age discrimination and childcare. I put it to the Minister that the inability to agree is the definition of normal politics in OFMDFM.

Mrs Foster: If the Member had agreed with us in the Business Committee, we would not even be here discussing business as usual; we would be in the talks dealing with the issues that need to be dealt with. Of course, the twin issues that need to be dealt with are, for the record, the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and the ongoing presence of paramilitary activity. I see this as an opportunity to deal with those issues once and for all and to get paramilitaries off the backs of the people of Northern Ireland once and for all so that we can move forward into a proper democracy. I look forward to his support in the talks to make sure that that happens.

Mr Speaker: Miss Megan Fearon is not in her place.

T6. Mr Ó hOisín asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how OFMDFM intends to deliver an anti-poverty strategy based on objective need, as required by the judgement of the judicial review taken by the Committee on the Administration of Justice. (AQT 2846/11-16)

Mrs Foster: The High Court found in favour of the Committee on the Administration of Justice in a legal challenge against the Executive for failing to adopt a strategy to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation on the basis of objective need. We have accepted that judgement by the High Court. It has been made clear, however, by the High Court that there are many current programmes and interventions dealing with the issues that section 28E of the Northern Ireland Act sought to address. However, the section creates a clear duty to have a particular strategy, and that view will be taken account of. The Department takes its statutory obligations very seriously, so officials will work to make sure that that is dealt with.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer. Given that the judgement has been accepted, does the Minister expect the prompt delivery or development of a strategy?

Mrs Foster: The Department has been focusing on trying to make sure that the actions in the Department are delivered on. We have heard a lot about strategies today. The Chair of the OFMDFM Committee could not tell us how many strategies there were in the Department; I think that that is indicative of the fact that there are quite a few strategies. We should be focused on dealing with outcomes. Certainly, it is my hope that the next Programme for Government, which I have been working on in the Department of Finance and Personnel, will focus more on actions and outcomes than on strategies. We could have as many strategies as you want, but how would that affect the individual on the street? That is where we should be looking.

Mr Speaker: I notice that Oliver McMullan is not in his place, so I call Mr Neil Somerville.

T8. Mr Somerville asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what engagement OFMDFM has had with Her Majesty’s Government in relation to securing compensation for victims of IRA terrorism due to Libyan-supplied weaponry. (AQT 2848/11-16)

Mrs Foster: That question was withdrawn by Mrs Dobson. It was down as question 5 for oral answers to questions, but I will answer it. There have been ongoing discussions, particularly by our party, in relation to Libya. We want to make sure that there is a just settlement on the payment of compensation to the victims of IRA terrorism, particularly in relation to product that has been delivered from Libya over the years. Of course, many victims have suffered at the hands of that sort of product, and therefore we need to push our Government into making sure that compensation is available.

Mr Somerville: Thank you for the answer, Acting First Minister. You will be aware that it was Libya that provided the IRA with the stockpiles of Semtex and that the threat is still very much live, as Semtex was discovered during the police search in west Belfast on Friday. Will the Minister discuss the failure to secure compensation for victims of IRA violence with Libyan-sourced weapons with the Westminster Government and, particularly, the Foreign Office?

Mrs Foster: Yes, we will continue to push the Foreign Office. I welcome the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee hearing, which has been hearing directly from victims of IRA terrorism. Most recently, my good friend Aileen Quinton was able to articulate how it had impacted on her life and how she wanted justice to come in terms of compensation. That is right and proper, and we will certainly do all that we can to support people like Aileen Quinton to get the justice they deserve.

T9. Mr McAleer asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how OFMDFM will ensure a collaborative approach across the Executive in welcoming refugees. (AQT 2849/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I am sure everyone in the House has been moved by the plight of the refugees and the terrible way they have been dealt with over the past period. We are taking a collaborative approach with the Home Office. The Home Office is taking the lead on the matter, and officials are working with the Home Office to ensure that we play our part in the process that was announced by the Prime Minister.

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat; I thank the Acting First Minister for her answer. Does the situation highlight the need for a racial equality strategy to be put in place?

Mrs Foster: The racial equality strategy has finished its 16-week public consultation. I understand that it is currently with Departments for their commentary on it. Once that has been completed — I understand it is very close to that — we can move forward to the next stage.


2.45 pm

T10. Ms Maeve McLaughlin asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on progress on the gender equality strategy. (AQT 2850/11-16)

Mrs Foster: The gender equality strategy is moving forward. As the Member is aware, the new strategy will come into force, we hope, next year, when the old strategy runs out. The committee that has been set up to deal with these matters has met. The junior Ministers attended a meeting of the strategy committee meeting in June in a listening capacity. We are pushing ahead with the strategy because it is needed in Northern Ireland. The old strategy will stay in place until the new strategy comes forward.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Acting First Minister for that. Can she assure me that any new gender equality strategy will take proper account of UN Security Council resolution 1325 and the gender principles for dealing with the legacy of the past?

Mrs Foster: Of course, the UN resolution refers to what happened here over the past 40 years in ways that we may disagree on, but we will endeavour to deliver the principles that lie behind what it speaks about. We hope the strategy will be more focused. It will be more integrated. However, to quote Hillary Clinton:

"You can't be what you can't see."

There is a need to have more women in the public eye and to make sure that we encourage young women — indeed, women of all ages — to become involved in public life.

Mr Speaker: Time is up.

Mr Swann: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Just let me finish dealing with Question Time.

Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Mr Speaker: The next item of business is questions to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. As there is a vacancy in that ministerial office, Question Time cannot proceed. Did somebody make a point of order?

Assembly Business

Tabled Questions: Clarification

Mr Swann: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In response to Mr Somerville's topical question — topical question 8 — the Acting First Minister referred to Mrs Dobson having withdrawn her tabled question, question 5. Will you investigate that with the Business Office and confirm that it was the Business Office that requested that the question be withdrawn after a request from the Department?

Mr Speaker: I have been informed by the Clerks that you are correct. If you need that formally validated, I suggest you call into the Business Office. That is the information that I was given as well when we were considering it.

Mr Allister: Further to that point of order, can you give some clarification on the capacity of Departments to throw back questions that are tabled to the Business Office because they do not like them and say, "We're not going to answer that"? How have we reached the pass where that is even possible? The question is patently within the remit of the Department, but, because it is too embarrassing or awkward for it to answer, it simply tells the Business Office, "We're not answering". What sort of way is that to do business?

Mr Speaker: There may be issues of detail involved. While Members can ask questions of a Minister, they have to be able to demonstrate and the Minister has to be satisfied that they are within the Minister's remit. There may be issues of detail here that have to be teased out. My understanding is that that is the rationale that was applied. I am unaware of the exact composition of the question, so that is an issue that we will have to come to a conclusion on subsequently.

Adjourned at 2.46 pm.

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