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: Tuesday 22 September 2015


The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Ministerial Resignation: Miss McIlveen

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to today's business, I have an announcement to make. I wish to advise the House that the Minister for Regional Development, Miss Michelle McIlveen, resigned her office on 21 September 2015. [Interruption.]

Order.

Standing Order 44(3) provides for a seven-day period during which the party that held the office can nominate a member of its party to replace them and take up that office. That period will expire at the end of Sunday 27 September 2015. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met. Let us move on.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can the House be advised whether these 10-minute Ministers are being remunerated and whether, by the recycling of their resignations every seven days, they are maintaining their continuity of service for pension purposes?

Mr Speaker: Those are not matters for the Speaker, as you will know, and they are certainly not matters on which I would have information. I have noted some of the media comments from the people concerned, who have indicated that they are not accepting their salaries. The questions that you raise are not for my office.

Ms Fearon: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for missing a question to the Acting First Minister yesterday. I will ensure that it will not happen again.

Mr Speaker: I am not sure that you should be smiling when you are making an apology, but I accept your apology.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: The Consideration Stage of the Pension Schemes Bill is listed in the name of the Minister for Social Development. As that ministerial office is vacant, the item of business cannot be moved.

Private Members' Business

Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill: First Stage

Mr McCallister: I beg to introduce the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill [NIA62/11-16], which is a Bill to provide for the formation of an Assembly Opposition; to provide for the passing of an Assembly and Executive Reform Motion; to reform the Assembly and the Executive; and to provide that all Northern Ireland Departments are a single legal entity.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker: I am sure that you are very glad to hear that, John.

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed, can I confirm that Ms Anna Lo will propose the following motion? Thank you. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other contributors will have five minutes.

Ms Lo: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses its despair at the ongoing international humanitarian crisis in Syria; notes the tragic deaths of refugees fleeing to Europe seeking sanctuary and the terrible conditions endured by those refugees in transport to Europe and in refugee camps upon arrival; believes that EU nations have a moral obligation to assist people seeking refuge from war and persecution; further notes the Prime Minister's eventual decision to accept 20,000 refugees; further believes that the UK Government and some other EU Governments have not acted in line with their humanitarian obligations; and calls on the Executive to ensure provisions are in place for Northern Ireland to welcome refugees from Syria.

It has been more than three years since human rights groups confirmed the Syrian Government's use of cluster bombs in an attack that killed innocent people, many of whom were children. So far, 220,000 people have died and four million have been displaced, but it took the image of one dead child lying on the shores that his parents hoped would offer them safety to remind us of our common humanity and the need for action. There seems to be some confusion regarding whether a person is a refugee or an immigrant. Economic migrants are different from refugees fleeing conflict, and we must not conflate the two terms. We cannot let the politics of immigration stop us helping those fleeing violence and persecution.

We are experiencing great political uncertainty at a time when we find it hard to agree on many things. This motion is surely something on which we can all unite. The compassion of Northern Irish people never ceases to amaze me. We have seen rallies, appeals and petitions and even people offering to open up their homes to those in need. In a radio interview three weeks ago, I mentioned that the Alliance Party offices were taking collections for refugees in Calais. To be honest, for a few days it was difficult to move between desks in our premises with all the donations that were received. This is the best of Northern Ireland, and I would like to pay tribute to our generous people whose response has been truly heartwarming.

The UK Government have undoubtedly been generous in aid terms, with 0·7% of our GDP rightly spent on international development. However, we are here today to discuss the adequacy of the overall approach. Since 2011, the UK has granted humanitarian protection to almost 5,000 Syrians through normal asylum procedures. The Prime Minister recently announced that the UK would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years, but 4,000 refugees a year is not enough.

If Northern Ireland takes only 3% of that pro rata, that is 120 refugees per year. When you compare that with the 800,000 welcomed into Germany or the 24,000 into France, you see that it is clear that we could be doing more. Even Brazil, which is halfway across the world, has taken in 2,000 Syrian refugees.

The crisis is now. We do not know what the situation will be in a few years' time. We should be doing all we can now. I welcome the deputy First Minister's proposal that Northern Ireland could accommodate 2,000 refugees. The public will is there; they want us to help.

We have a moral responsibility to help refugees, and Britain has a proud history of doing just that. At the end of the Vietnam War, Britain took in 19,000 Vietnamese, the so-called boat people, who were fleeing violence and persecution. In fact, I volunteered with the Red Cross then to help Vietnamese families to settle in Craigavon. They not only integrated extremely well but were entrepreneurial in setting up businesses and seeking employment. The Syrian refugees have much to offer our society. There are doctors, engineers and other professionals in those refugee camps who are seeking a better life. Let them seek it here.

However, good sentiments are not enough. We need a plan to ensure that provisions are in place for us to welcome the refugees. That is OFMDFM's responsibility, and I understand that the Department is looking at various ways to help us to play our part and work with the Home Office and other Departments.

The Refugee and Asylum Forum has produced a five-point list of necessary measures to ensure the smooth process of integration for newly arrived refugees. The first is a call for a refugee integration strategy. We are the only region in the UK without a strategy, which is pertinent, given that integration continues to be something of a difficulty in our society.

The Strategic Migration Partnership produced a paper in 2013 outlining what the strategy would look like. A key point was that actions taken by Departments and agencies could not be done in isolation. For the meaningful integration of refugees, the approach must be collaborative. I would like clarification from OFMDFM regarding whether it is seeking to introduce a refugee integration strategy and what interim measures it is planning to take to facilitate integration in the absence of a strategy.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. The Member will be aware that, on 9 September, as Deputy Chair of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I requested that officials seek an update from OFMDFM on the contact it had with the Home Office and, indeed, on the refugee integration strategy. Would she agree that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a fuller and more formal statement from OFMDFM on these matters as a matter of urgency?

Ms Lo: Absolutely; I totally agree and thank the Member for mentioning it.

The Refugee and Asylum Forum calls for a long-term commitment to welcome refugees, which is important. Our support should last beyond the news cycle and should include the provision of free English classes and housing. The final request is that the Executive work with those in our excellent support sector, some of whom, I am delighted to say, are with us today in our Public Gallery. Those organisations are already on the ground supporting refugees and asylum seekers, and their expertise will be valuable.

One cause for concern is that OFMDFM's track record in delivering is not always the best. Over the years, a number of organisations and Churches have had to step in to provide support to refugees and asylum seekers in the absence of government support. For example, when OFMDFM announced the introduction of the crisis fund to help the most vulnerable in 2014, it took a year until it was put in place. A small amount of money can make an enormous difference to these people, particularly to destitute asylum seekers who are often left in limbo with very few options and have difficulty accessing services. It is paramount that we ensure that our services are prepared for the refugees whom we will be welcoming. I ask that OFMDFM ensures that generous offers made by the public can be turned into practical assistance, and I look forward to hearing, in the near future, from the Department on the progress made in coordinating our efforts.


10.45 am

The scale of this problem is huge, and there are no quick solutions. However, it is clear that there is a very great need for a coordinated European response. This is not just about taking in refugees but is about dealing with the root causes in conflict areas and tackling the criminal gangs that are preying on vulnerable refugees.

As Members will be aware, I have a particular interest in ending modern slavery, and the unspeakable horrors that refugees face at the hands of traffickers must be dealt with. I welcome the Home Secretary's recent joint declaration with France for new law enforcement collaboration and intelligence sharing. One of the most harrowing stories to emerge is of the 52 people who died in the airless hull of a boat. Those who survived that journey did so only because they could afford to pay to come up on deck to breathe. We cannot allow that to happen again. We must work together.

No one chooses to be a refugee. A person who risks everything, even life itself, in search of a tolerable existence is a person whom we must help. I urge you to support the motion.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Anna Lo and her party for bringing forward the motion. I absolutely agree with Ms Anna Lo that no one chooses to be refugee. None of us in the House would choose to be a refugee and leave our homes and our families and bring our children with us for many thousands of miles.

Let us look at the global trends report from 2014. These figures are outdated at this stage. In the world, 59 million people are being forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, generalised violence and human rights violations. We have 19·5 million refugees and 38·2 million internally displaced persons and asylum seekers.

To put the debate in context, which countries are the top hosts of the refugees? I can tell you that they are not in Europe. They are as follows: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Ethiopia. The developing world hosts 86% of the world's refugees. For example, of the four million Syrian refugees, 1·2 million are in Lebanon; that is one fifth of the entire population of Lebanon. Six per cent have sought asylum in Europe. It is paltry and tiny, yet look at how the European Governments, with a few exceptions, are dealing with this.

Look at how many people have died coming to our shores. Look at how many people are on rafts and boats that are so dangerous for them and are coming from Libya to Italy on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a risky, dangerous journey, and they are fleeing from a war that was not of their making. Men, women and children are leaving their homes because of policies made thousands of miles away in England, the United States, Europe, China and Russia, the bigger superpowers. They are fleeing because of a global crisis, because of deep injustice and because of repression.

The crisis needs a global response. It needs a human-rights-based response. It is not good enough for Europe to say that it will not play its role. It is not good enough for countries like Hungary to build fences to keep people out, a bit like Israel does.

We need a twofold approach. We need conflict resolution. The superpowers need to be challenged. They are the ones who have caused the conflict. As Ms Lo said, we need to look at the root causes of conflict. We need to challenge the superpowers and the arms manufacturers. We also need to provide sanctuary for refugees. Citizens across Europe are ensuring that their voices are heard. We have seen them on this island, in Dublin, Belfast, Newry, Fermanagh and Derry — all over Ireland. Their voices are saying that refugees are welcome — tá fáilte romhaibh — to this island. We know what it is like to flee in the coffin ships and the boats. We know what it is like to arrive in a country with nothing but the clothes on our backs. That is what our ancestors did. We need to open up our doors, and our Governments in Ireland and Europe need to follow the citizens. As usual, the citizens are leading from the front.

I put on record and pay tribute to what Martin McGuinness and the deputy First Minister's office are doing. As the proposer of the motion will know, they are meeting NGOs, community-based forums and representatives from councils across the North. Officials from OFMDFM are also involved in a joined-up approach to support refugees who come here. John O'Dowd — I welcome the fact that the Minister is in the House — has tasked his officials with making preparations for children and education. I also pay tribute to the Department of Education, which has been leading from the front. Indeed, during my time, we brought forward the English as an additional language report and Every School a Good School, and extra resources were given to schools for every ethnic minority child that they had so that they could put in place special programmes.

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

Ms Ruane: That will continue. Sinn Féin supports the five key actions that have been developed by the Refugee and Asylum Forum and endorsed by the 16 organisations. We very much welcome the work that they are doing and look forward to ongoing partnership working.

Ms Hanna: I commend the Members for tabling the motion. It is vital that the Assembly continues to give voice to the solidarity, the very clear solidarity, of people here with the millions who are fleeing conflict in Syria and elsewhere. It is also appropriate that we look at the practical support that we can offer.

Members have outlined some of the context of the crisis that has seen several hundred thousand people dead in Syria, half of that country's population displaced and 12 million people, including over five million children, in need of humanitarian assistance. All the indicators are that those numbers will only get worse.

It is vital to preserve the integrity of the word "refugee". Since 2011, life expectancy in Syria has decreased by 13 years, and the country has seen a reversal of all the progress that was made on the millennium development goals, including the numbers of children attending school having halved and a dramatic increase in acute malnutrition among children. The suggestion that people who are crossing the sea in boats, spending days in the back of fridges or literally walking across countries with their children on their shoulders are doing so for a change of scenery or a new job is unconscionable and should not be given the time of day.

All of us in the Chamber and across Europe have been very moved by the images of refugees making those desperate journeys to Europe. As the Member pointed out, we should remember that only a tiny fraction of the numbers are making their way to and arriving in Europe. The vast majority are displaced in Syria, and around four million are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other nearby countries. The work that has been done by aid agencies such as Concern, Oxfam, Trócaire and Christian Aid, representatives of some of which are with us today, will literally mean the difference between life and death for people at the very sharp end of the conflict. I know that those organisations are being generously supported by people here.

The UK and Irish Governments have provided substantial financial aid to support the humanitarian needs of the people in those camps in and near Syria. That should continue and be increased, but the EU also has a moral obligation to increase the safe, legal routes into Europe for people who are literally fleeing the total destruction of their countries.

The theory that search and rescue is a pull factor should not be entertained. Search and rescue needs to be increased. We are going into the winter months, when those desperate and dangerous journeys are going to become even more perilous, and that support should be enhanced. If we cannot do that, I think that the European Union will have lost sight of what it was intended to do.

We should also remember, as other Members have pointed out, that most of the people who have made their way to Europe are skilled, educated workers who have a lot to offer here, as have previous economic migrants. They will bring substantial benefits to our economy and our community.

The motion also calls on us:

"to ensure provisions are in place ... to welcome refugees from Syria."

That is, of course, a reserved matter, but it is clear that there are gaps in ensuring the humane treatment of existing refugees and asylum seekers, as well as that of those who will hopefully come from Syria. It is not enough for us to get into an auction about how many we are going to take without ensuring that the response is planned and properly funded. I welcome the guidance given by the Refugee and Asylum Forum on how we can better do that, and our party endorses those proposals.

The key priority is, of course, a refugee integration strategy, as is in place elsewhere. It seems shameful that, at precisely the time that asylum seekers and refugees should be assisted with getting on with their new life here, they are instead having to navigate complex bureaucratic and legal systems to get what they are entitled to. I understand that each new arriver is having to reinvent the wheel in accessing legal support, education and healthcare. Vital organisations such as the Law Centre, Homeplus and the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) are providing that support, but a strategy developed by those providing it would make the journey a lot easier. I understand that the racial equality strategy was receptive to it, but, like another load of documents, it has not made its way out of the OFMDFM bunker. Now would be the appropriate time for it to do so, ideally with a central coordinating group — such as the Law Centre — that would allow us to monitor the numbers. That would mean that statistics were not muddied by those seeking to undermine the integration of refugees.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Ms Hanna: Mr Speaker, an open humanitarian response to the crisis is our moral obligation, and it is the will of the people here. We support the motion.

Mr Speaker: This is the first debate in which the Assembly will hear from Mr Andy Allen, so I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech be made without interruption.

Mr Allen: I am honoured to be in the House as a representative of East Belfast, where I was born and bred. First, I pay tribute to Michael Copeland, who, I know at first hand, worked tirelessly and passionately for the people of the constituency. I thank Michael for all his help and assistance in the past and wish him well on what I hope will be a road to recovery. He was totally committed to his role as a public representative who sought to give a voice to people who often felt marginalised, and I promise that I shall do my best to ensure that I continue down that path. I am especially keen to tackle the educational underachievement that has affected too many young people from the east; to tackle housing stress; and to play my part in attracting jobs and investment to an area that was once Northern Ireland's economic powerhouse but is now in need of help to restore its fortunes and to give its people a sense of purpose. I am up for that challenge.

It gives me no pleasure to speak on this motion. On 2 September 2015, the world was shaken by the horrifying images of young Alan Kurdi's lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. There is no doubting the enormity of the humanitarian crisis that has emerged from the chaos in the Middle East and north Africa. The Syrian civil war has been raging for four and a half years and has claimed the lives of 200,000 people. As a result of the twin evils of the barbaric Islamic State and the brutality of the Assad regime, each day there are fewer safe places in Syria and, indeed, the region in which it lies. The EU has struggled to cope, and Governments in the Balkans in particular have been forced to make policy on the hoof as border crossings are opened and closed, almost on a whim, as states become overwhelmed.


11.00 am

I do, however, draw a distinction between genuine refugees, who are fleeing persecution and violence, and who have made their way to Europe in search of a place of safety, and economic migrants, who are simply seeking access to Europe in a search for a better life. We, in Northern Ireland, are not responsible for immigration policy or the granting of asylum, so we must work closely with the UK Government to play our part in alleviating suffering. Our natural sympathy and desire to help fellow human beings in their desperate plight need to be matched by an appreciation of the practicalities of the situation.

The Law Society highlighted a number of key actions that it would like to see delivered for those refugees who are accommodated in Northern Ireland, including a refugee integration strategy and free accredited English language classes for all refugees. I believe that these actions, in particular, are vital if we are to allow those refugees who wish to settle in Northern Ireland the opportunity to fully integrate into society. The Law Society also calls for a commitment to partnership working. I do not believe that this should be restricted to dealing with refugees who arrive in Northern Ireland. This Assembly should develop partnership working between all Departments and agencies as a matter of course. It is not enough to say that we will ensure that those entering Northern Ireland as refugees will receive the best possible support through healthcare, housing and education. That is something this Assembly and Executive should already be committed to delivering for every person in Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionist Party fully supports the steps taken by the UK Government, including the spending of £900 million from their foreign aid budget on helping some of the four million refugees who have fled Syria since the war began. The vast majority are in refugee camps in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and the need for humanitarian aid is constant.

In the longer term, political solutions are a much more effective response to the migrant crisis than opening up another country's borders. Syrian refugees accepted into Europe or the West are a small part of the total need. There are four million Syrian refugees living in bordering countries and another 78 million displaced Syrians living in Government-controlled areas in Syria. Permitting more Syrians to immigrate addresses a symptom but not the root cause. The majority of Syrian refugees do not want to emigrate to Europe or elsewhere. We must work to address the causes of the flight of people from Syria, namely the brutal conflict in the region fuelled by the terrorism of Islamic State. Only then will the people of that region who are currently displaced be able to return home and rebuild their and their families' lives in their own country. Maybe we should pay heed to the words of a young Syrian boy trying to reach Europe. He said:

"Stop the war in Syria, and we will not want to go to Europe."

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Like the previous Member who spoke, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. However, we would all rather that such a discussion was not necessary. We would all rather that there was no such suffering in the world, but the heartbreaking images of the pain and suffering of refugees fleeing Syria have brought home to millions the need for urgent humanitarian action. It is worth noting at the outset that, while Syrian is to the fore of people's thoughts regarding this crisis, there are also people fleeing Palestine, Libya, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq, to name a few. The conflicts in these places are mostly caused or worsened by Western action, so there is also an onus and responsibility on Governments to address these humanitarian issues.

I pay tribute to my friend and colleague Martina Anderson MEP for the amazing work that she has been doing on this issue. She is visiting a refugee camp in Jordan, having visited one in Italy. Her overwhelming passion for this issue is clear to be seen, and there are many more like her. Speaking from Jordan this week, she said:

"These refugees face the choice of dying in the conflict in Syria, drowning in the Mediterranean or starving in refugee camps."

As the motion states, that is the dire situation faced.

The response to the shocking pictures of the body of three-year old Alan Kurdi washed ashore has shown the depth of feeling on this issue. In fact, once again, citizens have proven to be way ahead of the British and Irish Governments by offering to do what they can, as Ms Lo stated earlier, even opening up their own homes. We have not only an international obligation to act but a human one. Alan Kurdi should have been playing on a beach, not washed up on one; but it should not have taken such a picture to wake many up to the reality that these are our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings.

Do Governments respond with humanity across Europe? No. Instead, they increase coercive measures to keep people out to reinforce "fortress Europe". Thirty thousand men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in a desperate attempt to flee wars and persecution over the last number of years.

The media and certain Governments have a lot to answer for. They have dehumanised refugees and provoked racism and xenophobia throughout Europe, and they need to take responsibility for their actions.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, agus gabhaim buíochas leis an bhall as an urlár a fhágáil fúm. I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that we need to stop refugees being destitute and that we can do this by ensuring that there are as few administrative delays as possible so that they are not left without money? Does she also agree that we need a proper strategy for dealing with refugees so that there are plans to coordinate support services in areas such as education, hate crime, jobs and integration?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Ms Fearon: I thank the Member for making that important point. It is important that we offer whatever practical help we can to refugees.

Europe has a responsibility to help these people. This is very much a crisis of European creation. Member states encouraged, started or participated in the wars that these people are fleeing from, but European policy allows member states to shake off their responsibilities. Europe must step up and commit to meaningful action on relocation and resettlement, which will provide a fresh start for many. We need a radical shift of migration and asylum policies across Europe. Indeed, the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights states that all have the right to dignity, which includes life, and freedoms, which include liberty, prohibition of all discrimination and, crucially, asylum.

Closer to home, the Irish and British Governments must do more to tackle this humanitarian disaster. The response of the Irish and British Governments should match the scale of the crisis and the generosity of our people, which has, once again, been overwhelming. We can be proud of the response in all our local areas. In my area, solidarity collections and vigils have been held across Newry and south Armagh. I hope that we can find a resolution to this crisis that puts people before politics. One thing that we can all agree on is that the Executive should do everything in their power to help. A humanitarian crisis of this scale must be met with humanity.

I want to finish, perhaps in an unorthodox manner, with an extract from a poem about this crisis called 'Home'. It is very powerful and brings home the reality that these people are facing:

"you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
..................
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land".

Mr Eastwood: Mr Speaker, last night, you, along with our colleague John Dallat, organised and hosted an event about the Great Famine. I commend you for doing that. It is a major event in our history, one that we should never forget. We should not forget it because, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Famine, one million people died. One million people travelled to other parts of the world, many of whom died on coffin ships. Even if they did reach places like America, they received a very hostile reception in a lot of cases. Many others went on and did very well, and, in subsequent generations, their families ended up in very prominent positions in places like Washington DC. We, on the other hand, many years later, have not learned the lesson that we need open and welcoming countries for people who are in deep and real crisis. If America, for example, had been closed to Irish refugees — refugees is what they were — what would have happened to all those people? People were dying in the ocean, and now, in 2015, people are dying in the ocean. It is not good enough.

One of the founding values of the European Union was the protection of human dignity. I am not so sure that the scenes around the borders of Hungary are living up to that founding value. Sanctions need to be placed on EU countries that do not live up to those values because it is a stain on the reputation of the European Union that, instead of opening our arms to people who are fleeing brutal conflict, we close the doors and fire tear gas at them.

I do not think that that is something that we can be proud of at all; it is something that we should be very ashamed of. All of us, as European citizens, need to respond to that. I know that in this city, my city and places all around the North, we have had demonstrations, with people saying that refugees are welcome in their homes. That is an illustration of the character of the people of this place. Even though we all have great difficulties here — there are 4,000 on the waiting list for houses in Derry — people in Derry are still saying, "Come here. We will look after you. We will open our arms to you." They understand the difficulties that people are going through.

When we had a Matter of the Day on this issue a couple of weeks ago, I was criticised for making a political speech. People told me that it is not about politics and that it is only about a humanitarian crisis. However, these people are not fleeing an earthquake. They are fleeing a manmade crisis, whether it is the evil of Assad's regime, the evil of ISIS or the stupidity of Western Governments and their interventions in places like Iraq. We helped to create this crisis. We need to help to solve the problem as it stands.

About five minute before I rose to speak on that day, the First Minister, if that is what he still is, made a comment that the Executive would not be meeting. I know that a lot of these issues are reserved, but we in these institutions have a responsibility, in whatever way we need to and have to, to meet as an Executive, to act in whatever way we need to act, and to allow the Executive to make those decisions. However, they cannot take those decisions if they do not even meet as an Executive. The people are calling on the politicians up here, whatever our other difficulties, to act on this issue and to be to the forefront of showing the compassion that is required to meet these refugees with open arms and to ensure that, if they do get this far, they are not living in the destitute conditions that some of our recent refugees are living in at the minute.

This is a political issue. There are many major geopolitical implications to all these things, but right now we have an Executive that are not meeting. We have responsibilities. Our responsibilities are not as large as the UK Government's, the Irish Government's or anybody else's, but we have responsibilities and we cannot meet those responsibilities unless this Executive meet. I encourage the First Minister to change his attitude.

Mr Allister: I begin by congratulating Mr Allen on his maiden speech. Some of those who spoke subsequent to him have obviously forgotten the tradition of congratulating a person on their maiden speech. I do that genuinely. I wish him well, and I look forward to his further contributions.

One would have to be utterly heartless not to be struck and very moved by the sheer devastation that we have seen in Syria. It is a country that has been bombed to a pulp by the various factions, and it is no surprise that, in consequence of that, there is a migration of refugees. We should approach their plight with considerable sympathy, and not just sympathy but by stretching ourselves in terms of material and other support. This is such an emotive subject that, if you dare to ask questions that in other circumstances would be objective and reasonable, you run the risk of being vilified for daring to raise those subjects and being painted as someone who is, in fact, heartless. However, with the spectacle that we are witnessing across Europe, there are questions that have to be asked: are all those whom we see on our screens truly refugees? There seems to be a great preponderance of young men, which perhaps speaks more of economic migration. I think that we need to distinguish the necessity for our humanitarian response from a genuine refugee situation, which, in international law, is met in the country where the refugee first arrives.


11.15 am

Mr Agnew: Will the Member give way?

Mr Agnew: Is the Member prepared to accept that, in the filtering process to try to separate the deserving from the non-deserving, as he perhaps see it, we could contribute to human suffering, whereby more people will die, rather than simply having a more humanitarian approach and giving people the benefit of the doubt in the first instance?

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute, of course.

Mr Allister: Thank you.

I take the point, but you, and Europe as a whole, cannot give carte blanche. Given all the risks that come to Europe's security, with the possibility of some of those under the cloak of the crowd of refugees being jihadists who come to destroy, not to build, their lives or anyone else's, I think that Europe has to be careful and to approach this thing sensibly.

What I see is a great thrust of people who are determined that they are getting to Germany. That is fine. People may have that aspiration, but is that the first priority of a refugee or is safety the first priority of a refugee? I think that one has to be careful about some of those matters.

I also think the motion is a little unfair to the United Kingdom Government, because it berates the Government for not acting in line with their humanitarian obligations. The United Kingdom Government in the last four years have contributed more than any other European state in humanitarian aid — £920 million. In fact, and I think that this is a point worth making, that is considerably more than many of the neighbouring Arab states in the Middle East, which have contributed paltry amounts in comparison with their wealth. If you take the United Arab Emirates, you see that it has one of the highest GDPs in the world. The United Kingdom has contributed three times what the United Arab Emirates has contributed and almost three times what Saudi Arabia has contributed. So, I think that there is an obligation on the adjacent Arab states that has not been fully and adequately met.

I think that, before we berate our own Government about these matters, we need to recognise the scale of the contribution they have made, which is now approaching and soon to surpass £1 billion. The motion derides that, with no criticism of other countries in Europe. If we take the example of some of the major countries in Europe, such as France, we see that it has contributed £70 million in humanitarian aid, as opposed to the £1 billion of the United Kingdom. So, I reject the notion that the United Kingdom has not lived up to that responsibility.

What is our responsibility in that context? Our responsibility is to take our share of whatever the United Kingdom properly admits as a refugee quota. That is our obligation as a devolved part of the United Kingdom, and I am sure that we will meet it handsomely. However, it is not for the Assembly, which does not have control over these matters, to set artificial aspirations or to say that we will do things that we know we cannot do. Our obligation is to live within the responsibilities that our nation meets and for our nation to meet its responsibilities. In that way, we approach the thing properly.

Mr Agnew: I echo the comments of Mr Allister in welcoming Mr Allen and congratulating him on his maiden speech.

I think the first thing that everybody has asked in this humanitarian crisis is this: "What can I do?" It is time for the Assembly and these institutions to ask this question: "What can we do?" The public have stepped up. It has been pointed out that people have offered their spare rooms and their homes. They have offered to help, but what they have not seen is public services step in to facilitate the support that they wish to give.
Towards the end of last week, I visited the Northern Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity group in north Down. It is running out of space to take donations, so the public is stepping up. The group needs the statutory services to do what they can to facilitate the goodwill that is there among our electorate and ensure that those who wish to help can give real help to those who are in a time of need.

The Law Centre has launched its SAFER campaign, calling for a big Northern Ireland welcome for refugees, and it has outlined some practical steps that the Assembly can take. It will need a coordinated response, which will require the Executive to meet and for us to get past our current difficulties and give a real focus to the situation. The SAFER campaign asks us to stop destitution and ensure that refugees, when they come to our shores, have support to ensure that their basic needs are met. It also calls on us to ask the experts. There are those who are expert in the situation faced by refugees and asylum seekers. For example, NICRAS has come out in the media and said: "We have been doing this work for years and we have the expertise, but we need the additional support." Greater numbers are going to come in, and NICRAS will need that support to carry on its excellent work.

The SAFER campaign calls for financial help, which does not have to be direct subsidy which, I know, is almost a bogeyman that is created. It is said that these people come here for the £45 per week or whatever it might be that they can access on benefits. I know that I would not risk my life for that, and I am sure that the people travelling in the boats do not risk their lives in the hope of the great boon of our benefits system. It is about putting support systems in place to ensure that, when we take in refugees with open arms, as our public has demanded, we do so to offer them a better opportunity. The campaign calls for the provision of English classes, to ensure particularly that children entering education have the best hope and an equal opportunity to realise their potential. It calls for a refugee strategy. This is not something new. Refugees have been coming to Northern Ireland, and the support mechanisms probably have not been sufficient. That is being highlighted now through the attention being brought by the current humanitarian crisis which has been created.

The final ask of the Law Centre's campaign is to end the big injustice. That is the assumption, almost, of guilt by those who seek refuge in the UK as a whole. Until we can process people, we lock them up. Innocent people, including children and families, are held in detention centres. In the past, we have deported people, who have made their lives here and become a part of our community, by coming into their homes in the middle of the night. We should have a humanitarian response to a humanitarian crisis. We should follow the lead of those citizens who have stepped up and said: "I want to help." This Assembly should help.

Mr McNarry: I, too, welcome Andy Allen's contribution in his maiden speech. I also welcome it because I noted the criticism of the EU countries in the debate. I welcome that criticism because it is likely to impact on our exiting the EU in next year's referendum.

In this debate, we enter the realms of a definition. We have been here before with definitions, and here we have the definition of the word "migrant". That is why this motion is highly commendable.

It is an expression of heartfelt human sympathy that, I believe, the House can rise to and unanimously support. How can we feel anything but the deepest humanitarian sympathy for genuine refugees caught up in an appalling war situation, in what, for them, is a no-choice situation? It is a situation characterised by the most appalling levels of violence and brutality that has been visited on ordinary, innocent civilians.

Who would not try to do their best for their families, especially for their children, when deprived of a future by warring savages, who are destroying Syria's past, present and future? It is said that the grass is always greener for those who see, for example, a minimum wage in our country that is nine times the amount they could expect to earn in their own country, and who would fault them? On the other hand, in this debate the question has to be who can afford them?

We must follow the lead of Her Majesty's Government in taking 20,000 genuine refugees over the next four years. Of the 20,000 that the United Kingdom is taking, how many will be allocated to Northern Ireland? Where in Northern Ireland will the planned reception centres be located? Decisions on that will enable the proper level of forward planning. I see an absence of forward planning at this crucial moment, but that is so important in a refugee emergency situation. It is vital that all of those given refugee status are properly assessed so that they know where they stand, and that they are properly catered for and looked after. In that regard, I believe, as I said before, that many Arab countries, particularly rich countries like Saudi Arabia, should do far more to help refugees from Syria. I also believe that the United States — now that, at long last, it came forward yesterday and said that it will take refugees next year and the following year — should be explicit about the numbers that it will take.

My own party leader, Nigel Farage, has drawn attention to the particular plight of Christian refugees from Syria, who stand in the greatest danger from those ISIS fanatics. For Christians, there are no safe camps that they can enter. That is something that a country like ours, with our Christian heritage, should be especially sensitive to.

I remind the House that the mass migration of whole populations from North Africa and the Middle East is a long-term problem. It has been driven by water, by poverty and now by war. It is going to need a great deal more thought and strategy than the simple but well-meaning humanitarian response that we all share and that the motion rightly calls for. In that regard, I invite Members to attend a talk given by UKIP's immigration spokesperson, Steve Woolfe, in the Skainos Centre on the Newtownards Road on 2 October, where those major issues will be addressed.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for giving way. You talk about party colleagues. Recently, your South Down party colleague made some quite despicable comments about the Syrian refugee crisis. Will you take the opportunity today to distance yourself from those comments? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McNarry: Thank you. I have to be precise and tell the Member that I do not have a party colleague in South Down.

As I was saying, it has to be about public perceptions based on accurate facts and proper information. Regrettably, too often misinformation, rumour and gossip have led to action based on ignorance. We have seen it on our streets. We have seen it particularly in Belfast. In that regard, neither this House nor anyone who is active in politics can afford to avoid the issue of resentment. It is something that we, too, will have to deal with appropriately and properly. There is a problem with immigration: the criminals who visit us on the back of it; the benefit tourists; and so on. However, for genuine refugees, the motion has my support.


11.30 am

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I regret not being in the Chamber earlier to hear the maiden speech of Andrew Allen.

Mr Speaker: Will you pull the microphone a little bit closer, for the benefit of Hansard?

Mr McAleer: Sorry. I regret not being in for his maiden speech, but he is very welcome.

We will all have been taken by the plight of the Syrian refugees. In local communities, not just in my district but throughout the North and throughout the country, we have seen a huge outpouring of grief from ordinary people who want to do something to help resolve the situation.

I spoke recently to my colleague Martina Anderson MEP. She made the point that, in the small strip of the Mediterranean between Italy and Libya, 30,000 people have drowned in the past 10 years. She said that it is like a floating graveyard. It took the images of the two young children, Galib Kurdi and Alan Kurdi, aged five and three, who were fleeing Syria and had their young bodies wash up on a beach, to make people realise the extent of the plight that those people face. I am the parent of a three-year-old child and that image struck me very sorely. I think that most people connected that image to their own family.

Martina has just come back from visiting a refugee camp in Jordan where there are 80,000 people crammed in together with very little water, no food and very little hope. Unfortunately, most of them have only three choices: they can either die in the conflict; they can drown in a dinghy in the Mediterranean; or they can starve in a refugee camp. This is the huge humanitarian crisis of our time, and I think that it is important that we take a collaborative approach to dealing with it. Yesterday, I raised the issue with acting First Minister Foster during OFMDFM Question Time, and I was glad to note that a collaborative approach is being planned between the Executive and the British Home Office.

I take the opportunity to commend the huge amount of support and solidarity that I have witnessed, not just in my political role but in my community role, coming from ordinary people throughout the country who want to do something. I pay tribute to Ramona House in Omagh, which has become a focal point for aid for refugees. That work is being headed up by a team of volunteers. Martina Anderson is there today, meeting those volunteers to commend their good work and to brief them on the situation. Although I have cited Omagh, I am conscious that that is happening throughout the country. People in the community are taking the initiative, and that is resulting in a huge level of volunteer effort. I commend them today, because that gives me heart.

It is important to look at all options: at EU level; here in the Executive and the Assembly; and at a community level. All options must be explored in order to resolve this major humanitarian crisis of our time.

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

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo leithscéal a ghabháil leat; bhí mé ag cruinniú ar maidin. I apologise, as I was at a meeting of the economy Committee earlier and missed the start of the debate.

I want to make three quick points to echo some of the sentiments that we have heard today and to give Members some background on the work that has gone on to date to help refugees through the crisis and on the work that some of the great volunteer groups in Belfast have been involved in.

It was in December last year that Rev Bill Shaw approached the Executive and asked that we take in some Syrian refugees under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. At that time, shamefully, the London Government had taken in only a few hundred people, despite the requests from the United Nations refugee agency that they take in many tens of thousands. Through working with Rev Bill Shaw, I have got to meet some exemplary organisations in the city of Belfast. I have heard them speaking in recent days, asking us to respond with big hearts and to give a generous welcome to the refugees who will be coming in.

I want to mention three of those, because the work that they do reflects back to the points that Mr Agnew made about the need for a coherent strategy and consistent help for those who work with asylum seekers and refugees. Mornington is an organisation on the Ormeau Road that runs a food bank and many other community outreach activities. In recent months, it has been pressing society to respond to this global crisis, as it does day and daily. Last week, for example, on Friday morning when it held its food bank, it could not close because people continued to come. Many of those they help are asylum seekers.

I also want to commend our young friend Jasper in Tearfund and the work that he did and it did in visiting refugee camps in the Lebanon during the summer, raising £50,000 from young people here involved in the faith community and bringing that money to help the refugee crisis. Finally, the third group is the Presbyterian international meeting point on the Lisburn Road. Again, it shows us how we should respond to our brothers and sisters who are in peril and in refugee camps. Every day, they welcome in and educate them — I heard Mr Agnew talk about English classes. They build and try to create a welcoming environment for asylum seekers, to try to get them permanent status, and, when they get that, to try to make sure that they play a full part in our society.

I therefore commend the request and the five points put forward by the Law Society. We should and must unite around those. It is essential that we echo and mirror the response that we have seen from the community. All sides, all parties — even the one party that is not here today — all communities and all sectors of our community want to see refugees being given a welcome that is true to our values as a welcoming people and that reflects the welcome that we have received, whether Scots-Irish, Ulster-Scots or Irish people, when we have travelled the globe.

Ba mhaith liom focal a rá faoinár gcomradaithe in Albain, a bhí chun tosaigh san obair seo. I will finish by mentioning our friends in the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, who have always been a bit ahead of the curve on this. They first put it up to Mr Cameron when he refused to respond to the United Nations Refugee Agency's appeal for help. They managed to get together a scheme to bring in hundreds under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, via London, late last year and early this year. They have set up a task force, led by Minister Humza Yousaf, to look at the practical ways in which they will welcome, integrate and look after the refugees when they arrive. We can learn from that, and, if we are united in this, which I think that we are — despite maybe some discordant voices — as a society and community, let us get this done immediately. Let us put fire under the feet of Mr Cameron. We want to get people released from the terrible conditions and danger that they are in, and welcomed into this society so that they can start to rebuild their lives.

Mr Dickson: I start by thanking every Member who has contributed to the debate. I particularly thank Andy Allen and congratulate him on his maiden speech. He and others have made some challenging points in regard to all of this.

I do not intend to repeat the words that have been well said by individuals around the Chamber. Rather, after thanking all those who have spoken, I would like, first of all, to reference my colleague Anna Lo and to congratulate her for proposing the motion, which, as many will have heard in the speeches here today, is about one of the greatest humanitarian crises that Europe and the world has seen in the post-war era. Therefore, it is vital that she has brought that discussion to the House.

As we have heard, the world is experiencing a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale. For many, that was not truly brought home — others have made reference to this — until we saw the distressing and deeply sad images of that three-year-old child washed up on a beach in Turkey. Born in 2012, Aylan Kurdi never knew peace. By the time of his birth, the Syrian war had already begun. His parents sought to change that and to secure a stable life, free from the fear of oppression and death. They sought to reach other members of their family in a prosperous, free and stable Canada. Tragically, as we all know, Aylan and his brother and mother did not make it to Canada. Their story, as we know, is not unique. Since the beginning of the year, thousands have died making similar attempts to reach safety and freedom on the peripheries of Europe. The photographs, however, have focused minds on the injustice and suffering being felt, and they reinforce the fact that, behind the statistics, there are thousands upon thousands of individual human stories. It is incumbent on us, as citizens of the world, to respond to such disasters in a compassionate but also meaningful way. I believe that those words have been stated by every Member in their contributions today.

In the past few weeks, people right across Northern Ireland — I pay tribute to people in east Antrim — have demonstrated such compassion by collecting items and funds for people in Calais and further afield in the Balkans and Italy. However, local voluntary action is not enough. The numbers are so large and the challenges so enormous that it takes —

Mr McKinney: I thank the Member for giving way. I apologise that I was not in for the earlier contributions to the debate. Does the Member accept that Ireland, North and South, knows intimately the pain of emigration? At its height, Ireland's population was close to 9 million. We have significantly less than that now, so we have space.

Mr Dickson: I agree with the Member. It is important — indeed, it is vital — that we have a coordinated intergovernmental approach to dealing with these issues. It is for that reason that, yesterday, I wrote to the Home Secretary, urging the UK Government to rapidly reconsider their position of accepting only 20,000 refugees over the course of the next five years. That, quite simply, is a paltry figure, especially at a time when Germany's Interior Ministry says that it expects to receive more than 800,000 asylum applications by the end of this year.

Furthermore, to ensure that resettlement is as trauma-free as possible, we need rapid Government action to make effective social and financial provision for refugees who will come to the United Kingdom. Of course we need a solution to the problems, the fighting, the wars and the terror gangs that rule Syria at this point in time. I firmly believe that those who are currently refugees, given a stable country, will wish to return there as soon as possible. It is important that we have a strategy that includes refugee integration, assisting people in their new lives if this is where they choose to be and our Government permit them entry, and, to ensure that they do not become isolated, English language classes for those who do not speak English. OFMDFM and the Home Office must act now to prepare such a plan and ensure that the best possible welcome is extended to refugees when they arrive.

Ultimately, this is not only a United Kingdom, German, Greek or European problem; this is a world crisis. Gulf states must certainly step up their support to their neighbours in the region. The fabulously wealthy nations of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar have merely stood by while Europe, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have shouldered much of the crisis. Some of those states themselves suffer and struggle to feed and support their own citizens. The small state of Lebanon has taken in an estimated 1·1 million refugees. We must provide serious support, both nationally and at EU level, to those states and ultimately seek a long-term, lasting solution to end the evil that we see in Syria and Iraq in the form of Assad and the group that calls itself Islamic State.

Compassion and action is what is needed to end this crisis. The United Kingdom Government must fulfil their international, legal and moral obligations and accept their fair share of refugees. We must show solidarity with our European neighbours, but, most of all, with the people escaping conflict from wretched regimes that seek to destroy the human spirit and denigrate utterly the value of human life.

It is for those reasons that I know that the House will support the motion.


11.45 am

"No one chooses to be a refugee"

Those are words that were said in the Chamber today, but those who are refugees should be made welcome in the United Kingdom, and in this corner of the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly expresses its despair at the ongoing international humanitarian crisis in Syria; notes the tragic deaths of refugees fleeing to Europe seeking sanctuary and the terrible conditions endured by those refugees in transport to Europe and in refugee camps upon arrival; believes that EU nations have a moral obligation to assist people seeking refuge from war and persecution; further notes the Prime Minister's eventual decision to accept 20,000 refugees; further believes that the UK Government and some other EU Governments have not acted in line with their humanitarian obligations; and calls on the Executive to ensure provisions are in place for Northern Ireland to welcome refugees from Syria.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses grave concern that there is no Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in place given the urgent need to implement speedily Transforming Your Care, to address the important issues of waiting times, workforce planning and the health sector pay review and to provide the essential leadership and policy direction that our health service requires in the current difficult and challenging environment.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to move the motion. However it is unacceptable that, as we speak, there is no Health Minister at his desk or, indeed, in the House to answer the difficult questions that are required in relation to leadership across the delivery of health and social care, to provide that leadership to the people who elected him to lead, and to the many, many people across many sections of society whose health decisions are literally in his hands. As we have this debate, that is little comfort to the 373,000 people who are waiting for their first outpatient appointment, many of whom are in severe pain.

Health has the biggest budget of all the Departments. It has a budget of £4·6 billion and employs almost 55,000 people. Simply put, it affects all of us in our daily lives. It is false to say that an empty chair or having a Minister for only half an hour is not impacting decisions. The fact that we have a captain who jumped ship — who has put the DUP's electoral fortunes over his party and over lives of our citizens — is quite shameful.

On 11 May 2015, Simon Hamilton said that he would continue to drive the "momentum for change" across the health service. He said:

"There will be tough decisions ahead, but I will not shy away from doing what's right."

On 21 May 2015, the former Minister told us that health and social care could not stand still, that major reform was required and that a strategic leadership group was being established. Last week, the former, former Health Minister described what was happening as "ugly" and not tidy. How is that advancing reform or doing what is right?

It is well documented that our health service needs radical reform. There is duplication in commissioning, a lack of accountability and a lack of clarity in decision-making. The system, as it is configured, means that the Department can say that it wants to protect front-line services, but the same Department allows the trusts to cut the very services needed to provide front-line services. The system, as it is currently configured, moved the former, former Health Minister to say that commissioning was a "barrier to innovation". That is severe criticism of the system that we have and shows the absolute need for reform.

Over the last 12 days with no Minister at his desk, I have met people from many sectors and individuals who have depended on ministerial decisions. The all-Ireland network for children's heart services needs investment in the Clark Clinic. The majority of children are still going to England for surgery, and the business case is on his desk, so who is making that decision?

I visited William Street and Rectory Field —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: I will indeed.

Mr Swann: The Member is the Chair of the Health Committee, and I have had representations, as has she, from parents who do not know whether the recommendations from the international working group, which would mean a considerable number of our children going to Dublin for heart surgery, have even been considered and, if so, what stage those considerations are at. There is great frustration among the parents of children who need surgery now, because they do not know where their children's care pathways will lie.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: I thank the Member for his intervention. He is absolutely right. Whilst there has been progress on agreeing the Dublin/Belfast model, progress is urgently required to establish the investment needed in the Clark Clinic and to look at the network in Dublin. Again, I stress the urgency of those decisions being taken, because, if we move to a second tier of children facing their operations in England, we will have taken a step backwards. Yes, absolute clarity and action are required on that.

I also visited William Street and Rectory Field care homes in Derry, where one elderly lady had been moved from another home. She was in tears as she asked me about her future.

Lifeline received 92,266 calls in 2013-14. There are huge changes proposed to the delivery of that model. They need clarity on and intervention in the future of that vital resource.

People in my community were on the streets on Friday night, protesting about a cut to the Divert project, which deals with substance misuse and young people. All of those issues need intervention and strategic decision-making.

On Wednesday of last week, I attended the Transforming Your Care policy forum, where a packed room of medical professionals called for leadership and reform of the system. Only last week, GPs referred to the system "heading for the rocks" and demanded 400 training places and reform of the system.

On Friday, I spent some time with a young woman who is in severe pain and faces at least two hip operations but does not know when they will happen. That young woman's life has been on hold since Christmas and whether she will be able to have children in the future is not clear. How is any of that showing strategic leadership or intervention?

Decisions are required on the 1% pay increase for our front-line staff.

The situation has become farcical, but for many patients and others who depend on the health service, it is not farcical; it is a calamity. A system that requires tough decisions now has an empty desk. We need a Minister for health, not a Minister for half an hour. Much has been said about welfare cuts in this debate on health, but is the former Health Minister saying that we should take money from the most vulnerable and the disabled to pay for our health service? That is shameful.

I call on the DUP's former Health Minister to get back behind his desk to deliver for the people who elected him and for those who are crying out for intervention and decisions.

Mr McKinney: I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. I do so as health spokesperson for the SDLP. I do so more in sorrow than in anger, though with a healthy dose of both.

The debate is a very important one. It reflects last week's debate on the motion on waiting times for elective care, which the SDLP successfully amended to call for greater leadership, funding and strategic focus in the health Ministry. Last week, I reflected the genuine concerns of the SDLP, this Chamber and the public at large that, as we continue to witness the biggest crisis that the health service has ever faced, we have no Health Minister to respond. I think that it is important to remind the House of just exactly the scale of work for which the Minister has abdicated responsibility: wastage, which is running into tens of millions of pounds; 360,000 cancelled appointments every year; the elective-care crisis; the A&E crisis; waiting lists at doctors' surgeries; the shortage of doctors; pay increases for nurses and health staff; cancer drugs; and domiciliary care. All of them need strategic answers whether the DUP gets the answers that it claims it wants from others.

Last week, the DUP opted not to be here and not to address the widespread concern of the public and health professionals. Instead, the former Health Minister sought to spin his way out of the problem. Did he come to the House to explain? No, he did not. Did he issue a statement? No. He went to the press to release welcome but limited funding for some newly approved cancer drugs. Remember that his announcement was all about NICE-approved drugs and treatments, which should be routinely available for patients here. These are drugs that have been deemed clinically effective and cost-effective and are readily available in other parts of the UK. I agree that it is a welcome announcement, but does it address the fact that over 40 cancer drugs that are available in England and the rest of the UK are not available here? No, it does not. Does it address the list of issues that I have just articulated? No, it does not. Does it address that widespread concern? It certainly does not. If anything, it exacerbates it. The Minister is not in his seat again today.

All that public concern has not diminished over the last number of years. In fact, it has grown with DUP stewardship of the health service. These are genuine concerns that are compounded by the fact that A&E four- and 12-hour targets are continually breached as a matter of routine while, at the same time, the domiciliary care sector, which is meant to be picking up the slack in the community, particularly for older people, is buckling at the knees. That is unsustainable. These concerns have been rehearsed over and over in the public domain. We believe that it is completely unacceptable that, due to internal unionist wrangling, the Health Minister is not in his post as he continues to be embroiled in party politicking. The DUP calls this escalation over wider political concerns. At least, the grand old Duke of York actually marched his men up the hill. The DUP might pretend differently, but it does not even know whether it is halfway up or halfway down, for Mr Hamilton was back at his seat, pretending to be resigned and pretending not to be, all within the same half hour. It is appalling. If what is described in the health service was not happening, it might even be funny, but it certainly is not funny because it is happening in the health service.

The motion comes from Sinn Féin, but it, too, has questions to answer. Just as the DUP needs to stop acting like rogue Ministers and honour their commitment to power-sharing and delivering for all the people of Northern Ireland, so, too, does Sinn Féin need to face up to some stark realities, which actually involve something very simple: telling the truth. Tell the truth and stop giving others excuses. Tell the truth about Robert McCartney. Tell the truth about the Northern Bank. Tell the truth about Joe Rafferty. Tell the truth about Paul Quinn and others. Do not tell us to go to the police as some kind of cover: just tell the truth. You have an electoral mandate that entitles you to places in Government. You do not have to keep lying. Tell the truth and set yourselves free —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. The Member is now well off the subject.

Mr McKinney: — and, in so doing, all of us.


12.00 noon

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I welcome today's motion to address the fact that we have a hokey-cokey Minister of Health. As was said last week, I hope that the television cameras focus on the empty chair during the debate, because that is what the public will see: no interest, no heart, not caring for the people of Northern Ireland.

What is the debate about? It is about 373,000 people waiting for their first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test or inpatient treatment in all our hospitals throughout Northern Ireland. That is equivalent to over 20% of the entire population — my and your constituents. It is worse now than at any time in recent history. People have been waiting in pain and under emotional distress for far too long. We are accepting that targets are set in the interest of quality and safety and are being totally ignored by the hokey-cokey Minister. Those people have been waiting for months, if not years, for a crucial appointment. When they turn on their television set tonight, as they did last week, what will they see? They will see the farcical scenes at Stormont.

The total number of people waiting for their first outpatient appointment is over 212,000, which is a 46% increase on the 145,000 waiting during the same period last year. Of all those waiting, 86,000, or 40%, have been doing so for more than 18 weeks, even though the target says that no one should wait more than 18 weeks.

I know that many of those who approach me through my constituency office are also in fear for their job prospects. Long-term sickness may mean long-term unemployment. People who go to a GP and are referred to the hospital or a specialist now face one of two choices. They can either wait the six, 12 or 18 months that it may take, which is now becoming the norm, or they can go private. That is happening under the watch of the absent hokey-cokey Minister.

Take our A&E attendances, for example. During 2014-15, only 73·8% of people attending the main emergency care departments were treated and discharged or admitted within four hours of their arrival. That happened under the watch of the hokey-cokey Minister. We are dealing with matters of life or death, but the most frustrating thing is that we are simply being asked to accept it. Try telling that to the young woman who is facing breast cancer treatment or the grandfather watching his grandchildren and knowing that he may not be around to see them grow up. I am in no doubt that every MLA in the Chamber cares. Every MLA in the Chamber will be coming down with case files or absolutely desperate constituents who have been told that they have to wait. That is no longer acceptable.

A&E staff have been left completely emotionally drained and demoralised. They are not to blame for the current problems. In fact, I believe that they are our last remaining defence against total collapse. Those pressures, combined with the cavalier attitude of the former, former in-out hokey-cokey Minister — whatever you want to call him — are not going to get any better by the Minister's absence and by his uncaring, heartless attitude.

Mr McKinney: Will the Member give way?

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I will indeed.

Mr McKinney: Will the Member accept that the Chamber probably would probably interpret your remarks somewhat differently if your Minister had not actually resigned his seat and did the hokey, as opposed to the hokey-cokey, and abdicated complete responsibility for roads and important infrastructure?

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

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I remind the Member that our Minister resigned completely. He stood down and was replaced — for several minutes, that Department had someone at the helm once again.

Our Minister did what he and the Ulster Unionists thought was the right thing for Northern Ireland, which was to not ignore murder on the streets of our capital city, Belfast.

Mr McKinney: Will the Member give way?

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I will indeed.

Mr McKinney: The Member has used the image of the hokey-cokey over and over again: is he telling the House now that the UUP did the "hokey" bit to give the DUP the right to do the "cokey"?

Mr Cochrane-Watson: No, I am reminding the Member that the Ulster Unionist Party did the honourable thing after much debate and consultation to make a stand against those who committed cold murder on the streets of the capital city of Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. I encourage the Member to return to the motion and forget the hokey-cokey.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: We will forget about the dance lessons. I know that there are more who are better skilled to teach the hokey-cokey in the Chamber than me. We simply need a Minister of Health who will be at his desk —

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

Mr Cochrane-Watson: — to make decisions.

Mr McCarthy: The motion gives me the opportunity to express my heartfelt anger and disgust at how the DUP has turned its back on so many of our constituents who continue to languish on long waiting lists and suffer pain and agony. This is a real bread-and-butter issue, because many of our constituents depend on the health service to provide them with the necessary medicines, scans and operations etc to ensure they get well again and to relieve them of aches and pains at the earliest possible moment. I pay tribute to all our hospitals, surgeries, medical staff and ambulance staff etc for the fantastic work that they do despite the shortage of funding that continues to hamper their work. In this time of health crisis, it is shocking and shameful that the DUP chose to play games with the Assembly and to totally disregard the pain and suffering of so many patients across Northern Ireland. That includes the lack of mental health facilities for so many of our people.

Along with Simon Hamilton, I received an email from a constituent last week that was headed, "Appeal to your good nature". She asked for our help to get rid of the agony in her back, which had endured since the summer of 2012. She needs an operation and now an MRI scan, but she has been told to wait for yet another 38 weeks. I say, for God's sake, Mr Hamilton and the DUP, get back to your desks and help this lady and thousands like her. That is what you are being paid for. Have you no shame at all? Our community is crying out for help, and all you do is sulk in the corner. It is ridiculous and a total and absolute disgrace. What action have you taken as a result of the motion on waiting lists that was debated in the Chamber last week? Today's motion pleads with the Minister to get to grips with these excessive waiting times, workforce planning, the pay review and many other issues. What about Transforming Your Care and the Donaldson report and, indeed, the cry from everyone involved in the health service?

I am a member of the Health Committee, which was told that the Minister's officials had bid for £98 million from the June monitoring round to enable them to provide a better service. Not one pound of that money has been allocated as a result of the June monitoring round. How can Mr Hamilton look people in the eye and say that he is working to provide them with a modern health service? It is simply not true, and the sooner Mr Hamilton and his party acknowledge the pain being suffered by our population and the expectations of the public, the sooner our health service can be improved.

Transforming Your Care is the journey that we are on, but, so far, not enough progress has been made and, certainly, funding has not followed the changes that need to be made. Only last week I chaired a conference dealing with Transforming Your Care, as indeed did the chair of the Health Committee. Speaker after speaker — pharmacists, Age NI, GPs and nurses — expressed the desire to get moving but said they were being hampered by the insufficient support coming from the top. That is you, Minister Hamilton.

The message to the DUP and the Minister is loud and clear: end the hokey-cokey nightmare being waged against the population. Act responsibly and give leadership to the Department, and let the people see that the Assembly can work for the benefit of everyone. I ask the Health Minister, as did his constituent who made the appeal to his good nature, to please, please help that lady and the hundreds on the waiting lists. There is no more room for excuses. Drop the boycott of your Department, and prove that you are worth the office of Health Minister. Our Committee is going through the Mental Capacity Bill. It needs ministerial engagement: are you prepared to let that Bill slip through the net?

I should also comment on those who tabled the motion and ask them to reflect on their contribution to the current problem in the health service. The financial difficulties in the health service predate the current impasse on welfare reform and the wider budgetary crisis.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Would the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Mr McCarthy: I appeal to the Minister to listen to what is said in the Assembly today and to get back to serving the constituents.

Mr Allister: Let me assure the House that the Health Minister and all his DUP colleagues will be back. The first fig leaf that comes along will be grasped to get them back into the House. The DUP is a party addicted to power, and the lure of office is irresistible. Of course, what we are witnessing is but a stunt: a stunt to buy time and a stunt to save face. When the IRA brought murder back to our streets, a response was necessary because Mrs Foster told us that Sinn Féin were inextricably linked to the IRA and therefore the DUP had to respond. They had been outmanoeuvred —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I simply express caution that the Member really should stick to the motion before the House.

Mr Allister: That is a matter for your judgement, but I think I am right on message in that I am explaining why the DUP Minister is not today in post.

A response was required. The Ulster Unionist Party, having taken the right and honourable step of departing from government with those so linked, had outmanoeuvred the DUP. Therefore, they had to think up some other stratagem to create the appearance that it was not business as usual and that they were really taking things on and taking on Sinn Féin on the issue. Of course, the real issue was the presence of Sinn Féin in government. By deploying the stunt they deployed, they guaranteed and secured Sinn Féin in government, as opposed to the logical step that had been taken by another of tipping Sinn Féin out of government by resigning. That would have been the consequence of the First Minister resigning, but he did not resign, because he did not want to tip Sinn Féin out of government and he was scared of an election. The DUP has been running away from an election ever since. That is why they came up with this stunt of pretending that it is not business as usual and that they are really taking the battle to Sinn Féin, when they have run away from the battle in respect of the core issue. It is, as I say, nothing short of a stunt.

Mr Swann: Has he any rationale for how the DUP was able to come here yesterday to move a motion on the agriculture crisis but not on the health crisis? Is there maybe a level of crisis in the DUP that they cannot work out?

Mr Allister: It was another face-saving —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. Apart from telling the Member that he has an extra minute, I really need to encourage all Members, please, to stick to the motion before us.

Mr Allister: I will answer very briefly: that was another face-saving exercise on the part of that party.

Today we are in the situation where we do not have a Minister.

Whether he is being paid or not, I do not know. Whether coming back every seven days keeps his pension rights intact and whether the special advisers are reappointed every seven days to keep their continuity of service in place, I do not know. I think that the public are entitled to know those things, but, of course, they are concealed from the House. I am absolutely sure, however, that the DUP will be back, because it does not have the bottle to take on the issue that is staring it in the face and prefers to sweep murder under the carpet.


12.15 pm

How many times does this system have to crash before people realise that it is unworkable and unfixable and before they face up to the reality that sticking plasters cannot go on being applied to a system that is incapable of being repaired? It is time that we addressed the issue of getting proper democratic structures in the House, based on a voluntary coalition and a proper opposition, rather than the constant failure of what we have.

As I say, when the first fig leaf comes along, the Minister will be back, because that is the consequence of the DUP being unable to face the reality that it should be facing; namely, that the inextricable link is there and that the consequences need to be faced. Instead, we have this pitiful stunt, as a decoy, to divert attention away from the fact that it is not facing up to the issue and will not face up to the issue.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Baineann an díospóireacht seo le heaspa Aire Sláinte, agus tá go leor imní faoi sin. Today, we are debating the absence of a Health Minister, and there are huge concerns around the issue.

Our health service is in real crisis. Day and daily, we hear about problems relating to TYC, waiting times, emergency departments, workforce planning, the review of health-sector pay and other areas. At a time when those and, indeed, many other elements of the health service are impacting negatively on our population, the Minister prefers to ignore the pain and anguish of people in our community who suffer daily and who sit at home hoping and praying that the appointment that they so badly need will come their way. What does the Minister think? He thinks that it is a good idea to adopt a form of in-and-out political chicanery, which serves only his party political interests and does nothing to alleviate the illness and stresses that are affecting our ailing public.

Only last week, Members reported on the shameful record of our Health Department and how it is failing miserably to deal with waiting times. Agus is fiú dúinn cuimhniú air siúd inniu. It is worth reminding ourselves of the figures today. The Minister's target for 2015-16 was that at least 60% of patients would have a first appointment within nine weeks and that no patient would wait longer than 18 weeks, yet, at the end of June this year, we saw that neither the nine-week target nor the 18-week target was achieved. Le fírinne, bhí 45% de dhaoine ag fanacht 18 seachtain. In fact, 40·5% of people were still waiting at the 18-week point. At a time that patients are waiting in pain and trauma, we have no Health Minister. Níl Aire Sláinte againn. Added to that is the impact of delays in receiving treatment for diseases and medical conditions. It is well known that early diagnosis is key when it comes to all forms of cancer and other illnesses, so any delay in seeing a specialist could have devastating effects for some people. It is unacceptable that avoidable premature deaths could be happening as a result of the delays in the health system.

Níl mé á rá go bhfuil sé ar chumas an Aire gach rud a athrú. I am not saying that the Minister can change everything, and I know that health is an extremely challenging environment, but it must be tackled. He must accept that, as Minister, he is the one in ultimate control. All the major decisions are his, and it neither helps nor serves anyone when he decides to resign his post when there are so many stresses in the system.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Member very much for giving way. Does she remember, like I do, that, in previous times when we had no Minister, the practice of the Civil Service here was to basically follow the lead of the English Departments? Does she agree with me that it would be a good idea for the Civil Service, in the week or so that they are free from DUP control, to bring in the pay increase that NHS workers in this part of the world have been denied for far too long?

Ms McCorley: I thank the Member for his comments. I agree that it would be a very good thing if someone could take the decisions that are necessary on the pay review and, indeed, on all the other major health issues that are keeping people in distress. That should happen as soon as possible.

In 2011, TYC was introduced as the new way forward for the delivery of health services. The shift left was broadly welcomed, with agreement that a move towards more community provision and less dependence on hospitalisation was a good thing. Successive Health Ministers received support from all parties for that policy shift. Four years on, there is little confidence in or evidence of what has been achieved; only a fraction of the promised £83 million has been transferred to TYC initiatives.

To drive the agreed policy forward, we need a cast-iron assurance that the development of service models and workforce planning will reflect the requirement to be joined at the hip with the implementation of TYC. What we do not need is an absent Minister. An rud nach bhfuil de dhíth orainn is é Aire atá ar strae. We need a working Minister, who will deal with the health service problems such as residential homes, domiciliary care, the staff pay review, the shortage of GPs and nursing staff, cancer drugs and many more.

Many of the Members who spoke referred to a lot of those issues, and I will mention some of the specific things that people referred to. Fearghal McKinney mentioned the need for a Minister to take the big strategic decisions that I mentioned. That was before he went on a rant against Sinn Féin, calling us liars. I resent that and think that he should take back those remarks. Adrian Cochrane-Watson talked about a hokey-cokey Minister. Kieran McCarthy paid tribute to hospital and ambulance staff for their commitment at a time when the DUP is playing games. Jim Allister called what the DUP is doing a "stunt" to buy time and save face.

I think that all Members are in agreement that the Minister should come back to work. Well, maybe not all, but most Members. With that in mind, glaoim ar an Aire an ceannaireacht a sholáthar atá de dhíth le haghaidh a thabhairt ar na fadhbanna seo agus le gabháil ar ais ar obair gan mhoill. I call on the Minister to provide the leadership that is required to address these issues and get back to work immediately.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly expresses grave concern that there is no Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in place given the urgent need to implement speedily Transforming Your Care, to address the important issues of waiting times, workforce planning and the health sector pay review and to provide the essential leadership and policy direction that our health service requires in the current difficult and challenging environment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm today. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.

The sitting was suspended at 12.37 pm.

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


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before we commence, I inform the House that questions 1, 4 and 5 have been withdrawn.

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): The European Commission has put in place transitional arrangements to allow member states to opt out of growing approved GM crops. To take advantage of those arrangements, member states must let the Commission know by Friday 2 October. Responsibility for matters relating to the deliberate release of GM material into the environment, including GM crops, rests with me. Accordingly, the Member may be aware that, last night, I announced that I am prohibiting the cultivation of GM crops here.

As I remain unconvinced of their advantages, I considered it prudent to prohibit their cultivation for the foreseeable future. In addition, the pattern of land use here and the relatively small size of many agricultural holdings would create potential difficulties if we were to seek to keep GM and non-GM crops separate. I consider that the costs of doing so could be significant and, in many cases, totally impractical. Furthermore, we are rightly proud of our natural environment and rich biodiversity. We are perceived internationally to have a clean, green image. I am concerned that the growing of GM crops, which is acknowledged to be controversial, could damage that image.

Mr Byrne: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does the Minister accept that there is some concern that there may be some foodstuffs being imported into Northern Ireland that have been genetically modified in their country of origin and that that may happen to animal feedstuffs? Secondly, can the Minister state whether he has had any discussions with his counterparts in the Republic, given that we have a relatively small island and GM is an issue for all in the farming community?

Mr Durkan: I thank Mr Byrne for those supplementaries. I certainly do accept that the agriculture industry as we know it would not be viable without the use of imported GM animal feed. However, I am certainly satisfied that the approved varieties of genetically modified feed pose no risk to either the environment or human health.

As regards conversations or discussions with my counterpart in the Republic, Minister Alan Kelly, there has been ongoing dialogue on this issue at official level over the past month. While no announcement has been made yet by those in Dublin, I anticipate that there will be one soon and that they will make the right choice too. The Member quite rightly identifies potential issues, should the Republic of Ireland take a different approach to us on this. However, given the similarities between the size of agricultural holdings in the Republic and, indeed, the fact that they, like us, depend so heavily on that clean, green image when it comes to exporting our produce across the world, which we do so well, I am fairly confident that they will agree with me on this issue.

Mrs Overend: There are many questions that could be asked of the Minister on GM crops and, indeed, the importation of meat that has come from animals fed by GM crops. Does the Minister agree that the guiding principles should be to follow science in this perspective? Can the Minister confirm that that was the case with his decision yesterday?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary question. With all these GM questions, I feel like I am on 'GMU'. There is a lot of science out there on this issue. Scientists are like lawyers. Different scientists have different opinions and draw different conclusions on different subjects. There is science out there, and over the past 24 hours I have received criticism and correspondence on my stance from scientists who say that GM crops are great and pose no risk at all. However, there are also scientists out there who take a contrary view.

My guiding principle, when it comes to making decisions, is a precautionary one. I am charged with safeguarding our environment here in the North, and until there is complete and robust scientific evidence that it is safe, I am unable to approve the cultivation of GM crops here. However, we are talking about the current EU Commission's GM-approved list. I have no doubt that, in the future, there will be additions to the list, and while I have made my decision and it is a strong statement of intent, it is not carved in stone. As and when new crops are added to the list, I or a future Minister will have the ability to revisit that position.

Mr Allister: This is patently a controversial and cross-cutting issue, given the Department of Agriculture's interest. Did the Minister take the decision to the Executive, and has he got Executive approval? Has he not, in fact, created an untenable conundrum whereby he acquiesces in the feeding of our livestock with imported GM product but rejects the cultivation of GM-approved products which have passed through the entire sifting process of the EU?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. As it stands, I can make decisions on what is before me. I was required to make a decision on genetically modified crops by 3 October, and I have done so. I understand the Member's confusion as regards other genetically modified foods, and it is not dissimilar to the point that Joe Byrne raised with regard to GM feedstocks.

Responsibility for the deliberate release of GM material into the environment, including GM crops, rests with me as Minister of the Environment. However, as a courtesy, I wrote to Michelle O'Neill, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, to notify her of my position and my decision.

Mr Durkan: Nuclear energy and nuclear installations are excepted matters under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and, as such, are not within the remit of the Department of the Environment. Radioactive discharges from the Sellafield site are regulated by the Environment Agency and the Office for Nuclear Regulation. My Department has responsibility for monitoring the environment in Northern Ireland to assess the impact of radioactivity produced elsewhere, including nuclear facilities such as Sellafield.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has a comprehensive environmental monitoring programme to assess any such impact on the Northern Ireland coastline. The programme includes checks on the radiation levels of the coastline at approximately 50 locations around the North, as well as monitoring the levels of radioactivity in seawater, seaweed, shellfish and fish. The adequacy of the monitoring programme is reviewed regularly and, where appropriate, will take into account any changes in the discharge of radioactivity from Sellafield.

The results of the programme are published annually in a joint report entitled 'Radioactivity in Food and the Environment' produced by the four UK environment agencies, in conjunction with the Food Standards Agency. Results for last year, like those in previous years, indicate that the levels of contamination are negligible in terms of radiological impact on the population of the North.

On average, people in Northern Ireland receive 2,500 microsieverts of radiation a year from all natural and artificial sources. Of that, 50% is due to exposure to radon in the home, 12% is from medical exposure, and less than 0·1% is from nuclear discharges. It should be noted that the lowest yearly dose likely linked to increased cancer risk is 100,000 microsieverts.

In addition to that comprehensive monitoring programme, the UK has a 24/7 nuclear radiation monitoring and emergency response network known as Radioactive Incident Monitoring Network (RIMNET).

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer thus far. In answer to a previous question, the Minister said that he had responsibility for "safeguarding our environment". In the light of that, in connection with the radioactive impact of the plant at Sellafield, in recent months we have had news of British munitions washing up on the south Down beaches in increasing numbers. A lot of them were dumped after the First and Second World Wars, including nerve gas and sarin gas. To what extent does his Department have a responsibility to safeguard the south Down environment and to look at the issue of possible radioactive military materials that were dumped now washing up on the our beaches?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary question. Neither I nor my Department are experts when it comes to arms dumps. [Interruption.]

The dumps to which the Member refers fall within Scottish waters and are therefore not the direct responsibility of my Department or the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. However, I am aware of the issues raised by the dumps in many areas across the North, in particular and in recent times the south Down coastline. Correspondence on the matter came to my Department before my time as Minister. When something comes ashore, responsibility rests with the local authority, so it would be up to the local council to remove it. However, given the dangerous nature of the materials, there would be assistance from Britain to do so, and there would be an input from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency as well.

Mr Rogers: Will the Minister outline his assessment of how the Sellafield nuclear power plant impacts on the North's coastal environment communities? Over the years, Eddie McGrady campaigned against Sellafield. Given the major health concerns in south Down and the higher-than normal incidences of cancer in the area, what is his assessment?

Mr Durkan: Since the 1970s, my Department has had a very comprehensive programme in place to assess the impact of radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea on the coastline of Northern Ireland. The results of the programme are published annually in a report titled, as I outlined in an earlier answer, 'Radioactivity in Food and the Environment' which is issued jointly by all the environment agencies on these islands. The report focuses on key information that demonstrates that, in the North, food is safe and the public's exposure to ionising radiation from discharges is insignificant.

The health concerns raised by the Member have been raised before, and there have been long and loud campaigns from South Down elected representatives on behalf of its people over the years. People have concerns about potential impacts on their health, and rightly so, and, although the reports indicate that the effect of discharge from Sellafield and other nuclear plants is negligible, I fully appreciate that those concerns will persist. All that I can do is ensure, as Minister, that my Department and the agency will continue to do everything that they can to monitor the situation.

Regarding other health impacts, questions would probably be better directed to the Minister of Health. There will probably be a 10-minute window next Monday when the Member can do that.

Mr Durkan: Although climate change is often and rightly seen as a global issue, we are all too aware of the impacts that it is having at a local level, such as severe weather events that threaten our health, homes, businesses and way of life. That is why I have publicly stated many times my view that we all can and, indeed, must do more to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

The main aim of the 2015 United Nations conference in Paris will be to achieve a new international agreement to create the vital framework that the world needs to limit the average global temperature increase to below 2°C. By successfully doing so, we will help to combat climate change effectively, boost the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The Paris conference is, without doubt, an opportunity for the world’s leaders to deliver a global climate agreement that is unquestionably in our, and the entire global community's, best interests. We cannot underestimate how critical that is, and that was further underlined last week when Pope Francis held an unprecedented audience with all the European Environment Ministers and Commissioners and appealed to them to show leadership and push for a long-term decarbonisation goal.


2.15 pm

I have written to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, indicating that I do intend to go to Paris, where I will make it clear that we should be striving to secure an ambitious international agreement this year and pushing for opportunities to increase the EU emissions reduction target further as a result.

Mr B McCrea: I say to the Minister that I fully support his decision to attend the UN meeting in Paris. My question for him in this environment is this: how many other MLAs in the Chamber do you think would support your concern about climate change? Given that we are in the middle of Environment Week — I know that Ms Lo and the Minister were in attendance last night — what importance do you think that has for Northern Ireland, in a local sense, in tackling climate change?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. In response to the first part of the question: there are not that many MLAs in the Chamber, but, of those present, I am confident that the vast majority will support me in my efforts to tackle climate change and to secure the international agreement that is required. With regards to the other question, Environment Week did kick off last night and has been extremely successful so far. I encourage all Members to drop into the Long Gallery to participate, or at least to observe events today. I congratulate the Environment Committee for its initiative and the Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL) for its work in making the week possible and coordinating events.

I would like to reiterate to the Member my commitment to working across government and with all sectors of our society, as well as all sections within the House, to agree on measures that can help to address both future and current climate change. My Department has already implemented a number of key actions to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is not something that my Department can do alone. We need other Departments to sign up and buy in. There are ongoing cross-departmental working groups and meetings in that regard, and I believe that progress is being made. It may not be being made as quickly or dramatically as we would like, but it is being made. I think that some people in the Chamber and maybe some not in the Chamber at the moment — maybe not in the Chamber anymore — are beginning to accept the impact of climate change and the importance of doing something about it.

Mr Somerville: Can the Minister give his assessment of the emphasis that our new local councils have placed on reducing their emissions?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for the question, his first to me. I know that he is just fresh out of local government, so hopefully he had some input into his former council's stance on reducing greenhouse gas emissions before coming here. I think that the new councils have an extremely important role to play and that, by and large, councils have embraced that when it comes to tackling climate change. I believe that the opportunities that they have to do so are huge, be it through their community planning or even through their work on their own local development plans, because it will now become more of a factor when applications come in for planning permission. Factors such as environmental or wider impact around the emission of greenhouse gases and so forth will be taken into consideration when applications are being assessed.

To date, I think that councils have recognised that they have a role to play. They have signed up to play that role, but it is important that we as a Department and we as an Assembly support them in doing so.

Ms Lo: I am delighted that the Minister is going to the Paris conference on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Does he agree that the lack of a climate change Act for Northern Ireland will hinder our role or any actions in addressing climate change?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for her question. Unfortunately, my wife does not share Ms Lo's delight that I could be going to Paris in December. Hopefully, a present on my return —

Ms Lo: She should go with you.

Mr Durkan: I do not think that Mr Allister would approve of that. [Laughter.]

I believe that a climate change Bill and consequent Act is very important for Northern Ireland. I now have a mandate to pursue such a Bill in the Assembly following a vote taken last year on an amendment tabled by Mr Agnew to a motion on an illegal landfill. However, I have to be sure that, if I am going to bring a Bill forward, I will have the support of the whole Assembly in doing so. That is the only way that this can work, and that is why the work that I have been doing to date with other Departments and other sectors — not just the environmental NGOs but, very importantly, industry, those who might perceive that a climate change Act would inhibit or prohibit their growth — is extremely important. We have to bring people along. We also have to explore the opportunities that could be created in our local economy by a climate change Act, through new green energy initiatives and so forth.
In response to an earlier question, I touched on the clean, green image of the North and how that has helped our agrifood industry become so successful. The development of that clean, green image can only help us grow from strength to strength in that regard.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his answers. I join the Minister in congratulating Northern Ireland Environment Link and the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Environment Committee for promoting Environment Week here. I congratulate the Minister for his participation in that.

Apropos what he said about climate change legislation, does the Minister think that there is any way of building consensus in the Northern Ireland Executive and, indeed, the Assembly in order that we can all go forward together in bringing about an agreed Act? It is essential that we work together and map out an approach that will be beneficial to the whole community.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his question. I will repeat the point that I made to Ms Lo: collaboration is vital to reaching consensus, and consensus is vital to achieving success in this regard. I have constantly, I think, outlined the need for our own climate change legislation with challenging greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. I believe that that would create greater clarity and the long-term certainty that business and industry need, even though some members of those sectors feel that climate change legislation would be detrimental to their growth. As I said, I have had some extremely challenging yet extremely productive meetings with representatives of those sectors. There is still a lot more work to do, but I believe that an initiative around prosperity agreements that I launched last year demonstrates clearly to industry and business the benefits of environmental compliance or of going beyond compliance in terms of how successful their business can be. I have established a prosperity panel, composed of local and international experts, to advise me how to turn issues such as climate change around from being a barrier to growth into economic and social opportunities. I am glad that that panel also has representatives of business and industry and, very importantly, the agrifood industry. Again, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of that industry to our economy here in the North.

Mr Durkan: Under departmental restructuring, most of my Department’s environmental functions would be inherited by a proposed new Department, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). I believe that the proposals, as they stand, could create conflicts of priorities and responsibilities within the new DAERA. In short, the present arrangements for environmental governance will become even more out of line with what is regarded as good practice in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Most of these jurisdictions have some form of independent environmental protection agency.

In August 2011, my predecessor, Minister Attwood, published a discussion document on environmental governance in Northern Ireland. Most respondents expressed support for the creation of some form of agency or body within the public sector but operating separately from central government to undertake a range of environmental roles and responsibilities. However, it was recognised that, without sufficient support from other political parties, making such changes to our environmental governance arrangements could not be pursued at the time. With such large changes to our departmental structures being made in the very near future, I believe that now is the right time to revisit this debate.

I have reached the clear conclusion that our present governance models are in need of radical review and need to be replaced quickly. As a first step, I intend to open up a debate in the Assembly and Executive about an independent body so that this can be factored into restructuring plans that are under way. I will do everything that I can to deliver this quickly, but I also need other political parties to give their support and commitment to make this happen.

Mr Eastwood: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree with me that any independent body — any independent environmental protection agency — should be on an all-Ireland basis if we want to protect the environment in the places that it is needed?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary. Ireland's environment knows no borders, therefore I believe that we should ensure that, at this time of great change, our environmental governance arrangements are well aligned with arrangements in the South. In that way, we would be well positioned to build on the collaborative work already carried out under the auspices of the NSMC. In my view, an independent, all-island environment protection agency is the best way forward to allow us to develop collaboration and pool resources. I recognise that officials, North and South, have not yet fully considered the implications of an all-island environmental protection agency, and so, as a first step, I am opening up the debate in the Assembly and in the Executive about an independent body in the North.

Mr Durkan: The Boal car parking service was an unauthorised car park use that was refused planning permission in December 2013. The refusal was subsequently appealed and comprehensively reviewed by the independent Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). The PAC dismissed the appeal in June 2015. It found that there had been a failure to demonstrate a quantitative need for the car park and that there were sufficient parking areas, including overflow parking areas, to meet the needs of the City Airport. The PAC, in coming to its view, concluded, taking account of all the evidence, that, whilst there might be a demand for cheaper parking, it did not equate to a need for additional parking at the airport. I understand that the car park was closed by the owner of the site following the PAC decision to dismiss the appeal and his receipt of a warning letter from Belfast City Council to cease use of the site.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for that response. Does the Minister not agree that there was no legislative requirement to block this planning application, on the basis that it was a question of demand as opposed to need? Would he not be prepared to work with the Boals, given that the demand speaks for itself? Would it not be worthwhile for the Minister to have some discussion with the Boals to see whether the facility can work?


2.30 pm

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I agree fully with the Member. When the decision was first reached, the first I heard about it, after its initial refusal in December 2013, was through the media. A refusal had been issued, at which stage nothing really could be done about it. Given how ridiculous it seemed to me at the time, I invited the Boals to appeal, and I was disappointed by the outcome of that appeal. I subsequently met Mr Pat Boal, the owner of the business, along with planners in the Department to discuss the best way forward for him. I fully accept that that gentleman and enterprise tried to do everything by the book. On that occasion, the system did not work for them, and it is now not allowing them to work.

In the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS), which is still awaiting Executive approval — hopefully, I will be able to get it out soon — greater flexibilities will be afforded to councils, which are now the planning authorities, to make decisions within their areas on what would be deemed sufficient car parking. I very much hope that Belfast City Council, along with Mr Boal, or, potentially, someone else, will be able to work together and that they will know what the need is in their own city or council area.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions. The Members listed for topical questions 1, 4 and 9 have withdrawn their names.

T2. Mr Swann asked the Minister of the Environment for an update on how the information his colleagues on the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council received yesterday, when they were told that the Minister decided last week that the northern area plan would come into effect today, will affect his constituents. (AQT 2852/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. While the council may have been informed just last week that the publication of the area plan was imminent, the council and its predecessors have been integral in the formation and formulation of that plan. The publication of the plan is a positive news story for the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area, as it will provide certainty to developers, potential inward investors, providers of social housing and communities. It will also be of great benefit to the council as it proceeds with the drawing up of its new local development plan. I have yet to hear any negative rumblings from the council or from constituents in that area about the content of the plan. However, should there be any, I would be more than happy to meet the Member or whoever to discuss them.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his answer. He referred to giving certainty to investors and the community. Will he assure the House that the area plan will ensure that lignite mining and fracking will not proceed in the area?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. As regards the issues that the Member raises, the area plan does not deal with such things. They are dealt with separately under planning policy. I remind the Member of my view on fracking and lignite mining, which, I hope, will be strengthened following the publication of the SPPS: no such activity should, could or will be carried out in the absence of sound and safe evidence that it is sustainable and is not detrimental to our environment or to human health. Each application will be judged on its own merits. To date, no application has been received anywhere in the North for fracking. If the Member has ongoing concerns about lignite mining, I would be happy to meet him to discuss those at a later date or even later this afternoon.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Oliver McMullan is not in his place. I call Ms Anna Lo.

T5. Ms Lo asked the Minister of the Environment, while sympathising and sharing his rationale, how, realistically, he will achieve consensus for his proposed North/South environmental protection agency, which he has referred to during various events relating to Environment Week. (AQT 2855/11-16)

Ms Lo: You called me pretty quickly, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I thank those Members who attended Environment Week yesterday and today. A number of Members spoke of that. Events are still being held in the Long Gallery and outside, and I encourage Members to participate in them.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. Before I answer it, in defence of Mr McMullan, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I had received notification of his question having been withdrawn.

I believe that winning consensus for my proposal or vision will not necessarily be easy, but that certainly will not discourage me from the pursuit of what I believe to be the best outcome for the environment, North and South, of this island. In response to an earlier question, I outlined that the first debate that we have to have, and the first debate that I will need your support in, is on establishing the principle here in Northern Ireland of setting up an independent environmental protection agency. I believe that strong arguments can be made for that. I have yet to hear any compelling argument why we should not have an independent environmental protection agency. Every other jurisdiction in these islands has one, as do the vast majority of countries in Europe. It is seen as best practice there, and it works there. I think we should be looking at models in other countries to see what is good about them and how we could make things better here.

However, like I said, I want to do this quickly. Fortunately, because of the relative recentness of the consultation that was done in 2011 by my predecessor, I do not think we have to start from scratch when we open the debate. There is a template, and we have the views that were expressed at that time. I do not expect all of them, or many of them, to have changed too drastically. There will be views that maybe will have changed, and they may have changed in a way that is more welcoming of an independent environmental protection agency than they maybe were four years ago. This is not something that I want to force down people's throats —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Minister to conclude.

Mr Durkan: OK; thank you.

Ms Lo: I think that the Minister is right. Maybe the first step is to look at establishing an independent EPA in Northern Ireland, but, given the short time that we have from now until the end of the mandate and before the merging of the two Departments, what process is the Minister planning to carry out to establish the organisation?

Mr Durkan: I thank Ms Lo for that supplementary question. I believe that it is because of the restructuring, or the amalgamation, of Departments that this is exactly the right time to carry out this piece of work. There are huge concerns across the environmental NGO sector and beyond that it will not be so much an amalgamation of Departments as a takeover of one Department by another, and there is a huge fear that, as a result, the environmental standards or regulations will be compromised. I will do everything I can to allay those fears. I have said many times in the Chamber that the mantra I have tried to bring to this Ministry is the desire to create a better environment and a stronger economy. I believe that that can be achieved and that it can be achieved with an independent environment agency.

However, we need to convince other parties and sectors of the merits of that. As I said before I got cut off, it is not something I want to ram down the throats of people or groups; it is something that we can make people understand, see the merits of and sign up to.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I thank the Minister for letting us know about Mr McMullan's withdrawal. I feel certain that Mr McMullan's party know the procedure for withdrawing questions.

T6. Mr Ó hOisín asked the Minister of the Environment to assure him that all efforts will be made by every means possible to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide — NO3 — in Dungiven, given that he will be aware of the unacceptable and dangerously high levels of NO3 in the Dungiven area, particularly in the vicinity of the main street, which are some 10 times more than the recommended European level, with a solution to be found only with the construction of the Dungiven bypass. (AQT 2856/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that question. I am aware of the issue of traffic congestion in Dungiven; I encounter it regularly and agree entirely with him that one way of tackling the very high pollution levels in Dungiven will be the creation of a bypass. My party colleague John Dallat has been particularly vociferous in campaigning for such a bypass. However, successive Regional Development Ministers have failed to progress the issue.

Air quality is the responsibility of district councils, under the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002, to periodically review and assess air quality within their areas. Where air quality is poor — and it is very poor in Dungiven — councils must declare an air quality management area, accompanied by an action plan containing measures to improve air quality.

Limavady Borough Council, as it was known then, identified levels of nitrogen dioxide arising from transport emissions to be above the objectives set out in the UK air quality strategy. The council therefore declared an air quality management area in 2008, which encompasses Main Street in Dungiven. Levels reported for Dungiven, as high as they seem to us, are comparable to those in other UK cities. However, you are comparing Dungiven with UK cities that might have the same population as Northern Ireland and have air quality problems related to transport. However, those levels are not the highest. Maybe London and Manchester have higher levels of nitrogen dioxide.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I think that Dungiven should get city status at some time in the future. Will the Minister also address the issue of other chemicals, such as sulphur, and particulates being emitted that may not be covered in the monitoring that is part of the air quality management agreement?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that supplementary question. As I have outlined, responsibility for air quality lies with councils. The NIEA works closely with councils to identify problems in areas and, importantly, identify and seek solutions. I reiterate my commitment to the Member that my Department will work closely with the council on this issue as we all work together on the bypass issue.

T7. Ms Hanna asked the Minister of the Environment what is being done about summer bonfire sites, given that he will be aware of the issues with unregulated summer bonfires, the attachment that people have to them and the risk to property and community relations, particularly from those bonfires that are not part of any management programme. (AQT 2857/11-16)

Mr Durkan: I thank Ms Hanna for that question. Every summer, the media coverage of massive bonfires that are in very close proximity to people's homes, and the sectarian burning of effigies on bonfires, does nothing to promote good community relations, nor is it is any advertisement for a place that is moving on from the past and is working towards a better shared future.

The legislative position relating to bonfires is extremely complicated and involves a number of public bodies. That makes enforcement less effective, unless there is a joined-up approach. Legally, the ultimate responsibility for bonfires rests with the landowner — often a public body — although those engaged in antisocial and associated activities also carry certain responsibilities.

District councils often take lead responsibility for the overall management of bonfires, and some very good work is being done on that. A number of other bodies have enforcement powers. Those include the PSNI, the Fire and Rescue Service, and the NIEA in my Department. It is likely that none of the major bonfires complies fully with the requirements of existing legislation.


2.45 pm

I think that it is well past the time for hand-wringing about it being too difficult and emotive an issue to tackle. I am prepared to take leadership to try to find workable solutions. I have been discussing the matter with my officials and asked them to consider future options that may have the potential to improve bonfire management and control. It is my intention to bring those options to the Environment Committee in the near future for discussion and consultation on the way forward and then take a paper to the Executive.

Finance and Personnel

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I inform the House that questions 1 and 2 have been withdrawn.

Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): We have the Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Act 2015, which enables powers to transfer from April 2017. However, that, of course, is subject to the Executive demonstrating that their finances remain on a sustainable footing for the long term. For my part, I want to see the devolution of those important powers. My officials are engaging with their Whitehall Government counterparts to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place to realise that ambition.

Mr Ross: First, I commend the Minister for her work in her current and previous roles to help us get to the point at which the devolution of corporation tax powers is a reality. The Minister will know the expectation that there was in the business community and the frustration at the failure of some to implement the Stormont House Agreement, which potentially jeopardised the possibility of getting corporation tax powers. I agree with the Minister that hopefully the talks process that is ongoing at the moment will help us get to the point at which we can realise the potential of lowering the rate of corporation tax.

Can the Minister tell the House whether the cost to devolve corporation tax and of lowering it to the level that we had talked about previously has reduced as a working-out of that Budget announcement on 8 July?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. He will understand that the Azores principle applies to the Northern Ireland block grant. Although the position of corporation tax was in the high twenties, as the main rate, as I call it, in the UK continues to come down, the cost to the Northern Ireland block grant also falls. An initial assessment of the impact of the Budget announcement back on 8 July, whereby the corporation tax rate reduction will be 19% in 2017 and 18% in 2020, means that the cost to our block grant will probably be, on full implementation, in the region of £240 million in 2020-21. That presumes that we set a date and a rate for corporation tax in 2018. Of course, we have not had that agreement as yet, but we are hopeful that we are moving in the right direction.

Mrs Foster: The Secretary of State has confirmed that funding, as set out in the Stormont House Agreement, will be released to enable public-sector voluntary exit schemes to come into operation as planned. As a result, I have authorised allocations from the transformation fund to allow the first exits under the scheme to progress in accordance with the recommendations of the public sector's restructuring steering group. Executive colleagues were advised of the position on 7 September.

Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for her answer. How many posts will be lost by the 2015-16 period and what are the expected pay bill savings?

Mrs Foster: For the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which has the largest of the public-sector voluntary exit schemes, around 867 staff will leave at the end of this month, with a further 763 scheduled to leave at the end of November.

In total, the first two tranches of exits, which I have just indicated will come to about 1,630 individuals, will deliver a pay bill saving of almost £48 million per annum. Departments have indicated a requirement to exit around 2,700 full-time equivalent posts this financial year, and further offers will be made in due course.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Minister confirm that all Departments will be able to offer a first-class service to all citizens in the wake of the departures?

Mrs Foster: Of course, it is very important that we continue to provide essential public services in the way that our citizens are used to. Therefore, a range of measures have been put in place, including redeployment arrangements in some cases to move staff into essential posts left vacant by staff who leave via the exit scheme at the end of the month and, indeed, in November. Each Department is undertaking an assessment of business continuity and is prioritising its work accordingly, so I can confirm that that is the case.

Mr G Kelly: Ceist a ceathair, le do thoil. Question 4, please. Sorry, question 5. I do beg your pardon.

Mrs Foster: Everybody is confused today.

Many factors impact on the business environment and, crucially, business confidence. Some of the most important include the quality and stability of our political institutions, a supportive business infrastructure and a high-quality education system. Those are areas that the Executive have focused on, not least in delivering their economic strategy, for example.

It is right that any allegations in relation to the sale of NAMA assets are investigated thoroughly by the appropriate authorities. However, I am not aware of any evidence that suggests that they are having a negative impact on international business confidence.

Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a cuid freagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for her answers up to now. Does she agree, on the basis of what she said, with Transparency International, which compiles an annual list of corruption with Governments throughout the world to root out robustly embezzlement, fraud etc, so that we do not have our international investment attacked in the way in which, I believe, it is being at the moment?

Mrs Foster: I absolutely agree that we have to have an open and transparent system of government. Indeed, the index that we use in that respect is the global competitive index. That looks at a number of key factors and has a particular focus on the importance of the macroeconomic environment. In that respect, I am sure that everyone in the House will agree with me that the absence of paramilitary activity is a key element of that macroeconomic environment. Therefore, we have to deal with paramilitary activity, if it is proven to be present, and that is a key element for the Stormont House talks, as you are aware, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

Mr I McCrea: The Minister will be aware that the Finance Committee is carrying out an inquiry into the claims around NAMA. Has she any concerns that, if the inquiry gets too close to the wire in certain enquiries or information that it receives, there may be the potential to cause difficulties for the NCA's investigations?

Mrs Foster: As I said in my original answer, it is important that there is a thorough investigation by the appropriate authorities. I understand that Committee members are to meet representatives of the National Crime Agency in, I think, the coming week. It will be important to listen to the advice that they give them in relation to their inquiry to make sure that there are no issues that prevent the NCA completing its inquiry in the most robust way possible.

Mrs Foster: My Department routinely engaged with NAMA to discuss a range of issues prior to the sale of the Project Eagle portfolio. The purpose of the discussions was to make representations about any known NAMA actions or plans that might have been detrimental or, indeed, damaging to the recovery of the Northern Ireland economy, including the local property market at that time.

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer so far. Why has her Department's permanent secretary continued to hide from the Finance Committee's inquiry into the NAMA issue? Is it for party political reasons? I do not know whether anyone really believes the NCA excuse that the DUP is hiding behind.

Mrs Foster: I am sorry; I did not catch the last bit of the question. As regards my permanent secretary, Mr Sterling, hiding from the Committee, he has been to the Committee on two occasions now and has been very helpful to the Committee, as I understand it. I am not sure where the Member is coming from in relation to her question.

Mr Allister: On what basis did the Finance Minister back in January 2014 advise NAMA that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister were both fully engaged with the PIMCO bid? What did that mean? Given the role of her Department in the appointment of Frank Cushnahan to NAMA's Northern Ireland advisory committee, is it part of her anxiety to stay in office and act as a self-professed gatekeeper that she can protect the chronicles of NAMA from vigorous scrutiny?

Mrs Foster: I know that Jim is fond of fiction, and I am sure that he enjoys 'The Chronicles of Narnia' on an ongoing basis.

Mr Allister: It is the chronicles of NAMA that I am concerned about.

Mrs Foster: Yes, well, I think it would do him good to read 'The Chronicles of Narnia' as well, with its Christian basis. In any event, when Minister Wilson —

Mr Allister: It is still a work of fantasy.

Mrs Foster: I am waiting for the Member to finish. Minister Wilson simply responded to a request from the Irish Government to put forward nominations for NAMA's Northern Ireland advisory committee, and Mr Cushnahan was one of those nominees. There is no mystery surrounding that issue. I think that the Member was referring to my colleague Minister Hamilton in relation to what he had to say: obviously, that is an issue that he will have to take up with Minister Hamilton. I cannot say what was in Minister Hamilton's mind at that time, because I am not Minister Hamilton.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Can the Minister assure the House that all transactions and discussions involving the Department with regard to NAMA and the subsequent sale have been or will be shared with the House and the relevant Committee?

Mrs Foster: I understand that the documents that the Finance Committee has asked for are currently being gone through. Indeed, we are in discussion with the National Crime Agency to make sure that we do not hinder any investigation that it is involved in. That is where we are at present.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Colum Eastwood is not in his place.

Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 8, 10 and 13 together.

Failure to implement welfare reform has put at risk the Budget flexibilities negotiated in the Stormont House Agreement, which included the flexibility to repay both the £100 million reserve claim in 2014-15 and the £114 million reduction in our Budget for the non-implementation of welfare reform from capital budgets. In addition to these central pressures, Departments have registered resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) pressures in the June monitoring round of £234·6 million, with only £10,000 of resource DEL reduced requirements declared by Departments.

Mr Hussey: What is the Minister's best assessment of the amount by which Northern Ireland is likely to exceed this year's resource allocations if it remains on the current trajectory?

Mrs Foster: I am hoping that we do not remain on the current trajectory and that we are able to deal with some of the financial issues from the Stormont House Agreement. We really need to have the flexibilities that were agreed in the initial Stormont House Agreement to allow us to proceed with our Budget. We do not want to breach our control totals at the end of the year because, of course, that would be looked on in a very bad light by the Treasury and might have impacts for us in following years.

We are working hard to deal with those issues, but, as you can see from my substantive answer, there is quite a challenge ahead in dealing with our resource DEL.


3.00 pm

Mr Givan: The Finance Minister would be in a much better position had the parties that reneged on the Stormont House Agreement, which they signed up to last year, implemented it. How much funding will be lost to Northern Ireland if the Stormont House Agreement is not now implemented?

Mrs Foster: In addition to the flexibilities that I referred to, we will lose £150 million over five years to pay for institutions to help us to deal with the past, which is a significant issue that needs to be dealt with, and dealt with quickly; and £500 million over 10 years for capital projects to support shared and integrated education. That is a significant amount, and we really could do with that for capital projects for shared education. I am aware of some of those, and they were very worthy.

Mr Gardiner: Minister, is it possible for the Executive to survive this financial year without an agreement on welfare reform?

Mrs Foster: My view has always been that we need to agree welfare reform to allow us to move forward with the Budget that we agreed at the end of the summer. As you know, that Budget was predicated on welfare reform going ahead. Therefore, we need to have that agreement and, indeed, all the other flexibilities in place so that we do not breach our control totals by the end of the year.

Yesterday, we heard from the deputy First Minister that we should, "Put up or shut up." That applies in many other cases as well.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Fearghal McKinney is not in his place.

Mrs Foster: As with all business matters, I expect my officials to cooperate fully with the Committee as it continues with its inquiry into the sale of NAMA assets in Northern Ireland.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that, if the public or, indeed, Members have the impression that something is being withheld by any party or Department, that creates the impression in the public mind that there is some sort of cover-up? Does she agree with me that there is a necessity in these matters for total transparency?

Mrs Foster: I absolutely agree that there is a need for transparency. There is also a need to respect the ongoing investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA). I imagine that Mr Bradley, being the Deputy Chairman of the Committee, would appreciate that it is important that that proceeds in the proper way as well. Therefore, there is a need to make sure that we do not directly, indirectly or inadvertently do something that will cause difficulties for that investigation. That is my sole concern in terms of DFP.

Mr Beggs: I, too, believe that it is important that there is total transparency on this issue. Will the Minister assure the House that she will put into the public domain any involvement that her Department had with NAMA and, in particular, the fees that were part of the sale to Cerberus and Pimco? Will she put all that into the public domain? That does not prejudice anybody; it simply provides transparency for the public.

Mrs Foster: I am not sure whether the Member asking the question has expertise in the NCA inquiry. I hope that he is not suggesting that he has some expertise that the NCA does not have. We have been engaging with the National Crime Agency and are sharing the information — all of the information — that the Department has.

The Member mentioned fees, but I am not sure what he was talking about. Nothing I have seen talks about fees in any one way. We have shared all the information that we have held in order to seek confirmation that its release will not, in the NCA's determination, be prejudicial. Everybody in the House should be concerned that that is the case. They want to ensure that the NCA is able to do its job in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Mrs Foster: I have commissioned the Ulster University's economic policy centre to carry out an independent audit into the costs of division, and I anticipate that a draft report will be available later in this calendar year.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for her update. It is encouraging to hear of progress on that Stormont House Agreement commitment to audit the cost of division to Departments. Given that the Executive have to deal with significant pressure on our public finances, how urgent a priority does she consider the study in order to feed into a reconfiguration of our public-service delivery on a shared rather than on a separate basis?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I do not think that I am breaching any confidences when I say this, but that issue was raised today at the Stormont House talks. The report is not due to be with us until November, but I will try to have it with me by October if possible so that we can figure it into what we are trying to do around our budgetary processes at the moment. Members are probably aware that the comprehensive spending review is not supposed to kick off until, I think, 25 November. That causes us some difficulties with our draft Budget process, and, therefore, we are trying to get a clearer picture of how we move forward. We have, of course, outlined forecasts for our budgetary process, but it is difficult to be definitive because we do not get the actual figures until the end of November, and that causes us some difficulty. I am trying to have all the other pieces in place before then.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Pat Ramsey is not in his place. Mr Gordon Dunne is not in his place. That ends the period for listed questions.

We will now move on to topical questions. The Members listed for questions 4, 6 and 7 have withdrawn their names.

T1. Mr G Kelly asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether she has raised, or intends to raise, with Volkswagen, locally or in Great Britain, the growing scandal around emissions from its diesel engines and the effect that that will have on customers not only in America but here. (AQT 2861/11-16)

Mrs Foster: No, I have not raised that issue. With emissions, there are stricter criteria in the USA than here in Europe, and that is what has caused the difficulty in America. It seems that Volkswagen has taken an innovative approach to try to disguise the emissions from its cars. It will cause the company severe embarrassment, and it looks as if billions of pounds have been wiped off its share price literally overnight because of it. It is a very serious issue, and the question of emissions is probably more for the Environment Minister. It will cause great difficulties in production for Volkswagen.

Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for her answer and I agree that it is very serious. While there may be a difference in terms of the emissions, I understand that questions about it are already being raised in Europe. I am simply asking the Minister whether it could be raised on behalf of the Assembly and the people who are affected by it in the North. The smart chips that the cars are using could easily be used in other vehicles and by other manufacturers as well. This scandal could be much bigger than it already is. Can we make some effort to make an intervention to see what the story is?

Mrs Foster: I can certainly pass on the Member's concerns about the emissions problem to the Minister of the Environment and to the Executive more widely through correspondence. I think that, in America, they are taking steps to check other vehicles to see whether they have been involved in what will be known as the Volkswagen scandal. There is no doubt that it will cause great difficulties for the company.

T2. Mr Lynch asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for a progress report on the opening of the Stormont grounds to the public for leisure and recreation. (AQT 2862/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I agree with the previous Speaker. As you know, he took a very progressive view in relation to opening up Parliament Buildings to the public, and that has continued under the current incumbent. I really welcome that. A lot of people had not visited Parliament Buildings before then, and it is great to see the number of young people who now engage in visits to Parliament Buildings.

We are looking at what we can do with the grounds of Stormont, and the Member will be aware that a number of events have taken place there. Hopefully, we will be able to come forward with proposals and share those with the Committee.

Mr Lynch: I thank the Minister for her answer. She intimated that there are other events and will be aware that there is a run each Sunday morning through the grounds. Will she make the car parking facilities in Parliament Buildings available to participants of that run?

Mrs Foster: I will have to check whether those car parks are under my control or that of Parliament Buildings and the Commission. That is certainly something that I can come back to the Member on.

T3. Mr Dickson asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether she believes that spending hundreds of millions of pounds to sustain our segregated education system is tenable and a sensible use of funds in light of the cuts to university places. (AQT 2863/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I was going to say, Mr Dickson, that that is above my pay grade in terms of the different sectors in education. Of course, if we had a clean slate, we would not start from here; that much is very clear. We have a large number of different sectors, and we have to try to deal with what we have.

He may not agree with me on this point, but I have engaged on numerous occasions with the shared education sector. I have seen the work that has been going on between the controlled and maintained sectors in Fermanagh in particular and how that is bringing young people together. It is very impactive for those communities: it not only brings the young people together but brings the parents together in a way that has not happened before.

Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. The use of public funds to continue segregation, whether in education or other services, distorts our public service obligations in Northern Ireland and how we spend our money. For us to become the first-class region that we all aspire to be, we need to remove those distortions from our budgeting.

Mrs Foster: I say again, we would not start from here on a wide range of issues, but we have to deal with where we are and, therefore, have to have transitional arrangements to do that. I look forward to the report from the University of Ulster — or Ulster University, to give it its proper title. I hope that we can have that sooner rather than later so that we can discuss its findings.

T5. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether she has renewed or resumed negotiations with the Treasury in relation to the reinstatement of the moneys for the Desertcreat project outside Cookstown, given that, previously, an estimated £53 million was lost because the project had not been initiated and, on those occasions when the Minister of Justice and his officials appeared before the Justice Committee, they apportioned responsibility for that loss to the Department of Finance and Personnel. (AQT 2865/11-16)

Mrs Foster: I received some recent correspondence from the Minister of Justice in relation to the ongoing work. I am glad that that work is progressing. When we have a definitive figure for the site, we will certainly work with colleagues to make sure that we make as many representations to the Treasury as we can. As the Member knows, the money was ring-fenced at the time, and then it went back to the Treasury. It was never actually ours; it was ring-fenced in the Treasury. We need to make the case again for Desertcreat, and I am happy to do so along with colleagues.


3.15 pm

Mr McGlone: I appreciate that and thank the Minister for her response. Will she give some indication — it will do later on in writing if she does not have it immediately — of the Executive's present level of financial commitment to the project?

Mrs Foster: I do not have those figures in front of me, so I am happy to write to the Member and give him those figures.

T8. Mr Agnew asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel, given that she will be aware that the focus of today’s Stormont House talks was to have been on welfare reform and financial issues, with one possible outcome mooted of the UK Government taking back power for welfare reform and legislating, to some extent, over our heads, whether, if that were to happen, there any legislative barriers to Northern Ireland still agreeing its own top-up fund. (AQT 2868/11-16)

Mrs Foster: Let us be clear: we hope that that does not happen and that the parties can finally, finally come to a decision on the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and welfare reform. If that is not to be the case, the Secretary of State has indicated that she will legislate at Westminster, and it will then depend on what powers she takes to do that and what that will look like. A number of options are open to her, and we will have to wait and see. However, as I said, I hope that we can come to an agreement in Stormont House and that that will not happen.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Minister for her answer. Obviously, it is preferable that we legislate and use the powers that we have available in Northern Ireland. I point to Scotland, where welfare was not devolved, yet it still implemented a fund to negate the impacts of the bedroom tax. Barring failure to political agreement on that, is there any major difference between Westminster legislating and our putting forward the legislative difference? We can still introduce our own top-up fund to mitigate the impacts.

Mrs Foster: I hear what the Member says, but we are concerned that there may be a gap between the primary legislation and the secondary legislation, and, during that gap, what happens to welfare recipients? Will they have to deal with GB instead of having the mitigations that we agreed in the Stormont House Agreement? That is a matter of concern. I note what the Member said about the Scottish system, but you have to remember that Scotland was in the GB system for quite a while before it had the mitigations put in place. As I understand it, the mitigations were agreed only a couple of months ago, and I think that they were of the order of £100 million. Scotland has put that in place.

I am sure that the whole House agrees that it would not be a good situation if we were to have the GB model in place for I do not know how long without the mitigation measures. That would be a problem.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Colum Eastwood is not in his place.

T10. Ms Fearon asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether she will introduce proposals for the North to have its own social value legislation so that public competition is fairer and goes further to support social enterprises and SMEs. (AQT 2870/11-16)

Mrs Foster: As the Member is probably aware, the Central Procurement Directorate has engaged on that issue quite extensively. If the Member has a particular suggestion about how we should take it forward, I am happy to meet her to discuss the issues. Social clauses have been included in many public-sector procurements. From my experience in DETI, when we were involved in the building of Titanic Belfast, we had a number of social clauses, which worked to great effect. However, if the Member has other suggestions, I am quite happy to look at them.

Ms Fearon: I thank the Minister for her answer. Thanks for the offer, and I am sure that my party colleagues and I will be more than happy to take it up. Does the Minister agree that our focus should be on furthering our Programme for Government commitment to social values?

Mrs Foster: Yes. It is important to look at all our Programme for Government targets and make sure that we deliver on them. I am sure that everybody in the House would agree with that.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Time is now up. Before we move on, during questions to the Minister of the Environment, he made it known that he was aware that Mr Oliver McMullan had withdrawn his question. I indicated to the Minister that Mr McMullan should follow the correct procedure. We now understand that he did follow the correct procedure but that the top Table was not aware of him having done so. We apologise to him.

Members should now take their ease while we change the top Table.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.]

Adjournment

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes, and all other Members who wish to speak will have approximately six minutes.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm an díospóireacht seo faoin roinn éigeandála in Ospidéal Chnoc na Nóiníní in Iúr Cinn Trá a mholadh. Thank you very much. I am pleased to propose this topic for debate on the emergency department at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry. I thank those colleagues who have remained behind to participate in the debate. I am aware that Mr Kennedy and Mrs McKevitt have been in touch to send apologies. They are unable to attend because of other matters.

As you probably know, Daisy Hill is one of the most outstanding hospitals on this island. I begin by placing on record my sincere thanks to and appreciation of all the dedicated staff in the hospital for their continuous care, compassion and professionalism as they care for the thousands of patients who pass through the hospital each way. On a personal note, I thank them for the emergency care that they gave recently to a close relative of mine who was admitted in the early hours of the morning and received excellent care — care, I have to say, that saved his life. Whilst I speak here today, I have to say that this is not something that is theoretical to me or to anyone here. It is a life-and-death topic to our constituents and our families in the area.

As I said, Daisy Hill is one of two acute hospitals in the Southern Trust area; the other, of course, being Craigavon Area Hospital. Whilst I raise this issue here today, it is not a question of pitching one hospital against another. Obviously, we need both hospitals, but we need to sustain proper investment on both sites. In recent years, there has been the perception that services have been withdrawn from Daisy Hill and transferred to Craigavon Area Hospital. The most recent decision was that to relocate the stroke unit from Daisy Hill to Craigavon. That incensed the local people, and it is a decision that I am on record as opposing in the House and elsewhere.

Today, I want to raise the issue of the pressures on the emergency department at Daisy Hill Hospital. Obviously, I am bitterly disappointed that there is no Minister here to respond to the speeches made by Members, including me. The members of the public who are viewing today's proceedings and those in our constituency who are interested in the sustainability of the emergency services at Daisy Hill will quite rightly take a very dim view of the Minister's non-attendance.

Obviously, our health service is under great strain. I do not have to leave my constituency to see that for myself. I referred to the decision to withdraw the stroke services from Newry. In south Armagh, we also have extremely poor ambulance response times to the extent that the local community had to get together to form a first responders group. I praise the local people who had the foresight to do that under circumstances where, because of the terrain, the roads and the location, many people's lives would be in danger in an emergency situation. We also have the trust's proposal to permanently close the minor injuries unit in Armagh.

These may be viewed as different parts of our health service, but, taken together, the picture they paint is not a very good one. In fact, taking these issues together, it is no wonder that the emergency department in Daisy Hill has had increases in attendance of up to 10%. Numbers presenting to the service are continually increasing. People are waiting longer to be seen, and the trust is struggling to recruit the staff required to maintain the 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week service. It is indeed that which has prompted me to take this matter to the House, because there are real and genuine concerns among the hospital staff and in the community at large that this could lead to reduced operating hours.

Earlier, I referred to my personal experience with a close relative. I spoke to ambulance paramedics and the staff in the emergency department that night, and they told me very clearly that, had the emergency department in Newry been closed and had the journey had to be made to Craigavon or elsewhere, that relative would not have survived. That is why I say that it is a very serious matter.

I believe that this restriction of hours, reduction of hours and closure at night cannot be allowed to happen. I do take the word of the trust that it is making every effort to deal with this situation. There is a problem with recruitment of staff at the middle-grade level needed to sustain the service, but I want to see the Minister and his Department at central level lending support and assistance to the trust to ensure that it can recruit the people it needs to keep the emergency department in our hospital open.

I have met the previous chief executive, Mrs McAlinden, and the current acting chief executive, Mrs Clarke, and the executive team. As I said, I appreciate the efforts they are making to address this problem, but, without the help of the Department and the Minister, there is only a certain amount they can do. The Southern Trust has already engaged in recruitment exercises on a continual basis on some 16 separate occasions, yet it has not managed to attract the staff that it needs. In such a situation, there needs to be ministerial involvement in order that attractive packages can be put together to ensure that we are able to attract the level of staff needed.

A detailed action plan has been drawn up by the trust and has been agreed. This will support the continued provision of emergency care overnight, but only on a short-term basis. We want a sustainable service that will continue into the future and which will not be threatened by staff shortages. As I said, we do welcome the efforts that are being made by the trust, but the service remains extremely vulnerable to any further loss of medical staff.


3.30 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Sustaining the service in the medium to long term without the help, support and assistance of the Minister and his departmental team is a significant challenge for the trust. Hopefully, we will not have to continue too long with the "Here today, gone tomorrow" Ministers, who are leaving the health service in the lurch. I want a Minister here in the House who is answerable and accountable to Members and the public at large. We do not have that at present, so I repeat my appeal to the Department and the Minister, when he returns, to lend the Southern Trust the help, support and assistance that it needs to ensure that it is able to attract the staff that it needs to keep the Daisy Hill emergency department open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is what Members want, and it is what the public and the patients want.

Sin a bhfuil le rá agam ar an ábhar seo ag an bhomaite. Mar a dúirt mé, tá mé buíoch go raibh deis agam an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú sa Teach anseo inniu. Gabhaim buíochas arís leis na Comhaltaí a bhéas ag glacadh páirte sa díospóireacht. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to raise this important matter. Once again, I thank the Members who will participate in the debate in due course.

Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for tabling the topic for debate and welcome the opportunity to speak on such a serious and important issue for the people of my area. I have to say at the outset that it is shameful and a disgrace that there is no Health Minister here to respond on such a crucial and critical issue for the people of Newry and Armagh.

Daisy Hill emergency department has an excellent track record, treating over 35,000 patients annually, including over 3,000 from the north Louth area. It is a crucial service for local people, and it is crucial in the cross-border sense to have that service. It is important to note as well that Daisy Hill has the best record for thrombolysis treatment, with many, many lives being saved in the emergency department over the past number of years. What is also unique about the situation at Daisy Hill emergency department is that out-of-hours is located on-site, meaning that patients can be referred directly and that patient care comes first, as it always should.

Recently, Conor Murphy MLA, who will participate in the debate, the MP for Newry and Armagh — Mickey Brady — and I met the Southern Trust to discuss healthcare issues across the area, with Daisy Hill obviously to the fore. We were told that the numbers using the emergency department in Daisy Hill had increased more than those for any other hospital. I am led to believe that, in the past year alone, the increase was over 10% or over 4,200 patients and that that was putting a lot of added pressure on staff. We were assured that the trust would do all in its power to ensure that there was adequate cover and that the service was maintained.

I think that we can all agree that this needs to be treated as a matter of urgency. It is my understanding that posts have been advertised but, although doctors have applied for posts, there have not been any interviews. That process needs to begin as soon as possible. Another point is that there should not be anything stopping emergency department consultants rotating between the two acute hospitals in the Southern Trust area. That happens in other departments in the Southern Trust. We already know that there are some consultants from Craigavon doing shifts as locums in the Daisy Hill emergency department. Joint working to resolve the problem needs to be given serious consideration.

We know that a lot of money has been invested in the emergency department recently, as it has been upgraded and refurbished. However, as Mr Bradley pointed out, there is a huge amount of fear in our area about the future of Daisy Hill, particularly after the decision made on the local stroke unit, so much so that people took to the streets. The huge turnout showed the depth of feeling that there is about our hospital. We hope that the assurances that we received at the meeting around the paediatric centre of excellence, which is expected to be completed by August 2017, indicates the hospital's future viability.

The emergency department is the heart of any hospital, so it is vital that the service in Daisy Hill is protected, particularly for the people of south Armagh, many of whom are outside the recommended ambulance response time. For example, if someone in Cullaville, an area that I represent and the most southern point in the North, takes seriously ill, without a fully functioning and accessible emergency department in Newry they are told that their next closest option is Craigavon. However, even that is not necessarily true, given the state of local roads. The state of the road to Craigavon is not the best for getting there in an emergency, so, realistically, the next port of call is the Royal, which is over an hour away. That would be a disgraceful situation, given that those situations can often be a matter of life or death.

I feel very strongly that the people of south Armagh deserve better than they have been getting from this Health Department, which, in my opinion, is very little. There is an unfolding GP crisis from Crossmaglen to Meigh, totally inadequate ambulance service cover in south Armagh and an inability of the Department to deliver a day-care centre in Crossmaglen, all wrapped up with what appears to be a complete lack of interest by the Health Department. It cannot be overstated how crucial a part Daisy Hill plays in all of this. It must be protected, because the reality is that, if it is not, people will suffer.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: I thank Mr Bradley for bringing the issue forward for debate this afternoon. I speak on behalf of my party colleague Mr Danny Kennedy, who is attending a funeral and sends his apologies.

Danny has asked me to emphasise the value that the hospital has across the community and across Newry and Armagh. It is very highly thought of not only for the treatment that it provides but for the skills of the staff who work in it. Even in the most difficult circumstances, the staff are managing to keep the hospital working very efficiently. Indeed, I note in the publication of the latest A&E figures for waiting times that 89% of people presenting to Daisy Hill are seen within the four-hour standard. That compares very favourably with the performance of my hospital in Antrim, which saw a further deterioration to 61%. That is a credit to the doctors, nurses and entire staff at Daisy Hill. I am very aware that we are not comparing like with like, and I am sure that the staff in Daisy Hill will have every sympathy for their colleagues working under intense pressure in Antrim.

Whilst Daisy Hill may not face the same pressures as some other hospitals, by no means can it afford to rest on its laurels. In fact, I am aware that there has been significant change in health service provision in the wider south Down area. The downscaling of services in the Downe Hospital will have a knock-on effect and impact on those offered by Daisy Hill. Whilst I appreciate that the minor injuries unit in the Downe will mitigate the worst of the reductions, it is only open part time. After 8.00 pm during the week and after 5.00 pm at the weekends, there is no emergency or minor service in that hospital, so Daisy Hill plays the only important role.

The future of Daisy Hill is now under some threat. Whether the previous Minister would like to admit it or not, the Donaldson report, as well as TYC, quite clearly shone the spotlight on our smaller hospitals. Whilst my party is not stubbornly opposed to any change, we would be opposed to change just for the sake of it. Every decision needs to be taken for sound medical reasons, and, right now, Daisy Hill appears to be offering and efficiently delivering safe and effective care. We see no reason to change that. What the patients and staff of the hospital need is some certainty about their future. If a cloud begins to hang over the hospital, very quickly it will find it difficult to recruit staff in the numbers that it needs, and, ultimately, more money will have to be spent on locums, and that will become unsustainable.

Unfortunately, however, the Minister's absence today is a great disservice to the good people of Newry and Armagh, and the sideshow that we are witnessing and the in-out effect of having no Minister at times or having a Minister for only a few hours will do nothing to protect the hospital or offer it the support that it needs.

Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. You caught me on the hop there.

Before I start, I apologise. I missed being present at a question to the Agriculture Minister last week. I was in Stormont House at the talks, trying, obviously, to secure the future of this institution, but nonetheless I neglected my duties in the Assembly Chamber, and I apologise for that.

I thank the Member for bringing forward the debate. As he and others have said, it is an extremely important debate for our constituency and probably for a large part of the South Down constituency as well. This is probably the primary public-service discussion, debate or concern that applies right across the region. Daisy Hill Hospital is such a vital part of our public-sector infrastructure. It provides a vital service to a largely rural, dispersed community that is not well served by either public transport or roads. I say that as a former Regional Development Minister. The history of the area has been one of poor infrastructure that it will take some time to improve.

As Mr Bradley said, the Southern Trust area is served by two hospitals. This issue is not about trying to play one hospital off against the other, although, as you meet the people who work in Daisy Hill and those who use the service, you find that they quite often feel the poor relation to the needs of the Craigavon Area Hospital. One of the telling features in recent times is that the Southern Trust management produced a 50-page document outlining its plans for the next three years and in it they stated that they would build a new hospital at the Craigavon site, but there was no mention of the impact that such a development would have on the existing hospital and services provided at Daisy Hill. Others have outlined the most recent service to migrate from Daisy Hill to Craigavon: an essential part of the stroke service — not the entirety of it, but a key part of it. So there is a justifiable concern among the staff, patients and families and people who use Daisy Hill. Like Mr Bradley and others, we have all had very direct experience of availing ourselves of the services of Daisy Hill Hospital, and very much appreciate both the quality of the service and the proximity to our community of where that service is provided.

I acknowledge the efforts of the trust. We have met its representatives, as others have done. Megan Fearon repeated that we met the trust to discuss the problems that it faces in the retention and recruitment of staff in the emergency department. I acknowledge the efforts that the trust has made to try to meet those problems. The trust sent us a very belated briefing note this afternoon to tell us that it is still struggling with recruitment and retention of suitably qualified doctors and will continue to exhaust every recruitment option in relation to it. It has now implemented a management plan to allow the emergency department to remain open overnight.

The trust goes on to say, worryingly, that it is still extremely vulnerable to further loss of any medical staff. In sustaining the service in the medium to long term, that remains a significant challenge for it. Ironically, it goes on in its briefing document to encourage us to avoid media speculation over the future of the emergency department, which could hinder its ability to attract medical staff to help the situation. I have to say that, whether intentional or not, the approach of the trust over a long number of years — I do not apply this to its current leadership — has been to reduce confidence in the longevity of the services at Daisy Hill Hospital. That, in some way, contributes to its ability to attract and retain significant senior staff there. The trust has said — others have mentioned this — that it has struggled to attract suitably qualified staff to cover the night-time service at Daisy Hill Hospital. However, I have been told that four staff posts have been advertised and, although suitably qualified doctors have applied for them, there have not been any interviews as yet. That is something that the trust needs to apply itself to very quickly.

Another suggestion that was put to me is that other medical staff in the employment of the trust are employed on a trust basis, not on a hospital-site-specific basis. The trust is able thereby to rotate their services between the hospitals and provide cover in both, yet it seems that, for cover in the emergency department, staff are being sought on the basis of a specific hospital site. I think that the trust should look at the idea of having consultants who can rotate between both hospital sites to ensure an appropriate level of cover. The case for that level of cover to service our community has been very well made by other Members who have spoken. I endorse what they have said and encourage the trust to continue to do its utmost to provide that service and to create some level of certainty in relation to the services at Daisy Hill and, in doing so, provide a level of certainty for Daisy Hill Hospital as a whole. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.


3.45 pm

Mr Rogers: At the outset, I would like to thank all Members and staff who supported today's Macmillan coffee morning in honour of our good friend Stephen McKiernan.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion and want to start by paying tribute to the front-line healthcare professionals who do a fantastic job working under extreme pressure. It is a common occurrence for a nurse who finishes a shift at 8.00 pm still to be caring for his or her patients an hour later. Like the Member who spoke previously, I acknowledge the efforts of the trust to maintain the A&E at Daisy Hill as a 24-hour service.

The most worrying aspect today is that we do not have a Health Minister in charge. Who is running the health service? We hear grand references to equality in access to services in rural areas, but all we see is centralisation. I will talk more from a South Down perspective. Mourne has lost its hospital and its minor injuries unit, the out-of-hours service operates occasionally and attempts are being made to close the Slieve Roe residential home. We in Mourne depend more than ever on Daisy Hill. The reduction in many critical services, such as A&E at the Downe Hospital and the planned removal of stroke services from Daisy Hill, serve as indicators of the direction of travel that the health service is taking.

Patients who are unable to secure appointments via GP surgeries are presenting at already overstretched accident and emergency departments. Cost savings in one department are leading to chaos in others. Patients who rely on services at Daisy Hill and Downe are being denied access to vital care. South Down constituents are now possibly the most disadvantaged citizens in the North.

What is the clinical basis for the removal of the stroke unit from Daisy Hill? We all know the reasons why it needs to be retained — to provide quicker access for people living in the hospital catchment area to life-saving treatment. Yes, it is life-saving because, if you have a stroke and live in Mourne, in places such as Attical or Ballyvea, you will do very well to get an ambulance and get to Daisy Hill in 90 minutes, never mind the golden hour. I do not want to detract in any way from the level of service at Craigavon, but, without an air ambulance, the journey there from the Mournes is too long. Frequently in the winter, we have only a coastal road to get to hospital.

The towns and rural communities of South Down are being marginalised and let down by the gradual erosion of services, first at the Downe and now at Daisy Hill. I have yet to hear a valid reason why stroke services in the form of a specialised stroke unit at Daisy Hill cannot be maintained. I understand that ongoing consultation with the Dublin Government could result in patients from Louth and Monaghan accessing services at Daisy Hill. Daisy Hill has a fine reputation as a stroke centre. Let us build on it to serve all the people.

During the summer, speculation was rife that accident and emergency provision at Daisy Hill was facing a reduction in services due to staff shortages. At a recent meeting, the acting chief executive of the trust outlined the difficulties in attracting middle-grade doctors and consultants to accident and emergency. As the trusts have reduced services at the Downe and Armagh minor injuries, that has put even more pressure on Daisy Hill, which, in turn, puts more pressure on Craigavon and, in turn, the Belfast hospitals.

In a recent consultation, Improving through Care, the SDLP voiced its concern. We recognised that it is critical for local people to have confidence in the health service and that healthcare is best delivered at a local level, where the facilities exist. I will give one example of a constituent, an elderly lady who is in a nursing home in Newcastle. If she takes ill during the night, she is moved to Daisy Hill. That has happened on a number of occasions, and she has received first-class care. However, if she takes ill during the day, she is taken to Downpatrick. Recently, her family were contacted and told that she had been taken to Downpatrick, only to discover that she was lying on a trolley there for three or four hours, waiting for a bed to be made available in Downe. That woman will be 84 in a few months' time. How would you like your mother or grandmother to be treated like that? Where is the patient care? Where is Transforming Your Care? Such inhuman treatment is happening in our health service, and it is disgraceful.

The SDLP recognises that, while financial responsibility is a major constraint in determining future strategy, it cannot be the sole focus. If services at Daisy Hill were made more readily available, North and South, it would contribute to making the hospital even more sustainable in the long term. The trust must realise that a health service must operate on the basis of a community's best interest, not strictly on the basis of the financial bottom line.

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for bringing this very important topic to the Chamber today. Like everyone else who has spoken, I want to put on record that it is regrettable that the Health Minister and, indeed, the former Health Minister, the Member for South Down Jim Wells, are not here. This is a very important issue for our constituents.

I also wish to pay tribute to the staff at the Daisy Hill and Downe hospitals. They do a great service for our community and have done for a long time. Often, when public reps become frustrated at the situation, we are often portrayed as attacking the entire institution of a hospital, including the staff and front-line staff. That is of course a long way from the truth. We would be lost without them.

Mr Rogers touched on the fact that we cannot separate the future of the Downe and Daisy Hill hospitals; they are two very proud hospitals that have served the people of south Down well for many years. Their futures are very much intertwined. The Ulster Hospital is sucking so much out of the Downe Hospital, and I think that there is a similar situation with Craigavon. If we see the loss of the coronary care and emergency department from the Downe — read strokes unit — and the fear of the emergency department moving from Daisy Hill to Craigavon. There is a 'Big Brother' effect that is sucking the life and hope out of so many people who rely upon these services.
Other Members have alluded to the rural aspect of a constituency such as South Down. Ms Fearon mentioned the failings in ambulance cover in what is a very rural area, and Mr Rogers talked about an elderly constituent who was affected. We see that time and time again. In recent months, we have seen tens of thousands of people on the streets of Downpatrick and Newry. I do not think that any of these people are immune to change.

We know that our health system is changing and we know that there is a need for change. How we deliver services in a first-class manner needs to change, but what we are seeing all too often is a complete lack of engagement from the higher echelons of the Department of Health. We need to see a Minister take control of the situation. We need to see the Department of Health carefully lay out a plan and engage with people. There was a totally regrettable situation with the Downe Hospital where news of its closure was leaked the night before Christmas Eve. Understandably, panic set in. That should not be how things are done.

Where do we go from here? I have spoken to recruitment agencies that deal with medical practitioners who say that it is very possible to follow what they have done in the South and bring in medical doctors from eastern Europe who are more than capable. They have come into the Midland Hospital in Roscommon and are doing a great job. This is where perhaps it would have been good to have Jim Wells in the Chamber, who showed some reluctance to look at this the last time, because I think that this is an avenue that we need to look at. If there are people in the EU or further afield who can come and do a good job, we need to search them out.

How we approach this matter is a big test for the Minister, and, so far, he is failing. If we had to close schools because there were no teachers to teach our kids, there would be pandemonium and we would not tolerate it. We should not tolerate instances in which we have had to close medical departments because we cannot get the doctors. This is a big test for the Minister, and, so far, we have not seen enough.

Finally, we have seen the success that Altnagelvin has had through its cross-border solution for cancer care. There are no good reasons why the likes of Daisy Hill cannot become a champion hospital for those in the border areas. We looked at working alongside Drogheda with the Downe, but it is clear that the people of South Down, and Newry and Armagh, will not be best served by concentrating all our services in Craigavon or the Ulster Hospital in Belfast. It does not serve our people well. We need to see a focus now from the Minister and the Department to reinstate a bit of confidence in these services.

Mr Speaker: Thank you, Members. That was an important topic.

Adjourned at 3.54 pm.

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