Official Report: Tuesday 03 November 2015
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Dickson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware that, in recent days, there have been media reports about the DUP Tippexing a standard petition of concern form to you on various matters. This follows a similar accusation with regard to Sinn Féin earlier this year. There is a clear inference that individual Members are not using their personal discretion when it comes to completing such forms. May I ask you to investigate the efficacy of doing that and whether it meets the appropriate Standing Orders?
Mr Speaker: In fact, I was aware of that situation. Standing Orders and procedure are very clear. In the Speaker's office, we have to be satisfied that the signatures are genuine and that the petition of concern specifies the issue. That is as far as I am able to take this matter forward. Tippex on a sheet does not indicate anything that I can do anything about, so long as the signature that is visible is the genuine signature of a Member.
Lord Morrow: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, you say that you have looked at these signatures. Have you found any discrepancies or any reason for you not to accept them as anything but genuine and authentic signatures on the petitions concerned?
Mr Speaker: I understand why you have asked the question but, clearly, if I announced that it was a valid petition of concern, I was entirely satisfied.
Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the access to justice review, part II.
Members will recall that, in 2011, I published the first access to justice review, which led to a comprehensive programme of work, with three strategic objectives for reform: improving access to justice; bringing legal aid within budget; and improving governance.
Much has been achieved in these areas in the intervening period. Reforms have been introduced that have helped to manage the cost of legal aid, including new fee arrangements in criminal courts and more appropriate levels of representation in the civil and criminal courts. Legal aid spend remains stubbornly high, but, without these changes, the costs would have been even higher.
Pilot projects have been run with the third sector, helping to shape how partnerships might operate to meet specific needs in the future. The Legal Services Agency has been created, complete with new appeal arrangements; and responsibility for exceptional grant funding has passed to the director of legal aid casework, removing the Justice Minister from any involvement in individual decisions.
More recently, attention has turned to the potential for reducing the scope of civil legal aid in areas where alternative provision is available or where public funding should be prioritised to the areas of most need. The introduction of standard fees for family cases is also at an advanced stage.
A pilot project to minimise unnecessary delay in care proceedings is now getting under way and should commence in January in Newtownards and Londonderry courts. Separately, under the banner of "speeding up justice", an innovative approach has been piloted in the Ards Crown Court division to progress indictable cases more swiftly. Early engagement between defence and prosecution practitioners, as well as the police and the prosecution service, has delivered real improvement. Of the cases concluded to date, the average number of days from incident report to sentencing was 97, compared to 175 in the same period last year.
However, access to justice is a complex issue and more needs to be done to maintain momentum. Over time, the wider environment has changed, and that is why I commissioned this follow-up review. The overall purpose of the review was threefold: first, to identify and prioritise services where publicly funded advice and/or representation should be provided to meet human rights obligations, safeguard the interests of vulnerable people and meet the wider public interest; secondly, to consider the delivery models that might be best suited to the provision of publicly funded legal services through mechanisms other than legal aid; and, thirdly, to consider whether there are aspects of the justice system where efficiencies might contribute towards reducing the cost of publicly funded legal services while sustaining the quality of service provision.
I have now received a very comprehensive and detailed report. Today, I am pleased to publish that report and begin a period of public consultation on its findings and recommendations. I am very grateful to Jim Daniell and Colin Stutt for their time, effort and research over many months, and for their commitment to delivering a thought-provoking report. I also thank those who made contributions and offered views to the review. It is important now that all those who wish to comment let us have their views on the recommendations.
As I have said before in the House, fair and effective means of securing access to justice are essential elements of any civilised society. We currently have a comprehensive legal aid scheme — the report refers to it as world class — and we need to get the balance right to ensure that it is sustainable and that people who are most vulnerable are able to access the support that they need. There is a need to balance difficult decisions over the allocation of resources with new or more efficient and effective ways of delivering access and ensure that those who have the necessary means contribute to, or meet, their own legal costs.
The report provides a comprehensive analysis and makes some 150 wide-ranging recommendations. It starts by acknowledging that access to justice is a fundamental human right and that legal aid is an indispensable part of the system. I completely agree. It identifies the legally irreducible minimum for a legal aid scheme, but goes on to argue why it would be inappropriate to reduce legal aid in Northern Ireland to that level. It suggests a range of priorities for access to justice, but argues that those are not the same as priorities for legal aid. Against that backdrop, the report recognises the pressures caused by the demand for legal aid and the consequential need to identify measures to control expenditure, while minimising the impact on access to justice. It also recognises the potential for steps to be taken to improve the way in which justice is delivered. Some of the proposals could result in fundamental change and deliver improved efficiency and effectiveness.
I will consider very carefully the comments made by those who respond to this consultation. However, we cannot afford to let the period of consultation hold up the reforms that are already in progress. I will continue to take forward the development of a new standard fee approach for civil legal services, where the development of arrangements for family cases is at an advanced stage. In the longer term, I will wish to reflect on the views that might be expressed in the consultation on the proposal for a wider remuneration strategy.
I have already announced that I will remove most money damages cases from scope. I plan to progress this, but, in doing so, will consult separately on the alternative funding arrangements recommended in the report. They have the potential to maintain, if not enhance, access to justice.
The report recommends some modest changes to the scope of legal aid. I have already consulted on some of these areas, and I will reflect on the specific comments in the report as I take this work forward. However, in one key area, it suggests that private family law should largely remain within scope, unlike the situation in England and Wales. I welcome this recommendation.
The report addresses issues such as eligibility for legal aid support; the opportunities to reduce or recoup costs through, for example, increased contributions; and changes in the statutory charge that will increase its effectiveness. I will consider each of these areas. However, as the recommendations in these areas concern ensuring that those who can afford to contribute to the cost of legal representation do so, they must be right in principle.
The report makes a number of recommendations on the structure and operation of the court system. It suggests a move towards a more inquisitorial system, and I will reflect on the responses to the consultation and consult the Lord Chief Justice on these suggestions.
The report also suggests ways of improving family justice procedures and practice, and this will feed into the work that the Lord Chief Justice has recently commissioned Lord Justice Gillen to take forward in respect of the civil and family courts.
Similarly, I will wish to discuss with the Lord Chief Justice the proposal for a working group to deliver efficiency measures in the criminal courts. The pilot project in the Crown Court, which I mentioned earlier, is clear evidence that positive change can be delivered in this area.
The report recommends that legal aid funding be retained for judicial review proceedings, and I welcome this. It is important that the actions of government bodies are properly held to account. However, I also welcome the recommendations for tightening up access to this intervention to ensure that it is accessed when appropriate, as well as the measures proposed to resolve disputes through alternative approaches.
The report makes a number of recommendations that impact the responsibilities of other Departments. There are, for example, recommendations in respect of public family law and mediation where DHSSPS has a role to play. In divorce and issues relating to the legal profession, the Department of Finance and Personnel has a role to play. I will wish to engage with the respective Ministers in addressing these issues.
This is a very comprehensive report, and I cannot do it justice in a brief statement. It is thought-provoking and, in parts, challenging. However, it has the potential to inform an agenda for change that will speed up the justice system, reduce costs and improve the experience of those who come into contact with the system. I encourage Members and the wider public to read it and engage with the consultation process.
Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): Access to justice is fundamental to any democratic society that values the rule of law, but there is little doubt that the current financial pressures mean that there are challenges to such access. It is therefore incumbent upon us to look at innovative approaches to protect access to justice while reducing cost. That is precisely why I initiated the seminars on innovation in the criminal justice system earlier this year.
To that end, I particularly welcome the modest acknowledgement in the report that online dispute resolution systems could offer a potential solution. This is an area that I have personally promoted and that the Committee is keen to explore further. Does the Minister agree that such systems have significant potential to speed up the system; support through their justice journey citizens who cannot access legal aid or afford legal representation; and have the added advantage of reducing cost to the public purse? Will he give a commitment to take forward work in this area, including any recommendations prioritised by the Committee?
I also ask the Minister whether he intends to prioritise any of the areas covered in the report, particularly in the 150 recommendations. Will he seek views on what areas should be given priority during the consultation process? I further ask the Minister to provide an assurance that the consultation exercise will not be used to slow down and frustrate justice reforms that are absolutely necessary, and to outline the areas to which he believes this statement in the report refers:
"Some aspects of the justice system of Northern Ireland have been remarkably resistant to change."
Finally, will the Minister tell us what level of contact Colin Stutt had with the judiciary, the Law Society and the Bar Council prior to publishing the report?
Mr Ford: I will try to respond to all those points, although my writing is perhaps not as fast as Mr Ross's questioning. I welcome the point that he highlighted about the justice innovation seminars that the Committee ran. I frequently talk about cooperation between the Department and the Committee, and I certainly welcome the Committee's work through those seminars. Unfortunately, I did not get to the most recent one, which looked at developing online systems and digital justice in certain ways, although I have had extremely positive reports on the seminar from officials who were present, as, indeed, I have had from the official who accompanied the Chair and the Deputy Chair to the Netherlands to look at its work earlier this year. I have no doubt that, as systems develop in different parts of the world, we can learn lessons in this area. If a system from the Netherlands is adaptable in parts of Canada, we may need to look at whether it is adaptable in Northern Ireland as well.
Mr Ross referred to prioritisation. When Members read the report, they will recognise that, of the 150 recommendations, some are overarching and strategic and others are relatively low-key and operational, not all of which fall to the DOJ. It is not possible for me to give a specific commitment as to how, for example, recommendations to the judiciary will be carried forward. As I said, I will discuss them with the Lord Chief Justice in the hope that the good work that he and Lord Justice Gillen have done in this area will inform the work of their colleagues to ensure that we continue to join up the system as far as we can.
I agree entirely with the Member that it is important that we get the consultation right and that it does not slow down the work that is under way. I give a commitment that my officials will continue to work through that.
It is not for me to comment on who Colin Stutt believes may have been resistant to change in the past. All I can say is that, over the past five and a half years, there has been a lot of change. Things have speeded up significantly. It has been a partnership that has involved the Department, including the Minister, the Committee and a number of other stakeholders, but, as we look at things, it is clear that we do not have unanimity across the justice system. I continue to hope that my officials, by engaging constructively with all our partners, will see that work enhanced. However, the reality is quite clearly spelled out in the report: we must make progress and see things moving forward, and we need to ensure that that is the case. My understanding is that, for Jim Daniell and Colin Stutt, that engagement started with a wide range of stakeholders. As the report was being done, there was an opportunity for people to comment at various stages. That will show that we are moving forward, but I now want to see the public response to the consultation.
Mr Speaker: As we move on, I make it clear that the Chairperson of the Committee gets a certain amount of leeway that is not available to other Members.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas agus cuirim fáilte roimh an athbhreithniú seo. I welcome the fact that the Minister made this statement and that the report is now in place. I also welcome the Minister's very strident comment that he sees access to justice as a fundamental human right.
There is a notion in the report about resistance to change. Does the Minister envisage that the recommendations will turn into an implementation plan that we can all see and track to ensure that any resistance can be easily identified?
Mr Ford: As usual, it is a pleasure to welcome a comment from the Committee's Deputy Chair as well as from the Chair. I thank him for his welcome for the outline of the statement.
The report is out for consultation, but work is well under way on developing an implementation plan on the basis that we can move on some issues relatively speedily. I will see that that work is advanced as fast as possible. The consultation period will be slightly longer than usual because it will include the Christmas holidays. The intention is that the Department will report back to the Committee with full details after the consultation period is over and well in advance of the election in order to set the tone, frankly, for the next Assembly mandate should legislation be required and to put administrative change in place as fast as possible.
Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister for his report. My colleague Alban Maginness is unavailable. Will you give us an assessment of the impact that you suspect the cutbacks might have on the advice sector?
Mr Ford: I thank Ms Hanna for being an able deputy for Alban Maginness. At least we did not get the barrister's view at that point. The key issue is to ensure that we make the best use of available resources, including the voluntary advice sector. That is part of looking at alternative ways of resolving issues. I do not think that we need to look with great fear at what the potential will be there. There are certainly recommendations to reduce levels of higher representation — as, indeed, have some of the changes that have been made — for example in family cases, but we will still see the benefits of the lower-level work that is done by solicitors or advice centres, without necessarily having the same number of QCs on every case.
The important issue, as I said earlier, is to ensure that there is access to justice and that individuals benefit from early access, but that we do not necessarily fund adversarial court cases if they are not what really produce justice for the individuals.
Mr Somerville: I welcome the statement that the Minister has brought forward. Can he provide an update on the pilot project to speed up the family court system, including when he expects the initial findings to be known?
Mr Ford: I cannot give the full detail of that at this stage. There are a number of issues that relate to the way in which the family justice system operates and there are other Departments that are involved in that, but, certainly, as we look at the details of it, I am quite happy to say that I will write to Mr Somerville as soon as possible to give him the details he has asked for.
Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. It is clearly part of your reforming Minister profile. Concern has been expressed about change to date and the potential changes in the future with regard to the number of people who may feel that they have to represent themselves in court — those known as litigants in person. Is there any evidence of that happening? How is the justice system going to cope with that, should it be a problem?
Mr Ford: I am happy to confirm that the last statistics I saw showed a reduction of something like 25% or 30% in the number of litigants in person appearing in court over the last four or five years, so they do not suggest that there has been any increase in litigants in person as a result of the changes that have been made in legal aid, a point that has been made at times but does not seem to have any substance at this stage.
I noted that there was a reference, although I do not think I could turn it up amongst the 270 pages at this point, to greater capacity for the use of the so-called McKenzie friends, who would assist individuals in court. I think that, if we are looking at fewer litigants in person and a greater ability for McKenzie friends to assist, we need have no fears.
Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for his statement to the House this morning. I note the comments by Colin Stutt at page 71 of the report:
"the remarkable thing about the cost of legal aid in Northern Ireland is not that it exceeds its budget, but that it has remained stubbornly high throughout the current period of austerity, almost as if it was protected to the same extent as health."
Does the Minister accept that there has been a failure to properly set realistic legal aid budgets and ensure that spend is as close to the budget as possible? What does the Minister intend to do to rectify the situation prior to the setting of the 2016-17 budget?
Mr Ford: It is quite clear, as Mr Douglas said, that the cost of legal aid has remained stubbornly high and has not significantly changed over the five years since devolution. I could say that what would have happened if we had not implemented some of the reforms, particularly some of the criminal reforms that we went through at an early stage, is that we would be looking at a further £20 million or more on legal aid costs at present. Of course, it can go up and down. As part of an initiative to reduce waiting lists, particularly in the Belfast area, the Lord Chief Justice assigned an additional Crown Court judge to Laganside Court a couple of years ago, with the result that the criminal backlog decreased very significantly and the cost of legal defence went up significantly because those cases were dealt with.
Those are the kind of things that happen. It is the law of unintended consequences. When we did something good to benefit victims and, indeed, defendants, by getting cases heard more quickly, there was a rush to put those legal aid payments through.
The reality is that we had the budget that we had when justice was devolved, and we have sought to work within that budget given all the other pressures across the justice system. I know that my officials, whom I will be having discussions with later today, are looking at the budgeting process for next year and at the balance between different aspects of the justice system. The figures that applied on the basis of the budget and the application of cuts by the Executive are inadequate to meet current legal aid costs, but legal aid cannot be protected for ever when other aspects of the justice system are seeing their budgets going down.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his statement. Can he elaborate on the research carried out to determine best international practice in the provision of legal aid in other comparable jurisdictions?
Mr Ford: I cannot give Ms McGahan the sort of blow-by-blow account of all the research that was done by Jim Daniell and Colin Stutt, but I know that they took every opportunity to look at other jurisdictions and see how matters were applied to legal aid there. The point is that it was not simply a matter of looking at legal aid; it was a matter of looking at access to justice and the best ways of ensuring access to justice for citizens, not just the best ways of managing legal aid.
Mr Frew: The report deals with a wide spectrum of access to justice. Is it not short-sighted and, indeed, short-termism to go through with the proposed potential courthouse closures, given the fact that our justice system has not been modernised and reformed to the extent that people will be able to benefit from technology and other means of quicker access to justice?
Mr Ford: I am slightly baffled by Mr Frew's question on two grounds. The first is that courthouse closures have absolutely nothing to do with the access to justice report, and the other is that the points that he highlighted about different ways of doing justice, particularly as we look at the smaller number of cases coming into courts, would reinforce the point that we do not need as many courthouses as we have currently.
I hope to report to the Assembly on the proposals for the court estate within a few weeks. When Members look at the number of cases going through the courts compared to the numbers that went through five or 10 years ago, they will recognise that there is a very serious issue, which is that we cannot fund justice for our citizens if we are keeping roofs on buildings that are not needed.
Lord Morrow: In the Minister's statement, he welcomed the retention of legal aid for judicial reviews and further welcomed the recommendations for tightening up access to that intervention when legal aid is expended. Apart from the options suggested for resolving disputes through alternative approaches, will he advise whether the process of tightening up includes intended judicial reviews being more rigorously assessed at leave stage to ensure that the grounds, evidence and potential of a successful outcome are fully scrutinised in order to merit the spending of legal aid?
Mr Ford: The simple answer to Lord Morrow is that this is an issue on which I will be looking for responses in the consultation, but I can certainly sympathise with his general point.
As the recipient of a very significant number of judicial review applications, either personally or slightly at second hand, which, in many cases, revolve around the Prison Service, it seems to me that, at times, there are real questions as to whether matters should not be better assessed elsewhere and that leave might not be granted for a judicial review until all available means have been covered. I can think of one or two particular cases, which I will not go into the details of. It took considerable staff time and ministerial time to seek to resolve those cases when they might have been resolved just as easily in a slightly different and more informal way. There is an issue about getting the balance right with judicial reviews to ensure that decisions can be covered, but also to ensure that all appropriate means are exhausted first.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for his statement. Is it fair to say that the review report effectively endorses his strategy of introducing standard fee arrangements, which ensure that legal representatives receive payments that are appropriate for the amount of work done? Does the Minister intend to stick to that strategy in civil cases?
Mr Ford: I thank Mr McCarthy for the question. I believe that significant benefits have come through the introduction of much greater dependence on standard fees in criminal cases in the past. Members may recall my complaining in the past about the assessment of too many criminal cases as very-high-cost cases. That was one of the key reforms in Crown Courts that reduced expenditure and brought them down to a more manageable level on that side.
The report refers to standard fees being applicable on the civil side as well, and I believe that to be a much better way for individuals to know what they will be paid; for the Legal Services Agency to know what it will be paying out; and to ensure, as far as possible and allowing for the fact that there will always be exceptionality, that we depend upon standard fees for simplification and assurance as to what expenditure will be.
Mr Allister: The report seems to refer to our present legal aid scheme as "world class" and:
"an indispensable part of our justice system".
It states that it would be wholly inappropriate to reduce it to a minimum. That is not language that we are used to hearing from the Minister. However, he asked the reviewer to consider models to deliver publicly funded legal services through mechanisms other than legal aid. What mechanisms of that nature have been recommended? Is he still flirting with the idea of a public defender office?
Mr Ford: Had Mr Allister listened slightly more carefully, he would have heard that, whilst the report refers to us having a "world class" system of legal aid, I did not say that I believed it necessary to maintain the current system. I made the point that a decent legal aid system is a fundamental human right, but not everything within the current system will be. I also made the point that I welcome the fact that the report specifically says that we should not be going to the irreducible minimum. It is a fundamental human right that people should have a decent system. We need to look, as I highlighted and the report highlights, at a range of alternative dispute resolution.
I am not quite sure when I was "flirting" with a public defender system. The report makes it clear, and I accept the recommendation at present, that we should seek to maintain the current system for criminal defence. However, the reality is that adjacent jurisdictions have looked, at least in part, at a public defender system, and there are issues around management of costs that may well make that a necessary way in which this jurisdiction may have to look at some point in the future. If we can manage things under the current arrangements in a way that is affordable and sustainable, it is clearly the wish of many clients that they should have their full choice of a lawyer — and that is clearly the choice of those in legal practice, including Mr Allister himself in the past. We cannot guarantee that these things will continue in perpetuity, but there is a clear recommendation that there will be no change in that direction in the immediate future.
That the Children's Services Co-operation Bill [NIA 44/11/16] do now pass.
The Bill will place a statutory duty on children's authorities to cooperate with each other to better integrate the planning and delivery of children's services. The aim is to make the provision of services effective and efficient by ending the waste of silo working. The Bill will make good practice common practice, leading to better outcomes for children and young people.
It is four years since I had my first meeting with the Bill Office in relation to bringing forward this piece of work. It has been almost a year since I submitted the Bill to the Assembly at First Stage.
Undoubtedly, the Bill has evolved considerably since that original draft, and many changes have been made to the Bill since it was introduced at First Stage. That has been a result of consultation and, indeed, cooperative working with, among others, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the children's sector and my team. The one thing that has not changed is the key intention of the Bill. That has remained consistent throughout. I have been delighted by the fact that those who engaged cooperatively in bringing the Bill forward and in amending it have done so in a way that has built on those original aims and improved the Bill and its effectiveness. As I acknowledged at previous stages, there was a fear that Departments, which, at one stage, may have been resistant to the Bill, would seek to water it down and undermine it. I am delighted that that has not been the case. Again, I place on record my thanks to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in particular, for its work in relation to the Bill.
As far back as 2007, Eamon McTernan and Ann Godfrey published a paper on the need for an integrated children's system in Northern Ireland. My involvement with this policy proposal began when, as a researcher for Brian Wilson MLA, I represented him on the all-party group on children and young people. I am proud to say that, today, I am chair of that group. Back then, it was highlighted at a number of meetings that, whilst the 10-year strategy for children and young people was ambitious in its intent, there had been a poor record of delivery. Time and time again, reports were produced that said that a statutory duty to cooperate was required. That was included in reports by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child; Queen's University; the Children's Commissioner, in a report commissioned by the commissioner on barriers to effective working for children and young people; the Criminal Justice Inspection, in its 2012 report on early youth interventions; and the OFMDFM Committee, in its report during the 2007-2011 mandate. A number of solutions were tried to improve delivery. They included the introduction of children's champions within each of the Departments and the ministerial subgroup for children and young people. More recently, it has included Delivering Social Change. Each was assessed as falling short of the fundamental culture shift that was needed in the inter-working between the Departments.
The point at which the penny dropped for me as to why a statutory duty to cooperate was needed was when I was sitting on the all-party group for children and young people and we received a presentation from the Department of Education on the draft early years strategy. It was to be a fundamental strategy on provision for children aged nought to six. I asked what, at that time, I felt was a perfectly innocent question: what work is being done on the strategy with the Department of Health? I was told that it was a Department of Education strategy. When I realised that the Department of Education did not engage with children until they were three, at the very earliest, I realised that I was being presented with a strategy for children from nought to six, which started at age three. That was unacceptable; indeed, it was a draft strategy that was widely criticised and which never came to fruition because of its deeply flawed nature. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that such strategies are prepared between Departments, with cooperation and engagement, where relevant, by each and every Department.
That very much outlines the policy issues, but, of course, the key question for many people will be this: what difference will the legislation actually make? Through my work on the Bill, I came across a number of case studies. I wish to highlight two that were brought to me. The first is from the Children's Law Centre, which stated:
"we were asked to provide advice, assistance and representation for a child with excellent academic ability who has cerebral palsy and who attends a mainstream school. She uses a wheelchair and is able to walk with assistance. She requires regular daily physiotherapy in order to maintain her mobility and to access the wider curriculum. Due to the lack of cooperation between health and education and the resource implications for the ELB of conceding that physiotherapy was an educational need ... as well as a failure by the HSCT to provide for the child, this child was denied physiotherapy in a mainstream school, which she would have been able to access in a special school. She was expected to remain seated for 8 hours per day. This caused great distress and discomfort with the result that the child became acutely aware of her disability and her grades dropped considerably. The dispute carried on for over two years. The CLC commissioned a private physiotherapy report as part of ongoing legal proceedings in which we provided legal representation. Ultimately, after several hearings and lengthy negotiation, the matter was settled and arrangements made for therapy input. The child is doing very well at school, achieving excellent grades and engaging with all aspects of the curriculum. The unwillingness/inability of the health trusts to recommend and provide direct therapeutic support (in mainstream schools and increasingly also in special schools) and the concomitant reluctance of the ELBs to specify therapies as educational needs on the statement or to make provision at the school-based stages requires to be addressed. In our view, from a children's rights perspective there is no valid argument that can be made against a statutory duty to cooperate between health and education."
In that example, we can see how something that may appear simple, such as physiotherapy for a child at school, can get bogged down in wrangling between two Departments in an effort, it would appear, to avoid having to provide the resources. Indeed, one of the key elements, which I will speak more about later, is the ability of Departments to pool budgets. In such a case, a single pool could be drawn down from, either from the Department of Health or the Department of Education, whichever is in the position to provide the service. That would avoid the wrangling that comes with Departments seeking to avoid costs when clearly they have a duty of care to a child or young person.
The next example comes from my constituency and is from a family in Bangor. It was highlighted in the media at the time, locally and regionally. The child, named Josh, has type-1 diabetes and is currently in primary school. His mum, Helen, had been totally frustrated at the time that it took to have adequate resources put in place to support him. The education board did not have the resources to get a report collated for his statement in a timely manner. In the end, it took nine months to complete the statement. In the meantime, there was no one to administer insulin to Josh, a type-1 diabetic child. In the end, staff volunteered to undergo training until a classroom assistant could be recruited. Recruitment took six months, and the training took a further three months. Helen believes that the Children's Services Co-operation Bill would have helped, as it would have required that her child be at the centre, with decisions made in his best interests. She thinks that there needs to be something in place so that schools have a duty of care to the child, with cooperation between the education and health sectors required.
That caused significant distress to the family. Again, the processes between the Department of Health and the Department of Education were not as efficient as they could be. It was well known to the Health Department that the child had diabetes. The school was informed. The education board was made aware well in advance of him starting school, yet, when September came, the provision was not in place, and much anguish and stress was caused to that family unnecessarily.
So, what does the Bill do to improve the systems that are in place when it comes to these cases? The key element of the Bill is a statutory duty to cooperate on all children's authorities to improve the well-being of children. The children's authorities include the Northern Ireland Departments, councils, the health and social care trusts, the Health and Social Care Board, the Public Health Agency, the Education Authority, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the PSNI and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland. It is, effectively, the Northern Ireland Departments and the membership of the children and young people's strategic partnership.
While a lot of work was being done to have the good practice of the children and young people's strategic partnership enshrined as a statutory agency, that was not able to be achieved as part of the Bill. The final amendment could not be agreed on, but I am pleased that the Department of Health is considering bringing forward, as part of its own legislative framework, proposals to do just that. While it may not be achieved by this Bill, I hope that the work that has gone into producing this Bill will see it achieved some time in the future. I know that the children's sector will be lobbying hard to make sure that that becomes a reality.
In the Bill, well-being has been defined by the six high-level outcomes that were in the 10-year strategy for children and young people and which had been agreed between government and the statutory sector. To provide clarity, the six outcomes became seven in the redrafting of the Bill and a further outcome was introduced in an amendment by Chris Lyttle to include equality of opportunity, and good relations. The other outcomes include physical and mental health; the enjoyment of play and leisure; learning and achievement; living in safety with stability; economic and environmental well-being; the making by them, ie the children, of a positive contribution to society; and living in a society which respects their rights.
In the spirit of the Bill, those outcomes were agreed cooperatively and have widespread support throughout the children's voluntary sector and, indeed, from the Children's Commissioner. One aspect of the Bill is that it allows amendments to be made to change those aspects of well-being. However, importantly, it also includes a requirement that consultation would be required before such changes could be made. That was important in order to give comfort to the sector that the aims and objectives that it works to will not be changed without its input.
The Bill also requires the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to produce a children's strategy. The aspect of consultation is key to that. Any such strategy should be outcomes-based, and children and parents must be consulted in its preparation. Again, it is important that we have enshrined in the Bill, in effect, article 12 of the UNCRC; the right of children to have a say in decisions that directly affect their lives. I pay tribute to OFMDFM because this is an additional clause to the original draft of the Bill and it came forward from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister at their suggestion. I welcome its inclusion in the Bill.
All along, I have been keen to highlight the importance in the Bill of the pooling of resources. If we are to make the delivery of children's services efficient, this is a necessary outworking. While the provision in the Bill is an enabling power to allow Departments to pool resources, I believe that a key check as to whether the Bill is implemented in the spirit in which it is intended is when Departments begin to pool resources where there are common objectives in relation to children.
I welcome the amendment from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who stated at Further Consideration Stage that it would ensure:
"The goal of a smarter, more streamlined and better targeted system". — [Official Report, Vol 108, No 5, p13, col 1].
The evidence is there that integrated working can improve the efficient running of government. I ask that, in producing the procedures, the Department of Finance and anybody else interested in gaining a better understanding of pooled budgets and the difference between pooled and aligned budgets look to the guidance from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which I have found very informative in helping my understanding of how this can and should work. I will give an example of where it has worked well in England: Brighton and Hove City Council made savings of a quarter of a million pounds in one year in its children's budget as a result of integrated working. The cost of foster care was reduced from £561 a week to £487 a week. This is not something that just sounds good in theory; in practice, when implemented, it produces results.
The Bill also requires reports on the operation of the Act: the first will be 18 months after the adoption of the children's strategy, and there will be further reports every three years thereafter. One of the questions consistently asked was this: if Departments do not cooperate, what will be the sanction? The reporting is a key aspect of holding Departments and Ministers to account, making them accountable to the Assembly and the wider public. There was debate about whether this should be an independent report, but the feedback was that self-assessment was an important part of ensuring the operation of the Bill. Indeed, the Children's Commissioner has the power to issue her own report if she feels that that is necessary. She has certainly indicated that it is likely that the commission will produce a report alongside that of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
A key requirement of the report is reporting not only on what has been done but on where greater cooperation could be achieved and what other opportunities have been identified to improve cooperation. Megan Fearon's amendment added further accountability by requiring the Executive to take account of the report in their preparation of the Programme for Government. I welcome the amendment, which adds an extra layer to the Bill through its impact on changing the workings of government in Northern Ireland.
In January, over 40 organisations involved with children attended the launch in support of the Bill. They included Children in Northern Ireland, the umbrella group for many NGOs in the children's sector, and many of its members were in attendance; the Children's Law Centre, which today provided an example of how it sees that the Bill could impact on and improve children's lives; and the Children's Commissioner. It was the commission's research, along with other research, that helped to inform the Bill and produce the evidence that a statutory duty to cooperate was needed. All along, from when I first joined the all-party group for children and young people, I very much felt that this Bill was the children's sector's Bill. It is a Bill for children, but it is a Bill whose genesis rests in the children's sector. Its work, lobbying and research are what drove me to introduce it. I feel privileged to present the Bill to the Assembly today on the sector's behalf. I thank every organisation that has contributed to the Bill, whether through my initial consultation or the consultation by the Committee for OFMDFM. I thank them for promoting the Bill and lobbying the Departments.
I highlighted that, for me, the genesis of the Bill was four years ago. Whilst it has been a long and challenging process, that time has allowed those who at the outset may have been resistant to the provisions of the Bill to come on board and to better understand how it can improve their working and the outcomes for children in Northern Ireland.
I again thank the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which has worked consistently to improve the Bill to make sure that it is as effective as possible. I am delighted that both junior Ministers are here today and that one of them will respond to the debate on behalf of the Department. I also thank the Department of Health and the Health and Social Care Board; a considerable amount of the Bill will have a direct impact on them. Again, they have worked constructively with me to get amendments to ensure that, from their point of view, the Bill is effective. I thank the Department of Finance and Personnel, particularly for its input on the pooling of budgets.
Furthermore, I thank the Committee for OFMDFM. I think that I presented to it on five occasions in total; indeed, before the legislation was produced in its original draft, it has engaged on the Bill from an early stage. The questions and scrutiny have been constructive and instructive. At all times, the Committee has challenged but also supported me through the process. The Bill is better for its input and, indeed, for the report that it produced and the evidence that it took as part of its sessions. I also thank the Assembly Bill Office. Going back four years, it was clear that this would be complex legislation, and I have received excellent guidance through the process. We have faced frustrations with drafting and, if it had not been for their continued support, the Bill would not have seen the light of day. Finally, I thank my former researcher Ross Brown, now an elected rep in his own right, for the considerable research that he did in pulling together the evidence to show that, where a statutory duty has been implemented elsewhere, it has achieved results.
The intention behind the Bill is to improve services in a number of areas, including special educational needs and children in care. A final "Thank you" goes to VOYPIC, which has been constructive in its input on and support for the Bill. I hope that the Bill will improve early years provision by making the delivery of services more timely and allowing for the early intervention that is so key in children's lives. I hope that it will help to build on the work of the Children's Commissioner in highlighting the parallel processes between health and education in the transition to adult services for children with various support needs and, indeed, the youth justice system, where, on release, support with housing and education is required with the Department of Justice. I hope that it will improve those interdepartmental workings.
The Bill is about making government work effectively for children. It is about making good practice common practice and ensuring that resources for children are spent on children. I commend the Children's Services Co-operation Bill to the House.
Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): I thank Mr Agnew for his opening remarks and welcome the Final Stage of the Children's Services Co-operation Bill. As I said at an earlier stage, with the OFMDFM Committee’s experience of bringing forward the Public Services Ombudsperson Bill, we all have some appreciation of the time and effort required to bring a Bill through the House.
Committee members heard support for the aims of the Children's Services Co-operation Bill from a range of stakeholders during its examination at Committee Stage. However, concerns were expressed at an early stage by officials from the Department that the Bill as introduced to the Assembly would not meet its own objectives. The Committee is aware that, throughout Committee Stage, significant work was undertaken by departmental officials, who engaged with the Bill's sponsor and stakeholders to consider how the Bill could be improved.
Unfortunately, a final set of amendments was not available by the time the Committee undertook its clause-by-clause scrutiny, although the Department had provided a revised draft of what the Bill could look like. While supportive of the principles, the Committee opposed the clauses of the Bill as drafted. Members were supportive of the direction of travel outlined by OFMDFM in relation to a number of issues, but that support was, of course, subject to sight of any final amendments. The Bill before us today at Final Stage has been amended significantly from that which was introduced on 8 December 2014, and, indeed, it reflects some of the changes that had been considered by the Committee in its engagement with departmental officials.
I commend Mr Agnew’s willingness to listen to others and to bring forward changes that should, ultimately, strengthen the legislation and deliver better services for our children and young people.
I will now make some remarks in a personal capacity, beginning by noting that the official papers that accompany the legislation remind us that the background and policy objectives go back 15 years to the tragic death in London of Victoria Climbié, a nine-year-old who was tortured and murdered by her guardians in 2000, and the shocking revelations at the time that many people had noted that she had signs of abuse. Local churches knew of her and knew of the signs of abuse; the health service knew of her and knew of signs of abuse; the police knew of her and knew of signs of abuse. Equally, the NSPCC and no fewer than four local authorities knew, and none acted. Victoria's case led to the public inquiry by Lord Laming, and, from that, the introduction at Westminster of the Children's Act 2004.
Here in Northern Ireland, I remember well one of the first cases that I dealt with as a journalist at Ulster Television. It was of a man who had been released from jail having served time for child sex abuse offences and yet had managed to get himself a job that included taking charge of a residential home in the Mournes where vulnerable young people went for respite care. It happened because the statutory agencies and the community and voluntary sector agencies that were aware of him at that time had no legal obligation to share information. Sharing and cooperation is at the heart of Mr Agnew's Bill, covering much more than child protection and, hopefully, tackling poverty. We are aware in the House of the high and increasing levels of child poverty and, indeed, of the recent case brought by the Committee on the Administration of Justice against OFMDFM for its failure to bring forward an anti-poverty strategy.
The intent of the Bill is consistent with my thinking and the Ulster Unionists' thinking on the best way for government to deliver positive outcomes, breaking away from the traditional delivery through vertical silos, where you have a Minister of Education, a Minister of housing and a Minister of health services operating in isolation, and remembering that it is not about education but about educational opportunities for people, social housing for people, health services for people, people who need us to cut through the vertical and start delivering horizontally through all the layers, Departments and silos of government to offer a holistic and individual package that meets their needs. That is why we are so pleased that the Stormont House Agreement recognised the advantages of, after the next election, setting aside time to discuss and, hopefully, agree a Programme for Government ahead of running d'Hondt, at which point the parties and the Ministers retreat into those vertical silos.
I believe that, if we create space for a fortnight's talks, we can make the space and time to agree a Programme for Government that will look horizontally at the issues. For example, if we consider that we want to tackle educational underachievement, we will agree that it is not just a matter for the Minister of Education. We know that healthier children will do better at school, and so there is a role for the Department of Health. We know that children need good housing, and so there is a role there for the Minister for Social Development. And so on and so forth. The Bill is consistent with our view of how you deliver the best positive outcomes from this devolved Government for the people of Northern Ireland, and I will be most interested therefore in seeing how Mr Agnew's Bill, in the sharing of resources and the pooling of funds, makes a positive difference for our young people as we go forward.
Mr Agnew made it clear in his remarks that the Bill is not perfect in his eyes. That is not actually the point. The point is that it is moving in the right direction. It is not just me, the Committee or the Department saying that; the practitioners and stakeholders believe that the Bill broadly pushes in the right direction for better results.
Towards the end of the last mandate, I heard an Executive Minister being pressed as to why they had not made a decision on a particular issue, and they defended their position by saying, "This is a very important issue and, therefore, we must take the time to make the right decision". I think that, in life, there is very often not a right decision. I think that, in life, there are very often a number of options, all of which may advance matters but all of which also have downsides that need to be managed. Therefore, it becomes a judgement call. I think that that is the case with the Bill, and my judgement call is that it moves matters in the right direction. It quite possibly has downsides that will need addressed. The Bill has reporting mechanisms, so we can look at continuous improvement. This is not an end but a beginning of a new process, and I very much believe and hope that it will deliver better outcomes through forcing, demanding and expecting cooperation from Departments and agencies for the benefit of our children and young people. On that basis, I support Mr Agnew's Bill.
Mr Moutray: I rise on behalf of the DUP to support the Final Stage of the Children's Services Co-operation Bill as introduced and brought to the House by Mr Steven Agnew and the subsequent changes at each stage throughout the process. At the outset, I commend the Member for his work, and I am happy to say that the DUP supports the policy intention behind the Bill.
We all want our children and young people to be involved in decision-making and want there to be a statutory duty on government and its Departments and agencies to cooperate in the planning, commissioning and delivery of children's services. There is a duty on Departments to cooperate with each other in the planning, commissioning and delivery of the children's services, and it will enhance the ability of pooled budgets, which ultimately allow for a resource-efficient way of delivering shared aims and outcomes.
I spoke on the Bill some time ago in the House and highlighted the Scottish model, Getting it Right for Every Child, which was aimed at promoting and coordinating across organisational and departmental boundaries to put children and young people at the heart of decision-making and give them the best start in life. I believe that, with the amendments and the reworking of the Bill since its initial form, we have been able to ensure that we, too, in Northern Ireland are able, like our Scottish counterparts, to connect sector providers with government so that people work collaboratively to deliver. Our aim, as a Government, should be to help children and young people reach their full potential. Some will travel through life with little or no issues; others will experience challenges; and, indeed, some will experience very complex issues. We must not be found wanting in our attempts to assist them come what may. I want every child and young person, as it says in the Bill, to be healthy; to enjoy learning and achieving; to be able to live in a society with stability; to experience economic and environmental well-being; to contribute positively to a community and society; and to live in a society that respects their rights. I support the Bill.
Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I start by congratulating Steven Agnew for all his hard work in bringing this important piece of legislation forward. It has been a long road and a lot of hard work by a lot of people, as he said. He mentioned that it was four years since the beginning of the Bill. It is a win for him and for the children's sector today. I regret that I was not able to be here for Further Consideration Stage. I thank my colleagues for moving my amendment about the Programme for Government. I am pleased that it was passed.
This is a good Bill. It will have a great impact on society and the lives of our families and children. I am sure that we all received a letter from CiNI outlining its support for the Bill and giving a real-life example of how this Bill could have helped a girl many years ago. That shows us the importance of putting the interests of our children first. I welcome the fact that the Bill will make existing good practice in cooperation normal practice — or common practice, as Steven Agnew put it. We achieve our best results when working together. In a political sense, yesterday's result shows that.
A lot more work has to be done on this Bill, because a few issues could not be resolved in time for each stage. I am more than happy to continue to work with Mr Agnew and whoever within the children's sector or the House to progress those issues and make this the best Bill possible in the future. I am looking forward to the report on the operation and results of the Bill in less that two years' time, and to see how we can learn from and improve on that. We have all been frustrated at one point by the silo mentality of government. I am hoping that this Bill will change mindsets in that regard. I would like to see the roll-out of this collaborative approach to other important areas of government such as job creation, economic growth and tackling poverty, as others mentioned.
I am happy to support the Bill and glad to have played a part. Again, I congratulate Steven. It is a good day for our families and children, and a well-deserved win for the children's sector. I also welcome the new junior Minister to the Chamber.
Mr Attwood: In his opening remarks, Mr Agnew referred to the fact that in 2007 there was a policy proposal in relation to that which is before the House today. It has taken eight years to get from there to here, which is far too long. However, in a society that clings to the past and resists change, it might not have been so long after all.
Like everybody else, I acknowledge Mr Agnew's particular and personal contribution to creating the space and working the ground in relation to what will be known as Agnew's children's Bill, which is about not just his children but all our children across Northern Ireland. As he also rightly pointed out, more importantly than that, it is the children's sector children's Bill. For the 40 organisations that gathered with him when he launched his consultation on the content of the Bill, it is a measure of their work that another good private Member's Bill will pass through the House today.
Mr Agnew asked what difference it will make. He said that there needed to be a culture shift, and that is what is going to be required. In order to bring about a culture shift — as we know in relation to other embedded issues in our society, both current and historical — you need good law, robust process, strong leadership, clear accountability and strong performance. If any of those pillars are missing in how this legislation is now taken forward, there will be gaps in measuring up to the needs of children and young people.
For that reason, in acknowledging the presence of the new junior Minister in the Chamber, I will also ask her a number of questions.
There will be two in particular. This Bill will receive Royal Assent, probably before Christmas, and will become a statutory duty of government into next year, the next mandate and beyond. So, I have two questions for her.
First, at Consideration Stage — when the Alliance Party tabled an amendment in relation to, I think, clause 2, which referred to equality and good relations — I, and I think maybe others were thinking it, expressed a little bit of caution. We now have a situation where the principles that govern practice cover a wide range of children's needs and welfare informed by international instruments. We also have a reference to good relations and equality. Given that this has been introduced and is the will of the Assembly, and given the nature of those concepts, can she confirm that she and OFMDFM are satisfied that there will not be any unnecessary tensions within those principles arising from the good sentiment that informed the Alliance Party amendment in respect of equality and good relations? These are very big concepts. At times, the balance between, or the hierarchy of, equality and good relations has been a matter of some discussion if not dispute. I would like to hear from the junior Minister how she anticipates the principles being worked through in a way whereby there are no inherent tensions. I think that that can be dealt with, but I would like to hear from the junior Minister in that regard.
I come to my second question. This will all be measured in practice. The paint is not yet dry on the content of the Bill. However, given that a body of officials have been working on this, thinking about this and working with Ministers in relation to all of it, can the junior Minister indicate if there is now some further thinking about how this will be mainstreamed into the life of OFMDFM and, thereafter, mainstreamed into the life of government? In that regard, given that there is ongoing work, as I understand it, in respect of the Programme for Government and that we are a short number of months from the next Assembly election, if it is not earlier, how does the junior Minister anticipate this Bill and the obligations placed on government being mainstreamed into the next Programme for Government? If the Bill is passed today and receives Royal Assent by Christmas, it will be tested in real time and very quickly, given that there is about to be a new mandate and there will be agreement in relation to the content of the Programme for Government.
In conclusion, I acknowledge the work of the Bill Office. If you look at the Assembly's programme of work for the next number of weeks, you will see that there is less and less private Member's business, if any, and more and more business of legislation. The responsibilities that fall to the Bill Office, especially at the end of a mandate, are very substantial. The fact that this has progressed from Mr Agnew's opening meeting in January to a Bill being passed in early November is a measure of the good authority of all those involved, not least the Bill Office.
Mr Lyttle: I welcome the opportunity to respond. The Alliance Party has had an Assembly manifesto commitment to support legislation that would introduce a statutory duty for all Departments to cooperate and collaborate. That is needed across a wide range of issues, but perhaps most notably in relation to children and young people's issues. It is for that reason that I am glad to welcome the Final Stage of the Children's Services Co-operation Bill and, like others, commend its proposer, Mr Agnew. It has been a pleasure to work closely with Mr Agnew on children and young people's issues, most particularly as members of the all-party group on children and young people. All-party groups sometimes get a hard time in the Assembly, but the all-party group on children and young people has shown itself to bring together elected representatives across parties, organisations and Departments on key issues affecting children and young people, and it is achieving outcomes as a result. I also acknowledge the work conducted by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and its officials in relation to enhancing the provisions of the Bill; the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, of which I am Deputy Chair; and the hard work of the officials at Committee Stage.
I acknowledge the contributions of all elected representatives who have contributed to making the Bill a strong mechanism to ensure more effective government delivery for children and young people across Northern Ireland. I also welcome the presence of the junior Ministers to respond to this stage of the Bill today. I congratulate Emma Pengelly on her appointment as junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I am glad that I have the opportunity of knowing Emma beyond the Assembly. I have a good working relationship with her. She has received scrutiny further to her appointment that, at times, has spilt over into unfair and inappropriate criticism, but no doubt she and I will continue to have robust exchange and scrutiny opportunities beyond today's debate.
There have been problems related to the coordination of the planning, commissioning and delivering of children's services. The Bill will make a significant contribution towards addressing those, and to the development and implementation of strong policy and legislation for children and young people. The centre for children's rights at Queen's University and the Children's Commissioner conducted work to investigate barriers to effective government delivery for children. They identified the need for stronger working together and joined-up government in relation to those issues.
There are significant ongoing inequalities and challenges to address for our children and young people in terms of child poverty, health and educational achievement in order to ensure that they have the opportunity to live in a safe and shared society. It is my hope that the Bill will make a significant contribution to meeting those challenges. The UN, as I have mentioned at other stages of the Bill, has warned that the failure to achieve positive outcomes for children is one of the most costly mistakes that a society can make. The Alliance Party will continue to work collaboratively with all elected representatives and political parties, and in government, to ensure that we do not make that mistake in Northern Ireland and that we work to deliver for our children and young people. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
Mrs Overend: It is my pleasure, as the Ulster Unionist spokesperson for children and young people, to support the Children's Services Co-operation Bill in its Final Stage today. I congratulate Mr Agnew on bringing it forward and pursuing such good aims and objectives.
The lack of cooperation and joined-up government has shown to be of detriment to the people of Northern Ireland time and again. With issues relating to children, failings in their early years have the potential to have an effect on the rest of their lives. I am sure that no MLA, in their work for constituents and in dealing with various and numerous issues, has failed to see the gaps and the failures of Departments in not working together. Most memorable to me are the many delays that children experience in relation to statementing for special educational needs. In those instances, it is essential that the Department of Education and the Health Department work effectively and efficiently together in a timely manner. Often, that is not the case; delays are experienced, and the result is that the child does not receive the help and support they need at the time in their development when they need it most.
I understand that various children's representative bodies support the legislation, not only in the implementation of policy but, importantly, in the making of policy and strategies. Indeed, the chief executive of Children in Northern Ireland, an umbrella group that has already been mentioned, has written to me and, I am sure, many other Members. She said:
"In recent years in Northern Ireland, critical chances for better outcomes for children and young people have been missed as key strategies have been insufficiently developed, implemented or integrated across government departments. So much more could be achieved for children and their families if there were greater levels of co-operation in policy design and implementation across government departments."
It is my hope that, when Departments finally get round to pulling together a cross-departmental strategy for Internet safety, the Bill will make such policy streamlined and effective and there will be natural cooperation on all these matters. The issue of Internet safety is cross-cutting. The Department of Education is responsible for children in schools and youth services; the Department of Health is responsible for safeguarding children and young people; and the Department of Justice needs to sing from the same hymn sheet in relation to laws, sentencing and deterrence.
It seems to me that, so far, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is not taking responsibility for overseeing such a cross-cutting strategy. It is my hope that this legislation will impose proper checks and balances in that regard. At this stage, I welcome the new junior Minister to her post; it is good to see her in the Chamber this morning.
I am content with the reporting responsibilities contained in the Bill. Good results should be prevalent in the report, and it is necessary that children's authorities work with the Executive Departments in its preparation and, furthermore, that it should include recommendations and opportunities for future cooperation. I am pleased that it will be live legislation, so to speak, with potential for improvements as time progresses. I support the Bill: it is an opportunity to set aside the silo mentality of Departments and work together for the benefit of children's services in Northern Ireland. I hope that such work will be catching and will spread across other sectors in the Assembly.
Mr Speaker: I welcome and congratulate Emma Pengelly on her recent appointment and call on her to respond to the debate.
Mrs Pengelly (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important matter. First, I commend Mr Agnew for the work he has undertaken to bring the Bill to Final Stage. He has acknowledged that there were some serious initial concerns about the Bill, but we appreciate that it has been significantly revised since it was introduced in December and that many of the amendments were a result of Mr Agnew's constructive collaboration with the sector, with Departments and particularly with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. There is no doubt that the Bill has been improved by the amendments, and many of the concerns that were raised by Members at Second Stage have now been addressed. The Bill before the House today is now clearly focused on ensuring that all relevant bodies work together to improve the well-being of our children and young people. We understand that the Office of the Legislative Counsel has supported the work on the amendments and informed the thinking of officials and the Member as the Bill has been revised. As always, the expertise and knowledge of counsel is greatly appreciated, and the Bill is better for its valued contribution.
OFMDFM, the Executive and, I am sure, everyone in the Assembly want to see our children and young people achieve their potential. We want them to be healthy, achieve in education, have time and space to play, experience economic well-being and contribute positively to society. Those goals transcend normal departmental boundaries, and, in fact, I believe that they transcend normal party political boundaries.
No Department, agency or organisation can on its own improve the well-being of our children and young people. The issues facing our children and young people are so vast and varied that an holistic approach is required, and cooperation and collaboration are key. Of course, there are already examples of good practice in government. The Delivering Social Change framework driven forward by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has encouraged Departments to work closely on the delivery of schemes such as the family support hubs, the numeracy and literacy scheme and the nurture units, delivering over £36 million worth of anti-poverty programmes in the last four to five years. The early intervention and transformation programme has also involved a number of Departments working on the co-funded delivery of better outcomes for children. It is now important that we work together to turn that good practice into common practice.
It is clear that the Bill's intention is to ensure that organisations work better to deliver better outcomes to support better lives. The definition of well-being in clause 1 is welcome, given that it aligns closely with the current children and young persons strategy. It also provides a clear purpose to the duty to cooperate prescribed at clause 2. The issue of well-being in our policy work is something that we are actively exploring for further application.
The Bill places a number of duties on the Executive. They will be expected to introduce arrangements to promote cooperation, to develop a new strategy for children and young people and to report on progress in the achievement of key outcomes. In each of those duties, it is important that the focus remains on the well-being of the child or young person. The strategy and progress reports must focus on continually improving well-being. That is all the more welcome as the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has been at the forefront of some exciting and innovative work in driving forward outcomes-based monitoring and outcomes-focused policy development.
The Bill provides potential opportunities for authorities to pool budgets in order to carry out activities that improve well-being. In a time of reduced budgets, it is important that Departments consider innovative ways of achieving outcomes with less funding. We welcome the amendment tabled by the Finance Minister that will allow DFP to produce further regulations on the issue. That should provide greater clarity for bodies wishing to pool budgets and ensure that the practice is not undermined by poor procedures.
I turn briefly to the points raised by Mr Attwood. On the good relations and equality duty, the relationship between section 75(1) and (2) is well established, and I know that the Member is well aware of that. I am confident that there will be no difficulty. Section 75(2) is, of course, without prejudice to section 75(1). However, the good relations duty is a severable duty on all public authorities. Sometimes, that can be overlooked, but I believe that the perceived tension between section 75(1) and section 75(2) can easily be addressed.
Mr Attwood asked about mainstreaming. In my view, the Bill is entirely in line with the work that we have been doing in OFMDFM on collaborative design or co-design, as it is known, and on collaboration on a cross-departmental and cross-agency basis. It is in that context that the Bill is, if I may use the term, pushing at an open door. I am confident that it can be mainstreamed in the next Programme for Government because that is the context in which we are developing a range of new initiatives.
Mr Attwood: For the first time; not for the last time.
I hear what the Minister says about pushing at an open door, but I think that the sense of the Bill, in many places, is that it should be a game changer and that that should be manifest in a qualitative change in the relationships between government and agencies in respect of the statutory duties and a qualitative change in how the Programme for Government is shaped around those duties. Do you acknowledge that that might be the ambition that people have, whilst noting the work of OFMDFM in that regard to date?
Mrs Pengelly: As the Member is aware from many long hours of negotiation, I am not somebody who gives way very easily.
I do not think that we really want there to have to be a statutory duty for people to cooperate, and I suppose that that is what I am trying to get at. A statutory duty in that sense is the last resort. We want agencies and Departments to want to work together to reach better outcomes for our young people. I believe that, in the work that we have carried on through the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, we see that change starting to permeate across Departments and agencies. I think that it is a change of culture, as opposed to one necessarily of statute. I absolutely welcome the Bill — it is a useful contribution to that — but we will continue to work our hardest to ensure that there is willingness at all levels to cooperate and collaborate fully on these important issues.
If the Bill is supported by the House today — I understand that it will be — that will be only a first step. Consideration will be required of how cooperation can be promoted and integrated working supported. A key element of that will be getting the next children and young people's strategy right. Work is already under way in the Department on the next strategy, given that the existing one concludes in 2016. It is therefore timely that this legislation has come into play. The new strategy will be expected to consider the key issues facing children and young people and outline how government will work collaboratively to improve the well-being of our children and young people. OFMDFM wishes to develop the new strategy through co-design and engaging with Departments, external stakeholders and children and young people throughout the process to gather views, test assumptions and develop an agreed approach.
The Bill has highlighted the need for better cooperation in this vital policy area. The range of outcomes that we wish to achieve for our children and young people can be realised only if we all work together. Mr Speaker, I support the Bill.
Mr Agnew: I thank the House for its consideration of the Bill from the preliminary stages, when the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister took an early interest in the Bill, until today, when there appears to be unanimous support for it.
In his contribution, the Chair of the Committee brought our attention back to the horrific case of Victoria Climbié, which caused a culture shift in England and led, ultimately, to the Children Act 2004 on the back of Lord Laming's report. It was to that legislation that I looked originally when seeking to produce this Bill. We do not want such horrific cases to happen again — I will not go back over the details, as they are considerably upsetting — and preventing that type of atrocity through better joined-up working by our services is certainly one of the key aims of the Bill. Mr Nesbitt highlighted that it is not about Ministers, Departments or institutions; ultimately, it is about the people whom they are set up to serve. The Bill is about ensuring that the child is at the centre of the work that Departments do.
Mr Nesbitt highlighted the benefit of agreeing the Programme for Government before d'Hondt is run — it was part of the Stormont House Agreement — and of how agreeing how each Department will work before we know which party will take each post could improve governance in Northern Ireland. I do not think that is in doubt or that any of us here would deny that we can improve how we do governance in this part of the world. This Bill, along with that proposal, should it be implemented, the work on John McCallister's private Member's Bill and, indeed, when it comes forward, the Bill to reform the number of Departments, can be another significant step in the evolution of the Assembly and in how we deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. Change is needed, and, collectively, those proposals can improve the effectiveness of these institutions. There is a public perception — I think it is an accurate one — that the institutions are not as effective as they could be. We only need to look at Scotland to see how much more their devolved institutions have been able to achieve for their people to recognise that we can and should do more in Northern Ireland. I hope and believe that this legislation will play its part in that.
I will reflect on some other Members' contributions. Mr Moutray — I thank him for indicating his support — talked about the Bill as a resource-efficient way of delivering shared aims and outcomes among the Departments. Indeed, he mentioned the good work in Scotland. I took time to meet the children's Minister there. She happens to be an old friend, but, on this occasion, it was purely a business meeting to see the work that they have done on their Children and Young People Act. Again, that was government legislation, and there is much in it that we can look to in how we deliver for children, not least one proposal that I was impressed by, which was having a named person for all children. That is something that we should look to in this Assembly to ensure that every child has a named adult to whom they can go for support in navigating the statutory services.
Megan Fearon recast my phrase about making good practice common practice by saying that we should make good practice normal practice. I like that phraseology: we should make the good normal. Delivering for children should be what we do. She also said that it was a good day for children and families. Again, I welcome her support.
Mr Attwood said that this was Agnew's children's Bill, and he said that it should be about more than my children. I absolutely agree: as a father of young children, I see the challenges for parents in navigating statutory services, and I understand the frustrations. He is right in saying that this is about all children in Northern Ireland. We often talk about vulnerable children, but let me be clear that this is about all children. It is to ensure that there are no gaps through which vulnerable children can fall. When we provide the net for all, we catch all, including vulnerable children. It will ensure that those who need the support get it, because, often, we spend too much time trying to identify who the vulnerable are and not enough time providing the services required.
Chris Lyttle spoke of the work of the all-party group on children and young people. That is an important point. The group is not a formal mechanism of the Assembly, but it provides vital input into the work that we do. I hope that, on this occasion, it provides an example of politicians listening, because it was through that forum that the idea of having a private Member's Bill came forward. It shows that, through civic engagement, the Assembly can deliver more. Undoubtedly, politicians do not have a monopoly on good ideas. We should listen and engage, and legislative change such as this can come about as a result.
I welcome Sandra Overend's support, and I commend her because she highlighted the work that she is doing and the important need to improve Internet safety and how the aim of protecting and safeguarding children can be achieved only if Departments such as Health, Education and Justice work together in common cause.
Excuse me, Mr Speaker, I have too many notes. Finally, I welcome Ms Pengelly to her role as junior Minister. I welcome her contribution to the debate today and, indeed, any work that she did on the Bill in her previous role, when I was working with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. There was a collective effort in that office to improve the Bill. I welcome the commitment that this is pushing an open door and this is the direction of travel for the Department.
She said that it is really just the start, and that is key. The passing of the legislation is not an end in itself. The end is the effective delivery of services to children.
It is incumbent on this Assembly in the mandate's remaining time and particularly on the next Assembly to scrutinise the work of the various Departments to ensure that the Bill's potential and vision are realised. I hope to be in that Assembly to scrutinise the work myself, but there is the small matter of an election to fight before then, so I take none of those things for granted. However, I have no doubt that, whatever Members are elected to the next Assembly, in conjunction with the children's sector, there will be a great deal of scrutiny of the delivery of the next children's strategy and the next Programme for Government, particularly its provisions for children.
I will finish by repeating a quotation that I came across when I was doing my research for the Bill. A parent was asked what integrated working meant to her, and she replied:
"Integrated working is not having to repeat myself 30 different times to 30 different officials."
If the legislation can achieve that objective, it will be well worthwhile and will ensure that families do not face the frustrations of silo working and the lack of joined-up government that we have seen in the past.
I thank Members for their contributions and their support. I thank all those who contributed to bringing the Bill this far. I look forward to it receiving the support of the House today and Royal Assent in the near future.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Children's Services Co-operation Bill [NIA 44/11/16] do now pass.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which 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.
That this Assembly notes that a solution to the post-primary transfer process has not been found; further notes that a one-size-fits-all educational system will not work; believes that it is becoming increasingly unacceptable that, every year, thousands of young people are sitting unregulated transfer tests and that primary schools are placed in the difficult position of mediating between parental demand and Department of Education policies; further believes that the ongoing politicking of the issue does not address the seriousness of the matter; and calls on the Minister of Education to convene talks with all the major stakeholders in order to build consensus and agree a way forward on the issue.
As the Ulster Unionists' education spokesperson, I commend this afternoon's motion on the post-primary transfer process to Members.
On Saturday morning coming, thousands of 10- and 11-year olds will go into 35 grammar schools all over Northern Ireland to sit the first of three common entrance assessment exams, organised not by the Department of Education but by the Association of Quality Education (AQE). The fee is £46. In two weeks' time, on 14 November, the Granada Learning (GL) assessment, sponsored by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) will take place in 35 schools. Some schools are using both the GL and AQE tests, so some 10- and 11-year-olds face four weeks of tests from now until the end of November. Results will be released at the end of January, and those will determine whether the entrants gain places at the grammar school of their choice.
I understand that, last year, 7,285 children were entered for the AQE assessments and 7,255 for the GL assessments. Early indications are that even more have applied this year. How did that state of affairs come about, and why does it seem that so many in this place are quite prepared to accept the status quo?
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. A vacuum in the process to transfer children from primary schools to secondary schools was created when, following the last official 11-plus exam in 2008, nothing was put in its place. The vacuum that was left when the 11-plus was scrapped has been filled by two non-state exam systems. It was inevitable that, in the absence of an ordered and thought-out method of transferring pupils, tests unregulated by the Department of Education would be devised.
The AQE and PPTC deserve credit for the professional way in which they have gone about organising their transfer tests, and I am not aware of many complaints about the fairness of the system. However, it is perhaps typical of this place that there are two rival testing regimes. Whilst the AQE and GL tests are professionally organised and are a response to parental demand for the continuance of academically selective grammar education, what we have now is not what we, as legislators, should want for our children. In the past, the old 11-plus exam received heavy criticism for putting 10- and 11-year-olds under undue pressure, but just look at the situation that we find ourselves in now. Today, in 2015, a system that is much more akin to social selection is being entrenched, whereby better-off families are paying for tuition and coaching for the AQE or GL tests. A common complaint about the 11-plus was that children with better-off parents were coached for the test. If there was an element of truth in that 10 years ago, it is even more true today. It looks like private tuition is becoming a major growth sector in the local economy, and whose fault is that?
Our motion refers to and criticises party politicking, and I do not want to add to that unnecessarily. However, some things need to be said. In general, it is the fault of the Executive for failing to find a solution since 2007. More specifically, it is the fault of successive Sinn Féin Education Ministers for polarising the debate and creating the current stand-off. Sinn Féin, the so-called socialist party, has actually succeeded in privatising the transfer test. Well done, McGuinness, Ruane and O'Dowd.
Leaving politics aside, I ask all Members to ask themselves a simple question. If you went to a grammar school, think of those pupils — you may have been one yourself — who came from less affluent backgrounds and sat and passed the 11-plus, went to a grammar school and excelled academically. Do you think that they would have sat one of the current non-departmental tests? Would they even have had an opportunity to go to the local grammar? Whatever you think about the old 11-plus, everyone had the chance to take it. There are plenty of examples of the social mobility that it provided. The Ulster Unionist Party recognised the limitation of the 11-plus a long time ago. Equally, we recognise the limitations of the new, unofficial 11-pluses. However, at the same time, we recognise that selection is a natural part of life.
Back in 2004, Martin McGuinness said:
"A system which designates any 11-year-old child a failure is fundamentally flawed and must be replaced."
Yet, I do not see any child who does not go to a grammar school as a failure. That is similar to the designation of our children as failures if they do not study A levels or do not go to university. It is a real bugbear of mine every August when we hear on the radio and from advisers after the A-level results have been released. They say, "Don't worry if you didn't do well enough in your A-level exams to get into university. There are other options for you such as studying at an FE college." It is not about saying that one option is better than another. Rather, it is about finding the most suitable form of education for each individual to enable each to find their full potential. The question is how we assess individuals.
Universities select students on the basis of their A-level exam results, sixth-form colleges select their A-level students on the basis of their GCSE results and most, if not all, secondary schools stream their pupils on the basis of objective academic criteria. It is entirely possible to be 100% against the P7 test but 100% for academic selection. The problem at age 18 and 16 is the same as at age 11. We need to look at each individual and decide not how clever they are but how they are clever, and which type of educational system suits their learning style.
The pressure that the new transfer test system puts on primary schools, especially year 6 and 7 teachers, is not fair. It is also not fair for the Minister to authorise warning letters to be sent to some primary schools accusing them of, horror of horrors, helping to prepare their pupils for the tests. Those primary schools and their principals and teachers are under enough pressure from the expectations of parents at the school gate. Again, it is a situation not of their own making; it is one born of political failure.
In our motion, the Ulster Unionist Party is not prescriptive about how the 11-plus impasse will be ended. We believe that academic selection should be part of post-primary transfer, but we also believe that we do not want to see the current situation set in stone. We want a solution based on teacher guidance and continuous assessment at primary level.
There are other aspects to the debate, and questions that demand answers. How do we deal with the attainment gap and persistent underachievement? Is 14 a more appropriate age at which to choose between a more academic or a more technical and vocational route? The point of the debate is that those important issues have effectively been set aside and ignored since the unofficial tests have taken root. It seems to me that the transfer test has become the elephant in the room. It is a difficult issue, but ignoring it will not make it go away. The only conclusion that I can come to is that, at some point after the restoration of devolution in 2007, Sinn Féin and the DUP came to a truce on the issue. Sinn Féin could say that it had abolished the official 11-plus, but the DUP could say that it had salvaged it through the unofficial tests. I say that because the post-primary transfer issue seems to have disappeared off the radar, which cannot be right.
The Minister and his Department need to convene talks with all major stakeholders to build consensus and agree a way forward on the issue. There was an opportunity to do that, and it was happening before 2002. In February 2010, Sir Reg Empey — now Lord Empey — said:
"Education is the most glaring failure of the executive so far ... There is one way to prove that this executive is not dysfunctional and that is to reach a consensus on education."
How right he was, four and a half years ago. The issue has not gone away and will not go away. It must be revisited and resolved. The future of our children demands it.
Mr Weir: I would describe what we are faced with in the motion as a little bit of a mixed bag. Elements of it are very good and others less so. If the main thrust of this is that it would be preferable to have a regulated system, I certainly agree with that. I have no problem with discussions taking place on how that can be best achieved. Similarly, one area that I also find agreement with is the focus of those discussions. Any discussions have to be on a realistic basis that recognises the legal position. I think that, if we are able to reach a single system of testing by way of academic selection, that will be welcomed. However, while regulation is desirable if we can reach consensus on it, which I suspect is where the difficulty may lie, it is wrong to portray the current system of unregulated tests as some form of disaster out there.
When this party helped negotiate the right for academic selection to be put in legislation in 2007, we were told by the then Education Minister, Caitríona Ruane, that a system that was not regulated would be some form of disaster, it would be overwhelmed with court challenges and the whole system would collapse very quickly. However, as has been indicated, since that date, tens of thousands of pupils have gone through the tests; indeed, the indications are, as I think even the proposer indicated, that they are becoming more popular. This year, I think, the AQE figures will go up, and a projected 7,760 will take the tests. So, if we are having discussions, they must be based on the realities of the legal position. That is an important factor.
Secondly, although politics has played a role in this and different approaches have been taken, it is naive to believe that politicking is barring a solution and this could be sorted out quickly if the politicians simply disappeared. The reality is that we have the current system because there is widespread disagreement not just among politicians but among schools, parents and, indeed, the different desires that are there. As a party, we back parental choice, which is why, as a party, we were four-square behind the Dickson plan, which worked very well in that area. We certainly accept the rights of a lot of parents who want to opt out of any form of selection and to send their children to non-selective schools, but we stand four-square behind the rights of schools and parents to have academic selection.
We agree with the sentiment in the motion that one size does not fit all; we have to recognise that diversity. I caution against the suggestion, however well intended, that progress is simply done by way of some form of teacher guidance. Having teachers effectively selecting who goes to a particular school would put teachers in an impossible situation. That was tried out for one year at the beginning of the 1980s but was immediately abandoned by the Government, because it could have led to teachers being pressured, questions of favouritism and parents lobbying for their children to get in. We need a single system of tests.
We support academic selection. Mention has been made of social mobility, which is very important. One of my concerns about the discussion of the transfer process is that, sometimes, it has tended to distract from where the real issues of underachievement and social mobility tend to take place, which are very much in the early years. That is where the main focus has got to lie. If academic selection were made illegal overnight, we would be left with an exacerbation of the problems with social mobility. We would have a situation such as has developed in England, with schools based purely on the ability to pay — a system of public schools where any opportunity for a child from a lower socio-economic background to progress well in their education would effectively be removed. We would exacerbate the problems of social mobility. That is not to say that there are not problems with social mobility that we need to tackle, but we have to make sure that we do not produce solutions that are counterproductive.
I am in favour of any form of discussions that can take place, but they have got to be grounded on reality. From that point of view, solutions that are designed to effectively phase out academic selection or, indeed, to simply persuade those who are in favour of academic selection of the error of their ways will not be productive. I suspect that, with the best will in the world, we are unlikely to reach consensus, but it has got to be grounded on recognition of the legal right to academic selection. From that point of view, therefore, I conclude my remarks.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank my colleague on the Education Committee Sandra Overend for moving the motion, although I think it is, to use a phrase, a dog's dinner of a motion. It is contradictory in every sentence, but I think, to be fair and respectful, that that has, at times, signalled a lot of Ulster Unionist policy on education reform over the last number of years. I think you are, as your leader said yesterday about marriage equality, on the wrong side of history when it comes to academic selection. The USA, the South, Britain, Canada — all the countries around the world — are lining up to pass legislation for marriage equality; they also made academic selection obsolete many years ago. Why does this part of the world end up being a backwater when it comes to getting on with the times? When it comes to academic selection and the refusal of a rump of schools and boards of governors to move with the times, that is certainly the case.
The motion talks about needing to find a solution: a solution has been found. More than two thirds of our schools no longer work with academic selection; less than a third of our schools do that. A solution has been found. The Member talked about a vacuum being created, because nothing was put in place. That is the whole point: nothing needs to be put in place. The motion also talks about the need to remove politicking and politics from the debate, yet the proposer went on to blame Sinn Féin for the failures in this regard. Again, I repeat: DE does not set admissions criteria; boards of governors set admissions criteria. The proposer said that selection at 11 and 10 is, somehow, the same as selection at 18: that is absolute nonsense. We select at 18 because you are going on to university to do a specific course, so you need specific skills. A one-size-fits-all test at age 10 is not the same. That takes me on to my next point about the motion. The motion talks about a one-size-fits-all model not working, so why would we apply a one-size-fits-all test to our children? It will not work, and it does not work.
Again, this is extremely unfair.
Probably the one part of the motion that I do agree with is that it is entirely unacceptable: children should not be put through the mire of having to do this. My thoughts are with the families and children who will have to do that this weekend. It is totally unnecessary. The proposer talked about parental demand. Again, parental demand is not for the test; it is for access to the good school. I enjoyed a very good education at an elite Catholic grammar school. I do not want to get rid of grammar schools; I want everybody in society to be able to access those schools. If we have academic selection, that is not open to everybody in our community.
The motion talks about talks, but this question must be put to those on the opposite Benches: would you listen? Would you listen to the Churches that are opposed to academic selection? Would you listen to the teaching unions that are opposed to academic selection? Would you listen to the vast majority of political parties that are opposed to academic selection?
Mr Hazzard: I am sorry; I just want to get through this particular point.
Would they listen to the United Nations, which is opposed to academic selection? Would they listen to the Equality Commission, which is opposed to academic selection? Most importantly, would they listen to children? I have no doubt that if we actually asked our children whether they wanted to do this, they would also want to find a better way. I will give way at that point.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. He is very exercised about listening to the Churches. Does he pick and choose when he listens to the Church? I am very sure that he received correspondence from the Roman Catholic Church yesterday, in relation to a vote that took place in this House, and his party completely and absolutely ignored it. Do not introduce red herrings on this issue when your Minister has failed to convince the Roman Catholic system that it is time to move away from academic selection. Let us be honest; let us have a discussion; and let us stop the red herrings because it will not work.
Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his interjection. I must see different Catholic schools and boards of governors moving away from academic selection than those that the Member sees. I think that he must be reading a different letter than I am. He talks about red herrings. Let us talk about red herrings. Many of those schools — for example, at least four last year — had more places available than there were applicants, yet they made them sit the test anyway. Why was that? That test was a complete red herring. I think that that gets to the very crux of this: it has become a modelling and marketing campaign for those schools who want to say that they are good schools and that, without this test, you are somehow not a good school.
Let us look at the international evidence. As shown by the latest PISA figures, education systems in Canada, Finland, New Zealand, Australia and Poland are outperforming our schools in terms of 15-year-olds reaching the very top grades in maths, literacy and science. Not a single one of those systems is selective, so they must be doing something right. Evidence that academic selection at age 11 benefits children is totally non-existent. Nobody in this Chamber will be able to point to an academic-selection system anywhere in the world that benefits the children or the system. Again, I challenge anybody here to name one single educational benefit to children of academic selection. I challenge anybody to do that today. All the international evidence and OECD report after report tell us that the best systems worldwide are non-selective and that a school environment with a good social and academic mix benefits all children. This is an evidence-based approach; it is not an ideology. That takes the politics out of it. It is an evidence-based approach. Selection has been made entirely obsolete throughout the world.
Mr Hazzard: Our primary schools, nursery units, FE colleges, universities and workplaces are of mixed ability. Why should we not make post-primary schools this way, too? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Rogers: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate as the SDLP's spokesperson on education. It is a very important debate that concerns many families each year as their children prepare for educational life beyond primary school. The motion rightly refers to the fact that we have not yet found solutions to the post-primary transfer problem. Currently, an unregulated system operates that, in some cases, is much more arduous than the previous system. We need to do something about it.
The SDLP, alongside others in this House, attempted to achieve resolution of the problem in 2009-2010, but an agreed solution could not be found. The origins of the chaos and the resultant failure to deal with the issue have led to a "plague on all our houses" attitude and approach to the issue in this House. Leadership and political maturity are required to solve the post-primary transfer issue and prevent worsening outcomes for children here.
Let us look at some of the problems with unregulated tests. Academic selection at age 11 is still in place here and lacks uniformity. As a result, children, parents and teachers are forced to endure months of uncertainty about the future. Testing has become privatised in schools and parents have to pay. Those who can afford it are having their children coached for the exams privately. Who do we blame? They are trying to make the best out of the current system for their children, and it is the system that is the problem. We, as parents, always want to do the best for our children.
In 2015, the Department of Education issued guidance in which unregulated transfer exams were mentioned. While the Department urges a robust test and a move away from academic selection, this amounts to a nagging approach rather than real authority to deal with the problem. The legislative power to provide such an approach does not exist as we have not agreed the way forward.
We know the great strides that can be made if consensus is achieved. We can look to Finland as a sterling example of this. In 1963, they decided to reform their education process and began a period of transition and structural reform, backed up by political will. This meant that, by 2009, they led the world's educational attainment tables. We, too, can strive to make changes for the better but we must agree a way forward to end the current system of unregulated transfer tests.
The current system, including private tests, fees and coaching, puts additional pressure on children and families from socially deprived backgrounds. Many children now have to sit two or more tests, often comprising multiple papers. This also affects our primary schools. We know that parents, when considering which primary school to send their children to, will often look to see whether tutoring is provided for the local school transfer test. Teachers, too, have been placed under contradictory pressures from the Department, which does not want them teaching to a test, and from some parents who want their children to be prepared for and to pass a test because they have the best interests of the child at heart.
Many of the problems in the current education system do not stem from the 11-plus alone. Inequalities are produced at the early stages of the education system and children who fall behind in early years rarely recover the lost ground. In dealing with the post-primary transfer system, we must make sure that our education system is adequately funded and we must support early years education in order to address educational underachievement and prevent the widening inequalities that are aided by the current education system. We must deal with the heavy bureaucracy in the education system, where less than 60% of the education budget actually gets to the classrooms.
The SDLP envisages a system that is focused not just on exams but on a rounded education for our children and on parental choice of integrated, Irish-medium, state or faith-based education through the provision of appropriate access for all pupils. We are committed to achieving social equity in education through excellence. It remains the case that academic selection at age 11 is educationally unsound and socially unjust. A reassessment of patterns of investment in education is required to remove the high levels of inequality in the education system. This is of crucial importance for the development of our economy too, as a well-educated workforce underpins any thriving economy. The stagnation on this issue has gone on far too long and is preventing higher education outcomes, equality of opportunity and our economy from flourishing.
Mr Lunn: I rise without knowing whether we are going to support the motion or not, frankly, because it has been colourfully described as a "mishmash" and a "dog's dinner" —
Mr Lunn: They were not my descriptions; they came from your colleagues and from the Benches on this side as well. If I can think of something equally colourful, I will try to bring it in before I finish.
The Alliance Party, quite obviously, opposes selection at age 10 — effectively, it is at age 10. Our debates on education always end up as the same debate. We always come back to this issue and I really do not know what the solution is. The motion:
"calls on the Minister of Education to convene talks with all the major stakeholders in order to build consensus and agree a way forward".
Frankly, you can already see how much consensus there is here today; it just does not exist. We have two sides to the argument that are just poles apart and are liable to remain so.
Members have referred to the tests as they currently stand. Even people who support the tests acknowledge the pressure that they put on children at a young age but they do not appear to be able to query the necessity for them.
The Dickson plan was referred to. It still involves a level of selection, but it is later, at age 14, which would at least be a step in the right direction. Other Members said that, at some stage, there has to be some weeding out, selection or streaming and a final exam that you stand or fall by, and I accept that. However, the notion of testing children, particularly in the present mishmash of a system that has the potential to involve so many tests and two different systems, is absolutely indefensible, yet people continue to defend it as the best way forward.
"further notes that a one-size-fits-all educational system will not work".
Mrs Overend's predecessor was Danny Kinahan, who has since been elevated to higher things. I remember the Ulster Unionists tabling a motion to establish a single education system, and Danny frequently tried to explain to us exactly what that meant, but without success because we were all slightly baffled. This one-size-fits-all system will not work — well, OK.
The motion notes that sitting these tests is becoming "increasingly unacceptable" for "thousands of young people" and mentions the pressure, the "unregulated" nature of the tests and the pressure put on schools. That is Alliance thinking, so I will not disagree with that.
The motion continues:
"further believes that the ongoing politicking of the issue does not address the seriousness of the matter".
The ongoing politicking is between the two opposite poles. Those at one pole think that selection tests are essential, and those at the other pole agree with me, as I agree with them, if I may put it that way, that they are unjustifiable. I have to say to the Ulster Unionists that, down the years, they have consistently supported the DUP on whether selection tests should continue. If the motion is a small step in the right direction, and there is some realisation among the Ulster Unionists that — here we go again — they might be on the wrong side of history, I would welcome that, but I am not so sure.
Mr Rogers referred to a previous attempt to find a solution. He may have been referring to the committee that was set up, dare I say it, by me some years ago. It tried to find a way forward, and several MLAs met to discuss the issue. We set up a committee of leading educationalists, who did most of the work for us, but they could not find a solution. At the time, Sinn Féin would not join that project. The current Minister was then the party's education spokesperson, and I think that he had been inclined to join until the party told him the actual way of it.
Mr Lunn: I think that he may have had his knuckles rapped on that occasion.
Mr O'Dowd: I think you might be on the wrong side of history there. [Laughter.]
Mr Lunn: I am finished. I imagine that we will support the motion on the basis of the last couple of lines. The rest of it is, I totally agree, a dog's dinner and mishmash.
Mr Craig: Like others, I find the motion a little confusing. I did not describe it as a mishmash, baffling, bewildering or a dog's dinner, but I find aspects of it extremely confusing. It was good to hear the proposer admit to the fact that it was the DUP that salvaged the transfer principle, and, through the years, whether others believe us to be on the wrong side of history or not is not something that has ever bothered us. It was often said that our founding father was always on the wrong side of history. That never held him back, and I am sure that it will not hold us back either.
Would it be nice to have a regulated testing system? Yes, it probably would. I say that with some scepticism because I am one of those who went through the regulated system, and my daughter went through what is now described as the unregulated system. I have to be fundamentally honest with the House that my experience is that the unregulated system is a thousand times better than the regulated system was. I make no apology for saying that, because I have experienced both, and I know which is the much better experience for the pupil.
Am I content with the unregulated system that we have? I am not content that there are two unregulated systems out there. I have always appealed to those involved in the debate to come up with a single unregulated system. Is it wrong to have an unregulated system? No, I do not believe that it is. I am not one who thinks that government must do everything. I think that a remarkable job has been done in a very stressful situation, and I make no apology for saying that. Is it a disaster? No, it has not turned out to be a disaster. Has the unregulated system gradually been going away, as others said? Are people running away from it? Well, I have bad news for all of you: the numbers taking the unregulated tests have not gone down, and they are not going down. Parental choice is a wonderful thing. As others said, it is parents who make the choice to send their children to the best schools for their educational achievement. If children are academically inclined, that is the right road to send them down.
Mr Lunn: I thank Jonathan for giving way. When he says that it is a matter of parental choice, does he not realise that parents feel that they have no choice but to put their children under that pressure in order for them to get into what he terms the "best schools"? It is parental choice turned on its head.
Mr Craig: I thank the Member for his comments, and I will come to address them. That hits on a fundamental issue with the whole selection process. There are parents out there who think that the only means of getting their children into the best school is to put them through the test. Some other parents make the choice not to put their children through that system and to send them to other extremely good schools, and I have no difficulty with that.
Let us take a look at the alternative, which nobody seems to want to talk about. What is proposed there? It is called the postcode lottery. People living near some of the grammar schools would, I think, be delighted with the postcode lottery, because, automatically, the value of their property would double, treble or whatever. However, the reality is that the only people who would get to those extremely good schools in our society are the economically well-off. The deprived children whom we are talking about, many of whom have passed the academic tests and got into those schools, would no longer have access to them. I have never heard that issue addressed anywhere, and no one has tackled it. We talk about Every School a Good School, and that is a good principle, a good start and a way forward. However, we will still see the postcode lottery, with only the well-heeled getting into what are grammar schools today.
Are there other fundamental issues with the transfer process? Yes, I believe that there are, and they have nothing to do with the selection process. How do secondary schools in general find out what the achievement levels of children are? There is an issue that has not gone away, Minister.
Mr Craig: Sorry, but my time is up.
The issue is around how we measure the achievement levels of children going from primary to post-primary.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I could go through the motion and pick out the bits that I agree with and the bits that I disagree with, and we could argue back and forth about the rights and wrongs of various parts of it, but, really, where would that get us? To cut through the chaff, it seems to me that the debate has degenerated, certainly among those on the opposite Benches, into one about the rights and wrongs of the regulated test that previously existed versus the new, unregulated test. Let me nail my colours to the mast: both of them are wrong. Academic selection at 10 years of age is wrong. We can rehearse all the arguments that we have debated on many occasions in the Chamber, but let us cut to the chase. As legislators and public representatives, we have a responsibility to ensure that every child and young person is given the best opportunity starting out in life. Imagine if we were to stand up here today and say that there are certain categories of children who should not get the same opportunity as others, or that children of alcohol or drug-addicted parents should not get the same advantages as children who have good parents and are from stable backgrounds. Similarly, if we were to say that children from deprived backgrounds should not get the same opportunities as other children, we would be rightly castigated, but that is, effectively, what is being said here today.
I am not an expert. Look at the figures. Only 12% of children in grammar schools are on free school meals, which is the indicator of deprivation. What do I know about education systems? Like most other people in here, I have worked at various jobs. I am not an expert. I have not done any academic research. I do not have a PhD in comparative analysis of education systems; but, having been on the Education Committee, I have got bits and pieces of research, and people have come in to give evidence, and you absorb whatever you can and you make your assessment. Like everyone else in the Chamber, I will make an assessment on the basis of the evidence that is presented to me. So, what are the experts in the field saying? What does the research say? Let us look at the organisations that oppose academic selection: the Human Rights Commission; the Equality Commission; the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Catholic bishops; the Children's Commissioner; and Professor Tony Gallagher, who is an adviser to the Education Committee and pro-vice-chancellor in Queen's University. We could go on and on, and we could look at the evidence presented in the PISA research that my colleague Chris Hazzard mentioned. The fact is that, if we are serious about educating all our children, academic selection has to go.
We already know what works. Look at St Patrick's High School in Keady. It pioneered and still operates a system of transfer that does not involve academic selection. Last year, 86% of its pupils achieved five GCSEs. In 2015, St Patrick's was voted the best non-selective post-primary school in the UK in the 2015 TES school awards. The judges said that the:
"innovative work and move away from banding, the amazing results achieved and rate of acceleration"
made St Patrick's stand out. St Patrick's fits into the category of Every School a Good School, and there is no reason why that cannot happen in every school. There is no reason why we should not take a holistic approach to education, from early intervention right through to continual professional development of teachers, so that teachers are taught and they learn how to teach children of all abilities. All the best systems of education in the world do that. If you go to Finland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, you will see that they all operate non-selective systems. I oppose the motion.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to meet at 1.00 pm. 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 debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 12.59 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —
Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): I thank the Member for his question. Windsor Park is currently under construction and is progressing well. After receiving approval from the IFA's insurer, the old west stand was demolished and the details of the next steps are being developed between the IFA, its insurer and the project team. To date, it is unknown how much the redevelopment of the entire west stand will impact on the project timeline. However, it is envisaged that, from the point of approval, construction of the new west stand will be completed within 12 months. Excluding the west stand, the remainder of the project is scheduled to be completed by January 2016, and I can confirm to the Member that the cost associated with rectifying the issues with the west stand will be a matter for the insurers and that no additional funds will be required by the Department.
A number of qualifiers have been hosted successfully at Windsor Park during the project time, and I am delighted that the team has been able to qualify for next summer's European Championship in France. I hope that the redevelopment of the stadium can continue to facilitate the team's training and preparation for competitions, and I wish them every success.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for her answer. I note that the Minister said that, when work on the west stand starts, it will take about a year. Is there a rough idea of when that project could start?
Ms Ní Chuilín: As I outlined in the primary answer — I am sure that the Member already knows this — the demolition process is well under way. The IFA, to its credit, has done everything that it possibly could, given the circumstances that it was in, which were beyond its and everybody else's control. It is working very closely with Belfast City Council, its insurers and, indeed, with the Department. The main project should be completed by January 2016, and I do not anticipate too many delays thereafter.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Whilst we are on the subject of sports grounds, could the Minister indicate if she would be supportive of clubs and grounds benefiting from rates relief, which is a measure that the IFA was supportive of?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The short answer is yes. The Member brought forward a private Member's Bill on rates relief for amateur sports clubs, and it is regrettable that that did not realise full support. However, I remain supportive of the extension of rates relief to sports clubs, particularly where the application of financial savings by clubs can benefit from release and particularly when it is targeted at the development of the sport and, indeed, the people who participate in the sport, particularly when we are all trying to achieve full inclusion. The continued absence of the rates relief is regrettable, but I will certainly do my best to work with the clubs to make sure that they have full advantage.
Mr Swann: I add my support to the Member for North Antrim for his attempt to get relief for sports clubs, especially as it would have brought in the pigeon clubs as well. The Minister mentioned the status of the insurance claim for Windsor. Can she give us an update as to where that stands?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Belfast City Council and the IFA are working through those issues. As I said to Alex Easton, I am confident that they are all taking a very pragmatic can-do approach to getting the issue resolved. I have no further details other than that. From what I am led to believe, the insurers are accepting full responsibility. The full redevelopment of Windsor Park should be completed by January 2016, and I anticipate that work should properly commence on the west stand very soon. Following the Member's query, I will ask for an update, and I am happy to furnish him with those details in writing.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. Waterways Ireland employs 69 staff at its headquarters in Enniskillen: 60 permanent employees, two fixed-term contracts, two agency staff, four student placements, and one graduate internship. Waterways Ireland has not made any redundancies at its headquarters.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra sin. Is Waterways Ireland considering redundancies due to fluctuations in the value of the euro and pensions pressures?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I have not received any indication that Waterways Ireland — or, for that matter, Foras na Gaeilge — is considering redundancies, although, hopefully, we will have a sectoral meeting on Friday.
There have been concerns about what impact fluctuations in the euro will have on pensions and pressures. All pension liabilities are covered 100% by the sponsoring bodies. Waterways Ireland has prioritised work so that urgent repairs and maintenance always take priority, particularly to ensure accessibility of navigations.
If there are any other details, I will happily furnish the Member with them in writing.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I congratulate the Northern Ireland team, staff and IFA on securing its place at the 2016 European Championship finals in France. For the team to qualify automatically is a fantastic achievement but also to top the group is testament to the incredible commitment of the manager Michael O'Neill and the whole squad.
Preparation for the finals is, as the Member will know, primarily the responsibility of the IFA, which has the knowledge and expertise required to ensure that the team has the right support. The Sports Institute, funded by DCAL and Sport NI, has and will continue to provide support to the team, manager and staff as they prepare for competitions.
My Department will continue to support the IFA through funding the project and the redevelopment of Windsor Park. That involves investment of approximately £28 million for the redevelopment of Windsor and a further investment of approximately £2·7 million towards the redevelopment of the Olympia Leisure Centre. The stadium will provide a world-class facility for the team as part of its preparations for the tournament.
Mr D McIlveen: I thank the Minister for her answer and welcome and share her congratulations for the Northern Ireland football team.
The Minister will probably not be aware that I was three years old when Northern Ireland last qualified for a major tournament. I am sure that she would agree with me that the place that Northern Ireland football now finds itself is of epic proportions. Does the Minister feel, though, as we move into this new dispensation of football success that there is a real opportunity for us to grasp the beauty of true Northern Ireland identity? Will the Minister's Department be encouraging all our community to rally around the identity of being uniquely and wonderfully from Northern Ireland?
Ms Ní Chuilín: It will come as no surprise to the Member that while I wish the Northern Ireland team, and, indeed, the IFA, all success — and I do genuinely — I do not identify myself as Northern Irish in the same way as the Member does. However, the IFA has done brilliant and exemplary work in trying to make sure that football is accessible to all. It will continue to do that.
I do not believe that we should shoehorn people into supporting teams because some people support certain teams and others support other teams. We need to create the conditions whereby people can, of their own will, give support to whomever they want. For those who decide not to, that is their choice as well.
Even from when you were a mere boy in 1986, things have changed considerably. The atmosphere has changed considerably since then, but, despite all the work that they have done, and they have done great work, we have still some way to go.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. What assistance has the Minister's Department given the IFA to develop soccer at grass-roots level?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I am still working very closely with the IFA and, indeed, the other two biggest governing bodies, the Ulster Council and Ulster Rugby. My Department has provided £4·5 million of funding for the three governing bodies and is particularly looking at accessibility for grass-roots groups and grass-roots sports and at enabling the three bodies to look not only at the whole area of sport but at healthy lifestyles, mental health, breaking down barriers, increasing access and increasing employment. When the work is completed by the three governing bodies next year, it will set them in good stead to compete for additional funding for the years ahead. The work that they have done at grass-roots level has been exemplary.
Ms Ní Chuilín: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will take questions 4 and 6 together. I thank the Members for their questions.
This has been a difficult Budget, with pressures directly resulting from cuts to our block grant by the British Government. I have had to redeploy a budget in DCAL to deal with the inescapable pressures that have emerged through the year and to focus on departmental priorities. That has meant reductions in some areas but increased budgets in others. The British Government have cut our block grant and have signalled that they are going to do so again in the future. As such, the budget allocations are going to become more regressive over the years.
We are halfway through the year, and many of our arm's-length bodies' (ALBs) costs, such as salaries and buildings costs, are fully committed for the year. In the case of the Arts Council, it is helpful to point out that it received the same percentage of pressure in its reductions as other bodies in DCAL did. Legacy work now planned for the north-west will continue and have a strong artistic and cultural component. I hope that I will have the opportunity to try to offset some of the worst costs through future monitoring rounds.
Mr McKinney: The Minister will be aware of the spirited protest outside the Assembly today. That spirit perhaps belies the deep anger that is felt by those protesters, many of whom are in the Chamber this afternoon. They have expressed themselves and are alarmed and disturbed at the in-year cuts, resulting as they have in loss of employment, insecurity and the taking away from vital programmes that are instrumental in the community. Will the Minister now reaffirm her commitment to the arts and reaffirm that she will restore those moneys to the Arts Council?
Ms Ní Chuilín: First, it is good to see the arts and the artists in the Public Gallery. It is also good to see from the badges being worn that there is now cross-party support for the arts, because, prior to that, there was not. It is also good to see that pressure is now being brought to bear about how valuable the arts are. In the absence of any financial security coming from our Executive, and in the absence of the security that we, as an Executive, need around the moneys that we have had taken from our block grant in July 2011, with more of the same having been earmarked in July of this year, I cannot and will not give a guarantee — I believe that to do so would be reckless — that I will be able to restore the budget that I desperately want to restore. I will certainly be a champion of the arts. I will argue for additional money for the arts, and I look forward to full party support for that argument on the Executive.
Mr B McCrea: Minister, you will be aware that there are hundreds of people outside who want to talk to you about the arts. I listened carefully to your answer. Would it be possible for you to meet those representatives of the arts after Question Time? They promise that it will not be in any way contentious. They do not want it to be a political football, but they would like to present you with their open letter to explain their situation. Of course, you could then explain the situation to them directly.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Thank you, Basil, for your question and your appeal. I am happy to meet them. I will never avoid any groups or any protest. I fully support people's right to protest. In fact, many of us came here through protest movements of one sort or other. I am happy to meet a small group of representatives. Straight after Question Time, I am meeting a group of BBC people who are lobbying me about the renewal of the BBC charter, but I will take five minutes to take the letter and hear what people have to say. I have already accepted invitations from arts and creative companies to go to Derry, particularly around receiving a delegation. I am happy to do that. I thank the Member for the tone with which he raised the issue.
Mr McCausland: How can the Minister justify imposing in-year cuts on funding that has been committed to arts organisations and then siphon off the money to projects with no open application process and no transparency? Is that good practice?
Ms Ní Chuilín: You have a brass neck, given your history around Red Sky and others. You have an absolute brass neck. First of all — [Interruption.]
Ms Ní Chuilín: First of all, on transparency, I did not meet anybody in rooms and conjure up dirty deals. The whole process was done in an open and transparent way, with a business case. It was not siphoning off. All other ALBs received a reduction as a result of Tory cuts, but you have a complete brass neck. I am glad to see that you are taking a reddener.
Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answers to date. Will she outline some of the inescapable pressures in her Department?
Ms Ní Chuilín: There are many inescapable pressures; I am sure that the Member will appreciate that I cannot go through them all. However, as with other Members who have asked for details, I am happy to complete what I do not cover here in writing. There is over £430,000 to meet health and safety requirements to comply with statutory obligations. There is £300,000 towards our Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) programme, which is required to ensure that the positive outcomes from the pilot scheme are maximised. Also, looking at our City of Culture legacy, there is £100,000 towards commitments made for the creative industries. In addition, there is £150,000 for time-bound Executive funding, which has now expired, to the IFA, the GAA and rugby. I have also looked at strengthening the stadia team's programme to ensure that the Programme for Government commitments to regional stadiums are met.
Mrs Overend: Has the Minister requested that her arm's-length bodies prepare revised corporate plans as a result of the funding cuts to their budgets? If so, when will they become available?
Ms Ní Chuilín: We have entered into a discussion with all the ALBs. The revisions to not so much their corporate plans but their financial plans and projections are being revised as we speak. I am still hopeful that we may have a monitoring round, so I imagine what the fluctuation will be between the projections if it happens or of it does not. Those discussions are certainly being had, and preparations are being made for the same.
Ms Lo: Does the Minister use a scoring matrix or any other methodology when determining the spending cuts or increases for arts organisations? If so, will she publish it?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The processes of the scoring matrix and the allocations for the Arts Council are done by the Arts Council. When I make priorities and interventions in my Department, the criteria that I use are around promoting equality, tackling poverty and promoting social inclusion, and particularly looking at people who live and work in deprived in areas and are the furthest removed from services. That has been open and transparent. It is in my business plan and the revised business plan. I have made that a priority for every aspect of all my ALBs and my work in the Department.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. My Department is currently in the process of developing the subregional programme for soccer. Plans for a formal public consultation with key stakeholders are well under way, with a 12-week consultation to commence at the end of November. The forthcoming consultation will give all the stakeholders the opportunity to shape the final programme. Once the stakeholder consultation exercise is completed and the final programme has been agreed, my officials will be in a position to offer advice to all potential applicants. It is envisaged that, following the 12-week consultation, the subregional programme will be formally launched and open for applications in early 2016, but the long-awaited consultation will happen at the end of this month.
Mr Lyons: I thank the Minister for her answer. It is good to hear that the consultation will take place soon. There are an awful lot of clubs, right across Northern Ireland, that are very anxious to hear information about this and it has not been forthcoming until now, so I thank the Minister for her clarification. Perhaps she can give an indication of when, she thinks, the first pots of money will be made available to clubs. Some clubs are very advanced in their plans and in seeking planning permission. They are eager to get going. When can the money be drawn down?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Certainly, clubs should be able to access and draw down money in spring; I am talking about March or April. The consultation will last for 12 weeks, and there will be feedback on how to prepare and respond to the applications. I appreciate that some clubs have been preparing for this opportunity for years. I also appreciate that some of the smaller clubs have not had the same advantage as some of the bigger ones, and it is important that we try to make sure that everybody has a fair opportunity of getting access to the funds. I anticipate that even the remainder of the money for the subregional soccer programme will not cover all the needs. I am looking at how, in the next mandate and the next CSR, those other needs can be met, not just for soccer but for Gaelic, rugby and other governing bodies.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a cuid freagraí go dtí seo. An dtig liom iarraidh ar an Aire, an dtig léi cur síos a thabhairt ar cé atá ag glacadh an phríomhfhreagracht as an chlár fhoréigiúnach le haghaidh sacair? Will the Minister comment or give an outline on who is taking the lead responsibility for the subregional programme for soccer?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I am taking lead responsibility for the development and delivery of the subregional programme, and that includes the allocation of funding. I am working closely and in conjunction with the IFA, but I am taking lead responsibility.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. The GAA is continuing to develop the design, ensuring that the recommendations of the judicial review are wholly incorporated into the planning application. A key aspect of the process is ensuring that the GAA involves the community throughout the process to ensure a high level of engagement with all stakeholders. It will be for the GAA to decide on when it is in a position to submit its planning application. I am optimistic that that will be done very early next year. The Department will continue to offer support to the GAA with the process, ensuring that the recommendations of the recent project assessment review (PAR) report are fully implemented. I am delighted to announce the appointment of Danny McSorley as the newly appointed chair of the safety technical group (STG). The input of the STG will be pivotal in the progression of the project, and I look forward to the group providing the specialist advice required to bring the project to a successful conclusion and make Casement Park a reality.
Mr Allen: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. In the light of the footprint of Casement Park being totally unsuitable for a modern 38,000-seat stadium and bearing it in mind that a smaller stadium would cost considerably less, is there an opportunity for the savings to be redeployed to the arts sector, which is under such severe financial pressure at this time due to in-year cuts?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. One is a capital programme; the other is resource. I really hope that the Member is not suggesting that Ravenhill and Windsor Park can be redeveloped but the money for Gaelic games can be given away. That will not happen, certainly not on my watch. I fully support the need for additional money for the arts sector and will argue for it, but I do not think that anybody from the arts sector or anywhere else would even hint or suggest that money should be taken from Gaelic games and given somewhere else.
The judicial review did not rule on the 38,000 capacity. Some residents have said that they believe that the capacity needs to be sorted out; I believe that that will be dealt with. It should be discussed between the Ulster Council of the GAA and those residents. Certainly, as to any notion, hint or suggestion that money for Casement Park or Gaelic games will be given elsewhere, it is not going to happen.
Mr Dunne: In relation to Casement Park, does the Minister recognise that the management of the project has been a disaster and that the capacity of 38,000 is totally unsuitable for the area in which it is proposed? Will she assure us that there will be open consultation with the local residents on this application? That did not happen last time, and the matter ended up in court.
Ms Ní Chuilín: First, I am aware that you are working with some of the residents, particularly the Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association (MORA) in west Belfast.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Absolutely. That is what residents do. It is an open and democratic process, and I believe that the next consultation will also be an open and democratic process. You have heard hours and hours of evidence. Previously, at Championships, there have been more than 38,000. There have been up to 33,000 and, prior to that, there have been far more people than that at games. It is up to the Ulster Council to provide its strategic vision for Casement Park. If residents truly believe that there needs to be a reduction, that has to be done in consultation with the Ulster Council. I believe that those discussions have already started and that there will be a good resolution. Any notion that the project will be scaled back so that it is not viable is a bit ridiculous. I hope that the Member is not suggesting that.
Ms Boyle: How will the Minister ensure that the 20 PAR recommendations are fully implemented in the project?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I am determined to ensure the implementation of the recommendations, and some have already been implemented. The PAR implementation plan allocates each of the recommendations to a specific owner. In my case, I have a new SRO in the Department working on that full-time. As the Member may have heard in my response to the main question, I have announced that we have a new independent chair of the safety technical group. The Ulster Council has fully accepted the implementation and recommendations of the PAR report. We can all use that report to help us to work towards the future, particularly in delivering Casement Park.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. DCAL has the lead in government for the development of the creative industries and has achieved a great deal to aid this fast-growing sector across the North. The creative industries innovation fund operated from 2009 to 2015, supporting 359 projects with a total investment exceeding £5·6 million. As part of a three-year contract to June 2016, DCAL has agreed to provide £330,000 of funding to Generator NI, which is responsible for delivering the music strategy’s target of increasing employment in the industry by 72 new jobs and increasing the gross value added (GVA) by a £1·2 million annual contribution to the economy by June 2016. DCAL is also providing an additional £100,000 resource in 2015-16 for creative industries development.
Mr Ramsey: I thank the Minister for her response. Clearly, many people across Northern Ireland look to the creative industries and what they can provide for the future. I know that the Committee has had a huge interest in that. Will the Minister outline the investment made by the Department or the Executive in the creative industries over the past four years?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I do not have those figures to hand, but I am happy to write to the Member. The group that we convened recently has representatives of many of the Departments, and all the Ministers came. Minister Farry was there, and there were representatives from DETI and the Department of Education. Ministers and senior officials have been working on this, and it is important that there is a cross-departmental approach. The Member can see the value of creative industries investment in his city and what that has done. We need to have that right across and, indeed, try to link up opportunities right across the island. I am not being political, but, when looking at investment, particularly in this economy, we should try to do so to the advantage of everybody. We have provided good investment thus far, but I hope to increase that or at least leave a good footprint for the CSR in the next mandate.
T1. Mr McNarry asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what lessons she has learned from the bad practices exposed in the recent report on the Northern Ireland Events Company and whether she can assure the House that no such practices are evident today anywhere else in her Department. (AQT 3061/11-16)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. He was a longstanding member of the CAL Committee so he is probably far more familiar with this than I am. I came into this mandate when the Events Company was transferred from DCAL to DETI. There are certainly many lessons to be learned, but I want to assure the Member as fully as possible that our Department has learned lessons from what happened at the Events Company. Indeed, I would expect all Departments to read the report and learn the lessons from it.
Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for her frank answer. I accept her assurances and am gratified by them. Rather than cause her any anxieties, has she been made aware of any events funded directly or indirectly by her Department at which admittance money has not been fully accounted for due to the methodology in taking cash on entry?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I am certainly not aware of any events or detail in the Member's question. Just to be sure — to be sure, to be sure — I will take the Member's question back to my officials and I will furnish him with those details in writing. I will assure the Member as much as I possibly can. The nonsense that occurred at the Events Company was in blazing lights, but I believe that all senior officials in most Departments will have read the report and gone back to do a quick checklist in their Department.
T2. Mr Hazzard asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure when the consultation on the arts and culture strategy that she intends to introduce will happen. (AQT 3062/11-16)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I anticipate launching the formal consultation on a strategy for culture and arts within three weeks. There has never been such a strategy in the Department before. We have the Sport Matters strategy, which is interdepartmental, has been funded and is for 10 years. It amazed me that there has not been an arts and culture strategy in the Department before. I will launch it no later than three weeks from now.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer. How will she ensure that the strategy is properly resourced and that there is widespread political, if not public, support for the initiatives?
Ms Ní Chuilín: Going by some of the supportive comments today from Members in most parties, I hope that all-party support will flourish and is sustained for this very important strategy. It is vital that we have a robust, resourced strategy for arts and culture for at least 10 years because we need to ensure that there is full-party support, right across the Executive, for the future of culture and arts. It is really important that, going into the next mandate, we have a robust and well-resourced strategy not only to help whoever the new Minister is but to give some security to the sector.
T3. Mr McQuillan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how she believes the legacy of Londonderry being the 2013 UK City of Culture has filtered down to the grass-roots communities in East Londonderry. (AQT 3063/11-16)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I have been in the Member's constituency. We were able to make a capital investment there in partnership with Coleraine. There is also the Stendhal Festival in Limavady. I have met many groups from right across the city of Derry and the neighbouring counties, towns and villages, even from some areas that are now classified as part of Mid-Ulster, although they are still part of the natural east and south Derry hinterland. It is important that support for the grass-roots continues. I make no apologies for supporting not only the City of Culture but the legacy programme.
Mr McQuillan: I do not want the Minister to apologise for supporting the grass-roots and legacy programme. I encourage more but what I want to see is the support filtering down to the lowest level of the grass-roots community. I am not really seeing that happen at the minute, Minister.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I am happy to meet the Member and get some views on how he thinks that could happen. The groups that I have dealt with right across different sectors in Belfast tell me that they are targeting support to people who are most deprived, marginalised and excluded, and most of them are. For some, there was a gap. We need to hear what those gaps are and see how we can try to fill them. I am open to hearing what the Member has to suggest.
T4. Ms McCorley asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to comment on the rationale for appointing Féile an Phobail as lead partner in the cultural programme for the World Police and Fire Games 2013. (AQT 3064/11-16)
Ms Ní Chuilín: Féile an Phobail lobbied me, as it did the Tourist Board, DETI and Belfast City Council. It also made a presentation to the World Police and Fire Games board on the need for a cultural programme, given that we had a very successful programme in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Olympics were primarily an arts spectacle with sports added in. Féile an Phobail was the lead partner, as designated by the groups, and remains the lead partner in that cultural programme. That is set to continue. Those are the origins of the lobby.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Will the Minister comment on the importance of the cross-community aspect to the roll-out of the programme of events for the 2013 games?
Ms Ní Chuilín: There is a cross-community element to it. I do not underestimate how difficult it has been for people to sustain that over the years, particularly for groups working in communities that need support, including political support, to do so. Groups in the Shankill and in east and south Belfast have worked well with Féile an Phobail and with other members of the cultural partnership, and I imagine that that will and should endure well beyond the lifetime of this mandate.
T5. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to explain her rationale for cutting the musical instruments for bands funding programme and to outline how that decision is affecting the community. (AQT 3065/11-16)
Ms Ní Chuilín: The rationale is purely financial. I anticipate that, if the financial situation changed, we could reinstate that programme. That is not the fault of the Executive at all, as these cuts came from the Tory Government. There are programmes that the Arts Council simply did not have the money to continue, and that is one of them.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answer. She will be aware that we have in and around 600 bands, which are made up of around 20,000 people who are learning to play musical instruments. Some of those are in our area, some are in deprived areas and some are in the rural community. It has been a great resource for progression: some of those people make professional careers from music. Will the Minister reinforce once again that this will be looked at in future? These are not just marching bands: these are future musicians from Northern Ireland.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I am happy to support everything that the Minister — not yet, Paula — the Member has said . I have met the bands' forum and I have met bands' forums from across all political backgrounds and none. I have met people who are involved in bands and I have met groups who use musical instruments as a method for therapeutic development to help people to cope with trauma and mental health problems. I have even met people who are returning from illnesses — for example, viruses, strokes and the rest — who are recovering through the arts and through musical instruments. I appreciate the value that music brings. That is one programme, and the Arts Council has had to make difficult decisions on a few of them, given the budget that it has been handed and given the cuts that we face from the British Government.
T7. Ms Sugden asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, in anticipation of a resolution from the current talks, to state her intended bids in a possible monitoring round. (AQT 3067/11-16)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I love the Member's optimism and hope that we can all share it. The monitoring round that I had in June still stands; if anything, aspects have been added to it. I will be proactive in convincing all colleagues that we need to try to plug the gaps that others have created in our Budget. If we had a monitoring round, I would hope not only to pursue the bids that I was bringing forward in June but to address the new and emerging pressures that have come to me since then.
Ms Sugden: For the benefit of the House, will the Minister reiterate her priorities from the June monitoring round and tell us about any that have come up since?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member may have heard some of the priorities, particularly my statutory obligations around health and safety for some of the ALBs. I have to meet those health and safety requirements to make sure that I fulfil my statutory duty. There are gaps there for the Arts Council, the Sports Council and Libraries. There are also gaps for Museums, as well as in commitments that I have made to the three sports governing bodies on the work that they have been doing with grass-roots groups. The governing bodies have taken groups, particularly from communities that face difficult challenges, and supported them. It is important that they have some sort of financial security in order to continue that work.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member listed to ask question 8 has withdrawn his name. Raymond McCartney is not in his place. Alastair Ross is not in his place. The next period for questions does not begin until 2.45 pm, so I suggest that the House take its ease until then.
Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): The Delivering Social Change (DSC) programme was announced by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in October 2012. The programme was only made possible by central funding provided by OFMDFM. In the absence of central funding, I had to end the OFMDFM programme and the DE expansion programme at the end of August 2015. In addition, some participating schools have not had the benefit of the additional teaching resource for a full two years or until March 2016, whichever was sooner.
The expenditure for the programme was incurred by the Education Authority in respect of the payment of teachers’ salaries and administration costs up to the end of August 2015, which is when their employment ceased. Work is ongoing to finalise the accounts for the programme up to the end of August 2015. The funding already provided by OFMDFM and my Department appears to be sufficient to cover the costs incurred. My commitment to the programme is such that I have set aside an additional £200,000 to ensure that the best practice and learning developed and identified during the programme can be disseminated across all schools and create a lasting legacy for the Delivering Social Change programme.
Mr Ramsey: I thank the Minister for his response. I have heard you in the media on the issue, but it is still concerns many parents that in the early years their children are not getting the appropriate, holistic and individually tailored plans that are necessary for a child's progression. Can you outline the steps the Department is taking to bring forward a more strategic approach to ensure that a child's development at an early stage is being progressed consistently?
Mr O'Dowd: I do not necessarily accept that many children are not getting the appropriate interventions at early years. In any system as expansive as the Department of Education's, there will be different degrees of provision within the schools. My job as Minister, and the role of the Department of Education, is to ensure that all provision is brought up to the highest level possible. We have tailored interventions in place. Our curriculum is tailored to ensure that education is delivered at early years — age-appropriate and individual-appropriate — to pupils to ensure and support them through their development of education from the earliest years possible.
The Delivering Social Change programme was targeted at our primary schools and post-primary schools, and, over its two years, it was very effective, but, when budgets are reduced, you have decisions to make. OFMDFM had its to make, and I had mine to make. I could have diverted funds away from schools to continue the Delivering Social Change programme, but I would have been paying off teachers to bring in other teachers, and I did not think that that made sense at this time. The lessons from the DSC programme are being learned and disseminated, and they will be shared across our education establishment to ensure that everyone learns the best practice from them.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. I note that he referred to the lessons learned from Delivering Social Change. Will he outline what the Department is going to do to harness that learning to benefit schools across the North?
Mr O'Dowd: As I outlined, I have set aside £200,000 to carry out that work this year. In the most successful schools, that learning has been shared across the curriculum, and many principals are trying to mainstream the approaches learned under the DSC programme. The legacy programme will be delivered during the 2015-16 academic year. That programme aims to prepare and collate resources and best classroom practice identified by Education Authority officers during the programme; provide information for school principals on successful approaches to tackling underachievement; provide continuous professional development (CPD) sessions on English and/or numeracy interventions for our English and maths coordinators and teachers in every school; and prepare and present case studies of best practice identified by ETI and the evaluation process, along with a number of other measures. The lessons learned from DSC will definitely not be lost to our system. They will be built-in and tailored to our schools as we move forward.
Mrs Dobson: What assessment has been made of the worth of the signature projects with regard to literacy and numeracy? How can the Minister address underachievement when the first thing to be cut is that programme?
Mr O'Dowd: We have to recognise that our education system is there to address underachievement. It should not be an add-on, and it most certainly should not be a separate programme or scheme that you come up with. The core purpose of education is to educate to the individual; to meet the needs of the individual child and to nurture the child's development and learning at every stage of their education. That is the core principle. Once you get into a philosophy, idea or mindset that you need yet another programme to tackle underachievement, you are going down the wrong road and in the wrong direction. It has to be the very core of education.
The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) is evaluating the numeracy and literacy programme and will continue to evaluate and disseminate best practice throughout our schools, along with the Education Authority.
Lord Morrow: Does the Minister accept that there is some evidence — in my opinion, it is substantial evidence — that there is underachievement among young Protestant boys? Does he have any measures or has he taken cognisance of that? How does he intend to address that?
Mr O'Dowd: Of course there is evidence that proves — it does not suggest; it proves — that there is educational underachievement in young Protestant boys. As I said in response to the previous questioner, our education system has to be targeted at the needs of the individual and to be set in a way that nurtures and develops the educational well-being and development of every individual child.
Do we need a separate strategy for Protestant working-class boys, solely for education? No. We need a combined strategy for working-class communities, Protestant and Catholic. The figures in the Catholic community are not impressive either. Somewhere in the region of 457 working-class Protestant boys left school without proper qualifications in 2014-15. In the same year, 909 Catholic working-class boys left education without proper qualifications.
We need to target resources to schools in socially deprived areas. I have done that, and that was opposed by the Members opposite. We need to ensure that the Executive, as a whole, are targeting resources to socially deprived areas to build up community confidence and infrastructure, and they are doing that. As is the case with health, you will find that social deprivation breeds educational inequalities. We need to remove inequalities in society to ensure that education prospers.
I believe that we have the policies in place to tackle educational underachievement, because that is at the very heart of our education system.
Mr O'Dowd: For the September 2015 entry, over 21,000 pupils transferred from primary to post-primary schools. By the end of the process in May, 99·4% of pupils were placed in a school of their choice, with 86·7% being admitted to their first-preference school.
The Department has published guidance setting out a framework for the transfer process. That guidance has been in place since 2010, which was the first year that children were not subjected to a state-sponsored transfer test. The guidance strongly recommends that schools do not use criteria related to academic ability. It goes on to recommend a menu of non-academic admissions criteria from which boards of governors of post-primary schools should draw in deciding their admissions criteria. That includes giving priority to children in receipt of free school meals, those with a sibling currently attending the school, and applicants who are the eldest child. It also includes geographic criteria relating to feeder primary schools, a named parish or catchment area, which are all to be used in conjunction with the criterion of the nearest suitable school to ensure that rural children are not disadvantaged.
It is my belief that the transfer process, as experienced by parents and children, would be much fairer if all schools followed the Department’s guidance and ceased the use of academic selection and rejection for admission into schools.
Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, do you not agree that you have effectively privatised the transfer system?
Mr O'Dowd: No. Boards of governors make a conscious decision every year. Every year at a board of governors meeting, a board of governors should set its entrance criteria. Every board of governors that sits down and decides not to use academic selection follows a pathway that does not reject any child on the basis of a dodgy dossier. Schools that decide, at a board of governors meeting, to follow the pathway of academic selection decide to use dodgy dossiers to admit children to their school. There is no educational reason for doing it; there is a social reason for doing it. If it is for social selection, those who support it should stand up and say so. This is for social selection, not for educational selection. Those who defend and make excuses for those schools are responsible for what you term the "privatisation" of admissions criteria. I, for one, campaign daily to bring that process to an end.
Mr Dunne: I must say that I find it unacceptable that the Minister uses a phrase such as "dodgy dossiers" in relation to the selection procedure. Does the Minister agree that, in the main, the system works extremely well because we do not have education authorities or boards involved in it? The fact that they are kept out of it means that the system works extremely well, and, in the main, Protestant and Catholic parents are happy with it.
Mr O'Dowd: The Member stands in an elected Assembly as an elected representative who is charged with holding to account the use of public funds, and he makes the statement that the system works better because the education authorities and boards etc keep out of it. That is probably one of the most undemocratic statements I have ever heard in the Chamber. What, then, is the purpose of the Chamber? What is the purpose of elected representatives? What is the purpose of the ballot box if we do not elect politicians to govern? That is what we are all about and what the Chamber is about.
Does the system work well? No, it does not. Evidence of that is in the draft Equality Commission report published only a fortnight ago. The evidence is in the report published by the OECD two years ago. The evidence comes from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Commission. The evidence has been presented by the trade union movement and can be found in the trail of underachievement in working-class communities. We ignore the international evidence, not for educational purposes but for social selection purposes. There is no educational evidence that backs up academic selection — none whatsoever — but there is plenty to back up its use for social selection. Parties such as yours, which opposed academic selection in the mid-1980s on the basis of social selection, need to go back to your previous position.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Minister, bearing in mind that more than two thirds of schools have moved away from selection and do not have any academic selection at age 10, what progress has been made in moving away from selection the final rump of schools that insist on that process?
Mr O'Dowd: I believe that there has been a change in attitudes to academic selection, particularly in the Catholic sector. That has been driven, in fairness, by the position taken up by a number of groups — the Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Principals Association. They have been driving forward the agenda and reminding people in their sector that academic selection is not only educationally wrong but, in the words of the Catholic Bishops, "morally wrong". There is a shift away from so-called academic selection, which is, in fact, social selection. On the basis of equality and the foundations — Mr Deputy Speaker, it is very difficult to talk when others are having a full-blown conversation.
Mr O'Dowd: With respect, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was just making you aware that it was very difficult to hear. I was not asking you to intervene.
We ask that further schools move away from academic selection in the time ahead. An example of how public opinion changes matters is that a vote in the Chamber yesterday was, a year ago, unachievable. It was made achievable because activists who believe in equality made it so. Therefore, there is a responsibility on the trade union movement, on political parties in the Chamber that oppose academic selection and on civic society to campaign against it.
Mr O'Dowd: I am aware of the health and well-being issues that are faced by teachers in our schools and the importance of addressing them if we are to retain a committed, motivated and healthy teaching workforce. The responsibility for the health and well-being of teachers rests with their employers, their board of governors, in conjunction with the employing authority, where relevant. The employing authorities and the teachers' unions work together through the teachers' negotiating committee (TNC) to tackle issues that impact on teachers' health and well-being. My Department is also part of the TNC.
Over recent years, a number of measures have been introduced to support teachers' health and well-being. They include the development of a strategy for teachers' health and well-being; a policy statement on tackling violence and abuse against teachers; a workload agreement; a teachers' attendance procedure, which includes a new provision for the recording of incidences of work-related stress; an independent 24-hour confidential telephone counselling service for all teachers provided by Carecall; a flexible working scheme; a job-share scheme; a career break scheme; temporary variations of contracts; and a policy statement on planning, preparation and assessment time.
Notwithstanding all of that, I assure Members that this is a matter of the utmost importance to me. Most recently, I personally endorsed the reinvigoration of the teachers' health and well-being working group of the TNC. I expect to see a clear, agreed action plan, outlining specific activities for my Department, employers, employing authorities and the unions to take on, in partnership, to tackle this critical issue.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Aire as an fhreagra sin. Thanks very much to the Minister for that response. What steps are being taken by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) to minimise the occurrence or impact of stress during school inspections?
Mr O'Dowd: There has been engagement between the ETI and the unions, which has seen a change even in how we report on our inspections. I understand that inspections are stressful for teachers and schools. We often hear of the negative side of inspections. Every year, I host an event in the Long Gallery upstairs at which maybe 100 or 150 schools are presented with certificates for outstanding and good inspections. The pride in that room is unbelievable among the teaching staff, the principals and the boards of governors, and rightly so, but neither the media nor anyone else reports on it.
Inspections are good for schools, in my opinion; they are good for the education system. Yes, they should be carried out in a respectful manner and in a manner that does not cause undue stress to the schools or the teachers etc, but they are there for the benefit of our education system. We learn from the best practice, we share best practice and we want to see all our young people being taught in schools that live under the heading of Every School a Good School.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. What action is the Minister's Department taking to address the health and well-being needs of the non-teaching staff in our schools?
Mr O'Dowd: There is a suite of HR policies and procedures in place to support the health and well-being of our non-teaching staff. A number of family-friendly agreements, which recognise the competing pressures on staff, have been negotiated with the trade unions. For example, all staff have 24-hour counselling support and individual counselling services provided by Carecall on behalf of the Education Authority. In addition, the authority employs welfare officers who are available to support staff and to signpost them to specialist services that can provide further support for individuals. Grievance procedures and harassment and bullying policies are in place, as are whistle-blowing policies for circumstances in which staff require formal mechanisms for having any grievance or concern addressed.
Mr Lunn: Mr McGlone asked the question that I wanted to ask, but I will develop it slightly. Anecdotally, we hear that school inspections are, obviously, very stressful and that, when the inspection is concluded, the school is left with an impression of a result that is not finally recorded when the final report comes through. Is the Minister aware that hopes are raised and then dashed, effectively?
Mr O'Dowd: I receive varying commentary from schools around inspections. I cannot verify every report I receive, but the majority of reports around inspections that I receive from schools are good. Yes, there is a period of worry leading up to the inspection and, yes, there is a concern while the inspection is taking place, but, once the inspection is complete, schools report back that they are satisfied or happy with the way in which procedures were carried out. A number of individual schools have different commentaries around that. They would question what they have been told and what ends up in the final report etc.
I come back to the point that I believe that inspections are good for the education system at this time. The inspectors are professionals who carry out their duties in a professional manner, and their reports, whether good or bad, need to be taken on board by schools and lessons learned from them.
Mr O'Dowd: The board of governors of each school funded under the common funding scheme is responsible in law for the management of a school's financial allocation. A board of governors is expected to manage a school in accordance with the memoranda and guidance issued by the relevant funding authority and may delegate certain activities to the principal in accordance with a school's financial memorandum. While employers do not have to specify any particular qualifications on budget management for prospective or serving principals, it is not unusual for essential criteria relating to principals' posts to include a management qualification at postgraduate level. Outside formal qualifications, there is an expectation that those who seek to undertake the role of principal or those who are already in a principal's post will have skills and knowledge in budget management. Those skills will have been gained in undertaking leadership roles at middle and senior levels in schools and/or through training, including the professional qualification for headship for those who aspire to be principals or as part of an induction provision for newly appointed principals.
Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given what he has outlined with regard to a principal's role, which is separate from a principal's role in a special school, can he explain why the principal of a special school cannot achieve the same standard of management of his or her whole budget in the school from the commencement of the academic year?
Mr O'Dowd: Special schools are funded in a different manner from grant-funded schools under the common funding scheme. That is why. We have a number of funding schemes set out in the education system. We have funding schemes for voluntary grammar and voluntary integrated schools. We have funding schemes under the common funding scheme and we have funding schemes for special schools. It is a different process.
Mr Rogers: I agree that the professional qualification for headship is an important qualification. What practical help is there for newly appointed principals in developing their budget skills; in particular, things like mentoring or coaching by experienced principals?
Mr O'Dowd: The important aspect of my answer was that the budget management of a school is the responsibility of its board of governors; it is there to work with, support and manage the school. Powers may be delegated to principals, but let me repeat: the board of governors of each school funded under the common funding scheme is responsible in law for the management of a school's financial allocation. It is the responsibility of the board of governors, not simply that of the principal.
In response to the other part of your question, yes, newly qualified principals do receive support through mentoring programmes etc but they should also receive support from their board of governors.
Mr O'Dowd: Due to a number of factors, including sustainability and area-planning considerations, the Holywood multi-schools project has not been included in any of my announcements to date for new capital builds. In order for the project to be taken forward, it would need to be included in a future capital announcement. Any such announcement will be dependent on the capital budget available to the Department of Education in the next Budget cycle for April 2016 onwards.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he fully recognise the need for new-build schools in Holywood? I appreciate that, some time ago, he visited Priory Integrated College, Holywood Nursery School and Holywood Primary School. Once again, I reiterate that the five schools in the town are all over 50 years of age. Does he recognise the need for investment to address how they have been under-resourced for many years?
Mr O'Dowd: I recognise the need for a new-build programme in Holywood; there is no argument about that. The point is that we need sufficient funds to carry the projects forward.
There are numerous schools awaiting new builds, and I would welcome Members' support in lobbying for an increase in the capital budget for education, even for the next term, when I will not be Minister. Education deserves an uplift in its capital budget. The investment benefits not only the school and the school community but the local economy. Yes, schools require new builds, but, to achieve those, we require more capital.
Mr Lyttle: In addition to support for investment across the Holywood multi-schools project, will the Minister acknowledge that Priory Integrated College is in need of planning and capital funding assistance, and does he agree that there is oversubscription for integrated education in neighbouring education areas? On those grounds, will he assure the House that he will stand and deliver for integrated post-primary provision in the area?
Mr O'Dowd: I have already said to Mr Dunne that the schools in Holywood require new builds, and that includes Priory. I am not going to get into whether there is oversubscription or underprovision for schools in the wider area. I have visited the school and have met the principal on more than one occasion and the board of governors on more than one occasion. Yes, we need to build a new Priory College, but, to do that, I require money. There are many, many schools in the system that require new builds, but it is about getting around to them all.
Mr O'Dowd: I am currently engaged in discussions with teacher trade union representatives in an effort to resolve the current action of non-participation in the statutory assessment process.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for giving a succinct answer. Given that one of the major problem areas here is the lack of confidence among teachers in the assessment process, what consideration is being given to having greater direct input from teachers in the future design of Key Stage assessments?
Mr O'Dowd: I acknowledge the brevity of my answer, but sometimes it is "Less said, easiest mended" in these circumstances. We are involved in detailed negotiations with the unions, and both sides have approached the negotiations with a mindset of resolving this. I hope that that mindset remains in place and we will be able to resolve it. Central to our discussions have been the work and the professional judgement of teachers on levels of progression, as well as reassuring teachers and putting in place mechanisms that put that judgement at the centre of levels of progression. The judgement of the teacher is central, and working in conjunction with his or her colleagues in the school is how we would moderate them. It is also about how we moderate them in conjunction with the professional judgement of neighbouring schools. That is what is at the centre of our discussions. I am attempting to offer reassurances to the unions on how that will be achieved.
Mrs Overend: I feel that I should inform the Minister that different Education Authority areas have made differing recommendations to schools that have applied for the projects. Some are proceeding with their projects in good faith that the funding will be forthcoming, whereas others are not. Will he seek not only to find a resolution but to ensure that there is a uniform message to all schools and all tranches throughout the system?
Mr O'Dowd: I would certainly expect one message to come out from the Education Authority, regardless of the location of a school or the location of the office where the advice is coming from. I will follow that up to make sure that singular advice and recommendations come from the Education Authority. As I have assured Mr Weir or attempted to assure him, I am doing my utmost to bring the matter to a resolution.
T1. Mr D McIlveen asked the Minister of Education what weight should be put on parental choice when deciding that a child should be sent to a particular school. (AQT 3071/11-16)
Mr O'Dowd: "Choice" has entered the common terminology around these matters, but the legislation actually refers to "parental preference". I am supportive of parental preference. Against that, however, you have to bear it in mind that, when evidence points you in a direction that suggests that a type of education or a type of admissions criterion in education is damaging the education system, there is a responsibility on legislators and decision-makers to rectify that.
Mr D McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister may be relieved to know that I am not going down the road of academic selection with this question. In my constituency, which includes Ballymena, parental preference, as he puts it, was that fewer places would be required for Cambridge House Grammar School, which I know the Minister approved. However, that has not been the case with Slemish College, which has consistently found itself oversubscribed. There clearly is an appetite amongst parents to move towards that.
Mr D McIlveen: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Does the Minister have any intention to mitigate the reduction in places at Cambridge House to the advantage of Slemish College, where there is a huge demand and parental preference is very clear?
Mr O'Dowd: I have asked the Education Authority in that context to bring forward a plan for post-primary provision in the Ballymena area and the wider area of Ballymena. While we have made decisions in and around Cambridge House and Ballymena Academy, that is not the finished plan, nor should it be. We need to ensure that there is sustainable post-primary provision in that area. With regard to Slemish College, the only way to increase numbers substantially at a school is through a development proposal. That is brought forward by the Education Authority and is then brought under my consideration under a two-month public consultation process. I cannot make any predetermined decision on that, but I have asked the Education Authority to look at post-primary provision in that area.
T2. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Education for an update on the creation of the controlled schools sectoral support body, particularly the timescale for departmental funding of that body. (AQT 3072/11-16)
Mr O'Dowd: As the Member will be aware, work is progressing to establish a controlled schools support body, as agreed by the Executive in 2014 and then through legislation in the House. A business case to support the establishment and funding of the council has been completed. A contract for the funding is being prepared and will shortly be issued to enable the controlled schools sectoral support body to be formally established.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his answer. What impact does he believe the creation of the controlled schools sectoral support body will have on the teaching appointments scheme for controlled schools?
Mr O'Dowd: A positive impact. The Education Authority has put in place measures ahead of the creation of the controlled schools sectoral support body regarding the formal process that has to be in place for the teacher appointments committee. I do not see any difficulties moving forward in the teacher appointments committee and the setting up of the controlled schools sectoral support body. I jest when I say "positive", but I am serious that it will have a positive impact.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Go raibh maith agat, a Aire as an fhreagra sin.
T3. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Education for an update on the provision of accommodation for Kilronan Special School in Magherafelt. (AQT 3073/11-16)
Mr O'Dowd: I have recently signed off correspondence to the Member on the matter. I am happy to provide him with a further update, but he will understand that a considerable amount of correspondence comes through my Department. I am aware that I signed off correspondence to you yesterday, but I do not have the full detail in front of me.
Mr McGlone: That is good to hear; I hope that it is positive. Is the Minister aware of the pressing and urgent need for accommodation at that school? Can he give me some idea of when moneys will be released from his Department for the provision of that accommodation?
Mr O'Dowd: I have been lobbied by a number of MLAs in relation to the specific school and the accommodation needs around it. I do not wish to sound like a broken record — it is not an easy reply to give or a dismissive reply to give — but the reality is that I do not have sufficient funds in the capital budget in my Department to deal with the outstanding, urgent needs of our schools across the estate. We have had to put in place measures and policies to meet health and safety and disability access requirements in a number of schools. I have said to the Member that I have outlined to him in correspondence the current position, and I am more than happy to give him a further update when it is available.
T5. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of Education for an update on what his Department is doing to tackle educational underachievement among Protestant working-class children. (AQT 3075/11-16)
Mr O'Dowd: I believe that the policies that my Department has in place are tackling and will tackle educational underachievement. The issues surrounding Protestant working-class boys go beyond education — though education has a role to play — and beyond the school gates. I acknowledge and recognise a number of measures being taken by community groups in working-class Protestant areas to tackle educational underachievement. I think that there rests the additional work that will assist us in breaking down educational underachievement among Protestant working-class boys.
Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his response. To some extent, I agree with him. However, the recent Equality Commission report was quite damming. It said that standards are worse now than they were in 2007. Will he work with the other Departments and bring it to the Executive to ensure that the issue is addressed with a sense with urgency?
Mr O'Dowd: The Equality Commission report is a draft report. I have met the commission on the report and have discussed some of the language used by and attributed to it. Standards are not worse now than they were in 2007. That is a fact. Educational underachievement is decreasing, but not at the rate at which any of us would like. I give you the example of free school meal entitlement, by which we measure these matters. Last year, 5% more young people in that category received five good GSCEs than was the case in the previous year, and in the year previous to that, there was an increase on the previous year, so matters cannot be worse in that area than they were in 2007.
There are areas of inequality where there are concerns that it is going in the wrong direction rather than the right direction. However, we are beginning to see an improvement, with an upward trend, in educational underachievement, whether it be among Protestant working-class boys, Protestant working-class communities or other working-class communities. I emphasise the fact that I believe that the education policies and the steps that I have taken will help to tackle the matter. However, the answer lies in the work being carried out by a number of community groups in Protestant working-class communities, and that is where we need to show support.
T6. Mr Humphrey asked the Minister of Education to assure him that the issues at Edenderry Nursery School in the greater Shankill, which is part of the estate of Glenwood Primary School, will be resolved as soon as possible, with construction starting in the new year, given that he will be aware that the contractor was meant to be on-site in September 2015 but was not and there have been issues between his officials and officials from the Belfast region of the Education Authority. (AQT 3076/11-16)
Mr O'Dowd: I can assure you that, if my officials have concerns about capital projects, they will move very quickly to resolve them, as the record will show. I am not aware exactly of what the issues are, but as in any dispute — I use that word advisedly — it will take both sides to resolve it.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that, in my first question, I raised the issue of Glenwood Primary School, and he will know that I have raised the issue before. I, along with my colleague Nigel Dodds MP, recently met the principal and the chair of the board of governors on the issue. We as a party are very keen, as are the principal and the governors, to see a new school put in place for Glenwood in the very near future. Can the Minister assure the House that there will be no impediments to that and that a new school will come to fruition for the benefit of young people in the greater Shankill and their education?
Mr O'Dowd: Yes. The Member will be aware that, during our discussions about Malvern Street, we were always conscious of the perceived knock-on impact on Glenwood. I can assure the Member that I remain committed to building a new primary school for Glenwood and to ensuring that we invest in the education of the young people in that area.
T7. Mr Flanagan asked the Minister of Education, following a response to a question for written answer that he received last week about the potential for issuing guidance to schools on how to meet the needs of transgender students with regard to uniforms, changing rooms and toilet facilities, whether he accepts that the issuing of guidance to schools would be a welcome step forward to help them to meet the needs of their students. (AQT 3077/11-16)
Mr O'Dowd: I think that it will be a welcome step forward. I want to be in a position to send out informed guidance, so I have commissioned a survey across our schools to ensure that I meet the needs of LGBT young people in our schools. A survey has been commissioned and will be distributed, and the information will be brought back to me. Once that information is back with me, I will issue guidance that reflects the needs of transgender pupils in our schools.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he indicate whether he is willing to engage with his counterpart in the South, Jan O'Sullivan, who has also commenced the process of trying to develop guidance for transgender students? Does he accept that there is merit in not only surveying students here but taking the view of the maximum number of people across the island of Ireland in order to develop the best possible practice?
Mr O'Dowd: I am due to meet Minister O'Sullivan as part of an North/South Ministerial Council meeting later this month and am more than happy to raise that issue with her to see what information she can give or assistance she can be to my Department.
T9. Ms Sugden asked the Minister of Education when he thinks a review of the Youth Council of Northern Ireland will be presented. (AQT 3079/11-16)
Mr O'Dowd: I still require some details and have asked my officials for further information, but I hope to be in a position within a number of weeks to make further announcements.
Ms Sugden: Is the Minister able to clarify the administrative costs for the Youth Council that he presented to the Committee? I submitted a freedom of information request, and there seems to be a discrepancy.
Mr O'Dowd: I am not sure whether the Member flagged up to me the apparent discrepancy previously. Standing at the Dispatch Box, it is very difficult for me to know what exactly she is referring to. If the Member wishes to follow up that matter with me, I am more than happy to engage with her on the apparent discrepancy.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Question 10 has been withdrawn their name, so that is the end of the period for questions to the Minister of Education. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Mr Jim Allister has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary.
Mr Allister asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline the steps being taken to protect jobs and secure the future of the Michelin plant in Ballymena.
Mr Bell (The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Over the past number of years, Invest Northern Ireland has assisted Michelin Tyre plc with a number of financial interventions totalling £4,754,297. The objective of those interventions was to secure Michelin’s competitive position within the Michelin Group. The recent announcement is due to issues relating to an overcapacity of circa five million truck tyres in Europe and a substantial increase in imports of truck tyres from the Far East, particularly China.
Invest Northern Ireland has been in regular contact with senior Michelin personnel and was engaged in ongoing discussions related to further investments. Clearly, therefore, today's announcement is extremely disappointing. My Department and Invest Northern Ireland will, of course, engage with the company to fully understand its decision to close the plant, and we appreciate the company's commitment to support its employees in finding alternative employment with its £5 million development fund. Invest Northern Ireland will work with the company and all the relevant partners, including Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and the Department for Employment and Learning, which has been extremely helpful throughout this process, to help staff to consider all the alternative employment options.
Mr Allister: This has been a catastrophic blow for Ballymena on the back of the equally devastating loss of JTI. What my constituents and I want to know is whether the Department, the Executive and Invest NI did all they could and should have done to avert this situation. We note that many of the jobs are going on foot of a £52 million investment in the Dundee plant: what did Scotland offer that Invest NI did not offer? Has the contact been towards increasing the productivity and capacity in Ballymena? On the critical issue of energy —
Mr Allister: The Unite union says that it met the Minister in July on this very issue —
Mr Allister: — and, three months later, is waiting to hear from him.
Mr Allister: Were the Minister and Invest NI asleep at the wheel?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. Members are allowed to ask the question and are then called to ask a supplementary question. I allowed the Member to ask two supplementary questions, and he intended to persist further. I ask the Member to respect the Chair.
Mr Bell: Invest Northern Ireland was meeting the company almost if not actually on a monthly basis. There were reports as recently as September that did not indicate to us this announcement. I got news of the announcement at about 11.00 am today. At 10.00 am, no information was being given out.
The Member raised some questions about Invest Northern Ireland. Invest Northern Ireland has an excellent track record in attracting foreign direct investment to the mid- and east Antrim area. I appreciate that the Member is from North Antrim, and I appreciate the work that Ian Paisley Jnr, the Member of Parliament, has already done around the generous redundancy arrangements that are there and on the £5 million development fund that is there to assist and support people who are devastatingly affected by the situation.
I grew up as a child in Belfast in the 1980s in a working-class community. I know from friends and family exactly how devastating unemployment can be. However, I want to put it on the record that, in 2013-14, in terms of foreign direct investment in the mid- and east Antrim area, 4,760 jobs were created and, over the four-year period from 2010 —
Mr Bell: Mr Deputy Speaker, can I resume the statement? Thank you.
In 2013-14, 4,760 jobs were created through the excellent track record of Invest Northern Ireland. From 2009-2010 to 2013-14, there were 23 inward visits. Invest Northern Ireland —
Mr Bell: Mr Deputy Speaker, those were to the mid- and east Antrim area. I am sure that the Member will be aware that, according to the last census, some 40% of people in Northern Ireland work outside their parliamentary constituency. We are looking at the mid- and east Antrim area, the 4,760 jobs that were created and the 23 inward investments. Invest Northern Ireland has made 83 offers to support inward investment projects that have led to over £84 million of investment. Since we got the news, my officials have been in contact with Michelin, and I understand that it has no complaints about the support that Invest Northern Ireland gave.
I say to the Member, who seems to think that shouting will help somebody's constituency, that I understand the difficulties that Michelin faced. There was a downturn of five million tyres in the market, which is difficult to deal with. Our responsibility now is to see what we can do to create real employment and training opportunities. I have just finished a detailed meeting with the Minister for Employment and Learning on what we can do about putting the colleges to work to ensure that people who need accreditation for skills that they already possess can have it. We need to see what the Social Security Agency and all the relevant agencies can do. Working alongside Minister Farry, we will put together individual and group programmes. The Northern Regional College is available and will work constructively to respond.
There is a good skill set. While some people may wish to talk down Invest Northern Ireland and the skills of people in North Antrim and in the mid- and east Antrim area, they should remember that, with Wrightbus, Schrader, Randox and Moy Park, we have some of the world's leading companies in this area. I understand that Schrader and others are advertising jobs today. We will do all in our power to ensure that the families who have had devastating news coming up to Christmas are given every opportunity to achieve new employment.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members and the Minister that there is much interest in the subject, so I ask them to be concise in their questions and answers.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his intervention in the issue.
It would be helpful if the Minister could give us an indication of how many meetings have taken place directly with him on the matter. This issue has cropped up time and again. I realise that Ballymena and north Antrim have been brutalised over this last wee while with Patton, what some of us know as Gallaher's and now Michelin. The European globalisation adjustment fund, which has been ignored for whatever reason, is used in other parts of the EU to help and support people at this drastic, awful time for them and their families.
Mr Bell: I thank the Member for his question. As for Invest Northern Ireland's support for Michelin Tyre plc, there were quarterly reports and, I understand, monthly visits. I understand that some people are saying that they predicted the closure: I understand that the Member of Parliament was even in recent discussions with the local management of the company and others and we were unaware that the plant was to close. Even though I was getting texts and emails as early as 10.00 am today, the official information that we were given as a Department was around 11.00 am and was embargoed until 12.00 noon.
The company was nearing completion of an investment programme of £11·7 million that commenced in 2008. It was extended to enable expenditure up to 2015 to be eligible. Over the last five years, the company was also offered £1·226 million for training and development. In 2014, Invest Northern Ireland offered a £750,000 capital grant in support of the installation of an in-house plant to generate a percentage of Michelin's electricity requirements. That project was to have commenced in 2017. The Invest Northern Ireland team has worked closely with Michelin management to improve the Ballymena plant's competitiveness in relation to other Michelin plants.
Progress had been made in many areas with inter-group efficiencies, but there has been an oversupply. I understand that cheap imports have forced Michelin's senior management to take this decision. There were other competitive pressures that are outside Invest Northern Ireland's control or influence such as energy costs, distribution costs and, particularly, currency fluctuations.
Mr Frew: I have just left the Michelin plant where I met John Milstead, the plant manager on the site, and I spoke to many employees who are absolutely devastated at today's news. Can I ask the Minister and other Executive Ministers to do everything in their power to enable the proper training and support to be placed in Michelin and, indeed, Ballymena, given the job losses at JTI, B&Q, Patton and other businesses in that area of late? Can I ask the Minister to ensure that people in his Department and other Departments who are at the coalface of this will support those employees as much as they can? Can I also ask the Minister —
Mr Bell: I understand the position that people are in, having experienced it in my own family and seen how devastating news of unemployment can be. I also understand that this is going to be a phased process over two and a half years. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have already spoken on this situation today. I want to assure the Member that everything will be done by the Executive and right though leadership level. I have already had a meeting with the Employment and Learning Minister, which, although very difficult in its content, was very robust and healthy as we look to see what we can do in a collaborative exercise.
I welcome the fact that there is a generous redundancy package. I welcome the fact that there is a £5 million community development fund. I have also been speaking to the Member of Parliament for the area, Ian Paisley Jnr. While others have shouted, he has been responsible for our bringing in a number of potential investors and orders from Singapore, Taiwan and Gibraltar. He hopes to see some success coming from those visits in the not too distant future. This shows that it is important to actually do something about the circumstances, as opposed to shouting from a sedentary position.
We will do all in our power with the Social Security Agency. We will do all in our power to help people, who may have come in at 16 or 18 years of age and have skills that they can transfer. The Employment and Learning and Minister and I, along with the colleges, will ensure that we get those people on to short courses or whatever is needed. I understand from the Minister that the Northern Regional College is ready to act to get those people accredited.
While there has been the difficult news, and you have also outlined correctly some of the big difficulties that there have been in the area with JTI and others, it is important to emphasise that there are some world class facilities in the area. I mentioned some of them earlier: Wrightbus, Schrader, Randox and Moy Park. They are recruiting. They are looking for skill sets. We will do all in our power to support those who are losing their jobs and tailor their skills towards quality alternative employment.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I have been speaking today to many employees and their families who have been left utterly devastated in the mouth of Christmas. We need to do all that we can for those families in the weeks and months ahead. Does the Minister now recognise that there is a crisis in manufacturing? We have a growing list of manufacturers that, because of a number of factors already alluded to, are looking elsewhere. What can be done to prevent this drip feed, where they are increasingly looking towards the east, but also to Britain, because of cheap imports and energy costs? These issues have not been addressed. I am concerned about the fact that the Unite union has said that it has raised issues with you that have not been acted on. Will the Minister explain what the situation is in regard to the Unite union and what strategy he will now put in place to prevent this happening again and to prevent it happening to the families who are left devastated in north Antrim this evening?
Mr Bell: First — if you do not listen to anything else that I say — the thing that will transform and game-change heavy manufacturing in Northern Ireland is a reduction in our corporation tax. I know that the parties are working very hard, and I hope to see a positive response, with a date and a rate set to reduce corporation tax. The information that I am getting from the Economic Policy Centre is that, if we set a date and a rate of 12·5% in 2017, we could create 30,000 to 40,000 new jobs in Northern Ireland and grow our economy from 2017 to 2033 by 10%. If there is to be a game changer, it is for all the parties to assist me in getting that date and rate of corporation tax set and lowered. I cannot go into the confidential details of the companies that I am dealing with, but I assure the House that there is significant investment in terms of jobs and our economy if we can set that date and rate. Even if we were to set it later — most companies work on a three- to five-year plan — I am informed that a lot of that investment will occur immediately.
There are challenges that we have with energy costs. I had a general meeting with Unite in July and we did discuss energy costs. I have to deal with energy costs, but I also have to deal with the security of supply and the burden that there would be on the domestic householder. There are things that we have to manage, but there are other things on which we can produce a game changer. I say to the House again that a prize of over 30,000 new jobs for Northern Ireland will be the game changer that will transform our economy if we set a reduction of our corporation tax and the date for when that is to be done. Friends, that really is a prize that we cannot afford to miss.
Mr Swann: Minister, I have listened to your platitudes for Invest NI, but I assure you that they will be of little solace to the 860 families in and around north Antrim tonight who are looking at a future without a job or a major breadwinner. The redundancy packages may be generous, but they do not put a salary into those houses.
You have referenced the great training opportunities that will be coming forward and the opportunities in the future from you and the Employment and Learning Minister. Those are the same opportunities that have been offered to the 1,200 employees from JTI, the 200 from B&Q and the 500 from Patton. Now, 860 have been added to that —
Mr Swann: — from Michelin. Where are the job opportunities to come from? I do not see them. Corporation tax would not have kept JTI, Patton, Gallaher or Michelin.
Mr Bell: It is important to talk up the skills that exist in the constituency to potential investors. The Member, foolishly, refers to "platitudes" to Invest Northern Ireland, but, as I said, the track record of creating 4,760 jobs for families is not platitudes; the offer of supporting inward investment with over £84 million is not a platitude; and the 23 inward investment visits are not a platitude. The legislation has been passed, and we have a chance in the House to set our date and rate of corporation tax.
The Member, foolishly, may think that he knows more than the likes of Professor Neil Gibson and others from the Economic Policy Centre, which provides independent advice. If I may, I will take the advice of the top three economists in Northern Ireland instead of his foolishness. We are told that we have an opportunity of 30,000 to 40,000 new jobs coming from one of the top three economists in Northern Ireland — [Interruption.]
Mr Bell: The Member may want to shout down 30,000 to 40,000 new jobs. In that case, he would be failing not only north Antrim but Northern Ireland.
Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister, for the information that you have brought to us this afternoon. Minister, you are now back in office, and although I accept that this news came to you out of the blue today, maybe there were other opportunities that you missed by not being here.
Energy supply seems to be key to maintaining large manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland. What action will be taken to ensure that the North/South and Moyle interconnectors will be up and running and delivering electricity at competitive European rates? What actions will you take beyond that taken by the Minister for Employment and Learning and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to contact counterparts in Europe to ensure that the matter is resolved?
Mr Bell: The Member started with some sniping before coming to a very constructive question. There was nothing indicated in the monthly visits to Invest Northern Ireland. Without going into the contents of a private meeting, I can say that, when the Member of Parliament Ian Paisley visited the local management, nothing was raised with us to indicate that there were any difficulties. The most recent quarterly report, from September, I think, indicated that output was up. Therefore, the first part of your question — the sniping — does not really count.
As to energy costs, the Executive are putting £30 million into expanding our gas infrastructure to give consumers more choice. We have faced a difficult choice in balancing continued support for renewables against consumer bills. I have put forward proposals that avoid putting that additional cost on to Northern Ireland consumers. The Utility Regulator is working to reform the single wholesale electricity market on the island of Ireland, because wholesale costs make up two thirds of our electricity bill. A review of the competitiveness of our energy markets has been undertaken by the Utility Regulator, and that has recently concluded that competition is effective. Although it is a big difficulty, it should be noted that most businesses have energy costs around the EU average. I appreciate, however, that large-scale users have comparatively higher costs than their competitors. We do not get exact figures, because they negotiate their contracts separately. We have to do something, but there are things that we cannot do. There is a triangle: costs are there, yes, but there is also security of supply and emissions. You cannot just take costs without looking at security of supply and emissions. You must take a balanced approach.
For this House, the game changer — I will repeat this until I am blue in the face — is setting the date and rate of corporation tax. If we look back in 16 years' time at up to 40,000 jobs lost and an economy underperforming by 10%, the salience of what I am saying will be considerable. Let us set the date and rate, and let us give back to our manufacturing a competitive advantage.
Mr D McIlveen: The Minister will be aware that, even in the darkest days of this Province, Ballymena was recognised as a private sector powerhouse owing to its high level of private industry. There is a real, genuine fear in the area that that reputation is slowly but surely starting to slip away. Does the Minister agree with me that a task force should be set up as soon as possible, with all the relevant stakeholders, to ensure that Ballymena's reputation as an economic powerhouse for the private sector is not further damaged?
Mr Bell: I assure you that anything that I can do in a task force capacity, as an Executive Minister or through working most directly and currently with the Minister for Employment and Learning, will be done for the people involved. It is important that we take a whole view of the mid- and east Antrim area.
It is also important that we take a look at foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has outperformed the rest of the United Kingdom. Up until August 2014, we talked about outperforming every other part of the United Kingdom with the exception of London, and people said that we could not compete against London. However, from August 2014, we overtook it. We have more foreign direct investment coming to Northern Ireland. Do not take my word for it: take the word of 80% of the foreign direct investment that has come to Northern Ireland. Those businesses have subsequently reinvested. Eighty per cent of everybody who has sucked it and seen has put more investment into Northern Ireland. The area still has companies such as Wrightbus, Schrader, Randox and Moy Park. It is still a world leader, and we will do all in our power to ensure that it stays that way.
Mr Agnew: The Minister said that no concerns were raised during the monthly meetings with Invest NI, but, as has been said by a number of Members, UNITE raised concerns in July and was told that it had nothing to worry about. Why did the Minister not listen to UNITE, and why did he not act on its concerns?
Mr Bell: I had a very positive meeting. I am not sure that the summary that the Member has given is accurate; it is certainly not an accurate account of my recollection or of the people who were with me at that meeting. I understand that press releases have gone out. I understand also that when UNITE requested that meeting with me, we asked whether it had anything specific, and it said that there was no specific area that it wanted to speak about. It was talking about general issues that affected UNITE and general issues that affected our manufacturing strategy. We had a very constructive and healthy meeting with UNITE. I was a trade union member for over two decades. I had a very constructive and healthy meeting with members of UNITE in July. It should be said that there was no indication at that stage, either from Michelin, the local management of the company or anybody else, that there were any difficulties leading to today's announcement. As I said, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, the Member of Parliament met local management, and we did not have any indication that this was going to happen. We discussed then what we would do with energy costs. I said, and I always will say, that the best way to create quality jobs and employment for our people in Northern Ireland — we cannot use the state aid as we did before; the European rules forbid that. We can debate whether they are right or wrong, but they are there, and I have to observe the law — is to set a date and rate of corporation tax that could create 30,000 to 40,000 new jobs and grow our economy by 10%. Creating employment and quality employment is everything that any sensible trade union would want to take forward.
Mr McNarry: Will the Minister report back to us on this despairing situation and tell us what Michelin's intention is? Is there a future beyond 2018, and are there production challenges that it is willing to entertain? If not, where are those jobs in Ballymena to take on the skilled workers between now and 2018?
Mr Bell: The information that I got from the company this morning was that it was going to close the complete site. For what it is worth, I have every empathy with the 860 people who have been told that they have lost their jobs. There are 70 contractors as well. My information is that it will be a phased rundown over two and a half years. I hope that we can learn some lessons from the good practice that there was with JTI in retraining and generous redundancy support for families.
I understand that Michelin faced a major challenge. In addition to energy and logistics, it faced a major challenge because there was a £5 million downturn in the truck tyre market and real challenges from the Asian market. I understand that it regarded each of its five European sites as inefficient. There are logistical issues, but we have to look at what we can do, which is to use that £5 million from the community development fund constructively. We can ask the people who are working there and whose employment is going to be phased out over the two and a half year period what skills they have that could be utilised by other companies in the area — Wrightbus, Shrader, Randox and Moy Park. The advertisements are out there. What do we need to do either to accredit their training or to upskill them to put them in a position where they can take advantage of the jobs that are being advertised?
What we can do — the Employment and Learning Minister has put the Northern Regional College on notice with its full agreement — is put courses in place for people who have the skills but do not necessarily have the certification of those skills, so that they can get the necessary certification, to go on their CV, to render them eligible for those jobs. We will look at their skill sets, make one-to-one and group appointments and bring to people's attention the advertisements that, I understand, exist for jobs in the area. However, it is not just about the jobs that exist in the area: we can bring jobs in. I am in a privileged position as Enterprise Minister: I know that significant global companies are looking at Northern Ireland. They intend to bring investment and jobs, if this House gets its act together and sets a date and a rate for corporation tax: 30,000 to 40,000 jobs are a massive opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of the period available for the urgent oral question. Unfortunately, not everyone who had indicated was able to question the Minister.
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly notes that a solution to the post-primary transfer process has not been found; further notes that a one-size-fits-all educational system will not work; believes that it is becoming increasingly unacceptable that, every year, thousands of young people are sitting unregulated transfer tests and that primary schools are placed in the difficult position of mediating between parental demand and Department of Education policies; further believes that the ongoing politicking of the issue does not address the seriousness of the matter; and calls on the Minister of Education to convene talks with all the major stakeholders in order to build consensus and agree a way forward on the issue. — [Mrs Overend.]
Mr Newton: I rise to support the motion, but not with a lot of enthusiasm. I do not see the need to divide the Chamber, but I think that the motion might be described as being somewhat unskilled and sloppy in its construction. I refuse to believe that Danny Kennedy was happy with the construction of the motion, given his ministerial experience, his usually forensic mind on political matters and his long-term political experience. Given all that, I cannot see him being happy with the motion as it stands.
It is a great pity that the DUP amendment was not accepted, because it would have done three things —
Mr Newton: I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. The motion would have benefited from rewording to confirm that schools have the right to use selection and that there is no community consensus on the way forward. Indeed, the motion should have taken up the clarion call from parents and others for cooperation between those who provide the selection tests, to work together to the benefit of children, parents and, indeed, the schools.
Despite the words that have been used earlier about the selection process, parents still want to get their children into grammar schools, as is their right. The mover of the motion indicated as much when she said that there was a growing number — 14,000 plus this year — who will sit the selection tests for grammar schools. Parents are generally supportive of grammar schools, and they are supportive of them because they are ambitious for their children. Grammar schools, however, should not be seen as a reason for underachievement in other sectors.
I welcome the fact that the Assembly today decided to form an all-party group to address underachievement. It has the perhaps more ambitious title of promoting educational excellence, but its intent is to address underachievement. It is, I think, an excellent initiative by Assembly Members to pick up the gauntlet.
Addressing underachievement is necessary. We need further initiatives, from various Departments, to address and tackle it. I welcome the initiative taken by OFMDFM under its signature project: having additional teachers to tackle numeracy and literacy problems proved successful.
While the motion does not do any overall harm, I think that it could have been constructed in a much more purposeful and meaningful way to take the subject forward.
Mr McCausland: Like the previous Member who spoke, I support the motion, but I concur with his view that it could have been better had it been more pointed and productive.
We are living with the legacy of the flawed decision of a previous Sinn Féin Minister to abolish the transfer test. The fact is that Sinn Féin set out to do something and found itself unable to do it. It wanted to abolish, to completely remove, any form of academic selection. That proved impossible. That was a case of Sinn Féin setting out to do something that it did not manage to do, and, in the process, it made the situation more problematic for everyone. It was an ill-thought-out, ill-conceived and ill-considered development.
The fact remains that reports on educational underachievement are frequently misused and abused to justify a political stance against academic selection. That is a flawed analysis that does a disservice to children, schools and parents. It hones in on one issue that is not the real issue, thereby diverting attention from all of the real issues that contribute to educational underachievement and which need to be addressed if we are to achieve the academic excellence that we all desire.
I am afraid that, during today's questions for oral answer, the Minister reiterated that view. I was disappointed that his colleague Mr Hazzard, in the context of asking a question on the subject, referred to a "final rump" of schools. That is a somewhat disparaging term to apply to schools striving to do the best for the children who attend them. It was, I think, inappropriate.
The fact is that many factors lead to underachievement, and there has to be a multifaceted approach if we are to address it. That is why a member of my party proposed the establishment of an all-party group designed to advance educational excellence and address educational underachievement.
We have seen interventions to address underachievement. They need to be made at a very early stage, not at the later stage of transfer from primary to secondary education. The real problems emerge at a very early stage, which is why we have had early years interventions, and I know that the Minister supported a number of those initiatives. There have been early years interventions in the Colin area of west Belfast and in integrated services in the greater Shankill area. If we are to achieve the outcome that we want, we should focus on those areas a great deal more. Nurture units in primary schools are another example of early intervention.
To get back to the core issue of the transfer test and process, the fact is that there is no consensus. That has been clear for a long time. I think there is little sign or, indeed, evidence that a consensus can be reached. Among schools, parents and all stakeholders, there is a range of views and opinions, and I am not sure that a consensus can be reached. The motion calls for striving toward an effort to reach a consensus. I am just not sure that it is necessarily there. What we should be doing is affirming the right of schools to academic selection. It is one that is now recognised and established. It is there, and it is something that very many parents want. Many parents value it and want their children to have a grammar school education. In that case, let us focus on the real problems, which are around the issue of underachievement.
Mr McCausland: As for the transfer test itself, it would be ideal if we had it regulated again. Sadly, I think that the Minister and his party are going to oppose that.
Lord Morrow: I, too, have great problems with the motion. If I were to support it, it would be under duress, because I believe that the motion fails to tell us what it is trying to do and trying to say. As a matter of fact, when I read it, and read it again, I handed it on to someone else without speaking and they said, "I am not sure what that motion is trying to say."
I think that Mr McCausland has hit the nail on the head. No one on this side of the House will stand up today, tomorrow or any other day and say that we have a perfect education system here in Northern Ireland, but I think many of us are prepared to stand up and say that we have a good education system in Northern Ireland. Of course, as Mr McCausland said, our problems go back some time to when Martin McGuinness took over as Education Minister. In a fit of pique, when the Assembly was going out of business, he ran into this House with an ill-thought-out plan and abolished the 11-plus. In saying that, I am not for a moment saying that the 11-plus was a perfect test or a good system. However, you would not take something away until you had something else to put in its place; that is, except if you were totally irresponsible. As we now know, that is exactly what happened.
I am sure that Mr Kennedy will do it when he speaks, but I cannot draw from the motion whether it compliments the new exam or is critical of it. It does not make that clear. I believe that the system that is now in place is as good as the 11-plus. Indeed, my opinion is that it is better. That is a personal opinion, and I will allow everybody else to have their personal opinion on it, too, but I do know for sure that having nothing in its place just left a vacuum.
I listened to Chris Hazzard. He was critical of grammar schools but then he went on to say — now he is shaking his head; he is not so sure, you see — that the grammar schools have a place. Maybe sometime, not today, he could come to the House and explain what role he sees for grammar schools. He tells us that he is a product of one and that he got a good education from it. Is he going to deprive his offspring and everybody else's of the good system that he benefited from? Is it solely for him? Now that he has got his day out of schooling, he thinks that it is time for all change.
Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for giving way. He is looking for a bit of clarity. I think that I went to great lengths to say that I have absolutely nothing against grammar schools except their system of admissions. I want everybody to be afforded the chance of going to some of our best schools. I went to a grammar school, but not everybody in my family nor all my friends were afforded that chance, and we have all ended up in different walks of life. We want to be able to give every child the possibility of attending our very best schools.
Lord Morrow: I listened carefully to what Mr Hazzard said. He said that not all his family and not all his friends went to a grammar school. Were they deprived of going, or did you go because you were such a brainy boy? Is that what you are trying to tell us? You cannot have it both ways. I know many people who did not go to a grammar school and made magnificent achievements. Equally, I know that many who went to grammar schools were quite spectacular students and achieved much in their day. I accept that one size does not fit all. The motion tries to —
Mr Weir: I do not know whether Mr Hazzard is putting down a marker that, if you go to a grammar school, you might end up as an MLA. If so, that may be the strongest argument against academic selection that has been offered in the debate.
Lord Morrow: You were going to give me another minute, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Lord Morrow: I listened carefully to what Mr Weir said. Some MLAs did not go to a grammar school, and some of them perform quite well as constituency representatives. I see that even the Minister agrees with me; it is not often that I get him to agree with me on anything, but he is agreeing with me on that.
We are not for one minute saying that grammar schools are the be-all and end-all. All children have different abilities and skills, and there are great achievers, whether they go through the grammar school stream or in a different direction. Many people achieve later in life, and some such people are in the Chamber. Mr Weir mentioned that they ended up here, and they are living proof of a wonderful achievement.
Lord Morrow: I agree with the motion that one size does not fit all. I apologise because I will probably not be here to hear what Mr Kennedy says, but I will read his contribution with great interest.
Lord Morrow: I have to rush to another appointment. When Mr Kennedy speaks, will he clarify whether the motion is criticising the new test?
Mr Allister: It certainly betokens the abject failure of devolution to handle education matters that, all these years into this experiment, the relatively straightforward and essential matter of transferring children from primary education to secondary education continues to be bogged down in dispute and be deficient in any properly controlled or regulated system. I have no difficulty in recognising that that is all part of the belligerent agenda of Sinn Féin to bring anarchy to the education system that it so abhors. That betokens the failure of devolution.
To transfer kids from primary school to secondary school, we have to have a system outside the primary school structure and unregulated from within the primary school structure, whereby kids sit exams that are set by the grammar schools to see whether they are eligible to attend those schools. At the same time, every bully-boy tactic available is used by the Department to threaten the primary schools that dare to do what parents expect them to do: prepare their children for the next step in their educational journey. If that step includes undertaking an AQE test or something else, the full weight of threat and authority from the Department is brought down on the heads of those schools. How dare they try to do what parents expect and equip their children to make the transition from primary school to grammar or secondary school?
That bully-boy tactic is a very negative influence.
Of course, we require some form of selection; I am quite clear on that. Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that not all children are bestowed with the same talents, aptitudes and capabilities. Some are marvellously bestowed in mechanical matters and others are marvellously bestowed with academic talents; but we kid ourselves if we think that all children, with the right tuition, will be produced at the same level of talent in every possible discipline. It is, of itself, absolute nonsense.
The system refuses to recognise that reality. It refuses to recognise that, for some children, the most that can be taken out of them and the most that can be given to them is by encouraging and allowing their academic talents to flourish; and that, for others, the most that can be taken out of them and the most given to them is by encouraging their non-academic talents to flourish. To deny the opportunity to allow both to flourish by simply seeking a great conglomeration, where you settle for the lowest common denominator, seems to me to be absolute folly.
That, of course, is the philosophy that drives the Minister. He wants to bring everyone down to the same level, so that you can say that there is equality across the board in talent, instead of wanting to exploit, build and grow the talent and aptitude of whatever nature. Therefore, the one-size-fits-all approach that the motion refers to is an absurdity; it is an absurdity that is being perpetuated by those decisions.
The AQE test, for example, is very well calibrated and very well tested and proofed. It is an excellent test of children's ability.
Mr Allister: It is not the only test, but it is excellent in all those regards. I only wish that something of that nature and order was permitted to operate properly within the education system. We could then see the talents grow in this Province.
Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to respond to today's debate, which relates to the system of transfer from primary to post-primary education. However, at the heart of the system, are our young people of 10 and 11 years of age. This Saturday, many of those children will sit a test that will determine the school that they will transfer to next year. Setting aside my views on the necessity of those tests for a moment, I would like to acknowledge that this is a very stressful time for those children. I would like to wish them well and remind them that, however they perform in those unnecessary tests, they will get the chance to fulfil their potential at whatever or whichever school they intend to move to.
I also commend the parents who have decided that their children will not sit those unnecessary tests. The vast majority of our parents are caring and nurturing and want the best for their children. Too often in our education debates, we concentrate on those who rush to sit a selection test, who have to sit a selection test or who allow their children to sit a selection test because their peers are doing so. I am on record today and on many other occasions as saying that I understand why parents are placed in that position, but I also commend the parents who make the conscious decision to refuse to allow their children to be used in that manner.
Throughout the debate — and Hansard can be checked, double-checked and triple-checked — no one has put forward an educational argument for academic selection. No one has put forward an educational argument for academic selection in 2015. Mr Allister was the last Member who spoke, so his argument is freshest in my mind. When I hear the argument that all children are not created the same, that all children have different skill sets and that some children may be mechanically minded and others academically minded, he may find it surprising that I do not disagree with him.
I agree with you. What we disagree on is this: why do you need to separate those children at age 11 or 14 and send them to a different school.
Mr O'Dowd: Why do you need to separate them? We can ignore what all the international evidence shows. Many of you may wish to ignore me and the Department of Education on this matter, and that is OK. However, there is a lengthy list of international bodies that all point to the fact that academic selection does not work educationally and that it has a detrimental impact on your education system. My colleague Mr Hazzard read out a list of such bodies, which has been dismissed by some.
Can you dismiss the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child? Can you dismiss the Equality Commission? Can you dismiss the Human Rights Commission? Can you dismiss the OECD experts in education? Can you dismiss those high-performing educational systems internationally that are not only outperforming our education system but are also outperforming our academically selective schools? Our academically selective schools are not competing at the level of other non-selective education systems globally.
We ignore all that evidence and set up a wee Committee to look at educational underachievement so we can go to the doors next year and say, "Oh, we do care about educational underachievement; we have set up an all-party working group on it". However, if your all-party working group is serious, it will have to look at the international evidence. When you examine the international evidence, you either follow it or disband your all-party working group, because you are going nowhere if you ignore the evidence.
Let us go back to why we separate these children, the academically gifted, at age 11, because you cannot tell whether they are academically gifted at 11. I do not care how good the AQE test or the GL test are or if they come together in an unholy alliance and produce a new test, you do not have evidence before you of the abilities of a child at age 10 or 11. You have a moment in time that can be, and is, coerced by a number of factors, which is damaging not only to the individual but to our education system. It is coerced because evidence shows us that if you come from a socially mobile background, you will do OK in the AQE, GL, 11-plus or whatever you want to call it. If you come from a socially deprived background, you will not.
The evidence also shows us that, whether it is a state-sponsored or a non-state-sponsored test, coaching will get you through it. So, you are coached for the test and you get through it and you go off to a selective school. What is the first thing that you will find? You will find that this school, which you have been coached to attend, teaches the exact same curriculum as the school down the road that your friends were not coached to attend. They will go through the same curriculum, they will go through the same teaching, and will be assessed in the same way. Educational pathways are open to them, whether academically, vocationally or otherwise; and, come the age of 14, decisions will be made about their future educational pathways, the best direction of travel for each individual pupil. Decisions will be made in conversations with the parents, the pupil, the teacher, and they will move along a pathway that suits their needs. That pathway can adjust —
Mr O'Dowd: I will in a moment. However, in the academically selective world, when you reach the age of doing your mock GCSEs or your GCSEs and you do not do so well, there is a wee quiet conversation in the office where they say, "I don't think you suit here", and you are left behind.
Is that what education is about? Is that what everybody here adheres to? Individually, pupils are disadvantaged, but the evidence shows us a more disturbing thing. Academic selection damages your education system, and here is why: international and local evidence shows us — many fine non-selective schools in our society prove it to be true — that when children of different abilities and from different socio-economic backgrounds are taught together they all do better than they would if separated: all of them do better than if they were separated.
Therefore, why are we separating our children at 11 or at 14? It is not for educational reasons but for social reasons.
There is a wee battle going on between the unionist parties over the middle-class unionist vote. The DUP changed its position on academic selection somewhere in the mid 1980s, but it still went into the St Andrews peace negotiations — they were peace negotiations — and insisted that academic selection be retained on the statute books unless the Assembly said otherwise. The DUP has never explained adequately why it went into peace negotiations and insisted that a system that has been proved to be detrimental to Protestant working-class communities be retained. Never has it explained that. I have no doubt that the Protestant working-class communities will go out and vote for the party again, and the DUP will produce its wee graphs and say, "We do care about Protestant educational underachievement". However, when it supports a system that embeds educational underachievement, it cannot stand by that claim. Perhaps, at some stage, the DUP will explain why it went into peace negotiations to uphold a system that was detrimental to the Protestant working-class community.
The Ulster Unionist Party has been an advocate of academic selection. There have been many criticisms of the motion. I have read it several times, back and forth, but I am pretty sure that it means, "You need to do something, but academic selection stays". That is basically what it says. If you do not deal with the core problem of the system, however, what is the point? We could produce a state-sponsored test. It would be very easy to produce a state-sponsored test, but it would not solve the problem in the system. You would still be dividing young people on the basis of social class, not educational ability. You would still have the same consequences for your education system by way of educational outcomes for those on the tail of underachievement and for our highest-performing pupils. International evidence tells us that even our highest-performing pupils should be doing better. Our grammar schools — the selective schools — are not competing against the best in Europe or the best in the world. Why is that the case? The all-party group on tackling educational underachievement will spend several months discussing that. It will look for every reason and excuse for why that is the case, but the reason will always come back to this: when you look —
Mr O'Dowd: Yes, it will blame me.
It will always come back to this: the international evidence shows that the highest-performing education systems are non-selective. Why do they benefit from being non-selective? It goes back to the point that I made earlier. Children from different socio-economic backgrounds and with educational abilities learn from one another. Therefore, why do we divide them? If they learn from one another, and all boats rise in the high tide, why do we separate them? Somebody needs to explain to me the educational purposes of dividing children, if the evidence shows that they do better when they are educated together. No one has done that thus far.
Mr Allister: Does the Minister believe in and support streaming in secondary schools? Streaming is a soft type of selection.
Mr O'Dowd: I have no objections to streaming, but there is an interesting debate in education at the moment around it. Again, we have good local evidence of that. Streaming is selection within the school, but it shows that all young people can be educated together in the one school. You can move between streams, friendships can be retained from primary school into post-primary school, and there is no social division. All of the evidence suggests that, yes, young people can do better that way.
Look at St Patrick's in Keady, which is no longer streaming. It is educating all abilities in the one class. Look at the results that are coming out of that school. They are very impressive and informative. As has been mentioned, the school recently received a Times Educational Supplement award for its innovative work in and around education.
I am the Education Minister, and I am a parent. I have high ambitions for my children. I hear the like of Mr Allister saying that my motive is to destroy our education system and to bring everybody down. My motive is more scary for him. My motive is to bring everybody up. My motive and my belief in equality is this: everybody should have the same chance in life, regardless of creed or need. That scares Mr Allister more than his belief that I am here to wreck the education system, because nothing could be further from the truth. My children are in the education system. I want my children to succeed. I want the education system to succeed. I want the economy to succeed. The previous debate was about job losses in Ballymena. That shows us, if we need to know something, that educating simply along the old model will not benefit the modern economy.
Mr O'Dowd: I will in a moment. I think that this is the second time.
Mr Weir: You did not give way the first time.
Mr O'Dowd: Did I not? Sorry.
Our economy is changing. The old certainties of the past are gone. Whether it be heavy manufacturing or some of the old academic pathways, they are all changing, and we have to have an education system to suit them.
I will give way to the Member.
Lord Morrow: Thank you. At least I made it on the second attempt. I ask the Minister directly: if what he says is right, why is it that the numbers who are taking the transfer test are increasing year on year? I think that, at the last count, they were up by some 400 or 500. Are you saying that all those who are taking this test are under duress?
Mr O'Dowd: I am happy to be wrong. The difficulty for those on the other side of the argument is that internationally respected bodies are saying that academic selection damages the education system. I do not know whether the figures that are quoted every year showing a rise in the numbers who are taking the test are right, because we have one organisation saying that they have 6,000 taking the test and another organisation saying that they have 8,000 taking it, but I am also commonly told that many children sit both tests. How do we know whether there is a rise in the numbers taking it?
What is also quite clear from commentary and debates in the media around this matter is that there are parents whose children sit the test because they support academic selection, and there are parents whose children sit the test because the local school has put a barrier in the way and they have to get over it. Other children sit the test because their peers are sitting the test and they are never going near a selective school anyway, because their parents put them through it. In this equation, numbers do not mean that there is overwhelming support for academic selection.
I will say, as I said earlier, that yesterday proved that there can be changes in public opinion and there can be change in this House. All those who are opposed to academic selection in society, and all those who are in favour of equality in society, need to get out and campaign for change, because the marriage equality movement proved yesterday that you can change people's minds. Trade unions, civic society and equality organisations need to follow the lead that has been given by the Catholic bishops and the Catholic Principals Association on this matter. They need to get out and campaign for change.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful for the opportunity to wind up this debate on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. First, I want to make some general remarks about the context of the debate.
In recent weeks, I have rejoined the Education Committee after a 13-year hiatus. In the first flush of devolution in this House, between 1998 and 2002, I chaired the Committee. What happy memories! I remind Members that it was a time when the education debate was particularly dominated by the thorny issue of post-primary transfer. It was a time when we had the Burns report, the Gallagher report and major consultation exercises which involved a household survey. It was a period of great public debate; sometimes heated, but mostly serious and quite focused. Looking back now, I think that there was an opportunity then to create broad agreement about replacing the 11-plus with something better which would have commanded widespread public support.
It is worth remembering that there was widespread agreement in some areas: the need to replace the 11-plus test, the concept of a new form of assessment through a pupil profile, and some of the proposed admissions criteria. In addition, the suggestion that 14 was a more appropriate age for a pupil to decide upon an academic or a more vocational route was gaining traction. Certainly, I have been a strong admirer and supporter of the Dickson plan system, which operates very successfully in the Craigavon area despite the obvious and continued attempts by the Minister of Education to dismantle and abolish it.
The household survey was quite interesting at the time because it said that 30% of respondents were in favour of abolishing academic selection but 64% were in favour of retaining it and 7% were undecided. Fifty seven per cent of respondents in the household survey wanted an end to the then 11-plus examination. Fundamentally, I am not sure that those percentages have significantly altered over the years.
At the time, the Ulster Unionist Party said that the transfer test in the form of the 11-plus was unsustainable and that a replacement selection process should be developed. We favoured a transfer system based on a pupil profile developed in the primary system, accommodating parental input but with a final decision resting with the school on the basis of approved criteria. Our goal then was, and remains, that all schools should come to be viewed as equivalent in the value of the education that they provide.
Of course, the debate ended abruptly on 11 October 2002, when Martin McGuinness, in his last act as Education Minister, in an act of political malice and educational destruction, declared the end of transfer tests. That act was described by a distinguished figure in education at the time, Monsignor Denis Faul, now deceased, as:
"dictatorial, made without reference to the Northern Ireland Assembly or the education committee of the assembly. It was a one-man decision that can be classed as anti-democratic."
Therefore, it killed off any emerging consensus and polarised the debate, and, 13 years on, we are not much further on. The last 11-plus examination was in November 2008, and we now have non-departmental, non-state, independent tests.
I want to assure Lord Morrow before he ushers himself away to other business. Had he listened to the proposer of the motion, my colleague, Mrs Overend, he would have heard her say that the AQE and the PPTC deserved credit for the professional way in which they have gone about organising their entrance tests and that we were not aware of any complaints about the fairness of the system. Our complaint is that they are independent and, therefore, unregulated and they ought to be regulated by the Department of Education. Perhaps there is more than a hint that they operate on a polarised and almost sectarian basis, which is not their intention and is not their proper use.
We do want to see change and, unfortunately, as Sandra in proposing the motion has described, the issue of post-primary transfer is really another elephant in the room. There are so many elephants gathering in that room and there are more elephants in this Chamber than in Bellevue zoo, but that seems to be the way of it. It seems that, in this mandate, the big two parties of Sinn Féin and the DUP have come to a truce, and they seem to be content to let AQE and GL continue with their tests for grammar entrance, while the Minister can pose as being ideologically pure and can occasionally send threatening letters to primary schools for daring to prepare pupils for those transfer tests. It is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs, and that is what the motion seeks to address and make progress on.
I want to deal with some of the contributions made by Members. Mr Weir and other DUP colleagues, including Lord Morrow, Nelson McCausland and Robin Newton, had nothing good to say about the motion, but they had not produced any motion themselves, and one felt that that was the major criticism; that, short of bringing forward a DUP motion, anything else would be unsatisfactory. I think that we can deal with that. There was common agreement from DUP Members that the current situation is unsatisfactory and needs to be addressed, and that we should take steps at least to insist on some urgent discussion. I suppose that the action point from the motion is that the Minister of Education, rather than sitting on his political theory of Marxism and old-style socialism that makes Jeremy Corbyn look like a moderate —
Mr O'Dowd: There is another well-known Marxist revolutionary who is opposed to academic selection. You might have heard of him: Michael Gove. He hardly falls into the category of being a Marxist. This debate transcends political ideology. It is an education debate, and many people from different political ideologies have come to the conclusion that academic selection damages your education system.
Mr Kennedy: I have listened carefully to Michael Gove, and you are no Michael Gove — I am happy to confirm that. [Laughter.]
I am afraid that what we have left are the politics of envy, not only educational envy, it seems, but social envy from the Minister and his party. That is very regrettable indeed, and it is not the basis on which to proceed on education for the future of all of our children. I am not the product of a grammar school education, and neither are my children, but I want all children to succeed and be encouraged to achieve their best.
A school mentioned by some in the debate, St Patrick's in Keady, is in my constituency. It is an excellent school, but it is unthinkable that no degree of assessment takes place there. That, in its own form, is selection. This play on words to satisfy —
Mr Kennedy: No, I do not have time.
There is a play on words to satisfy old-style Marxist ideology that allows people to pretend that selection does not exist and is not practised —
Mr Kennedy: — in almost every form. I commend the motion to the House.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 55; Noes 24
Mr Agnew, Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Mr D Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Mr Eastwood, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Hamilton, Ms Hanna, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr McGlone, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McKinney, Mr McQuillan, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mr Rogers, Mr Ross, Mr Somerville, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Kennedy, Mrs Overend
Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mr G Kelly, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Hazzard, Mr McMullan
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this Assembly notes that a solution to the post-primary transfer process has not been found; further notes that a one-size-fits-all educational system will not work; believes that it is becoming increasingly unacceptable that, every year, thousands of young people are sitting unregulated transfer tests and that primary schools are placed in the difficult position of mediating between parental demand and Department of Education policies; further believes that the ongoing politicking of the issue does not address the seriousness of the matter; and calls on the Minister of Education to convene talks with all the major stakeholders in order to build consensus and agree a way forward on the issue.
Mr McCallister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise to you and the Minister for missing a topical question.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes, and all other Members who speak will have approximately six minutes.
Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister, in particular, for her presence in the Chamber, and I acknowledge the publication last week, post my tabling of this debate, of her Department's review of the non-domestic rating system and the useful information contained in it. This is definitely the graveyard shift and I feel that I should possibly just email you and let everybody get away, but we will go through the motions anyway. I apologise on behalf of my colleague Fearghal McKinney; he has had to travel to Ballymena.
It is important that we, in the Assembly, get to grips with the form of taxation over which we already have control, namely domestic and non-domestic rates, which, between them, raise £1·17 billion annually. With the proposals that I am making, I acknowledge that we cannot propose to recommend rates relief unless we can balance it with some compensating revenue-raising measures. All the parties in the Assembly, including my own, have been united in demanding that Westminster devolve the power to reduce corporation tax in order to be competitive with the Republic and to attract foreign direct investment. It is my personal belief, and it is on the record, that the ship of foreign direct investment has probably sailed and that we are too late for that party. We have the absurd position that parties are lobbying for the right to give a preferential rate of tax on businesses, which may or may not come to Northern Ireland, while government is perceived to be ignoring the businesses in our town centres and on our high streets that have been here for decades, are creating a substantial number of local jobs, and are owned by local people.
I do not want to rehearse too much the complaints that have been often made in the Assembly about the decline of the retail sector and traditional high street shopping. I have lived in south Belfast since the age of three. I grew up about 30 metres from the Lisburn Road and had my first taste of the working world in a newsagent and restaurant there, neither of which, unfortunately, survived the downturn.
In south Belfast, we reputedly have the most sought-after retail location outside the city centre, namely the Lisburn Road, which is followed, not too far behind, by the Ormeau Road. Like all retail outlets in every city and town in these islands, the Lisburn Road, Ormeau Road, as well as Finaghy, Carryduff, Saintfield Road, Botanic and all other clusters of businesses are under unprecedented economic pressure and face substantial decline.
We know the reasons for that: changes in shopping patterns, the growth of online and out-of-town shopping, and various parking and traffic issues. All those factors have put traditional high street shopping under stress. However, the biggest single factor over which we have control and can do something about is unaffordable business rates. The situation with business rates, as I am sure you have heard from constituents, significantly worsened for many post-revaluation in 2015, implemented from this April. We were told that it was to be a revenue-neutral exercise, but it has thrown up incredible anomalies in rate collection.
The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) claims that 45% of its members saw their rate bills increase from between 20% and 200%, which, I think everyone would agree, is an absurd and unjustifiable variation. The net asset values (NAVs) for many properties have been set so high that businesses in south Belfast cannot benefit from the small business rates relief designed to help them.
Depending on which of the 11 council areas a business is located, rates vary from 51·66p to 59·5p in the pound compared with 48·2p in England. That means that in Northern Ireland, some businesses are dealing with 20% higher rates than a comparable business in comparable premises across the water. That is in addition to the other costs of doing business in Northern Ireland.
Land and Property Services (LPS) now typically demands anywhere from £5,000 to £10,000 in rates to trade in an average-size shop or office in any town centre or on any main street in Northern Ireland, regardless of the trade or profitability of the business being undertaken, or indeed of the office or charity. Anybody who has attempted to open a constituency office will know that. That is an absolutely unsustainable burden for many and has contributed directly to the proliferation of boarded-up shop fronts and of charity shops, which are, of course, tax exempt.
Northern Ireland has one of the lowest numbers of businesses per 10,000 of the population and has experienced a 2% fall in the number of businesses since 2010, compared with a 10% increase in, for example, the south of England. We are not helping to foster an entrepreneurial culture because it is immensely difficult for a start-up business to locate in any of our towns or local shopping stretches because of business rates and the fact that, quite simply, many banks will just not lend to a business start-up that hopes to trade on a high street.
On Saturday past, I walked the length of the Lisburn Road, which is less than two miles from the King's Hall to Bradbury Place. I counted seven charity shops in operation, and no fewer than 42 business properties, retail and office accommodation, that were for sale or rent. They were vacant in one way or another, including substantial properties, such as the former Majestic cinema and the Malone Exchange, probably in excess of 2,000 square metres.
I want to give a few examples of the effects of rate and rent issues, and some of the anomalies that have been raised with me in south Belfast and further afield.
In my constituency, a fairly upmarket furniture shop opened about 10 years ago and closed this year. I was told — I have been trying to confirm this — that, in the shop's last year of trading, its combined rent and rates bill was £240,000 a year, or £4,600 a week. I am advised that a small, family-owned food business elsewhere in my constituency has the same rates bill as quite a large, metro-style chain supermarket less than half a mile up the same road. In a city outside of Belfast, the owners of a hotel — a family business — pay business rates of £255,692 per annum, which is just short of £5,000 a week. I was given a direct comparison between that hotel, which has 110 bedrooms, and a 100-bedroom hotel in a town in the midlands down South that has full conference facilities, a nightclub, a pub and a leisure centre. Its business rates are €120,000, which equates to roughly £90,000. The difference is a massive £165,000. In Scotland, a business located in a premises with an annual NAV of £10,000 will not pay any rates. A comparable business here will pay between £4,100 and £4,760, depending on which council area it is located in.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is a heavy financial burden for any business. It goes some way to explaining not only the proliferation of vacant shops but the low level of business start-ups when compared with our neighbours across the water and down South. We now have the situation that, in Britain and the Republic, central and local government are proactively trying to implement innovative ways to attract business start-ups into town centres to regenerate and revitalise neighbourhoods. At the same time, we appear to be ignoring the fact that our policies are driving people out of town centres. Put simply, the annual NAV — more precisely, the antecedent valuation date (AVD) of the rental valuation of property as at 1 April — has been set far too high by LPS.
I want to touch briefly on the collateral and wider damage that occurs when a business shuts. It is not just the jobs that are lost when the shutters come down. There is a stifling of investment and destruction of the value of assets. Owning commercial property is now looked on almost as a financial liability by most banks and as impaired security for lending. More broadly, however, the nearby communities suffer the ill effects. Councils have to pick up the tab for dereliction, vandalism and related antisocial behaviour, and street renovation. I know from growing up in south Belfast that the coffee shops and ice-cream parlours provide the vital shared space that the Assembly insists that it wants to provide, but businesses are thwarted from doing so. Ultimately, dereliction is also providing us with a lower rates income than we would have if those empty premises were trading.
Many councils have drawn down funds from OFMDFM to regenerate their town centre streetscapes — that has happened in Belfast too — to try to encourage footfall to return to the shops. I support their efforts. They are trying to use what powers they have to do what they can. However, the problem is that, in many cases, we just have attractive streets with empty shops instead of unattractive streets with empty shops. It is a Northern Ireland version of the Potemkin village. Regardless of what councils try to do, what I am hearing from businesses is that they feel that the Assembly is ignoring the reality of what is happening and sidestepping the decisions that we need to take to bring entrepreneurs and vibrancy back to our high streets.
What can be done? I am sympathetic to a lot of the case that NIIRTA and other representative bodies have made that small businesses are facing a perfect storm of high costs of running their businesses and all the consumer spending pressures that we know exist. I support a lot of their proposals. I also have some of my own, which I will run through now. In the first instance, rates have to be fair and reasonable and, in some way, linked as far as possible to the profitability of the business. NAV or affordable market value (AMV) is supposed to be linked to the rents obtained, but LPS is judge, jury and executioner in its own cause, with very limited grounds for appeal. That cannot be right. I am sure that all representatives have had concerns raised with them by local traders about the opaque and, at times, fairly arbitrary processes that LPS seems to have in its decision-making.
Second, there needs to be a ministerial policy change in relation to the actions of LPS to make it less aggressive in its NAV assessments and revise the majority of NAVs to the rents actually payable on the property, rather than selectively choosing rental deals that were struck possibly at the top of the property boom as supporting evidence. That will need LPS to be considerably more transparent and more open-book with the information that it makes available. It should also be said — we have limited control of market value — that many landlords, frankly, are continuing to charge boom-time rents in order not to reduce the perceived value of their property.
Third — this is a simple enough one — the rates poundage set by the various councils across the 11 council areas mean that we have 11 different rates for some 6,000 square miles. That is silly. It should be capped and consistent across Northern Ireland. It should possibly be capped at a similar rate to GB.
Fourth, there needs to be a hard and probably quite uncomfortable look at some of the rating exemptions that are currently in place. Of 73,000 business premises subject to rates, 10,000 are fully exempt from rates. While I accept that there are probably very good reasons for those exemptions to be in place and that you do not want to withdraw them from the businesses that have them, the bottom line is that, when the system has become so onerous that it requires so many exemptions, the slack is obviously being picked up by other businesses and the system is becoming so inconsistent and increasingly illegitimate.
Fifth, vacant premises, particularly in town centres, are no good for anybody. I touched on some of the issues around antisocial behaviour that result. One of the attractive features that people will see when they are in mainland Europe is people living above the shop. I hope that we can try to find new ways to incentivise people to do that, which would give vibrancy to our high streets and town centres after 6.00 pm when, traditionally, business owners currently all go back to the suburbs.
Sixth, if it is not possible to consider rates reductions, can we give consideration to finding an alternative use for long-term vacant property, and perhaps remove the requirement to go through planning to have a change of use to residential? I believe that that is a policy that is in operation in GB and is helping to remove blighted vacant buildings from high streets. The occupancy level of all high streets for actual ratepayers could be measured for every town, village and area in south Belfast, and any streets that have occupancy levels of below 50% could perhaps be considered for a rates exemption for new businesses in those streets for the next year or two or three, and a rebate could potentially be given to other ratepayers already located in those streets. Mechanisms should be put in place to give demonstrably loss-making businesses a rates holiday if that could help to save the business. Perhaps that is a realistic proposal. Business rates for empty premises could be waived or reduced if somebody has made the effort to let it out at a reduced level.
I will finish up by saying that business rates reform is overdue. As I said, I welcome the Minister's paper on it and the consultation, but it is the single greatest lever that the Assembly has. Banks are not lending, due to high rates. Employment is not being created. Entrepreneurship is being stifled. Business rates are perceived as being a form of austerity, the same as public-sector cuts are. We are genuinely stifling economic growth. Obsessing on the value that we might get from a reduction in corporation tax is building castles in the air if we do not change policies to support businesses that are here now.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As this is Mrs Pengelly's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption, unless the Member becomes rather controversial.
Mrs Pengelly: It gives me great pleasure to speak today on the issue of small business rates in my beautiful and diverse constituency of South Belfast. I am humbled to have the privilege to carry on the mandate of my predecessor, Mr Jimmy Spratt, who retired due to serious ill health. Jimmy spent most of his career in selfless service in the RUC before entering the world of politics, where he proved to be a robust representative for the people of South Belfast.
I pay tribute to his work. I wish him a long and happy retirement and trust he will spend many happy times with his wife Lynda and children and grandchildren from whom he gets such joy. I hope to do his legacy proud, to be a strong advocate for all in South Belfast, to work tirelessly to make a positive difference across the constituency, and to help bring about a better and brighter future in Northern Ireland.
In Northern Ireland, we are a people of strong and oft-times opposing views, not just on constitutional issues but on many others across the spectrum of political ideology. Through my previous role, I had the great privilege to meet many thousands of people from right across the political and community spectrum, and, to me, one thing is clear: whatever divides us from time to time is so much less than that which we have in common, and that which separates us is nothing when compared with the strong bonds that hold us together. So, what is this common thread? Hope, hard work, compassion and a mutual aspiration to build, from the ashes of our past, a strong and better future.
Last night, I watched the very moving 'Nurses on the Frontline' documentary. What a testament to strength, resilience and the power of endurance over adversity. There were many who lived and worked in my constituency in hospitals and on the front line, as paramedics and as firemen and women, and in the army and the police, who dealt with some absolutely horrific things, and did so with the utmost care and compassion, regardless of background, creed or faith. What a debt we owe those public servants. And I know, absolutely for sure, that I do not want anyone to live through such a thing again.
One of my favourite poets said that the past:
"despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again."
That is my hope and aspiration for the present and future of our beautiful land, but to achieve it requires focus and attention. I will strive tirelessly to make Northern Ireland work, to move Northern Ireland forward and make a better future for all, regardless of faith, politics, sexuality, race or gender.
Today's Adjournment debate is on rates in south Belfast. Northern Ireland is a country of small business. It is a country that, through the worst of the Troubles, was supported and lifted up by the many thousands of family businesses that built our economy when others would not or could not invest. Small business was a strong foundation that, through our darkest days, lifted us up, and that remains so today.
The DUP is proud of its record on supporting small business. We have worked closely with great organisations such as the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) to develop policy to support small business. We were, for example, the first region across the UK to introduce the innovative scheme of small business rate relief. We are also conscious that much more can be done to support small business as we emerge from the difficult economic downturn that devastated so many. That is why we are looking closely at a range of further proposals to help further and support growth in the sector.
South Belfast is a diverse constituency, where the best and highest quality can be celebrated, but where challenges and poor outcomes can so often overshadow. I want to work with DFP to look at innovative ways, including examining the rates system, to encourage and incentivise investment in those areas so desperately in need. One example is across our urban village areas in south Belfast. There are high levels of poverty, dereliction and vacancy. I am looking forward to working further with areas such as the Lisburn Road in developing the business improvement district and helping our urban villages and centres such as Finaghy and Stranmillis.
I know from speaking to my ministerial colleagues that there is a commitment to building a robust economic future for Northern Ireland. Small business is a key part of that. Government alone cannot solve the big challenges that we face, but, working in partnership across parties, Departments and agencies with communities, individuals, families and the private sector, I know that we can make Northern Ireland great. Let us have a vision that we all can share: support our small businesses while growing the economy and attracting foreign direct investment, protecting people and tackling educational underachievement and social deprivation.
I have a passion for people and a passion for positive change. I hope that you will accept the hand that I extend to you today and work with me in pushing forward a positive agenda for bringing hope and a better future to South Belfast and Northern Ireland.
Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome junior Minister Pengelly's comments. I thank another South Belfast colleague Claire Hanna for securing the debate at 5.00 pm on a Tuesday.
When I think of the contribution of small businesses in South Belfast, small retail businesses in particular, it is clear that what we are discussing today is not only about trying to foster those businesses but trying to foster and build community. So many of those entrepreneurs, the business owners, are wedded to the area, rooted to the area and have great commitment to the area. I have a special word of praise for the traders' associations across the constituency — the Lisburn Road in particular — the Ormeau Road and other areas where traders have come together to try to make common cause and provide a common voice — one voice — with which to speak to those in government about their needs. In particular, our friends in NIIRTA have done that and asked for a fair, efficient and fit-for-purpose rates system.
I welcome the Minister's contribution, and that of her predecessor, in announcing a rate review. I hope to study the paper. Now that the Ministers are back, I do not have as much time to read documents. We had a little more free time before that. I have printed it off, and I want to study it. I know that there will be some bold proposals for the time ahead.
It is my view that we need to take inspiration from businesses such as those on the Lisburn Road that are committed to our communities: the Arcadia deli, which has been there for 80 years, and Michael Deane of Deane and Decano. They have shown great commitment through the great recession and through tough times in the city. They have shouldered the burden of rates unfairly placed on start-ups in particular and on new businesses.
It is time, in the rate review, to find ways to give additional support and encouragement to small businesses. It is not beyond us to find ways to encourage and induce businesses to go into empty premises on main arterial routes. When a main road is busy, bustling and thriving, it tells you that there is a vibrant community. I will not name them, but there are roads in the city where that is not the case and where empty premises after empty premises send a different message — they send out a message to investors that there is a chill factor in the area. We want to encourage a review of rates, if that, in turn, will increase the number of businesses.
I want to finish by mentioning the entrepreneurs. Claire Hanna also mentioned them. For me, they are the heart and soul of our business community. Today is a black day for Ballymena: a multinational company that served us well for 46 years announced that it is upping sticks and leaving, and that is a devastating blow. However, other companies were mentioned during that discussion today, such as Randox, which was built up by indigenous entrepreneurs. It is my conviction that, if we can help young people to start businesses — every business started small — and make it easier for them to access premises on thriving arterial routes, we will be sowing the seeds of a more robust business sector in the future. Hopefully, when we review rates, there will be a way in which we can encourage start-ups, which are not necessarily taking business away from their neighbours, to come in to empty premises and start the business growth that we are crying out for.
Mr McGimpsey: I begin by thanking Ms Hanna for bringing forward this debate on business rates in south Belfast. I also acknowledge and welcome the comments of Mrs Pengelly.
First, as far as local businesses are concerned, we must remember that south Belfast includes a large portion of the city centre. When you talk to small businesses, particularly retailers, they all tell you the same thing: they hate paying rates. They do not understand what they are getting for them. City Hall does not even empty their bins. They see it as taxation for which they gain no benefit. That might be unfair but it is the general viewpoint.
Look at the plight of small businesses, particularly in retail. The rate of dereliction in retail areas is about double the national rate. Look at the footfall on the streets where small businesses are found, which is much lower that the weighted average. That gives you an indication of the plight of small businesses. Remember that small businesses, by and large, are owned by local people; local families employing local people. Any profits that they make are retained in our economy. Any money that they spend is spent within our economy. Therefore, they provide real and genuine benefit for all in our society. They are, as has been said, seriously challenged not just by Internet shopping but by the growth of huge out-of-town shopping centres, which provide one thing that local businesses cannot, namely limitless free car parking. They are faced with an uncompetitive situation and are disadvantaged by huge shopping centres. Indeed, at City Hall, where I was for many years, we found out through an exercise — the Deputy Speaker may well remember it — that for every job created in a big shopping centre outside Belfast, we were losing two inside Belfast. There was a decision at that stage — this is going back 15 years — that those big shopping centres should be capped. Of course, they were not, and the challenge goes on.
What can we do about this? We were hit with the recession, which winds on in Northern Ireland — that combination of national and bank debt that sent the Western economies into a tailspin, and from which we suffer grievously. All of these are challenges. Look throughout south Belfast. Lisburn Road is just one street. My office is in Sandy Row; once a thriving retail area, now a shadow of its former self. That is repeated throughout south Belfast and, indeed, other parts of Belfast, whether east Belfast, north Belfast or west Belfast.
We need to look at the measures that we can take. For example, small business rate relief is due to end next year, I think in March 2016. That should be extended. It is a good scheme; it has provided some help to small retailers, and there is no reason why it cannot be extended. It was put in place for five years and extended for a year. Let us see it extended for another five years. Let us also look at expanding the bands to increase those reliefs. Poundage is another issue, which was raised by Claire Hanna. I see little prospect of City Hall managing to do anything about poundage, bearing in mind the very low rate increases this year. There does not seem to me to be a huge opportunity there.
Banding is one important area. Another important area is empty business rate relief. We charge empty premises rates. They get an exemption for a short period and then, after six months or a year, the owners, who maybe had to close their business because it was not profitable, are hit by rates, which is a tax. They get nothing for those rates, and their businesses just sit there, which is a huge disincentive. We could look at that area to see how we might support and help small retailers. If we do not do that, areas of dereliction will grow, and we will all face the challenge of what to do about empty premises. You only have to look at some of the streets in south Belfast, where areas of dereliction have lain that way year after year. No one is picking them up and taking them up.
We clearly need a holistic approach, as the phrase goes. Planning offices play a key role, as they give planning permission for huge out-of-town retail developments with free car parking. The provision of that unfair competition is strangling retail in Belfast. One only has to look at the sort of economic driver that Belfast is in Northern Ireland to see how precious it is. It must be preserved.
Ms Lo: I welcome Mrs Pengelly to the House and congratulate her on her role as junior Minister and on being our fellow MLA in the South Belfast constituency. I also want to thank Claire Hanna for securing the debate today and setting out a comprehensive overview of the situation in south Belfast. It is a very timely discussion, given the Finance Minister's recent announcement of a consultation on a review of the non-domestic rating system.
As we all know, rates are essential. We depend on them to raise a certain amount of revenue for public services each year, but, through talking to business owners in south Belfast, as we all have done, we know that many of them are very unhappy with our current non-domestic rating system. Mr McGimpsey and I are probably the longest-serving MLAs in the constituency, and we have seen a number of shops closed over the years. Ona Jewellers on the Lisburn Road is closing this month; it has been there for 10 years. That follows the closure in the summer of a long-standing jewellers on Shaftsbury Square, which had been there for many years. Like other Members, I am very sympathetic to shopkeepers and small businesses that are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. They work extremely hard and, all too often, find the level of rates to be a big burden.
If we look at the situation across the water, we can understand why some resentment exists here. A constituent who owns a furniture shop in Belfast told me that, during a recent visit to England, she met two shop owners, one who, like her, dealt in furniture and one who dealt in antiques. Both advised her that they pay no rates whatsoever. At present, the UK Government have doubled the relief rate for small businesses to 100% on properties that have a rateable value of £6,000 or less. That has resulted in many small firms in England not having to pay business rates at all.
I was at the #CutTheBizCost event organised by NIIRTA on 17 September. Many there expressed concerns that rates are far too high, and that charity shops, of which there are many on the streets, get rate exemptions. Charities benefit from £87 million in rate relief. DFP has revealed that it is considering whether it would be fair for larger charities to make some contribution to their rates. As Mr McGimpsey mentioned, some shopkeepers have also said that they wonder what they get for their rates contribution.
There is a wider issue of people's perception of how the rates they contribute are used to fund public services. That also needs to be addressed in the review. There needs to be more transparency to make it clear to ratepayers how their money is being spent.
The rateable value of a business property is worked out using its net annual value (NAV). For independent retailers and small business owners, the business rate is a significant issue for their business. Former 'Dragons' Den' investor Theo Paphitis, who opened a shop in Victoria Square, described Northern Ireland as a horrendous place to do business. He blamed high rates and rent. We need to be mindful that high business rates can have a negative impact on investment, career opportunities and innovation.
At the NIIRTA meeting, they launched a 15-point plan as a solution. Among the points made, they outlined the need to extend the small business rate relief scheme, which is currently set at £15,000 NAV to £18,000 NAV. They advocate reforming rates to give greater flexibility with economic circles and carrying out rate revaluations every three years. NIIRTA also suggests introducing a rural retail rate relief scheme and providing exemptions for small traders investing in expansion, allowing them to offset capital investment against their rates bill.
The Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland believes that there needs to be a wholesale rethink, not only about who pays what and how much is paid but about non-domestic rates as a concept. I understand that, in simple terms, any changes that are made to reduce what some pay will result in others paying more. There is no reform that will please everyone.
Ms Lo: However, we need to make sure that the rates system is as good as it can be.
Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): I am pleased to be able to come and answer some of the points made this afternoon and set out the facts in relation to the recent revaluation that took place and how it has impacted generally in south Belfast, but particularly in some of the areas mentioned today.
As Members have said, only last week, I launched a 12-week consultation exercise on a zero-based business rates review to try to look at business rates in a new and innovative way. It actually came about as a result of an innovation lab that we held in the Department, working with a lot of stakeholders and across government to engage in new thinking about what we needed to do in the business rates system. I am now looking forward to hearing from the wider public and, indeed, from many stakeholders, to try to give me their wisdom in relation to the direction they want to see business rates going in Northern Ireland. The review also seeks views on alternative forms of taxation, either as complete replacements or as supplements to the existing rates system.
It is not that we raise more money from businesses. I want to put that on the record this evening. Indeed, the recent revaluation has been revenue-neutral. I know that a lot of people do not accept that, but it is the reality. It is revenue-neutral. I want to look at ways to keep rates as low and as acceptable as we can, bearing in mind what some colleagues have said about the fact that nobody wants to pay rates. I accept that and you accept that, but we have to find a way to have a fair system for south Belfast and across Northern Ireland, because every penny raised through the regional rate in Northern Ireland helps to fund Northern Ireland Departments, which, as we all know, are under extreme pressure in relation to the block grant and the fact that it looks as if, moving forward into the next spending review, we are going to have flat cash in what we are granted by the Treasury. Therefore, we need to make sure that the revenue raising that we do in Northern Ireland is effective. The review is something that the business community and other ratepayers have been asking for for some time, and I hope that it will be a good engagement with all stakeholders.
The recent rates revaluation has, if you look at the facts, been relatively good for small businesses in south Belfast. I will come back to that at the end of my comments, but the figures show that that is the case. Now that the revaluation is out of the way, we can look at reforming the system. Today has been a good scene-setter, but I need opinions, I need evidence — not anecdotal but factual — and I need realistic ideas from organisations and individuals on changing the system for the better so that we can present options to the Executive and the Assembly.
I recognise that I probably do not have enough time in this mandate to do anything too radical, but I am determined to get the process up and running so that, when the next mandate comes in, the information is there and that the next Assembly and the next Finance Minister, whoever that may be, will be able to take the issue forward. It is important that the process be completed early in the next Assembly term, as there are no easy answers or choices. As Ms Lo said in her closing remarks, giving particular groups of ratepayers a tax break has, as a natural consequence, a direct impact on somebody else. Either someone else ends up paying more or we cut back even further on public services.
The situation for south Belfast ratepayers is certainly not all bad. The revaluation resulted in shops in south Belfast doing well, with a 20% reduction common on many parts of the Lisburn Road and Stranmillis Road. On the other hand, some shops on the Ormeau Road have seen increases of up to 25%, while the figures for retail warehouses in the Boucher area are up by more than 50% in some cases. That reflects changes in shopping patterns. Mr McGimpsey mentioned out-of-town shopping and its impact on areas like the Lisburn Road, but he should understand that, since the revaluation, the rates that those shopping centres pay have been on an upward trajectory. The revaluation means that they are paying a lot more than they were a couple of years ago.
The reason why some of the changes are so big is that our last revaluation was in 2003. The revaluation has been generally welcomed, even by NIIRTA, and it has been accepted that we definitely needed to have it, although I bear in mind that NIIRTA is a representative organisation and therefore reflects the pain that some of its members are feeling. I totally understand that, but some of its figures are a little out of kilter with what is actually the case.
That means that locations and sectors of the retail market that have fared well pay correspondingly more in rates and that those that have fared less well pay less. That is exactly what a rates revaluation is supposed to do. It is also worth noting that only 35 ratepayers in south Belfast have challenged their new assessment, which I am a wee bit surprised at. I am not sure where Ms Hanna was coming from when she talks about the opaque nature of the LPS. If she has a particular issue that she wants to raise with me in relation to that after today, I am happy to speak to her about it.
Ms Hanna: I have dealt with a number of cases, including one that nearly closed a small business due to a £20,000 overvaluation. I went through the LPS appeal system and your predecessor, and, in the end, it was the ombudsman who reversed the decision and stopped that small business closing. It is not an open-book system: people do not feel that they can accurately calculate what their rates bill will be. From the perspective of a city councillor, from year to year we were unclear of what we were and were not going to get in from LPS and we were presented with substantial overspends and underspends from what we were anticipating from LPS.
Perhaps if you are an accountant or someone trained in those issues, you will not, but most small businesses find its processes opaque.
Mrs Foster: I do not accept that they are opaque, because they are evidence-based. The revaluation was evidence-based, and LPS did not just pick a figure and decide that that figure applied to an area. If there is more that we can do to make the system transparent, I will certainly want to do that in the reforms that we are looking at. As far as I am concerned, the system is there if you want to challenge. It does not cost you anything to challenge — in other words, to appeal — and, as I said, I am somewhat surprised that only 35 ratepayers have taken up that option to date.
I want to touch on rates support for a little while. It is worth mentioning that we have the small business rate relief scheme, and that has been spoken about. That has had a big impact in areas such as south Belfast. Some £4 million was allocated in small business rate relief in Belfast as a whole this year. Some £1·3 million of that funding will go to 1,600 businesses in the South Belfast electoral area, which is in addition to around £850,000 that is being paid out to the 66 manufacturing firms in south Belfast. As you know, we have industrial derating here that is specific to Northern Ireland. In that respect, Mr Ó Muilleoir mentioned Ballymena, and I join him in marking just what a sad day this is for Ballymena. During my time as Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, I made many visits to Bally